Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 3 October 2000 (continued)

Mrs E Bell:

I do support the principle of parity, but, like any rule, it can be looked at to see if it can be amended in any way.

This Assembly is about responsibility and accountability to the people of Northern Ireland, and we must be seen to be doing that, difficult though it may be. Pensions, like other benefits, are extremely complex - as was outlined in several speeches - and very difficult for the average senior citizen to understand. Anyone who has been in the citizens advice bureaux, or any other voluntary area, would tell you that that is an everyday happening.

Our first concern should be to draw up a clearer and more structured application system for pensions. Why is the rate of pension not sufficient of itself, and why should people have the additional stress of applying for other benefits to bring their income up to an adequate level? The Minister said that retirement pension was never designed to be a one and only pension, but I really do think that we need to look at that issue.

I also know that the present Labour Government have refused to link pensions to wages, saying that it would not improve the lot of the poorer pensioners. That may be right, but the transitional moves that Gordon Brown announced last week at his conference to increase the overall level of pensions has started with the princely sum of 75p last year. Incidentally, I must express disappointment for, as far as I know, there was no Northern Ireland MP in the House of Commons who opposed that increase.

Last year, Gordon Brown promised to raise the basic state pension dramatically next April, and again in 2002. Can we believe him, or do we take it with a cynical pinch of salt, remembering that next year could be an election year?

I am concerned that this transitional arrangement will again involve cash credit schemes that people have talked about, and the income guarantee. They are again going to add to the complexity of the application system. I must also tell Members that our Westminster colleagues from all parties are still getting massive mailbags containing loads of queries and fears from elderly people in spite of Government promises. As was stated in 'The Guardian', they have conceded the cash - well, hopefully they have - but they have not conceded the principle of linkage.

In recent years, people such as Jack Jones and organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged have brought the issue of proper treatment of our elderly citizens to the attention of the Government; the Member for Lagan Valley (Ms Lewsley) said last week, they have no better supporter than Barbara Castle. At last, politicians are realising that there are votes to be gained from this large section of the electorate. I hope that they will remember the contribution made by those people over the years when they consider pension entitlement.

I know that the Minister has dealt efficiently with several comments that were made. I would like to make a comment about free transport, because we are not just talking about income we are talking about quality of life. As it is local authorities have problems with their budgets. They give as much as they can, within their remit, to their borough or area, and the Government are passing the buck by saying that local authorities should pay part of the cost. We will find ample opportunity to help our senior citizens and we will ask the Minister for Regional Development to do the same.

I want to reaffirm Rev Robert Coulter's statement that pensioners are looking for dignity, not handouts. The Minister referred to take-up rates. One of my first jobs - it was over 20 years ago - was something similar to the take-up campaign. I hope that the people involved do not come across the level of ignorance that I found among people sitting in their homes, not realising that they could claim, regardless of all the television coverage.

Ms Lewsley and Mr Attwood mentioned the minimum income guarantee and said that that would benefit low income family budgets. I hope that it does, but I must stress again my concern about the complexity of the whole thing.

The Minister's comments were formal and objective, and rightly so, but one of the main reasons that we are having this debate is that people are still living on or below the poverty line. That is the real fact, and it does not matter how wonderful the Government's ideas for the next year are. People need a basic rate of retirement pension that will keep them going, and that is not happening. That is why we are having this debate.

I would like the Minister to say whether the take-up campaign has started in Northern Ireland. If it has, what numbers will we get? Only then will we know that the people in Northern Ireland are getting their full entitlement.

As Mr McCarthy said, the message from the Assembly is that we will not fudge the issue. We will support the people who have already made their contribution to society. We have a duty to support them, and we will fight on this issue. It may be a reserved matter, but we must try to influence the Government however we can through the Committees. It is not just a question of liking income and pension; it is about the quality of life that we want to uphold. That should be the right of senior citizens. As Mr Attwood said, it is a multi-layered scheme and a multi-layered issue. We must start today by loudly proclaiming our support and working towards a better pension and a better situation for all of us, including the future pensioners.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls for an immediate increase from the Chancellor of the Exchequer's package of £5 per week in retirement pensions and for restoration of the index-linking of pensions to earnings.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill


Accelerated Passage

2.45 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker:

We move to the motion for accelerated passage. I should like to remind Members that a Bill shall receive accelerated passage only if there is leave of the Assembly. If any Member objects the motion will fall.

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

I beg to move

That in accordance with Standing Order 40(2) this Assembly grants accelerated passage to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill is an important piece of legislation which will make provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to that made for Great Britain by the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000. There is a long-standing principle of parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the fields of social security and pensions, and latterly to child support. Given that people in Northern Ireland pay the same rate of income tax and national insurance contributions as those in Great Britain, they are entitled to expect changes in the legislation in Great Britain to apply in Northern Ireland with minimal delay.

The Great Britain Act received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000, and some of its provisions came into force on that date. The corresponding Northern Ireland Provisions Act cannot come into operation until this Bill has completed its passage through the Assembly. The remaining provisions of both Acts will be brought into operation by a series of Commencement Orders. For instance, section 41 of the Great Britain Act, which allows for the making of regulations relating to the sharing of State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) rights has been brought into operation from 28 September 2000. The regulations made under that section will come into force on 1 December 2000. The Northern Ireland equivalent is clause 37 of this Bill.

Clause 37 provides powers to enable my Department to set out, in regulations, how the cash equivalent of SERPS rights is to be calculated under pension sharing at the time of divorce annulity to give a former spouse a pension in his or her own right. Pension sharing comes into operation for petitions for divorce annulity made on or after 1 December 2000. Therefore it is vital that the regulations under clause 37 be operative from that date. Otherwise there would be no legal authority to make the necessary calculations to facilitate the sharing of SERPS rights, and former spouses would suffer as a consequence.

Another Commencement Order soon to be made will bring further provisions of the Great Britain Act into force progressively from 1 November 2000. These include the powers to make regulations providing for the introduction of the new decision-making and appeals processes for housing benefit. I can not stress too strongly the importance of making the corresponding Northern Ireland regulations as soon as possible after their Great Britain counterparts.

The processes for deciding claims for housing benefit provided for in the Bill will differ substantially from the present method. The detail will be set out in the regulations and the staff of the Housing Executive and the Rate Collection Agency, who will operate the new arrangements, need to be able to familiarise themselves with these processes before their introduction next April.

Welfare rights bodies, which advise and represent appellants, will also need time to prepare for the new system. Although the full implementation of the child support reforms is not due to take place until April 2002, the Minister responsible in Great Britain, Baroness Hollis, has drawn my attention to some aspects of the changes which could be introduced at an earlier date.

The provisions, all of which can be introduced with minimum disruption, relate to fines for failure to provide information on the provision of false information; removal of the requirement to appoint an inspector for individual child support cases; the presumption of parentage where the man is named on the birth certificate, or where he and the mother of the child were married at any time between conception and birth; and removal of driving licences for failure to comply with child support maintenance requirements.

With the exception of the provisions relating to driving licences, which she hopes to introduce in April 2001, Baroness Hollis would like to bring these changes into operation in January 2001. She has asked me to do everything possible to implement the corresponding Northern Ireland provisions from the same dates.

I am therefore seeking leave of the Assembly to the use of the accelerated passage procedure set out in Standing Order 40(2), so that we can bring Northern Ireland law on these matters into line with that in Great Britain with minimum delay. The granting of leave for the accelerated passage procedures means that there will not be a formal Committee stage. However, my predecessor, Mr Nigel Dodds, discussed the content of the Bill with the Social Development Committee before the summer recess. Committee members are therefore aware of the broad thrust of the proposals. There will be an opportunity for all Members to make their views known at the Second and further Stages.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat. The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill is a very detailed and complex piece of legislation. Given that it became available only yesterday, it is difficult to identify possible areas of contention.

While I take on board what has been said and accept that this legislation will simplify the benefits system - particularly for child support - I have reservations about it. The tool of accelerated passage often takes through time-consuming pieces of legislation that make small or cosmetic changes, thus freeing up Members for other activities. However, I would not advocate this as a means of avoiding work. The only chance Members get to scrutinise Bills is at Committee Stage, so I do not favour setting the precedent of using accelerated passage in the Assembly. However, I am not objecting to this particular Bill going through accelerated passage.

Members must carry out their role in going through the details of Bills, however time-consuming, to ensure that constituents are not worse off as a result of a piece of legislation that has been rushed through. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Taylor:

I have been intrigued while listening to this debate and the earlier one. The Minister is quite correct in his presentation. We accept the principle of parity, and it is important that we accelerate this particular piece of legislation so that we are in line with what is happening in the rest of the United Kingdom. The principle of parity is one of the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom. I was intrigued to hear the Sinn Féin Member say that she was against the procedure to accelerate, but that she was in favour of it in this case. Mrs Bell, on behalf of the Alliance Party, said that she was in favour of parity, but she wanted it reviewed. One cannot have these things both ways. Either one is in favour of parity or one is not, and one is either in favour of the accelerated procedure or one is not. Most of us support the idea of parity and the urgency of having this legislation brought into line with the rest of United Kingdom. I fully support what the Minister said.

Mr Morrow:

Mr Taylor has put the point very succinctly. This is a parity Bill. It is in no one's interest in Northern Ireland to drift behind on these matters. There will be an opportunity for Members to ask questions or express reservations about the Bill at a later stage.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I again remind Members that a Bill gets accelerated passage only by leave of the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to nemine contradicente.


That in accordance with Standing Order 40(2) this Assembly grants accelerated passage to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill.

County Fermanagh Economy

Private Notice Question


Mr Gallagher asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to specify the steps he has taken to underpin the economy in County Fermanagh in light of the recent loss of over 130 jobs and the effect of the value of exchange rates with the Republic of Ireland in the light of the Danish referendum on joining EMS.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):

I very much regret the recent job losses experienced by the people of County Fermanagh. My Department, through local active involvement by agencies such as the Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU), the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and the Industrial Development Board (IDB), continues to do everything possible to support local economic development in the county.

Mr Gallagher:

I thank the Minister for giving his time to this topic. I know that he recently visited County Fermanagh, and I am sure that, like myself, he got a sense from all the people right across the community that the best hope of tackling and resolving our difficulties is through a locally elected Minister.

I want, through my question, to re-emphasise the dire economic situation in County Fermanagh. Members will have heard the names of Daintyfyt, Desmond & Sons Ltd, Blue Paths Industries, Plastofilm Ltd, and Malton Foods. All these industries in Fermanagh have closed in recent times. Already this year we have had 350 job losses. Five hundred jobs have been lost to the area within the last 18 months. The people most directly hit are those who have lost their jobs, and their families. Throughout the entire community in Fermanagh there is a palpable sense of hurt at this series of losses.

At the same time, retailers in the border areas, and particularly in County Fermanagh, have been trying to survive in the face of a currency advantage of 25p or 30p for the Southern side of the border.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I advise the Member that this is a supplementary question, not a statement.

Mr Gallagher:

All right.

That has brought about a massive drop in trade on the Northern side. In view of all of that, I want to ask the Minister about initiatives. The Intec Centre has recently opened. The Minister, or at least the IDB and LEDU, will be aware of that. There was an investment package of £2·1 million for phase 1. That included money from the International Fund for Ireland, the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, and Fermanagh District Council. The purpose is to improve the effectiveness of local industry and to make the area more attractive for -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I would like you to get directly to the question.

Mr Gallagher:

This is all very relevant to the question, because we are talking about inward investment. This initiative, is making the area more advantageous for that. In view of that investment, I want to ask the Minister if the IDB is prepared to back that up by forming a partnership with this local community initiative, which I believe deserves a Government response. Would that response be to use the space set aside for research and development by the IDB? Would it include the delivering to Fermanagh of more investment in technology? And the second part -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I think we should let the Minister respond to those questions.

Mr Gallagher:

There are three parts, and I will come to them very quickly.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I cannot allow a supplementary question with three parts. I prefer that you choose the one question that you want to put to the Minister.

Mr Gallagher:

Do I have an opportunity to do that now?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I would appreciate it if you were to ask the Minister one direct question.

Mr Gallagher:

Will the Minister now be an advocate for intervention packages for the border constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone?

3.00 pm

Sir Reg Empey:

I am very conscious of the unfortunate series of announcements which have been made over the last couple of months. This morning I met with the chairman and the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council at IDB headquarters. We assembled there a team representing IDB and the Training and Employment Agency, and I had briefings with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, LEDU officials from the western area and all persons within and without my Department whose views I considered relevant to the position the county finds itself in. I have also had communications from Mr Gallagher and from Minister Sam Foster; I have had a conversation with Minister Morrow; and I have looked very closely at the whole picture in the county.

The basic position is this: the IDB currently has 25 client companies in Fermanagh District Council area, employing 3,237 people. Since April 1995 IDB has offered client companies in the constituency assistance of £28·9 million in support of projects involving a total investment of £111·5 million. These projects anticipate a total of 1,000 new jobs and safeguard a further 727.

The Member describes the situation as dire. The situation is, undoubtedly, very difficult for those who have been directly affected, but I can assure the Member that tomorrow staff from the Training and Employment Agency will be visiting the Desmond factory. They will be counselling each individual there with regard to the number and nature of vacancies that currently exist. In addition, they will be establishing re-training needs, and I have been given an assurance that everyone who wishes to do so will be given the opportunity to immediately enter into the New Deal procedures. I have also been advised that a number of local companies have indicated to the Training and Employment Agency that they have needs for labour. The officials from the Training and Employment Agency will have full lists of all of those companies and vacancies to offer to the people.

To put things into perspective, as at August 2000 the number of unemployed persons in Fermanagh was 1,879. This represented 7.1% of the workforce - a drop of 14% in unemployment there in the last 12 months. That means that, in terms of unemployment, Fermanagh still has a 1·5% fall-off from the mean, compared with the rest of Northern Ireland.

Our colleagues in LEDU have also been active. Members will be aware that following the Unipork closure, the considering self employment programme has joined forces with Unipork at the site, and LEDU and the Fermanagh Enterprise Centre are working together with the former workforce to see if they can help. LEDU is going to extend that to include the workforce at Desmond and Sons Ltd. LEDU will extend funding but will be looking for matching funding, and I have already opened discussions with the council in that regard.

People need to be aware that the business formation rate in County Fermanagh is 50% above the Northern Ireland average and is, in fact, the highest amongst all district councils in Northern Ireland. There is therefore a higher start-up rate than average. This is partly due to the fact that there is a very sophisticated and highly-developed enterprise culture, which is assisting the county to counteract these matters.

Unemployment in County Fermanagh is falling; the number of people in work is rising, but inevitably, the dependence on one sector of the manufacturing economy, namely textiles, and the particular dependence on apparel, which is linked directly to the Marks and Spencer situation, has left the county vulnerable in some areas. The announcement from the company came as a surprise to us because there was no advance warning of it. I can assure the Assembly that nothing that the company asked IDB for was refused and the company will confirm that it is satisfied with the service that it has received.

We are aware of the situation and would be very happy to sit down with the council and others to look at the long-term strategy that needs to be applied to ensure that downward pressure continues with regard to unemployment. If we can be of any further assistance to the county, we will. I have already been there on two occasions. I visited a number of companies and I have plans for further visits.

There has been progress on the tourist side as well, but I am conscious of the agricultural problems surrounding the amount of disposable income. Against that backdrop, there are difficulties.

I am aware of the difficulties that a border county has with the 25% to 30% barrier in terms of currency, but as I said to the business community, that is outside our control. The problem is that the Euro is undervalued, not that the pound is overvalued. We are going to have to live with the consequences of that currency differential for the foreseeable future because I do not see any prospect of the United Kingdom joining the European single currency for at least three years. We will have to bear that in mind. I am very conscious of the difficulties for petrol retailers and others, but I do not see any immediate prospect of a change in that particular policy.

Mr Taylor:

I think the hon Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mr Gallagher, should be roundly congratulated on having asked one of the longest questions in parliamentary history, and clearly it should be referred to the Guinness Book of Records.

On the issue of exchange rates, which the hon Member mentioned and to which the Minister has referred, it is not a matter of us having no influence on this subject, nor is it a matter of the United Kingdom joining the Euro. Surely the Republic of Ireland should leave the Euro. We do have a competence and a role in this matter. I ask the Minister, at the next North/South Council meeting, to draw to the attention of the Southern Irish authorities that only one third of their trade is with the Euro and two thirds is with sterling and the dollar. They have opted for the wrong currency, for the collapsing currency, and they are thereby creating problems for themselves in inflation, social unrest and eventually unemployment. Will he therefore recommend that they leave the Euro and, if possible, rejoin sterling? That would certainly be well received in County Fermanagh.

Mr Gallagher:

Is Mr Taylor trying to break the record?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Yes, I was noting the record in the Guinness Book of Records might have been changed.

Sir Reg Empey:

I acknowledge the point that the Member makes about the statistics on the economy for the Republic and the Euro. There is a large currency area made up of 11 or 12 different economies which are all at different stages and moving at different speeds. It is perfectly obvious that what we are seeing in the Republic now is the re-emergence of significant inflation. This is due to the fact that it does not control its interest rates. The lower interest rates which are appropriate for economies such as that of Germany, which has been sluggish, are totally inappropriate for the Irish economy, which has been growing strongly. We all see the consequences of that around us.

What it does with regard to its monetary policies is entirely a matter for the Irish Republic, but I do accept that the irony of the situation is that the currency differences between us are proving to be an infinitely more significant border than the constitutional border. A wall has been erected which has divided our economies as never before. I was opposed to the Republic joining the Euro because of the fact that it was losing control of its own economy to the European Central Bank. Anybody who knows anything about economics would know that the Republic should have a much higher interest rate than it currently has. That is why such a huge gap is being created. I will be happy to mention this matter at any future meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.

Mr McHugh:

A Leas Cheann Chomhairle, in light of the situation in Fermanagh, where over 600 jobs have been lost in the past two years, does the Minister believe that the amalgamation of the Industrial Development Board (IDB) and LEDU would benefit areas where there is a trend towards small businesses? These could be expanded to create more jobs by developing businesses of with between five and 10 or up to 50 employees. Development in this area is not always catered for. There is a cross-over between the IDB and LEDU which is wasteful.

Sir Reg Empey:

A number of questions are to be directed to me next week on the matter referred to by Mr McHugh. I will fully address the issue at Question Time next Monday.

With regard to the fundamental point, Mr McHugh is right to say that County Fermanagh is very good at self-help and at generating small businesses. In the western area, there is a scheme run by LEDU and the five different councils to support business start-up. County Fermanagh is excelling in that group. It has reached the stage where it needs some of the money allocated to other councils if it is to continue to develop. Obviously, that would create difficulties. We have indicated today that LEDU is prepared to make more money available but, because of the existing partnership, we need the support of the other local councils.

As far as other activities in the area are concerned, I cannot ignore tourism. There is an excellent strategy document containing a substantial plan for work for the next few years. Progress is being made, in spite of the continuing difficulties being faced by tourism.

Although difficulties exist in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone area, there are currently job vacancies with some of the more significant employers. There is also a high start-up and a high growth rate among small companies, and more jobs have been created in the last two years in County Fermanagh than have been lost. If this were not the case, unemployment would not be falling and employment would not be rising. That is a very significant point which we should not lose sight of. Undoubtedly, there are difficulties which we will tackle as best we can, in co-operation with the district council, the enterprise boards and the very effective partnership system that exists in the county. It is a member of the Regional Tourism Organisation; it is linked with councils in the Republic; and it takes part in significant cross-border activity, supported by a large variety of funding bodies.

Given these factors, I am still optimistic about the economy in County Fermanagh, in spite of the enormous difficulties with farming. County Fermanagh has shown resilience against a background of very significant loss, and its gains are still outweighing that loss. Some positive developments are taking place. The Rye Valley Foods Development is still ongoing and although it has not yet reached its employment target, it is well on its way to doing so. Significant investments have been made by the Quinn Group whose glass plant I have visited, and there are other interests which have led to growing employment. Acheson and Glover Ltd. also has expansion proposals, and it has accepted £240,000 towards a £2.5 million investment to create 27 jobs. Treacy Concrete is another such company, and we hope that there will also be continued progress by Belleek Pottery Ltd. All in all, I do not consider that the position is by any means hopeless, and I am quite confident that the people of County Fermanagh will weather the storm.

3.15 pm

Mr M Robinson:

If I was not aware of the dire economic situation in Fermanagh before, I am certainly aware of it now. Bearing that in mind, any announcement that the Minister or his Department can make on jobs, whether they be signed, sealed and delivered or simply prospective, is to be welcomed. The Minister referred to the Marks and Spencer situation in a previous answer. In the wake of the recent announcement about Marks and Spencer, is he in a position to confirm the category of jobs which those 100 jobs fall into? I understand that no planning application has been granted for Marks and Spencer's ongoing development.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

May I remind the Member that we are discussing the economy in the Fermanagh area and that his question should relate specifically to that.

Mr M Robinson:

Thank you for that clarification, Madame Deputy Speaker. It was my view that Lisburn was only up the road from Fermanagh, but I accept your judgement on the matter.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat. Given the comparative population sizes of Belfast and Fermanagh, had this flow of jobs occurred here, there would have been a hue and cry about it. Is the Minister committing himself to skewing resources for Targeting Social Need (TSN) to two constituencies west of the Bann, namely Fermanagh and South Tyrone? This would ensure that these jobs were replaced immediately and that job losses on this scale would not happen again.

Sir Reg Empey:

County Fermanagh is a TSN area, and targets have been set by IDB for visits from potential inward investors. The last TSN year, which ended in June, was the best year County Fermanagh has had for visits. Let me give the House the statistics. In 1997-1998, there were four first-time and two second-time visitors; in 1998-1999 there were two first-time and one second- time visitors; and in 1999-2000 there were four first- time and two second-time visitors, and six visits from potential investors who had already visited the area three or more times. As far as Fermanagh is concerned, IDB is more than meeting its requirements by bringing companies to TSN areas. The target quotient of all visits which should be brought to new TSN areas is 75%; that is happening in Fermanagh, and IDB met its target for last year in that regard.

However, bringing people to an area is one matter it is for the companies themselves to decide that it is in their economic interests to invest there? We can help and encourage them; we do that and will continue to do so. I must remind Members though that while individual companies may take the additional funding that might be available to them into account, the decision that they make is a commercial one.

I understand fully that in population terms this is a significant announcement. Perhaps the idea that something is being done differently here than has been done in Belfast was behind the Member's question. May I point out again that, following the Unipork closure, LEDU and the Fermanagh Enterprise Organisation considered a special programme for the workforce made redundant at that time, but rather than create an additional organisation or taskforce, we decided to extend the remit of an existing one to avoid the complications of additional organisations. All the organisations and agencies were round the table this morning with representatives from Fermanagh District Council; all gave account of themselves when questioned by the chairman and the chief executive. I am therefore satisfied that at this stage sufficient organisational backup exists to enable a coherent response to the situation. Should there be a feeling in the county that further work needs to be done to create a structure to deal with this, I will be prepared to consider that. I took the view that, at present, we should work with the firms we already have, when they can do the job, rather than create new organisations.

Mr Bradley:

I come from the border region of Newry and Mourne, which is similar in many ways to Fermanagh. The Minister quoted a reduction in the unemployment figures. Would I be correct in surmising that those figures are affected by the number of people who live in the North and who have taken up employment south of the border? Might that have a bearing?

Not being too well acquainted with the situation in Fermanagh, are there any further threats to similar types of jobs there? Could we see a repeat of that situation in any other factories or firms?

Sir Reg Empey:

As the hon Member will know, his last question is a dangerous one for me to answer because one can never be 100% satisfied. I have already pointed out that this latest announcement came completely out of the blue and without any forewarning. I repeat that the company, Desmonds, had not asked any departmental agency for any support that was not forthcoming. We were never asked for help; it was not the case that we refused something, which triggered an announcement. We were not asked for anything that has not been responded to, and I want to make that particular point clear.

With regard to the unemployment position, there are five district councils in Northern Ireland that have worse unemployment situations than County Fermanagh, and I am sure that the Member will know them off by heart. They are: Moyle; Strabane; Londonderry; Carrickfergus; and, I think the other one is Omagh. Some people obtain work in the Republic but that applies across the whole of Northern Ireland, although I accept that, perhaps, it applies to a greater extent in the west of the Province.

It was planned that the Xerox plant in Dundalk would attract a significant number of its workforce from the Northern Ireland side of the border; from the Newry and Mourne area. That has not happened to the extent that Xerox had anticipated. The reasons why there are not more people working in the Republic is down to the euro, the currency differential and the tax regime. It has not proved to be necessarily economic for individuals to work across the border. The unemployment statistics are based upon the actuality at the time.

By the way, I said earlier that the fifth council area was Omagh. I should have said Limavady. I see a Member behind Mr Bradley nodding his head.

Those working across the border play a part but that is taken into account. If people are working in the Republic then they are not claiming unemployment benefit in Northern Ireland - or, at least, they should not be. One assumes that the figures are accurate and that they take the position into account. That applies to a number of local authorities along the border and further afield.

I take the view that there has been a genuine improvement in the situation within the county over the past while. Undoubtedly, if the currency differential was reduced then retailing would pick up and, as the Member knows only too well, one of the main problems suffered by agriculture is that the low euro and high pound are hitting the green pound. As a consequence farmers are getting less money, retailers are unable to benefit from cross-border trade and businesses like petrol stations are being slaughtered.

Clearly, the figures take into account those who work in the Republic.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I call Mr Gallagher to put a final question, which must be brief.

Mr Gallagher:

In relation to the advocacy role, to which my last question referred, we have to take something positive and encouraging from what has been said by the Minister in a serious situation. I was a little disappointed when he mentioned fiscal matters; that had nothing to do with us.

What he is saying is right but we must strongly advocate changes, particularly for people in the border areas. Advocacy is also needed within this Executive and the Assembly for the decentralisation of Government jobs to areas where it is difficult to get inward investment.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

What is the Member's question?

Mr Gallagher:

Will the Minister advocate alternative fiscal arrangements and the decentralisation of public- service jobs?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am not personally convinced that there is long-term stability and benefit in the single European currency. I can understand the theory perfectly clearly, but the reason the euro has lost so much of its value is that it was formed on the basis of political fudge. Some countries should not be in the Euro zone, for their economies have not converged to the extent that they are compatible. Investors have left the Euro because they believed that it would be dominated by political rather than economic considerations. The economies of Germany and the Irish Republic, for example, are in no way compatible, for they need different interest rates, not the common level they currently have. It is a major problem.

On the question of advocating other fiscal matters, there are things which we can do and have done. We fought hard to win derogation from the climate-change levy, which affects the gas industry in Northern Ireland, and while this does not currently impact on County Fermanagh, there is always the chance that certain finds might emerge in the county to change things. However, we succeeded in winning that derogation from the Treasury for Northern Ireland as a whole. The Treasury has also substantially increased its customs-and-excise activity with regard to the smuggling of illegal fuels.

There has been a certain amount of decentralisation, but one must bear in mind that this needs to be undertaken cautiously. If one takes a group of people currently working in one part of Northern Ireland and moves them to another, that in itself does not create employment in the place to which they move, for staff turnover in many Government offices, particularly in the west of the Province, is virtually nil. The information I have suggests that in many Government offices people apply to be located as near as possible to their roots, since they do not wish to travel.

The Executive is currently looking at this whole picture. No decision has been reached. The Minister of Finance and Personnel has announced a review, which is currently underway. We expect a response to it by the end of the year or, at the latest, early next year. The Member will have to wait until that review takes place.

However, I maintain that, while such an approach may help somewhat, the long-term twin track that must be followed in County Fermanagh is to persist in the creation of new businesses. This is an area in which the county has major momentum, with tourism-related activities, where the potential is enormous, but which, unfortunately, has not been fully exploited because of circumstances beyond the county's control. Northern Ireland as a whole has problems with visitors.

I must congratulate people in Fermanagh on the resourcefulness and tenacity with which they have attacked their problems - something they continue to do. We shall do everything in our power and give them every support to enable them to surmount this difficulty.

Motion made

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Madam Deputy Speaker]

Traffic Congestion (Saintfield Road, Belfast)


Dr McDonnell:

I wish to speak on the issue of general traffic congestion on the Saintfield Road in and out of south Belfast. I raise the issue because of steadily rising anger, not only on my own part, but on the part of a whole range of people living on or adjacent to the Saintfield Road - and, indeed, most of County Down, for they must travel along the Saintfield Road to reach Belfast. There appears to all concerned to have been a total failure on the part of the Roads Service to manage the traffic on the Saintfield Road and its approaches adequately.

There are problems along the road, from Carryduff roundabout in the south, down the Saintfield Road to the Ormeau Road and into the city centre and north Belfast. I accept that the problem arises from many factors and is complex in its origins. However, it is hard to believe that it is beyond the ingenuity of our road engineers to produce a workable solution to the road problem in south Belfast, one that is tolerable for those who have to use it.

3.30 pm

There are many aspects to the problem and they have not been helped by massive housing over-development in the area, with all the relevant implications. The most obvious aspect is the massive congestion on the Ormeau Road itself, both into and out of the city. In the morning there are tailbacks stretching back to Carryduff. In the afternoon, there are tailbacks right down into the city centre, including Cromac Street, Ormeau Avenue and all the other roads that join onto the Ormeau Road and, ultimately, the Saintfield Road.

Most of this congestion comes directly from the junction with the dual carriageway at Sainsburys. There was a bit of expensive cosmetic tinkering at the junction a few years ago, which reduced the pressure by about 10 to 15%, but the problem is still there. The relief has been short- lived and we are back to square one again. That junction requires major reconstruction. The only long-term option that I can see is the elevation of the dual carriageway over the Saintfield Road to allow adequate free movement of traffic in and out of town and along the dual carriageway.

The second aspect of the problem is directly related to the congestion. People sit for up to an hour getting out of town in the evenings and, when they reach the junction of the Cairnshill Road, around Purdysburn Hospital, the frustration of having sat in traffic leads to speeding when the road opens up. The stretch of road from Purdysburn to Carryduff becomes a speed track. There are multiple accidents every month. Fortunately, most are not fatal. However, from time to time, there are deaths.

While the development of a small commercial village at Brackenvale, on the Saintfield Road, has provided a number of useful services to the local community, it has recently become a focal point for accidents. There have been three deaths on that stretch of road in the last few months. I want to ask the Minister how many deaths we must have before there is control of that speed track.

It would be disingenuous of me to raise such acute aspects of the traffic problem without mentioning other pertinent issues. There is the major issue of public transport. All I can say is that we need public transport. It is time that somebody took Translink by the throat and told them to manage our public transport system or leave it to somebody else.

If they spent half the time on managing and solving our problems that they do on public relations and complaining about this and manipulating something else, we might get a solution. Translink is grossly over-managed and overmanned. They spend a lot of their time going round like a magic roundabout, achieving nothing. We need solutions. We need public transport and we need an effective public transport system that works. Constantly whingeing about more money will not make it work if the basic attitude and approach is not there in the first place. The money will only help if the foundations are right. I would like some assurance that we will get some sort of public transport in due course, particularly on that busy stretch of road from Cromac Street and Ormeau Avenue to Carryduff. That might go some way towards reducing the number of cars there.

It would be remiss of me to pass by the overall road plans for south Belfast without referring to that long-running sore called the southern approaches. It has blighted large swathes of south Belfast, yet various visiting Ministers have been unable or unwilling to come to any decision about it. Big lumps of Sandy Row, the Markets, Donegall Pass, lower Ormeau and lower Ravenhill are blighted and strangled by land - precious land - that is laid waste and held in reserve for a possible road development that we will probably never see, referred to as the "inner box".

As a typical example of the damage that that is doing, I refer you to the gasworks. That development has perhaps been a success story in Belfast, yet between a fifth and a quarter of the land available there - land that could accommodate 1000 or 1100 jobs - is laid waste because somebody somewhere wants to keep open the option of a highway running from Sandy Row through Hope Street, down Bankmore Street, through the gasworks and on to the Ravenhill Road. That creates uncertainty, loss of community confidence, loss of economic confidence - I could go on all day, but it would be selfish. I think I have made the point.

In summary, there is an urgent need for the Roads Service to get to grips with long-term planning and some activity schedule in south Belfast, because the disaster is steadily getting worse. Not only does local traffic use that road to access schools, work, leisure, and so on, but a large volume of traffic from County Down travels that route to get into Belfast.

I appeal to the Minister - and I thank him very much for being here this afternoon - to give us some sort of answer on the southern approaches, to get to grips with Translink and their inability to provide adequate public transport, and to get to grips with the issues that are beyond funding. If there are management issues or other issues there, let us try and sort them out. I appeal to the Minister to use whatever powers and resources he has to ensure that the speed track between Purdysburn and Carryduff roundabout does not cause any more deaths. I appeal to the Minister to deal with the desperate need to relieve the hour-long tailbacks, morning and evening, both north and south of the junction of the dual carriageway and the Saintfield road at Sainsbury's.

Mr McCarthy:

I must apologise, for I was almost asleep. There are very few people in the Chamber.

I support all efforts to eradicate traffic congestion on the Saintfield Road. I am told that 5,000 vehicles use the Saintfield Road every day. To make matters worse, planners have allowed major housing developments to go ahead. Many thousands of houses have been built in the past 10 years, and that has added considerably to traffic congestion in the area.

Public transport is minimal, but owing to the efforts of a Castlereagh Alliance councillor, Geraldine Rice, Translink has increased the number of buses on the road, including the new "Go Bus". That is a start, but many more changes are needed. A quality bus corridor is not enough; properly managed traffic lights are urgently required. A proper park-and-ride scheme should be introduced in the hinterland of Carryduff and an E-way system, or something similar, should be developed as a matter of urgency. Money must be invested in the southern approach roads to alleviate this growing problem. If not, the Saintfield Road will be totally gridlocked very shortly. That is totally unacceptable.

That bottleneck, which carries so much traffic into Belfast has been a disaster for too long. Action must be taken to rectify this mess immediately. Dr McDonnell welcomed the fact that our Minister is with us in the Chamber this afternoon. I call on the Minister for Regional Development, who is responsible for our road service, to act as soon as possible. There are other issues - the Comber bypass, funding for roads on the Ards Peninsula, the bridge over Strangford Lough, and the new ferry. I consider such issues to be of vital importance to the constituents of Strangford.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I remind the Member that the subject is the Saintfield Road.

Mr McCarthy:

I am aware of that. If the Minister gives a reasonable answer to the Saintfield Road problem today I shall be happy.

Mr Taylor:

I enjoyed the last contribution, and I agreed with some of it. I must congratulate the hon Member for South Belfast (Dr McDonnell) for securing this adjournment debate and for highlighting the major traffic problems on the Saintfield Road. Much of his speech was dedicated to parts of my own constituency, from Purdysburn up to the Carryduff roundabout. The Strangford ferry is important, but we have no ferry on the Saintfield Road, so far.

We must consider carefully whether planning permission can be given for future housing developments in Carryduff, Saintfield and Ballynahinch, as these areas all feed into the southern approach down the Saintfield Road and into the Ormeau Road. The Member was somewhat critical of the new junction at Forster Green. I was closely involved in the work done behind the scenes to achieve that objective, because that was in my constituency at that time. I worked with Sainsbury's and the Department of the Environment, as it was then called. The project was financed by Sainsbury's, at a cost of £2 million to £3 million, and has helped to ease the traffic at that junction. I travel through it every day, when I am in Northern Ireland, and it is much easier now than it was.

The situation will rapidly get worse again, as the Member said, because of those major housing projects in Carryduff, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. One problem is the consultation process for planning decisions. When planning applications, made by Frasers or companies connected with the Fraser family, come before Castlereagh Borough Council - I am sorry to have to say it - the DUP councillors generally support any major housing projects in the Carryduff area.

3.45 pm

There was a major public meeting in Carryduff a few months ago. Lough Moss community centre was packed to the doors - there was standing room only around the walls - and the people of Carryduff voiced major criticism of these monster housing schemes that are being planned for the area. If these schemes get the go-ahead, they will make the congestion which the hon member for South Belfast described today look like a picnic compared to what will happen. The whole area from Carryduff right down the Saintfield Road and on to the Ormeau Road will be congested.

I congratulate the Minister for being here this afternoon to respond to this debate. He should listen to those members of Castlereagh Borough Council who represent the Ulster Unionist and Alliance Parties, particularly those representing the Strangford constituency. We are saying on behalf of the people of Carryduff that there must be a moratorium on any major housing projects in the Carryduff area until a new traffic scheme for the Saintfield and Ormeau Roads has been put in place.

Mr M Robinson:

In raising the question of traffic congestion in the Saintfield Road area, Dr McDonnell has quite rightly highlighted an issue of appalling magnitude. Given the considerable number of housing developments built in recent years, not only in the outlying area of BT6 and BT8 but also in Carryduff and as far south in County Down as Kilkeel, it was inevitable the severe traffic congestion would only get worse.

The ongoing housing development and the subsequent increase in road traffic - estimated to be growing at a rate of 5% per annum - results in the daily horror of a journey of one hour or more just to get into the city centre via this engorged artery. Members will undoubtedly agree that the basic problem has been the failure of both Labour and Conservative Administrations to address this problem over numerous decades. They failed to provide the necessary level of funding required to maintain the standard of provision to which the public were entitled. This is certainly true of roads and transport, and, I am in no doubt, other vital areas of Northern Ireland's infrastructure were deprived in like fashion.

As Members may know, this road lies within the area of Castlereagh Borough Council's area. At the beginning of 1998, calls for a Castlereagh area plan had been ongoing for some years. The ludicrous situation existed whereby, although the Planning Service, the local council and the general public were concerned about the road traffic problem, a commissioner of planning appeals could override such concern and glibly grant permission to inaugurate further commercial enterprises, which only served to exacerbate the already disquieting, not to say dangerous, situation. An area plan to co-ordinate the future of the borough was, and is, an absolute necessity. Limited resources were suggested as being the reason for the absence of such an area plan, together with the need to consider the overarching regional strategy. Meanwhile, traffic congestion, like Topsy, just "growed and growed", as did the concern of the residents in the area with regard to the destruction of wildlife and the environment of Castlereagh borough.

In February 1998 concern was again voiced by Mr Peter Robinson MP, the Member for East Belfast, that considerable development in Carryduff had caused severe traffic congestion on this southern approach to the city. It is the recorded view of Castlereagh Borough Council that decisions should have been taken to reduce the number of cars on our arterial routes, and on this one in particular. The council advocated park-and-ride schemes and the zoning of industrial land outside the city centre to reduce car traffic at peak periods.

'Shaping Our Future', which included a provision for 200,000 houses in Northern Ireland, was accorded the right of examination in public - a sharp departure from the established procedure of a public inquiry. Lack of time was the reason given for the absence of consultation with the public. Again, in February 1998, the Minister stated that this southern approach would be considered as part of the overall regional strategy as a primary transport route. At that time the official hope was to alleviate traffic by a combination of measures including light railway, priority bus routes; park-and-ride schemes and bus lanes among others.

I must suggest that the priority of most of these remedies clearly illustrated the lack of commitment to the easing of congestion whether by area plan or by an overarching strategy. In the continued absence of a Castlereagh area plan and with the lack of both strategic planning for the area and the massive funding needed to rectify the situation, it behoves the relevant Departments to introduce meaningful legislation to discourage the single motorist of today, and tomorrow, in tandem with stringent motor traffic regulations.

Staggered starting times, especially for schools and shopping areas, deserve serious consideration. Future siting of schools, factories and shopping outlets must be such as to avoid adding to the congestion of arterial routes. Industrial zoning and careful and environmentally sound housing development must be in the forefront of any future planning strategy.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):

First, I thank the Members who contributed to the debate, and Dr McDonnell for introducing the subject. I will deal with the series of concerns that were raised with regard to congestion on the Saintfield Road.

First, let me state some obvious facts. In the mornings the Saintfield Road is a very busy commuter route into central Belfast. There are an increasing number of vehicles using that road on a per annum basis, and the number increases by about 1·5% per year. Currently there are approximately 32,000 vehicles using the Saintfield Road each day. Additional traffic is generated by the large housing developments along the Saintfield Road and in Carryduff - a number of Members have referred to that. The worst examples of traffic congestion are at Newton Park, Rosetta and the lower Ormeau Road.

There have been two documents brought into the public domain in the past two years. The first - 'A Better Way' - was issued in October 1998 with the headline "What are we to do about traffic on the Saintfield Road?" That was circulated to homes along the bus corridor, and there was a very positive response to it. It indicated that the Department would be prepared to look at a number of factors.

At that stage there was the possibility of a park-and-ride facility at Cairnshill, and there was also the suggestion that a super route - a potential bus way, which was first suggested five years earlier in 1993 - along the line of the proposed Annadale to Grahamholm road scheme would be contemplated and a quality bus corridor opened. Then in June of this year another 'Better Way' document was issued with the heading "Belfast's First Quality Bus Corridor Opens on Saintfield Road". My predecessor, Alderman Peter Robinson, officially opened that bus corridor on 27 June.

Those are the plans that the Department has to deal with the congestion. I understand from Dr McDonnell's comments, as a public representative in that area, that he would prefer that the Department simply build an additional lane to the Saintfield Road. I was at a transportation conference in Manchester last month, and the experience recently throughout the UK has been to try to encourage a modal shift particularly amongst commuter traffic.

That is why the Department for Regional Development has concentrated on this threefold assault on the problems in the Saintfield Road area. The Department is hopeful that the park and ride facility at Cairnshill will be operational in the next two years. There may well be difficulties. Objections to the planning application for the site have recently been heard at a public enquiry. The Commission's recommendations are expected in the near future.

The super route, the potential bus way originally envisaged in 1993, is some distance away. The overall cost for that development, and this is a guesstimate, is £25 million. But that is some way off yet. There is a "before and after" study of the quality bus corridor that opened four months ago underway at present, and I hope to have the outcome of that study within a matter of weeks - certainly before the end of the year. That will give us a clear indication of what beneficial effects there have been since the introduction of the quality bus corridor.

I understand Dr McDonnell's frustration which he indicated when he said that I "should take Translink by the throat". That frustration is felt not only by him, but also by those who use the Saintfield Road in the mornings and evenings. It is hoped that these measures will go some way towards responding to the problems over the next few years.

Mr McCarthy, the Assembly Member for Strangford, indicated that he would like to see action as soon as possible. As I have already said, in a few weeks' time we will be better able to judge the success of the quality bus corridor's first few months in operation. It is the first of a number that we are contemplating in the Belfast area.

The other Member for Strangford, Mr Taylor, made a major criticism of what he termed were "monster housing developments". I am sure that the comments will be taken on board by the Minister and the Department of the Environment who have responsibility for that. He also made what I think were political references to occurrences in Castlereagh Borough Council regarding such developments. As Mr Taylor is no longer a member of Castlereagh Borough Council I will pass on his comments to those on the council and they may be in a position to respond.

Mr Mark Robinson, the Member for South Belfast, made a number of references to the major developments that have occurred in Carryduff and are continuing in that area. There are a number of schemes underway in relation to road accidents that have occurred, particularly on that stretch of the road. It is hoped that they will be in place in this financial year. At the Hillsborough Road junction at Carryduff a scheme is envisaged which will provide traffic signals. It is being carried out to reduce accidents, reduce queuing on the side roads and enhance pedestrian facilities. There is another accident remedial scheme at Ivanhoe Avenue. It is also programmed to be constructed in this financial year.

I do not come to the debate today, as very few Ministers do, with a magic wand that will resolve these issues overnight. They are issues that should be and will be taken with the utmost seriousness by my Department. We will address them, and it is hoped that we will soon see improvements on that major arterial route into Belfast.

Adjourned at 4.00 pm.

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