Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 October 2000 (continued)
Motorcycle Racing: Health and
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the measures he has taken with regard to improving health and safety standards in the sport of motorcycle racing, and if he will make a statement.
Prompted by the recent tragic events, the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland, in conjunction with Sports Councils both North and South, has recently formed an inter-centre safety commission, which has been charged with the responsibility of conducting a comprehensive risk assessment audit of all existing road race venues. The Sports Council is currently drawing up terms of reference, and a report detailing the commission's findings will be available in early December 2000. I have asked that one of my officials be given an observer's role in the commission to keep me apprised of ongoing progress.
I recently met representatives of the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland to explore ways in which my Department might lend its support to the inter-centre commission. My officials have also met with their counterparts in the Department for Regional Development and the Department of the Environment, and they have agreed to provide whatever assistance they can to the work of the commission. I shall consider what measures I can take when the commission's report is available.
While we are waiting for these reports will there be any indication of the probable cost of improving safety in this sport?
I cannot be specific about cost until we receive the report. The road racing season is now over, and the commission plans to work with diligence and speed over the winter to assess what must be done on each of the road racing circuits, afterwards looking at the feasibility of the work and the revenue consequences. My Department is certainly doing all it can to support them in those efforts.
At the same time, we have made resources available to employ a consultant, who is also looking at the four existing short circuit road racing tracks. As part of that we will also be looking at the feasibility of a dedicated, purpose-built new road racing circuit.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I welcome the statement made by the Minister on the steps his Department has taken to address the issue of motor sport safety. Does he agree that much more needs to be done? Will his Department take the lead by allocating funding towards a feasibility study for the entire motor sport industry, so that the entire sport can achieve its full potential? Also, will he advise the House of the name of the consultant appointed to look at the short circuit tracks?
On the last part of the question, I cannot give the name of the consultant, as I do not know it.
We all share concern at the number of fatalities and serious injuries, especially in the past year. My task, from my Department's view, is to ensure that risk is minimised as far as possible. This is, and always will be, a dangerous sport and the thing is to work to minimise the danger.
There are two parts to this sport (it has been described as two separate sports) - road racing and short circuit racing. Road racers describe their sport as totally different. A comparison has been made with the distinction between squash and tennis - racket games played with balls, but otherwise enormously different.
In taking this forward we are looking at ways of upgrading the four short-circuit tracks. We are looking at how we make existing road circuits safer. Work has been done and more needs to be done to allow the sport to thrive. This issue also affects other Departments. The organisers of the North West 200, the premier road race in the British Isles, outside the Isle of Man, cannot charge admission. They can charge admission to the Ulster grand prix but not the North West 200. If they could, bearing in mind that around 80,000 people regularly attend, they could produce a revenue stream that would allow them not only to upgrade that circuit but others too. That is another area that we are looking at.
We are also seeking advice on the provision of a purpose-built circuit. For that to be feasible, it would have to be financially self-sustaining and would have to cover not just motorbikes but also motor racing in general.
We are looking to see the results of these investigations, studies and enquiries coming to fruition early next year, so that the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland can determine its strategy for the future.
Does the Minister agree that it is not just about the condition of the roads but the fact that bikes are going much quicker than they ever did? It may be possible to fit some type of speed limiter to bikes to slow them down and increase road safety.
As regards road safety, I do not have the expertise to comment on whether bikes are going too fast. Certainly, there is the question of matching the skill of the rider to the circuits. Significant work has been done on all of the circuits to contribute to road safety. Chicanes have been introduced at all the venues, and these have slowed down motorbikes. That is one way of limiting speed. Against that you have to match the skill of the riders and their ability to decelerate to those speeds. I am not an expert on this; I am learning as I go along and taking advice. My role is to support the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland - the sport's governing body - and help them to determine their strategy to minimise risk for everyone.
During the past year the cream of the motorcycle industry has been taken away from us.
Has any consideration been given to the formation of a sports stadium in Northern Ireland? Does the Minister have any plans for that?
I said that, as part of the review, the consultants who were assisting the Motorcycle Union of Ireland and the inter-centre safety commission will be looking at the feasibility of a new purpose-built, short-circuit track. They will also be looking at the existing short circuits but more importantly, the existing road circuits.
Many Members are interested in this question - particularly in the light of recent events- but we have spent longer on it than on any of the others. In fairness, we need to get through the questions that have been tabled, rather than take more supplementaries.
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail what funding has been made available to promote the Irish language since 2 December 1999.
The North/South language implementation body was established on devolution, with two separate parts, the Irish Language Agency and the Ulster-Scots Agency. Its functions include the promotion of the Irish language. Indicative funding of £7·2 million sterling is available to the Irish Language Agency, Foras na Gaeilge, in the start-up year of operation for the promotion of Irish. Northern Ireland will provide £1·8 million sterling of that. Funding is also available from mainstream funding programmes for objectives other than promotional, providing applicants meet the criteria. In 2000-01, indicative funding of £11·420 million will be available to the body, and Northern Ireland will provide £3·5 million of this. The Board of Ulster-Scots will receive £1·3 million and Foras na Gaeilge will receive £10·12 million.
Is í an cheist atá agam ná: cad iad na himpleachtaí don fhostaíocht ar an talamh, mar a déarfá?
In recognition of the central importance of the Irish language in the Good Friday Agreement, can the Minister detail if this has led to project sustainability and job creation on the ground?
I do not have that sort of depth of detail in terms of the job creation that has been attached to the promotion of the Irish language since devolution. As I said, there is a cross-border implementation body with two parts. One part looks after Irish language - Foras na Gaeilge, which has its own funding. The number of people it employs pretty well equates with pre-devolution and post devolution, and again, I cannot be specific on that.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given the fact that that funding is available, has the Department considered making scholarships available for school pupils who wish to attend residential Gaeltacht courses during the summer holidays?
I am not competent to answer that question. It is more appropriate for the cross-border implementation body. I will put it to them on the Member's behalf and attempt to discover the detail. However, I am not aware of their offering scholarships at the moment.
Maze Prison Site
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure if he has any plans to consider the viability of utilising the Maze Prison site as a centre for sporting excellence.
The future of the Maze Prison site is a matter in the first instance for the Northern Ireland Office. I understand that the facility will be retained by the Prison Service for the next two to three years. In these circumstances it would be premature for me to consider whether it could be used as a centre for sporting excellence, although I am aware that there has been previous speculation about the use of the site.
This area is particularly level, covers 300 acres, and is easily accessible from the M1 motorway and the A1 dual carriageway. Does the Minister agree that this offers a spectacular opportunity to develop a centre of sporting excellence? Perhaps we could come up with some new sports like the 100-metre tunnel dig and the fence vaulting.
The time for questions to the Minister is now up. We will have to ask the Minister to write to the Member with his considered views on the suggestions.
asked the Assembly Commission to detail any plans for future training programmes relating to lesser-known languages and to make a statement.
Rev Robert Coulter (Assembly Commission):
In relation to training, a prime responsibility of the Assembly Commission is to ensure that staff of the Assembly Secretariat receive the appropriate training to carry out their duties professionally. At this stage the Commission has no plans to provide training programmes relating to lesser- known languages. In those instances when elected Members address the Assembly in either Irish or Ulster-Scots, translation facilities are available to the Speaker and to the Clerks at the Table.
What facilities are in place for deaf people? In order to ensure that the facilities of the Chamber are fully inclusive, we must make sure that deaf people visiting it are able to get access to the debate on the Floor.
Rev Robert Coulter:
The Commission has commissioned a survey of the Building. This will meet the needs of disabled people, including people with visual impairments and those with hearing difficulties. The Commission has arranged for Doorkeepers to be trained to deal with visitors who have physical and visual impairments. Should the need arise, the Commission will consider any further requirements.
Parliament Buildings: Flags
asked the Assembly Commission to detail its policy on the flying of flags in Parliament Buildings.
Rev Robert Coulter:
So far, the policy of the Assembly Commission has been to fly the Union flag on, but not inside, Parliament Buildings. It is helpful to reflect on the background to this issue. During the shadow period the Commission operated under the direction of the Secretary of State. Since devolution it has continued to follow the existing practice of flying the Union flag over Government buildings.
On Friday 2 June 2000, the Assembly Commission discussed the issue and resolved that the flags issue was a political matter best handled by the Assembly. It was agreed that the Commission would continue to operate according to existing arrangements, until otherwise directed by the Assembly.
We had the flags debate on 6 June. It provided no further direction to the Commission. We now have the Flags Order. This allows the Secretary of State to make regulations on the flying of the Union Flag on Government buildings. An Ad Hoc Committee has recently been appointed and is considering the draft regulations. However, the regulations will only cover specified Government buildings. Parliament Buildings can not be included in the schedule to the flag regulations. The Assembly has to decide its policy on flying the Union flag on Parliament Buildings.
What is the Assembly Commission's policy on flying the United Kingdom national flag on the Assembly building on designated days? Will the flag continue to fly? Given that the matter is not included in the Secretary of State's draft proposals, can the Commission confirm that there are no proposals to change -
Order. The Member's question is out of order under the anticipation rule. The Assembly has already set up an Ad Hoc Committee to prepare a report to the Secretary of State. The question is being asked in anticipation of a report that is already being prepared by the Assembly.
Has the Assembly Commission any proposals to change the policy?
That part of the question is acceptable.
Rev Robert Coulter:
The simple answer is no - not until the Assembly decides a policy.
I anticipate your ruling on this, Mr Speaker. Can the member of the Commission indicate that in the event that the Assembly Commission further considers the displaying of flags, it will take into account and have due regard to that which is outlined in the Good Friday Agreement - namely, that
"the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities"?
Can he confirm that that will inform any future Commission view?
Mr Coulter may wish to reply in regard to this. In so far as a legal opinion has been requested, that, of course, is out of order. It is not possible to ask for legal opinions. However, in respect of what the Commission may choose to do, the Commission representative may wish to reply.
Rev Robert Coulter:
As I have already stated, the Commission will take its direction in these matters from the Assembly.
Mr C Murphy:
Given that the practice of flying flags on this Building was previously under the instructions of the Secretary of State, may I ask the Assembly Commission on what basis the decision was taken to continue that practice after the shadow period.
Rev Robert Coulter:
The Assembly Commission will follow directions, as we have been doing up to the present moment and will continue to fly the flag on the designated days.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):
I wish to make a statement on the second plenary meeting of the North/ South Ministerial Council on behalf of those Ministers who attended the meeting, which was held on Tuesday 26 September in Dublin Castle. The 10 Ministers notified to the Assembly participated in the meeting.
Satisfaction was expressed with the level of progress to date, particularly with the progress made in setting in train a substantial programme of work in respect of the six North/South implementation bodies and the six agreed areas for co-operation.
Since the inaugural plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh last December it has met 13 times in sectoral format. The council looked forward to making further significant progress in the various sectoral councils in the coming months. It placed particular importance on the forthcoming establishment of the new tourism company, which will have the responsibility for the marketing overseas of the island of Ireland as a tourist destination.
An agreed schedule of sectoral meetings is to take place in the autumn, including a first meeting in the transport sector. The First Minister and I are determined that all aspects of work identified in both the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will be carried forward. It is also anticipated that the council will meet by agreement in institutional format before the next plenary.
Procedures for recruiting the chief executives of a number of implementation bodies were agreed as were the terms and conditions associated with these appointments and the conditions of service for staff generally employed by the implementation bodies.
It was also agreed that a study would be initiated on an independent North/South consultative forum. This meets the terms set out in the Good Friday Agreement, strand two, paragraph 19. A report on the outcome to the study will come forward to the next meeting of the plenary.
The agenda for government published by the Northern Ireland Executive Committee on 29 June 2000 identified actions to support North/South development, including the need to take action to remove barriers to living and/or working North and South.
In this context, the Irish Government agreed to co-operate with the Northern Ireland Executive Committee in taking forward this study through a steering group of officials, North and South, on the obstacles to mobility. That co-operation will include sharing the costs of the study.
On the issue of competitiveness, there was a useful exchange of views between Ministers from both North and South. It was agreed that further consideration would be given to an Irish Government paper on enhancing competitiveness of the two economies by the North/South Ministerial Council, in its trade and business development format, at its next meeting on 27 October, with a view to reporting to the next plenary meeting.
The council agreed that its next meeting in plenary format would be held in Northern Ireland in March 2001. I would like to draw attention to the fact that the statement that was circulated to Members wrongly gave the date of the next plenary as March 2000 instead of March 2001. I take pleasure in putting the record right.
A copy of the communiqué issued following the meeting has been placed in the Library.
First, I will comment on the nomination of Ministers. It may seem strange coming from myself, but to keep the situation proper all Ministers in this body should have been nominated. As to whether they would choose to attend is another matter, but they all should have been nominated.
Paragraph 5 of the Deputy First Minister's statement tells us about the marketing of the island as a tourism destination, and paragraph nine mentions the sharing of costs. In paragraph 7 of the joint communique issued on 26 September, under the heading "Budgetary process", the apportionment of the moneys involved is given. The Government of the Republic are contributing £37 million sterling and the Executive here are contributing £11 million. In paragraph 9, under the heading "Obstacles to cross border mobility", the communique states that the costs will be "shared equally between the two Administrations".
Should the figure for apportionment not be similar to that mentioned in the budgetary process, rather than being an equal sharing of costs on any studies being carried out by this body?
Before the Deputy First Minister replies, I must remind the Member that he made a statement at the start of his comments. This is an opportunity to ask questions only, so I ask Members to refrain from using it to make statements.
The Deputy First Minister:
The DUP Ministers have not attended meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council despite the fact that the holding of a ministerial office should involve meeting all responsibilities involved. It is interesting that details supplied by their Departments confirm that DUP Ministers have not yet met their ministerial counterparts from England, Scotland or Wales. Looking at the DUP attitude to ministerial office, one could say that the point of view that they hold is truly "ourselves alone".
In relation to the second part of the Member's question, these are both studies at this stage. They have been agreed as studies, and they will be of great benefit to people, both North and South, especially those in border areas. I consider that there is the right balance in terms of the financing of those studies. Of course, the real debate will come when those studies start to present proposals. I have no doubt that then those budgetary matters will be under great scrutiny, both here and elsewhere.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister's statement. I want to concentrate on transport. Those of us who live in border constituencies have long wished for the day when there would be meaningful co-operation between the North and South on issues such as roads. I welcome the fact that there is going to be a special meeting on the transport sector. How does the Deputy First Minister envisage that this will take place given that the Minister for Regional Development has so far refused to submit a plan to the North/South Ministerial Council?
The Deputy First Minister:
It is proposed to schedule a meeting in the second half of November. The First Minister and I will be asking the Minister for Regional Development to meet the responsibilities of ministerial office, and we shall take responsibility for moving the issue forward in the absence of his co-operation. Transport is an important sector of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. We want to ensure that progress is made in both institutions, and we will do so by representing the Northern Ireland Executive, if necessary.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Deputy First Minister said that he was looking forward to his meeting in March 2001. Of course, we, on this side of the House, hope that that meeting will never take place. Can the Deputy First Minister detail the cost to the Northern Ireland Administration of travel by Ministers and officials to Dublin for that meeting. Does he accept that there is growing public disquiet at the astronomical cost associated with the travel to such meetings? The recent visit to America by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had a price tag of almost £50,000.
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his question. The Irish Government met all the costs and are meeting all of the costs of the plenary, apart from the time and travel costs of Northern Ireland Ministers and their support staff. Northern Ireland will meet all of the costs, apart from the costs of Irish Ministers and their support staff, for the plenary planned for next March.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister's statement. Perhaps it indicates that the administration of the North/South Ministerial Council is well under way. However, I ask him to take notice of the requirement for inclusiveness in the operation of such bodies. An agreed schedule of sectoral meetings has been announced by the Deputy First Minister. Will he give an undertaking that he will give to the Assembly, or at least the relevant Committee, information on the agendas for each of those sectoral meetings before they take place? It may be difficult for that to be done before the transport sector meets, in view of the unwillingness of some Ministers to participate.
The Deputy First Minister highlighted paragraph 19 of Strand Two of the agreement which deals with what we might call the North/South consultative forum. However, I draw his attention to paragraph 18, which I read as coming before paragraph 19:
"The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas to consider developing a joint parliamentary forum".
What is being done to increase the inclusiveness of the North/South meetings beyond the Executive, or certain members of the Executive, to include all those Members who wish to participate in developing matters of mutual interest?
The Deputy First Minister:
We wish to give as much information prior to sectoral meetings as we possibly can. I am sure that the Assemblyman will agree that sometimes it is very difficult, if not impossible, due to time constraints. I understand that a meeting of the British-Irish Council is taking place today and a report will be made on that. However, I assure the Member that the First Minister and I will do everything that we can to give that information.
On the consultative forum, the Member is right - paragraph 18 does come before paragraph 19. The Member refers to the inter-parliamentary aspect of it. As one of the founder members of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, I remind the Member that it is a parliamentary body and it is a matter for the Assembly, the Oireachtas and the Westminster Parliament. I note with some satisfaction that a meeting of that inter-parliamentary body is to take place, or has taken place, in Galway. The Assembly has nominated people to attend and I welcome that. I also welcome the study. We can replicate the expectations that we have for the Civic Forum in the North in the consultative forum North and South.
I welcome the positive outcome of the North/South Ministerial Council plenary session. I am particularly interested in the tourism company because it is to be based in Coleraine, which is in the Minister for Regional Development's constituency. Will the Deputy First Minister tell us more about the remit and timetable for this body, which is critical to the development of tourism internationally?
The Deputy First Minister:
I note the Member's interest in this body. The tourism company will be responsible for marketing the island of Ireland as a tourist destination. It will also provide marketing and promotional services to the two tourist boards. A publicly owned company will be established by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Fáilte to provide international tourism marketing programmes and information on the island of Ireland as a tourist destination, reflecting the diverse traditions, forms of cultural expression and identities in the island. Ministers and officials have been discussing the future arrangements for the company with a view to decisions being taken at the NSMC tourism sectoral meeting scheduled for 27 October 2000.
In the absence of the Regional Development Minister, the Deputy First Minister could seek advice from the well-known West Belfast MLA who is an expert on motability. Are the Irish Government satisfied that 13 sectoral meetings have taken place? Are they satisfied with the level of participation by Unionist Ministers?
The Deputy First Minister:
Regrettably, I cannot answer on behalf of the Irish Government, but with regard to the Executive, every Minister who has attended sectoral meetings and meetings of the implementation bodies has performed satisfactorily. Things are progressing harmoniously. We should recognise that when we collectively, as a political process, undertake these types of meetings and the type of problems involved in them, we do it well. On behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive, I would like to go on record as saying that. As for the Irish Government, the Member has read the communiqué, in which both Governments state their satisfaction clearly.
I note in the statement that reference is made to two independent studies, one dealing with the independent North/South consultative forum and the second dealing with mobility. What budget has been allocated to these two studies? When is the mobility study due to report? There is a reference to when the first study on the independent North/South consultative forum is due to report. Thirdly, will the Deputy First Minister give an assurance that when those reports are completed they will be made available to the House?
The Deputy First Minister:
First, we will subject them to debate and scrutiny and seek agreement in the Chamber, because neither of these studies is a matter for anybody in isolation. I understand from the question that the Member recognises the validity of both studies. In the mobility study we are seeking to ensure that for citizens North and South, the obstacles to mobility can be identified and removed. Those of us who live in border areas know the problems that exist and we have to try and find ways of reducing those obstacles.
Such areas include health, housing, education, childcare, taxation, social security, pensions, vehicle registrations, telephones and banking - I could go on for some time. In this context, we have asked for an examination of procedures in other European border regions. The North/South joint secretariat will support a steering group of officials from OFMDFM and DFA to carry out the study.
The specific question I asked was what budget is allocated to each of these, and it was not answered.
The Deputy First Minister:
I refer the Member to the last part of my response. The North/South Ministerial Council's joint secretariat will support a steering group of officials from OFMDFM and DFA in carrying out this study, and there will be expenditure accruing to all of those.
I welcome the statement. Will the Deputy First Minister outline what areas of the economy the competitiveness study will encompass, and will he ensure that spatial and regional planning for areas such as the north-west are included?
The Deputy First Minister:
Both North and South share the objective of developing and sustaining a competitive economy in the face of increasingly wider competition in the rapidly evolving global economy. We feel, therefore, that the time is right to focus on how economic co-operation can enhance competitiveness in both parts of the island. At the North South Ministerial Council, the two Governments, North and South, by mutual agreement and for mutual benefit, asked the sectoral meeting of the trade and business development format to consider the matter and bring forward recommendations for specific action to our next meeting early next year. Some of the crucial areas to be addressed are physical infrastructure to secure energy at an affordable cost, a responsive skill and labour supply, the provision of advanced telecommunications, key components of innovation, research and development investment, supply of venture capital, technology foresight initiatives and regional and spacial planning.
Again, the peripherality of areas which are furthest from either Belfast or Dublin must be considered in all of our forward planning. They affect all of us, and as someone who represents a border constituency, I know that those elements are needed. We should complete this study, discuss it and then try to deal with people living in those border areas.
I will ask the Deputy First Minister questions on the new tourism company, which he refers to in paragraph 5. The Deputy First Minister has already affirmed that the new tourism company will be located in Coleraine. Can he assure us about where the strategy and the policy for tourism will come from? Will it come from Coleraine or elsewhere? How many staff from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board will be among the core staff to be located at Coleraine? Will there be equality in the promotion of tourist destinations in Northern Ireland - for example, Strangford Lough? What guarantees can be included in the new tourism company to ensure that Northern Ireland tourism can be promoted suitably, fairly and positively? What will be the breakdown for finance for the promotion of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
The Deputy First Minister:
Staffing will be the responsibility of the Minister concerned. I cannot, at present, indicate those figures, but I will write to the Member to indicate what the Minister dealing with this area will be deciding. I imagine that everyone involved in this company will ensure that Northern Ireland tourist destinations are promoted fairly. Through the Minister representing this Executive and through the new tourist company, we will be insisting that Northern Ireland tourist destinations receive the attention they require and that the North of Ireland tourism will be properly and fairly promoted.
It is not possible to think of tourism in terms of one destination. The worldwide tourism pattern is that people go from place to place. The more tourist companies promoting the whole of the island of Ireland, the more people will come to the North of Ireland. When they do, we will convince them by our services, facilities, and all of the tourist factors we have, that this is a place that they will come back to. That is the essence of tourism.
In light of discussions on the action needed to remove barriers, what mention was made of the difficulty many in Northern Ireland in seeking jobs in the Republic, if they do not have the Irish language?
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for the question. This is one matter that was not discussed formally at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting - it was discussed informally. The regulations in the Republic of Ireland have now changed so that there is a five-year period within which someone appointed within the educational sector would have the opportunity to make themselves sufficiently proficient in the Irish language. It is essential that teachers from the North of Ireland do teach in the Republic of Ireland and vice versa.
We should ensure that there are no barriers to that type of communication. Ultimately, whatever the language, communication is about dealing with new situations and different structures in both educational systems and with the young people concerned.
What difficulties does the Minister foresee in informing the Assembly about the agenda of forthcoming meetings? I note that the Minister of Education had to retract a comment he made before the Assembly in response to the Chairperson of the Education Committee's question if he would be consulting him about the sectoral meeting in that area. Initially, he said he saw no difficulties in doing that, but then he had to report to the Assembly that he could not do that. Does the same apply to the North/South Ministerial Council meetings? Although I receive information on what matters might arise at the next plenary meeting and the report of the two studies that had been commissioned, I am not aware of the form of the agenda. Four parties with Ministers on the Executive Committee would be well informed of what happens at these plenary meetings, but the rest of the Assembly would occasionally like to be proactive rather than reactive to what happens at these meetings.
The Deputy First Minister:
I stated that the agenda, along with other information, should be circulated to Members in advance. I take the point she makes, which has been made previously. The more communication there is within the Assembly, and between Ministers and the Assembly, the better it will be for the entire process. I will take that question on board and we will look at it very carefully.
I do not think there is a legalistic reason for why this is the case or why not, or a definition of Minister may or may not do. In relation to the sectoral meetings, there are areas of confidentiality in relation to their discussions. I can think of at least one at the moment which could be of enormous benefit to the North of Ireland and I am quite sure the Assembly Member would agree that it should not be dealt with in public, on account of related commercial aspects.
The Deputy First Minister refers, in his report, to the issue of competitiveness. It states that there was a useful exchange of views between Ministers from North and South. Did that exchange impinge, in any way, on the recent fuel crisis? And did the representatives from Northern Ireland make any case for improved surveillance, by the Republic of Ireland Government, of the enormous amount of illegal fuel - estimated to be 30% of all fuel used in Northern Ireland - which is passing across the border into the North? While hauliers in the North, as the Deputy First Minister will be aware, have to tighten their belts and compete with the relative rates of duty, they ought not to have to compete also with illegally imported fuel, about which the Republic appears to be doing absolutely nothing.
The Deputy First Minister:
This matter was discussed. It has been raised by the First Minister and myself at every opportunity - at the first plenary session of the British-Irish Council and, separately, with the Treasury in London. The reality is - the Member is correct - that it is the rates of duty which we have got to try to deal with. That is the core element of the problem. I agree with him that those who are selling fuel in the North of Ireland are being disadvantaged on a daily basis. As the Member knows, this is a matter that does not fall within the competence of the Assembly or the Executive, but he can be assured that it will be raised at every opportunity with those who do have that responsibility.
The Deputy First Minister should answer the real questions, which he has avoided.
I also welcome the statement from the Deputy First Minister, in particular with regard to the mobility study. I ask for his assurance that it will be a meaningful study to the people on the ground and, if possible, could he give us an outline of the timetable of this study?
The Deputy First Minister:
The study has to be meaningful because these problems are meaningful to people who live either north or south of the border. I listed some of the areas, and I know from personal experience of dealing with constituency issues that these problems can be huge. The difficulty is that you are dealing with two jurisdictions and, if I may say so, two sets of bureaucracy. It is not always easy to resolve these factors.
It has to be meaningful, and a study on its own is not enough. A study should result in proposals, which should, and will come from the study group to the North/South Ministerial Council and to the Assembly. When they do come, it will be for us to judge if they are worthwhile, meaningful and able to contribute to the lives of the people we represent. I believe that on those three counts they will.
Can the Deputy First Minister please give us the figures that were asked for earlier on to the cost of the two studies mentioned in this statement. It is a straightforward question. Perhaps he could give us a straightforward answer.
Secondly, can he confirm that decisions of the North/ South Ministerial Council, whether in plenary or in sectoral form, are incapable of being overturned by challenge in the Assembly.
Thirdly, can he, in the absence of the First Minister - I notice that the Deputy First Minister is on his own today - shed any light on the other key aspect of last Tuesday's events? I know that it was not part of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings specifically, but I refer to the First Minister going cap in hand to ask favours on Patten from the Dublin Prime Minister. I wonder did the Deputy First Minister pick up anything in the corridors on that particular issue? It dominated the news reports, as he may be aware, to the exclusion of reports on the North/South Ministerial Council.
The Deputy First Minister:
The Assemblyman is quite right. The focus should have been on the North/ South Ministerial Council. I was not behind the door in making that point. The First Minister and the Taoiseach decided, in their wisdom, to have that meeting on the same day. So be it.
As for the second part of the question, at this point I will not be able to answer it. I will write to the Member and give him that factual information as soon as it is available to me.
There was another aspect to that question, relating to the ability of this Assembly to either confirm or overturn the decisions of the Council.
The Deputy First Minister:
I apologise for omitting that. The matters will be agreed, and have to be agreed, within the Executive. That is part of the agreement. Executive business is subject to the Assembly. That is the way in which the Assembly's opinion can be given. The Member is asking a very direct question: can this Assembly overturn a decision made by a Minister, either in sectoral format or in implementation form? I think reference should be made to that through Executive decision. I would welcome him to that Executive.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
There are no further questions on the statement of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Rev Robert Coulter:
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that appropriate funding for local community nursing is available for those patients in acute hospitals for whom nursing care is appropriate, so that bed blocking is removed and consultants can treat additional patients currently on waiting lists.
I bring this motion before the House because of the Health Department's figures on waiting lists for acute hospitals. At present, nearly 50,000 people are waiting for admission to hospital. Moreover, those waiting in excess of 18 months - 12 months for cardiac surgery - now number 6,009 or just over 12% of the total waiting.
The thought of 50,000 people in our community knowing that they require surgery or hospital attention waiting day after day, hoping to get a call to go in to hospital, and day after day being disappointed, fills me with sadness. I ask Members to imagine being told that you have a health problem that requires cardiac surgery. You wait a month, six months, a year, and still there is no call for treatment. Imagine your mental condition as you wonder if, when the call does come, it will be too late. Imagine the agony of worrying, which you endure day by day and the stress on your family. If you have seriously imagined yourself in that position, can you say that the figure of 50,000 people waiting for hospitalisation is acceptable?
If there is one aspect of health provision in our Province that needs to take priority over all other, it is the current problem of bed blocking and its effect on the unacceptably high numbers on hospital waiting lists. The Minister needs to give this democratically elected House her utmost assurance that she will do all in her power to avoid falling into the trap of centralisation created by previous Health Ministers in Northern Ireland.
The trend has been to close the local hospitals and to create acute area hospitals. The arguments for such a centralised strategy are convincing, and I agree that the people of Northern Ireland do not mind travelling long distances to get the acute surgery they require, nor do their loved ones mind travelling to see them in those circumstances. It is waiting for the acute treatment, and the aftercare, that is the problem.
Let me reinforce Mr Coulter's point. The situation in my constituency relating to Craigavon Area Hospital has now reached a critical level. I understand that very little elective surgery is now being carried out at that hospital, and that there are now over 5,000 patients waiting for treatment.
Order. It is not appropriate for a Member to intervene during the opening speech of a debate to make a prepared statement in regard to it. If the Member so wishes, he is perfectly entitled to speak in the debate. He can make his point then. We are only at the beginning of the debate. Because of the ministerial statement, our timing has been cut short for today. However, there is no reason why this debate should not continue tomorrow morning as a considerable number of Members want to speak. We have the choice of either cutting Members very short - which I am hesitant to do on a matter on which they quite clearly feel strongly - or continuing the debate tomorrow. I would prefer to continue the debate tomorrow to give all Members the chance to speak. Thus they would not feel compelled to make interventions which are rather close to the wind in terms of the Standing Orders. I ask the Member to restrain himself. If he wishes to speak he should put his name down. The debate will continue tomorrow morning.
Rev Robert Coulter:
I was saying that the real problem is waiting for the acute treatment, and the aftercare.
When the plan for hospital closures was devised in the 1980s and 1990s, and the services of many others reduced, not enough planning or provision was made for aftercare. Today people can be discharged from acute care much earlier than in the past, but many require 24-hour professional nursing help for days or even weeks afterwards. If this nursing care is not available at home or in the community the patient must be kept in hospital, thereby blocking a bed for another person on the waiting list. In this respect, the Minister needs to give serious consideration to the development of a network of community convalescent hospitals throughout the Province in the main centres of population. There is a pressing need to review the level of post-operation care facilities in their local areas.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Very recently, I talked to a general practitioner about the problem of waiting lists, and I am sure that my comments will be reinforced by the Chairperson of the Health Committee. An extension of the problem emerged during that conversation. The burden on the GPs, which is already great, is amplified. Let me explain. A patient goes to his GP, and is referred to a consultant. The consultant is unable to take the patient into hospital because there are no beds available. The patient returns again and again to his GP, asking when he will be dealt with. The GP can give him no assurance, and a tension is created between the patient and his GP, with the patient blaming the GP for negligence. There is also the loss of time experienced by the GP's support staff in answering continual telephone calls, and by the GP himself, as well as the cost, in many cases, of interim medicine. It is vital that the Minister adopts the core principle that when people are sick they should receive the correct treatment in the correct place, delivered by the correct people at the correct time.
The borough of Ballymena is an example of the situation which may arise, and may already have arisen, in many towns across Northern Ireland. When the Waveney Hospital was closed, the people of Ballymena were left without even a minor accident and emergency facility. People with, for example, a cut finger must go to the acute area hospital in Antrim.
If the injury is minor, patients will sit for four or more hours, waiting for attention. Ballymena urgently requires a new purpose-built community convalescent support hospital, in which minor accident cases can be treated by properly trained nursing staff. If the accident was more serious, or if the nurse is in doubt, there should be no hesitation, in this age of tele-medicine, in getting in touch rapidly with the relevant specialist at the acute hospital.
In 1998 the Northern Ireland Health Minister, John McFall, declared that none of Northern Ireland's hospitals would close and that local hospitals would be the cornerstone of the new hospital service. It may be argued, of course, that we now have a new administration and that politicians and civil servants who were not elected by and not accountable to the people of Ulster made those old decisions. We now have a Minister who is accountable, not just to the people of west Belfast but to all the people of Northern Ireland, and civil servants who are accountable to the democratically elected Members of the Assembly.
It is not enough for the Minister to say that she will cut waiting lists: she must outline precisely how she proposes to do that. She must not just say how much money will be set aside to meet the need.
We might also ask how long it will take to remedy the defects. I remind the Minister that media headlines have been warning the community that Ulster's hospitals are already £20 million in the red and that they face a further £20 million-plus overspend in the coming year. Given these grim statistics, I am sure that Members will agree that the Minister and her Department are faced with serious decisions in the days ahead. Perhaps the Minister could begin by cutting the fat cat bureaucracy in the health trusts. The reported payments of around £1 million in so-called golden handshakes are downright scandalous. How many acute beds could have been made available for that cash? The Minister must move with haste to ensure that such a haemorrhage of taxpayers' money does not happen, either now or ever again. She can demonstrate her commitment to the people of Northern Ireland by ending the fat cat syndrome in our health service.
Similarly, in eradicating the bureaucratic duplication in our health service, it will be necessary for the Minister to ensure that an effective health policy is devised and implemented and that it is lean and efficient. Much -needed finance for patients' requirements can be obtained by eliminating some of the levels of bureaucracy in our health service. Practically speaking, this may be achieved by scrapping the administrative duplication of the health boards and health trusts. We now have our own Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Do we need those fat layers of expensive administration? Do we need four boards, 19 trusts and I do not know how many layers of administration underneath all of that? The Minister should ensure that everyone, and in particular the elderly, regardless of race, class, creed or wealth, should have an automatic right to proper medical access. It has been a disgrace to this generation that so many elderly people have had to sell their possessions and give up their savings to qualify and pay for such care. They have paid their health contribution all their working lives and now they are being made to pay again for a service that they were assured would be free.
Do we not feel somewhat ashamed that we have not acted before now to rectify that wrong? It is time we recognised that, just as our education system is being threatened by the American-style pay-as-you-learn mentality, we must not allow our health system to adopt a pay-as-you-heal approach to the needs of our people.
The guiding ethic of funding for local community nursing must be health first, not wealth. The elderly - indeed, every section of society - should be able to look on our Health Service as a welcome provider, not a bureaucratic piranha. In view of the seriousness of the situation and the great number of people affected, I call upon the Minister and every Member to support the motion. It is something which affects, or which will affect, us all sooner or later.
A short time ago I received a call from a constituent in North Antrim. The young woman had weighed 18 stone and, with great willpower, reduced her weight to nine stone. However, this created a problem. The abdominal skin was too slack and was hanging in an uncomfortably large pouch. Her GP referred her to a consultant, and she has been waiting for over a year for an interview. She does not know when she will be called, and her doctor can give her no further information. She cannot go to social functions, she cannot purchase new clothes to suit her slim form, and she is now suffering from depression as a result of the delay in getting a minor operation. On top of all that, her family is suffering because of her suffering. The whole system is wrong and needs to be reviewed.
I beg the Minister to set in motion a review group, accountable to the House and containing Members of the House, to look at the problem of bed blocking and the difficulties which arise from it. I hope that every Member will agree that such an initiative should be progressed in the immediate future; I am sure that all of the 50,000 people on the waiting lists for our hospitals will plead with us to do so.
I welcome and support this motion. Having worked, as a nurse, in the assessment of domiciliary care, I recognise the urgent need for the debate. It is particularly timely because today is the first working day of the new human rights legislation. From now on, citizens will have rights, not just liberties. All public bodies, including acute and community health trusts, will be required to ensure that equality of opportunity is central to their work. Patients will be able to challenge decisions in court if they believe that their basic human rights have been breached.
I do not like the term "bed blocking" as it can conjure up a picture of an elderly person taking up a really sick person's bed. We do not have properly resourced care in the community. The people who require care when discharged from hospital cannot get it. Primary care in the community must be fully resourced and carried out by well-trained professionals. The financial resources are not in place to provide adequate care for patients - especially elderly patients in the community.
I acknowledge that there are many conflicting priorities for the Health Minister's budget, but we need a hierarchy of priorities. We need to know the Minister's view on this. We are all aware that we have a rising elderly population; in the next 20 years one in four of our population will be classed as elderly. In South Belfast we have the highest proportion of elderly people in Northern Ireland. We urgently need an assurance from the Minister that finance for care in the community will be ring-fenced, because it has a history of losing out to the acute sector. Care in the community can no longer be the poor relation - we must have an equitable distribution of funding. We know that most health care takes place in the community, and a more equitable relationship and better communication with the acute hospitals would give more efficient service all round. It is also important to recognise the amount of voluntary care provided in the community, particularly that provided for elderly and frail relatives by family members.
We are only beginning to recognise the huge contribution they make, and we must look at ways of recompensing them adequately for the care they have provided. I welcome an innovative pilot scheme conducted by the South and East Trust, which guarantees an eight-week period of domiciliary care for patients suffering from chronic illness who have high levels of dependency.
This means, for example, that patients who have suffered a stroke can have an eight-week period to decide whether they want to stay at home or go into a nursing home. Patients are extremely vulnerable and may not make appropriate decisions when they are very ill.
The Government did not fully accept the Royal Commission's main recommendations there on long-term care. Differentiating between nursing and personal care is not sustainable. If an elderly person is ill in hospital with cancer, all care is free at the point of delivery, and rightly so. Why should it be any different for patients who require care in the community?
We must ask ourselves whether it was a wise decision to close most of our statutory homes. If we are going to use nursing homes for interim care, for care between hospital and returning to the community, they must be geared towards the rehabilitation of patients and the encouragement of independence. This would entail a lot of specific training as well as a culture change, but if we are to start to meet the challenge of caring for a large elderly population, we must start thinking creatively around this.
Private homes must also be well monitored to ensure that they provide the highest standards of patient care. Every winter, there is media coverage of increased hospital admissions, particularly among the elderly.
Community services are active throughout the year, not just in times of crisis. They are the first bodies to take action by helping and supporting people in their homes, and by helping to prevent unnecessary hospital admissions. This in turn keeps beds free for those admitted with an acute illness. The elderly must be among these admissions, and there must be acute, geriatric beds in all our general hospitals. We need to move away from the idea that the elderly are taking up beds which they should not be using. They are equally entitled to acute hospital beds.
All this provision requires resources - an integrated twin-track or dual strategy, which involves proper resourcing of both community and hospital care. This would provide us with the comprehensive health and social service care that people have a right to expect.