Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 25 September 2000 (continued)
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the New Deal scheme and highlight the need for some improvements. First, I would like to highlight that New Deal is a UK-wide scheme, whether we like it or not. It is ring-fenced national money coming into Northern Ireland and Members should bear that in mind when commenting on it because there are restrictions on what can and cannot be done to improve it.
There is an obvious need to improve New Deal, to tailor it as much as we can, nationally, and locally if possible, to meet the needs of the long-term unemployed in Northern Ireland. Some have belittled the New Deal scheme. I would simply ask those people what are they proposing as an alternative to it and where the money for that alternative would come from. From what budget in the Northern Ireland block grant would they take that money? You have to work with a scheme and try to improve it.
New Deal has its faults, but it is providing £63 million of additional money this year for training and assisting the long-term unemployed, encouraging them to take up training courses and work placement. There is clearly a social responsibility to assist the long-term unemployed get additional further education and employment opportunities. In that, I welcome the New Deal scheme.
I note that the KPMG research paper said that personal advisers are handling a far too heavy workload, which does not allow them to sufficiently interact with the long-term unemployed. I would like to highlight a situation in my own constituency where, initially, New Deal in the Carrickfergus area was provided with totally inadequate office space. I appreciate that that has now been put right. Will the Minister advise whether that situation pertains to other areas? It is scandalous that there was not sufficient space for New Deal advisers to locate in the building. In fact, the area was operating under its quota. Is that happening in any other parts of Northern Ireland?
On a positive note, the new facilities provided are much more professional. People are being treated with much more dignity. The atmosphere strikes me as being more like a recruitment agency than a cross-examination chamber. I hope it will assist people to find suitable training courses and employment.
What happened in Carrickfergus has actually been mimicked in Dungannon and Lisburn where the Training and Employment Agency and the Social Security Agency pilot schemes have been successful. They have worked together, pooling their information for the benefit of the long-term unemployed and assisting them into the world of work. That is being introduced in the Carrickfergus area where both agencies are working closely together. Are there further plans to copy this scheme? It is actually known on the mainland as the One scheme and it introduces a single system, co-ordinating benefits and training in employment assistance. Is the Minister planning to introduce the scheme in other parts of Northern Ireland? In particular, is he proposing to introduce it into areas of long-term unemployment in Belfast and Londonderry where it would appear that it would have potential given the success indicated in Lisburn and Dungannon?
Turning to improving the New Deal scheme, I agree with some Members that the 13-week placement period is inadequate, and should be extended. I am also concerned that only 20% of New Deal people are moving into long-term employment having gone through the scheme. We need clear information as to what is happening to everybody else. Why are more people not successful in gaining long-term employment?
The 18-month qualifying period for the long-term unemployed is too long a time to spend out of the world of work. There are also concerns about the low levels of attainment and the lack of skill acquisition. I agree with many others who claim that New Deal is simply picking up where the education system has failed. Approximately 10% of young people leave school without qualifications and that does not help them to find jobs or take advantage of other opportunities that exist.
We should remind ourselves that we are asking for the programme to be adjusted to fit the special circumstances here in Northern Ireland. It is important to examine what New Deal means. It must represent a new chance, a new beginning for the long-term unemployed. There are two types of participant; one being those who left school with virtually no qualifications and very low self-esteem. Such a training scheme must give them a new opportunity-something that is meaningful and real. The requirement for participants to be unemployed for 18 months is no good. 18 months is too long a time. It merely adds to the sense of despair felt by applicants for training schemes. I hope this will be examined in the review being carried out by the Minister.
The majority of those who have been unemployed for many years feel almost worthless to society. They feel let down by society. They need a new beginning that is meaningful and offers them a real training opportunity. I therefore concur with Monica McWilliams and others who have said that the lack of real information is a big handicap to us. Not many participants in the training scheme are gaining real qualifications. I ask the Training and Employment Agency to update its systems and make sure that there is better tracking.
The consortium, the local training partnership, which is supposed to co-ordinate training opportunities at district council level, must be examined. There may be too many providers, especially in the voluntary and community sector. Participants in a training scheme need to know that they are going to get something real and meaningful out of it. They need to be doing something that is purposeful and will enable them to get a real job in the future.
It is disturbing that the New Deal scheme is not working out as well as it should do in counties Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, areas of high unemployment. This is largely because there are far fewer training opportunities in "on-the-job" schemes, and this must be examined. If there are not enough placement opportunities with employers, the Training and Employment Agency needs to examine ways of providing meaningful places for training.
The primary objective of the scheme should be to provide a pathway into employment. The "revolving door syndrome" is creating a sense of unease among people who have been on a scheme from which they feel they have gained nothing remarkable.
The east - west disparity is a concern to people in Omagh and Strabane. New Targeting Social Needs objectives are a major challenge for everyone, and it is to be hoped that these objectives can be applied in the review of New Deal to make it a meaningful training exercise for the future. The New Deal has been of some success, but we are charged with making sure that those who have not benefited from mainstream education or training, can derive something meaningful from it.
I agree that if we are going to work successfully with people who have been unemployed for many years, we need personal advisers who can devote more time to helping those people into a training option and a job.
Mr R Hutchinson:
The protection of the rights of the unemployed to obtain work and regain dignity and financial security is highly relevant at present - it is timely for the Assembly to be debating this motion on New Deal. In spite of the volumes of public relations material produced under direct rule to accentuate the success of New Deal options in meeting the needs of the unemployed, the scheme has fallen short of many of its claims. It has failed singularly to dismantle the barrier of the long-term unemployed. In reality, the intensive activity period has reinforced the habit of many of its participants to return, after the obligatory 13-weeks attendance, to the obscurity of their unemployed status until they are contacted for further referral. Having said that, line managers in the Training and Employment Agency would be the first to concede - off the record - that New Deal has greatly reduced the numbers obtaining benefit illegally while working. If the New Deal had had this as its main objective, it could be heralded a success. A careful scrutiny of the failure to attend of participants referred for interview by the Training and Employment Agency to the consortia-led partners is evidence of this.
There are aspects of the New Deal that represent a good beginning in the Province. The variety of options represents a platter of opportunities for participants. However, because most of the options fail to offer any financial incentive to the participants, they have been given a cold reception. It is only since the Social Security Agency introduced the withdrawal of benefits that many participants have now been able to overcome their reluctance to attend and participate in options. The environmental, intensive activity period (IAP) and employers' options are exceptions to this.
Two observations must be made at this point. First, many of the options shadow the opportunities offered on job skills programmes, except that the financial rewards for job skills candidates are absent from New Deal. Secondly, the New Deal age categories seem to have replaced the former 'adult' category of the Jobskills Scheme. This needs some review. New Deal can learn a lot from the structure of the Jobskills programme in the sense that modern apprenticeship frameworks are pro-active in realising employment opportunities. Sadly, there is no structure whereby New Deal participants who have completed their NVQ Level II can go on to the Jobskills modern apprenticeship scheme. If this were possible, further training to level III, with employment, would become a reality and lead to full employment.
Currently, level II New Deal participants are unable to progress to a modern apprenticeship programme on entering full-time employment. The modern apprenticeship scheme would make employment more attractive to participants and employers. I urge the Minister to review the arrangements to make the employment option more popular to employers. This would involve lengthening the period of employer support and tightening the lines of communication between the Training and Employment Agency - the training provider - and the employers. The concept of partnership needs to be articulated more thoughtfully, in terms of structure and incentive.
I also call on the Minister to review the Training and Employment Agency's management of New Deal. From the time of its introduction, New Deal officers were relocated from Social Security Agency offices, and many had little training or careers advice until after they had begun advising on New Deal. The resultant high levels of stress and sick leave among Training and Employment Agency personal advisers did little to promote the reputation or the effective running of the New Deal options. I support the call for a review of the New Deal programme and its options.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I want to give a trade union perspective. Although they have broadly welcomed the deal, the trade unions have a number of concerns, mainly in relation to the first option. What kind of job placements will there be under the employer option? Will there be the possibility of job substitution? Will those in New Deal be entitled to trade union membership and the same terms and conditions that apply to other workers? Will they be subject to the same health and safety regulations and equality of opportunity that apply to other workers?
These problems, a Cheann Comhairle, are endemic in the short-term employment nature of the New Deal. However, if New Deal is to make an impact on changing the situation on the ground, it has to take into account local characteristics - that goes back to what other Members have said about taking into account the existing situation in the North of Ireland. The programme must fit in with existing local mechanisms of regeneration. It has been designed very much as a national programme and it fails to acknowledge the local opportunities or civil society in the North of Ireland.
As regards the programme's delivery mechanisms, the question must be asked: are the consortia separate from the local area and, if so, will they have an impact? Questions also arise in relation to those over 25, as already mentioned, who are considered to be long-term unemployed. This group has been regarded as being a residual issue in the Welfare-To-Work programme. New Deal is not yet structured enough for those over 25 years old, however, it is hoped that continuing discussions will change the focus. If not, the whole programme, a Cheann Comhairle, will be discredited.
The test of the value of New Deal will surely come in the longer term. How will the Government ensure that the private sector is able to relate specifically to local areas? How will we create a dynamic between employers and local partnerships? The opportunity is there for the private sector to play an energising role, and New Deal could be used as a beginning, a first step, to develop these relationships.
When considering the issues of unemployment and poverty, there is always a fundamental assumption that people are the problem. If New Deal is to make a significant impact on the economic and social waste of unemployment, the following questions and points must be addressed: how do we ensure that New Deal is targeted effectively at the most disadvantaged groups? How do we ensure that the people who are the most difficult to reach are not sidelined in favour of the most accessible groups? If New Deal does not take into account all of the local characteristics, it will fail abysmally; if it fails to link up with local partnerships and mechanisms, again it will fail, because it will not have been integrated into the community it is supposed to serve.
I will finish, a Cheann Comhairle, with this quote:
"The unemployed have both the willingness and the right to work - they should not be exploited for either political or financial gain. The Government are asking the unemployed to make a giant leap of faith into the New Deal, but after decades of mistrust, we are demanding a safety net be erected first. The fact that benefit sanctions have been intensified to those failing to take up one of the four options would certainly indicate the Government's intentions to implement New Deal at all costs. This compulsion, or work for benefit, is not then Welfare to Work but Welfare to Workfare!"
Although supporting the motion, the Committee has had length deliberations on the whole issue of New Deal. It has been critical of it but also constructive in its attitude, and we must congratulate the Minister who knows the issues that surround it. It is more difficult for him than for others, because New Deal is a national programme, and the policy has been that it is limited in its flexibility at a regional level. That causes problems for the Minister.
As I said in my earlier remarks, we must be critical of, but also constructive about, the New Deal. There is certainly still confusion among participants in the programme. We find it difficult to get hold of statistics. For example, does the huge cost of New Deal represent value for money? Secondly, how many young people does it return to the dole queue? How many young people who do not meet employers' needs fall back into benefits dependency after finishing the programme? These are all vital questions which must be answered if we are to set about trying to improve New Deal.
We all remember the old Action for Community Employment (ACE) scheme, which was reasonably successful in the training and employment of young people. The ACE scheme also showed people, such as senior citizens and those not so well off, that they were getting something on the ground, and it could be seen to be so doing. When that finished, it was a devastating blow for many people. Unfortunately, we now have the New Deal, which we must all try to turn to our advantage.
There are many problems in the programme. Gateway and its follow-through do not explain what New Deal is all about, and there are high caseloads in personal assistance. Another issue, brought up by the people to whom we spoke, was the high level of paperwork and its duplication by employers or whomever was involved in the scheme. Many employers were put off by New Deal's requirement that they pay for or provide a day's training away from work, and they would have preferred people over 25, whom they did not have to release.
As a Committee, we should try to identify where the major problems are, how we solve them in the long term, and how we can tailor the New Deal to meet the needs of young people and the long-term unemployed in Northern Ireland. It is for all of us on the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee to work with the Minister and see how we can help him. We must still be critical of the programme, but, as the Committee Chairman said, we should also be constructive. We are not critical of the Minister, for we say to him, "We may be at one with you on this issue." If we can provide back-up to him in trying to change certain aspects in the programme, we should do so.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
I am very pleased to have such an early opportunity in the new session to debate issues relating to the New Deal. When the Chairman of the Committee, Dr Birnie, recently wrote to me saying how anxious he was for this debate to take place, I was very pleased. I encouraged its scheduling for an early date, for we are at a critical stage in reviewing progress of the New Deal. Indeed, as the Committee Chairman said in his opening remarks, the Department and I have already passed on to London our recommendations on how the New Deal programme should be modified.
Today's debate is a welcome contribution to that process. As the Chairman indicated in his opening remarks, this process might well form part of an agenda for discussion in the intergovernmental conference or Committee - bringing together the Government in London with the devolved institutions and Executives in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. I too would be anxious to have this issue addressed in that forum. The experiences of other places, together with those here, and our reflections on those experiences, will lead to the kind of modifications which will address, as effectively as possible, these points. They may be at the more general level or, in respect of flexibility and modifications, they might be adopted more appropriately for the particular regions.
The motion focuses on the needs of the long-term unemployed, but as the debate has demonstrated, Members concerns' extend beyond the long-term unemployed in that they want to address the needs of those who are unemployed at age 18. I want to stress that, in contributing to the discussion, I do not intend my remarks to be in any way conclusive. I am indicating our current thinking and taking on board your thinking. It is important that I try to cast the focus of the motion in the wider context of the whole of the New Deal Programme, as Members have done.
As Members are aware, the New Deal programme was introduced in April 1998. It is delivered by the Training and Employment Agency, in partnership with the Department for Social Development, and is aimed at increasing the employability of the unemployed in society, by helping them enter or return to work. New Deal is one strand of the wider Welfare to Work initiative, which also includes such measures as the national minimum wage, working families' tax credit, the national childcare strategy, and it also complements other agency programmes, such as Worktrack. When taken together these represent significant steps in assisting people to enter into and remain in employment.
My Department has been allocated £163 million throughout the life of the present Parliament, from the windfall levy imposed on the privatised utilities. This is to fund the New Deal programme for the unemployed, and other New Deal programmes for the disabled, over-50s, lone parents and partners of the unemployed. The resources provided from the windfall levy, as several Members noted - some critically - are ring-fenced for New Deal purposes. New Deal is a national programme, and it has been implemented consistently across the regions of the United Kingdom.
The delivery of New Deal in Northern Ireland is very much on a partnership basis. There are 26 New Deal consortia, mainly comprising training organisations, further education colleges, voluntary sector and environmental organisations, working together to a common purpose. This is a very important feature of the delivery process. Some Members seem to suggest that there is very much a top-down delivery in operation here.
The delivery is taking place within the context of consortia that are locally focussed and locally drawn in terms of membership. They are intended to create real working partnerships. If there are difficulties with respect to the partnerships - and some comments suggest this - then undoubtedly we need to hear about them. Delivery is intended to be as close as possible to those whom the New Deal programmes are designed to serve. That is a very important feature.
Some Members may be familiar with the situation, either through direct participation in some of those consortia, or close delivery within particular consortia, because where they operate may depend on the area they represent. Consortia and New Deal personal advisors based in the network of Training and Employment Agency job centres work together to provide opportunities for training and work experience placements for the unemployed in their local areas.
The implementation and monitoring of New Deal delivery is overseen by the Northern Ireland New Deal taskforce - a widely representative group. This taskforce is investigating aspects of New Deal with a view to improving its operation, and it is in this context that the ongoing monitoring of the delivery of New Deal takes place. The taskforce provides to my Department and, therefore, to me a considerable amount of information, opinions, comments and indeed recommendations for improvement, and I will advise Members of progress so far, and of future plans.
When New Deal was first introduced, unemployment in Northern Ireland stood at 7.6%. By August 2000 this had reduced to 5.2%, partly due to the impact of New Deal. The increased employment opportunities in the local economy have, of course, also been a major and, perhaps, overriding factor, although New Deal is generally not given the significance it deserves for effecting some of these changes.
Some comments have been made in the context of the situation which existed at least five or six years ago, but fortunately, we are in a rapidly changing labour market situation. I acknowledge that this situation is not the same in all areas. There have been greater improvements in some areas than in others. Overall, however, there has been significant and positive development.
The decrease in unemployment represents over 13,000 in the number of registered unemployed people during the period referred to. In the two main categories of people eligible for New Deal, the numbers registered as unemployed have declined by over 12,000 since the programmes began. This decrease represents over 90% of the total reduction in unemployment over the period.
By contrast, the level of unemployment among those who did not participate in New Deal has remained virtually static over the same period. That is one of the most important illustrations of the contribution that New Deal has made to unemployment rates. New Deal has proved very effective in helping the unemployed to return to work. Of the 12,000 people who left the register, over 10,000 found new jobs. Several Members commented that these jobs may not provide the level of career satisfaction that is necessary. I acknowledge this - some of them have obtained jobs at a lower level than we would have liked.
Therefore we need to reflect on this matter in the context of the outcome of the New Deal experience. Indeed, that forms part of the ongoing monitoring and tracking of those undergoing the whole programme.
The work experience and training afforded in the context of placements in voluntary and environmental projects have benefited the New Deal participants, the organisations involved and the communities they served. Again, I acknowledge Members' comments, contrasting the voluntary organisations' experience of New Deal and ACE. There is a much reduced pool of unemployed labour now available from which to attract participants into the voluntary organisations that are so anxious to avail of this kind of support. If we have a smaller pool, the difficulties in filling the kind of places that might be made available - and indeed by comparison with the past, were available - is evidently a considerable problem. However, we are trying to work with voluntary organisations to address that issue.
The New Deal programmes continue to evolve and develop in the light of experience. Following the end of the current New Deal 25 plus pilot scheme in March next year, a revised programme for that group will be implemented.
My Department has recently conducted a wide ranging consultation exercise involving, among others, a New Deal taskforce, personal advisers, the Education and Training Inspectorate and those organisations involved in the 26 delivery consortia.
Given our experience in running the largest New Deal 25 plus pilot scheme in the UK, I have recently written to Tessa Jowell, the British Minister responsible for the Welfare to Work programme. I have recommended enhancements to the revised New Deal 25 plus programme, which will lead to better tailored provision for the unemployed in Northern Ireland. These recommendations, together with those for the 18 to 24-year-olds, can be summarised as follows: for the New Deal for 18 to 24-year-olds, we are recommending the introduction of a more flexible programme that will more adequately meet the individual needs of young people. Several Members stressed the need to ensure that programmes were tailored as individually as possible. We are recommending an increase in the percentage of output-related funding, currently devoted to a successful employment outcome, to provide a stronger incentive. We are recommending a more flexible follow-through provision to allow those who would benefit to take up a different New Deal option if they have completed one option and have still not gained employment. We are also recommending an extension of short vocational courses provided during the initial, or gateway, period from the current two weeks to four weeks.
I am particularly concerned - as was highlighted in Mr Dallat's remarks - about the problems of literacy and numeracy encountered within New Deal. I should already be at a meeting with members of the basic skills committee, which was established at the end of last year. They are reporting progress on how they are addressing that particular scourge - it probably deserves such a strong term - which afflicts so many. They are making several recommendations, one of which will involve ways in which they can work closer with New Deal providers in order to address this particular need.
I trust we will be able to see much more progress in addressing that problem in the context of New Deal and in further education provision generally. I share Mr Dallat's reflection that a lot of questions have to be asked why there are such high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy among young people emerging from our educational systems.
Returning to New Deal for 25 plus, we are recommending an extension of the intensive activity period element from 13 weeks to 26 weeks. Many Members should welcome that recommendation, given the emphasis the issue has received in many of their remarks today, in Committee, and elsewhere.
The intensive activity period provides participants with an individually tailored programme consisting of work experience, job-focused training and supervised job-search activity aimed at helping them into employment at the earliest opportunity.
We are also recommending the introduction of a £750 training grant, similar to that within the 18 to 24 New Deal scheme, for those who wish to gain a vocational qualification during the intensive activity period or while in subsidised employment. The intensive activity period is to be re-named as "Paths to Employment", giving a much clearer indication of its aims and objectives.
We are recommending the retention of the education and training opportunities included in this New Deal programme that provides up to 52 weeks' NVQ level training. In our view, this facility has been particularly beneficial here.
We are recommending early entry to education and training opportunities for certain groups who do not meet the normal eligibility criteria, for example, women returning to work, and those suffering the effects of large-scale redundancy, such as the unfortunate event last week at Harland & Wolff. Redundancy has also affected several sections of the textile industry - a point highlighted by Mrs Nelis. We are recommending a reduction in the eligibility threshold from 18 months' unemployment to -
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the Minister because he is responding to questions, but I must ask him to draw his remarks to a close.
I need just two minutes, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your indulgence.
We are recommending a standardised policy on benefit sanctions within both New Deal programmes.
With respect to the New Deal for Lone Parents programme, we are recommending that the facility allow lone parents on income support to access those opportunities available within New Deal that are currently targeted at those in receipt of jobseekers allowance.
I am confident that these recommendations will receive full consideration and I look forward to a positive response.
In conclusion, I would like to place on record my personal thanks to the New Deal personal advisers, many of whom I have met on my visits to jobcentres. They have played, and continue to play, a pivotal role in the success of New Deal. We are moving to reduce the numbers of people advisers have to deal with, and I appreciate that those high numbers are a matter of concern; they are a matter of concern to me. I hope that we will be able to take action on that very soon.
Those delivery organisations working in partnership through the consortia arrangements are also to be commended for their professional and committed work in helping the unemployed to gain the skills and attributes necessary to get back into the labour market. The members of the New Deal taskforce who recently provided me with their programme of work have been instrumental in ensuring that the views of employers and other interested parties are brought to the fore. They have continued to fulfil a valuable role in overseeing New Deal implementation.
I thank all the Members who have contributed and I assure them that if I have not had the opportunity to address the particular issues they have raised, I will do so either in Committee, at an early stage, or by correspondence.
I assure Members that I too am deeply committed to ensuring that we have the most effective means possible of providing training for the unemployed, whether they are on the register or not. Some are not on the register and that is an area that we did not mention, but I do not have time to go into it now. For those who are interested in that, I invite them to read 'Young People and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland: "Status Zero" Four Years On'. This report was published by my Department during the summer. It is a study of the circumstances of young people who cannot find work - those on the furthest margins of our society. We must have a deep concern for these people, and I hope that we will soon be able to address that concern in a cross-departmental, multi-agency way.
I too thank those who participated, including the Minister. All agreed that long-term unemployment is unacceptable, especially in those cases - a sizeable proportion of the total - where the individual has not chosen the position. Rather than going through the rigmarole of listing individual contributions and summarising them, I will focus on what most agreed were the pressure points and difficulties in the current system.
First, there is a problem with basic skills acquisition. It is unfair to lay this at the door of Minister Farren, but this Department has to deal with the products of other Departments. There is an important issue here concerning literacy and numeracy - or the lack of it.
There was agreement about the inadequate duration of placements for trainees on New Deal. It was also agreed that the personal advisers were often seriously overcommitted, and this was reducing the level of individual one-on-one contact that is necessary to bring somebody out of a situation of long-term unemployment.
The lack of office space for the programme was mentioned. Further development is needed of data on what is happening to people who go through the programme and on what happens to them afterwards. There was much recognition that the training standards set for New Deal are too modest. That touches on a much broader issue concerning the adequacy of training and skills levels in the Northern Ireland labour force.
There were differing views expressed about the benefits, or otherwise, of the element of compulsion in the New Deal programme. Mr R Hutchinson rightly made the case for that element of compulsion with respect to encouraging people to move from benefits to work.
With regard to the Minister's comments, the Committee welcomes his efforts, to date, to secure change in New Deal at the UK-wide level. It also welcomes the commitment that he repeated today to continuing the partnership approach between the Training and Employment Agency and the locally based consortia.
The Minister rightly referred to the decline in the headline unemployment rates from approximately 7·6% to 5·2%. The Committee members and Assembly Members welcome that. However, there is, as the Minister noted at the end of his speech, a problem of inactivity. Some people have totally withdrawn from the formal labour force and none of us can be complacent in that regard.
This afternoon, we have had a series of suggestions and recommendations about how New Deal can be fine-tuned. We are not planning to destroy the system but to carry out wholesale reform. Some of those changes can only be made as part of a UK-wide change; others can be made through local initiatives. We are confident that, if there are such changes, New Deal will not simply be a new deal but what we really want: a fair and square deal for those who suffer from long-term unemployment. I urge the House to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to review the New Deal programme to tailor it to the needs of the long-term unemployed in Northern Ireland.
The sitting was suspended at 2.00 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair) -
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what consideration he has given to introducing an alternative to the domestic rate.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to proceed, bearing in mind that the Minister is not due to answer questions at this time?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
It is in order for the Minister to proceed.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I intend to review the rating system in Northern Ireland, and I will be considering the terms of reference for that review later in the year. The continuing use of rental values as a basis for the local taxation of domestic properties will be considered in the review.
I welcome the Minister's announcement that the topic is under review. However, I am a little concerned that he appears to be talking solely about a variation of the rate and is being unclear on the subject of possible improvements in local income tax, site value rating or any other number of current proposals. Is it not somewhat unfortunate, that in the new dispensation and arrangements here, we cannot look beyond the old system with slightly more enthusiasm?
The question obviously related to whether we were considering an alternative to the domestic rate. I have explained that we will be reviewing the overall rating situation, and that will obviously include questions related to domestic and non-domestic rates. Let us be clear, however, that when we are reviewing the rates, we are looking at a property based taxation system. The forms of taxation to which the Member is referring are obviously different from that and would have to be considered in a different and wider review. That is a point which we previously dealt with in this Chamber.
I have a further question in regard to the rates and the review. Given the difficulties we have had in the past, when reviews had not been conducted for many years, can the Minister assure us that there will be an attempt to institutionalise the reviews on a limited number of years, to guard against past difficulty with the rates relief system?
The Member is not so much referring to the review of the overall rating policy and processes that we are talking about, but rather to the question of revaluation. We announced last week that a revaluation of non-domestic properties is to take place. We are now doing precisely that to avoid what happened at the time of the last revaluation, when it had been a couple of decades since one had been done. When that revaluation took place, there were some significant swings, and some found themselves badly caught out and badly affected. That is why we are revaluing non-domestic properties on a more regular basis. It has been a very long time since the last revaluation of domestic properties, and I have concluded that it would be inappropriate to open up a revaluation of domestic properties until we have seen the work taken forward on the overall review of rating policies and procedures.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to update the Assembly on the four European Community initiatives: (a) LEADER, (b) INTERREG, (c) URBAN and (d) EQUAL.
Progamme proposals for EQUAL were submitted to the European Commission on 15 September by the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department for Social Development and the special EU programmes bodies are preparing programme proposals for LEADER, URBAN and INTERREG respectively. These proposals will be submitted to the European Commission by the following dates: LEADER 17 November; URBAN 18 November; and INTERREG 22 November.
The Minister will be aware that there have been rumours about reductions and, perhaps, increases in the amount of money in some of these initiatives. Can he indicate to the Assembly the amounts of money, and if there are reductions, can they be made up?
Changes in the figures may be related to the fact that some indicative figures were previously given, particularly when the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and I visited Brussels in relation to bring forward work on the community support framework. The community initiatives were also discussed, and at that stage a total of £67 million for community initiatives was suggested. We are now looking at £75·8 million. If we were to retain the 25% minimum for match funding, that would give us a total of £100 million.
However, in relation to two of the initiatives, INTERREG and URBAN, the indicative figures we looked at earlier in the summer have now been reduced. Instead of £11 million for URBAN, we are now looking at £6·7 million, and at £51 million for INTERREG, where previously we thought we were expecting £59 million.
Northern Ireland Block Grant
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to explain the impact of the miscalculation by Her Majesty's Treasury of almost £70 million on the Northern Ireland block and to detail how this situation can be rectified.
The over-allocation of £23 million per year in the year 2000 spending review is to be corrected through adjustments to end-year flexibility, so that the immediate effect on the Executive Committee's planning is kept to a minimum. In the end, over the next three years our spending power will be in line with the region's entitlement through the Barnett formula.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Can the Minister confirm that, although the miscalculation in Treasury moneys was announced earlier this month, it was known about in July, days after his public announcement on spending? If so, why was nothing done at that time to inform the public about this miscalculation? Was he, or the Treasury, sitting on this information?
The error emerged at the end of July, and we contacted the Treasury to seek further consideration of the matter. In a situation like this, we had to accept the principle that mistakes, when they are shown, must be corrected. However, this was a Treasury mistake in figures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the House. We made it clear to the Treasury that, if its chosen method of dealing with the apparent over- allocation had been to take it out of the end-year flexibility, we would need to be upfront when presenting figures to the House - and it should be remembered that we have not previously presented figures - or to the Committee. This is not the only issue consequential to the Chancellor's announcement, on which there has been ongoing contact with the Treasury. We do not have the full and final picture.
Can the Minister assure us that the use of the Barnett formula does not close opportunities for the Executive to influence how much is received from the Treasury?
The Barnett formula imposes on Northern Ireland serious difficulties, because expenditure allocated to us is effectively tapered on a per-capita basis, so we, in Northern Ireland, do not get the same benefit of increases announced across the water. We see that, particularly, in some of those programmes which were the subject of major headline announcements in the 2000 spending review.
However, the fact that we have the Barnett formula does not, in itself, limit scope for discussion on how the formula is applied. The outcome of the last spending review was significantly improved thanks to representations to the Chief Secretary by the First Minister, the Deputy First Member and myself. In particular, a correction in the treatment of VAT in the formula and the extension of the formula to cover expenditure on London Underground together produced an additional £40 million per year for Northern Ireland.
Relocation of Government Offices
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if, in considering the possible relocation of Government offices, he will favour relocation to those constituencies which currently have the lowest numbers of civil servants.
Work is currently underway to develop a Civil Service office accommodation strategy, which will include a review of the current policy on job location. It would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of that work. The current number of Civil Service jobs in an area, in proportion to the local workforce, is one of a number of relevant factors to be taken into account.
Given the low numbers of civil servants employed in East Antrim and the congestion on the A2 Carrickfergus-Belfast road and the A8 Larne-Belfast road, does the Minister agree that it would make more sense to actually locate the jobs in the constituency? East Antrim has the third-lowest number of Civil Service jobs.
Secondly, will he undertake to review the figures quoted in his answer to a question I asked earlier? It appears that, with only 233 Civil Service jobs in Larne and Carrickfergus, he has included the entire borough of Newtownabbey. East Antrim may actually have the lowest number of Civil Service jobs of any constituency.
I thank the Member for his question. If there has been a map reading error in any previous figures, we will look at that, try to confirm the proper figures and make any necessary corrections.
It would be inappropriate for me to be drawn on any specific location. We want to make sure that this review is founded on premises to which everyone can adhere and which everyone in this House can recognise as proper. We cannot do a review that has, as a starting point, particular fixed locations to which we want to relocate jobs. In any review of policy, and in any new location policy that might emerge, numbers of existing Civil Service jobs relative to local workforce would be one of a number of factors to be taken into account. Other factors would include new TSN indicators, regional planning strategy, the effects on equality of opportunity in the Civil Service, and, not least, service delivery, business efficiency and cost.
The Minister has just answered my question.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is the second time today that a Member has been kind enough to concede that.
Extra Exchequer Funding
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans have been made to distribute the extra funding that has recently been made available for Northern Ireland by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I am currently drafting budget proposals to be presented to the Executive Committee very shortly. This draft budget will reflect the outcome of ongoing discussions with ministerial colleagues and the priorities developed by the Executive Committee in the Programme for Government.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he assure us that the Assembly itself will be consulted on that spending? Will he also assure us that the Assembly will be kept up to date with whatever progress is made? Thirdly, will he tell the Assembly whether this extra funding will have any impact on the proposed privatisation of Belfast harbour, bearing in mind the delay of schemes because of disagreement on the way forward on that particular issue?
Mr Durkan: On the first point about keeping the Assembly informed, I will present a draft budget to the Assembly in mid- October, after the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have presented the Programme for Government. The Assembly and its Committees will then have to consider that draft budget. My Department has been in discussion with the Committee of Finance and Personnel, and others, to try to optimise the opportunity for the Assembly and its Committees to give proper and due consideration to the draft budget.
A vote needs to be taken on the draft budget, and we hope that it will be agreed by mid-December, so that all the secondary budget holders will know what they are getting and can plan accordingly. On the question about additional money, the Chancellor's announcement indicated an increase in funding for Northern Ireland - a total of £2.1 billion for the next three years, covered by the spending review, including an additional £1 billion in the third year. I hope, however, that the Assembly's interest, and that of the Executive, will not be confined to that notional extra money. We need to look at the total picture, the total spend and the total quality of that spend. That will certainly be the case in the context of the developing work on the Programme for Government.
With regard to Belfast harbour, nothing in the current spending plans, or in the estimates previously presented, is predicated on the sale of the harbour.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The questions down for answer by the Minister must be adhered to, and at the set time. As Mr Close and Mrs Bell were not here - and Mrs Bell is still not here, -I have to suspend the sitting until 3 o'clock, when Ms de Brún will answer questions on the Health Service.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not possible to move to the next set of questions?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
We have seen two instances where people have not appeared to ask their questions. This might be repeated if we depart from the rather formal time allocation of half an hour for each Minister to answer questions. To set such a precedent might be dangerous, so if the Member does not mind, we will suspend the sitting.
On a point of order, Deputy Speaker. Is it reasonable to exclude Mr Close's question, given that the Minister of Education was to answer questions first? Mr Close was, therefore, not entirely at fault for not being in the Chamber.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Member will find that in the Order Paper, the Minister of Health follows the Minister of Finance.
The sitting was suspended at 2.48 pm.
Shortage of Nurses
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what action will be taken to alleviate the shortage of trained nurses in Northern Ireland, and if she will make a statement.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
Le do chead, a Leas Cheann Comhairle. Ní ba túisce sa bhliain d'iarr mé measúnú práinneach ar líon na n-áiteanna a choimisiúnaíonn mo Roinnse ar an chúrsa trí bliana Dioplóma san Altranas in Ollscoil na Ríona, Béal Feirste.
Ós rud é go n-aithnímid an bharrthábhacht a bhaineann le hearcú altraí agus á gcoinneáil sa tseirbhís, tá 100 áit bhreise á gcoimisiúnú gach bliain feasta go ceann trí bliana. Beidh athbhreithniú rialta ann le fáil amach an mbeidh gá lena thuilleadh áiteanna.
Cuireann mo Roinnse maoiniú ar fáil fosta le haghaidh cúrsa traenála ar leith d'altraí cáilithe a bhfuil tuilleadh traenála uathu le cuidiú leo pilleadh ar an obair. Cuireann trí chuibhreannas oideachais inseirbhíse an traenáil seo ar fáil saor in aisce. Táthar ag dréim leis go mbeidh 107 altra san iomlán ag críochnú cúrsa traenála faoi dheireadh na bliana.
Earlier this year, I asked for an urgent assessment of the number of places my Department commissions on the three-year diploma in nursing studies at Queen's University, Belfast. In recognition of the fact that the recruitment and retention of nursing staff is crucial, an additional 100 places have been commissioned for each of the next three years. The need for further increases will be kept under review. My Department also provides funding for a "return to professional practice" course for qualified nurses who require additional training to enable them to return to nursing. Three in-service education consortia provide this training free of charge, and a total of 107 nurses are expected to complete training by the end of the year.
We welcome and pay tribute to the many visitors and workers who come here from all over the world. However, does the Minister agree that, over the years, the authorities have not encouraged local students to enter the profession. Rather they may have discouraged them from doing so because of the unattractiveness of salaries and conditions? Does she agree that the authorities have allowed nursing professionals to take up more lucrative positions outside nursing?
Ms de Brún:
I acknowledge, as the Member has in his question, that we are not just talking about the training of nurses, but about the retention of nurses. We want to ensure that nurses, and other staff, want to join health and personal social services (HPSS) and stay there. My decision to commission the additional 300 student places over the next three years was influenced by a number of concerns expressed by trusts and the independent sector. These include the level of unfilled posts, the difficulties in recruiting and retaining newly qualified nurses, the age profile of the nursing workforce, and the need to recruit nurses from abroad. We are exploring ways of bringing nurses back into the workforce as well as increasing the number of nurses being trained and whether they wish to remain within the service once they are trained.
Queen's University is currently gathering information on the employment destinations of newly qualified nurses. The Department intends to look carefully at the question of the HPSS workforce with a view to informing future commissioning arrangements. A new HPSS human resources strategy is being worked out in conjunction with the trade unions, and that will include elements to ensure that those working in the service will want to stay here.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Does the Minister now accept that training has been adversely affected by her decision to allocate and waste £25,000 per annum on her selfish promotion of the Irish language through her Department? Does she recognise that these resources could be used to pay for the training of nursing staff in Northern Ireland? Is she aware of my constituents, Mr Watt and Mrs Gregg, who wrote to her on 3 August and 8 September respectively, imploring her to use the £25,000 on operations for which they had been waiting several months?
Ms de Brún:
We are looking at the matters of training and retaining people in the service. I have not refused to put in money. I have, in fact, commissioned an additional 300 student nurse places - 100 places for every year over the next three years. That clearly shows how committed I am to ensuring that places are provided. I have also stated very clearly that the Department is looking across the HPSS workforce with a view to informing future commissioning arrangements on the number of necessary places involved. Clearly, I am treating this issue with the importance that it deserves.
Our society is made up of a variety of people; they vary in community background, in social class, in need, and in language. Any decent Minister would recognise, as I do, that any modern service must be able to cater for the whole of this range. The suggestion that one section of that society should be penalised, illustrates the political bigotry which exists in some sections of the House. All sections of society deserve to be treated well, and, in my view, they will be treated well.
We all welcome an increase in the number of nurses and the Minister is right in saying that there is a necessary training period for staff. We welcome the original question on the current shortage.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
May we have your question, please.
The Minister has given a commitment that hospital waiting lists will be shortened. Given the importance of nurses in the treatment system, how does she intend to address the scandalous rise in numbers of those awaiting treatment?
Ms De Brún:
Clearly, as I said when I first announced the additional 100 student nurse places over the next three years, this is a key point in addressing some of the difficulties that are leading to longer waiting lists at the moment. Let me emphasise that recent surveys - the last one was in June - have shown an improved situation with regard to recruitment and retention.
For example, trusts were asked to report specifically on nursing posts which have been unfilled for six months or so. One particular trust is a real cause for concern at present - it has an aggressive recruitment strategy and it is in the process of recruiting more qualified nurses. Some new nurses will come from abroad, and others will come back into the workforce from other posts.
On the wider question of waiting lists, I have set out a clear framework for action as part of which I expect the boards to bring forward detailed action plans. These matters are being addressed at present, and the seriousness of the situation has been taken on board. People throughout the service, at board, trust and departmental level, are doing their utmost to seek answers to the challenges that face us.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
We had a wonderful example in the last series of questions. All the questions were answered, and we had a 15-minute break. Now we are still on the first question. Will the Minister please be more succinct?
While the extra 100 nurses to be provided over the next three years are welcome, does the Minister not agree that this is merely a drop in the ocean, that there is a real haemorrhaging of professionals out of the service and that more needs to be done, in terms of job-shares and part-time work, to attract people back?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Please be more succinct.
Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can the Minister assure us that active steps will be taken to recruit more nurses rather than administrators?
Ms de Brún:
I refer the Member to my previous answer. I outlined actions that are being taken on recruitment and also the health and personal social services human resource strategy. I believe that this will ensure that staff will want to join and stay.