Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 9 October 2000 (continued)
I said what I said quite deliberately, and I will say it again. I placed no call to Mr Berger, and neither did any of my staff. I received a call from him. [Laughter]
What an incredibly silly reaction - it is almost as if we are dealing with a crowd of children.
I received, late that afternoon, a call from Mr Berger in which he endeavoured to tell me some things about the Miami investigation that I did not believe. I will not go into detail.
Many of Mr Robinson's comments referred to the agreement and to the negotiations that led to the agreement. He made a lot of selective quotations. Mr Robinson and his Colleagues are well aware of the truth of these words with regard to any process that leads to an agreement:
"When you go into negotiations, you do not get your top asking price. I cannot go further than that."
Everybody knows that the process of negotiation involves setting out a position and endeavouring to achieve it. Everybody knows that in such a process, one does not always achieve what one wants. In any agreement there will be things that one does not like, but perhaps one can thole them. I wonder if the words are familiar.
Mr P Robinson:
You are meant to haggle and get something.
The First Minister:
We got plenty of things. Mr Robinson referred to manifesto positions. He will recall this from a DUP manifesto: "The team you can trust".
The First Minister:
"Hear, Hear", says Mr Dodds.
I quote from the DUP manifesto:
"We will not be talking to IRA/Sinn Féin before, during or after any election."
They are not just talking to Sinn Féin after that election. They are in government with Sinn Féin, they are sharing power with Sinn Féin, and they are communicating with Sinn Féin day in, day out, in the Executive and in the office they hold. We see the letters before every meeting. They come in every week.
They are working. Those Ministers come here and proudly declare that they are fulfilling all the offices that they have to, delivering their functions and carrying out their functions as Ministers in an Administration where they share power with Sinn Féin. That is the truth. They know it in Portavogie; they know it throughout Northern Ireland. They know too that there have been 500 Committee meetings. The DUP Members have sat beside Sinn Féin and communicated with them. We are seeing here an exercise in barefaced hypocrisy. [Interruption] We listened in silence to Mr Robinson, but Mr Robinson's friends try to shout down the truth about themselves.
We also had a discussion about policing - an interesting subject. Mr Robinson tried to give us an exegesis of the agreement and the need for widespread acceptance. Mr McCartney said in the House of Commons in January of this year
"Is the Secretary of State aware that the remit of the Patten Commission was to produce proposals that would find broad acceptance and support throughout the community?"
I agree with Bob on that one.
Mr P Robinson:
Will he now read from the remit where it says that?
The First Minister:
I listened to Mr Robinson's attempt to argue that there was no need for the proposals to achieve widespread acceptance - [Interruption] It was a fairly good effort in terms of Jesuitical reasoning, but it did not carry conviction.
Let us get to the substance of the policing issue. Who has tried to support the RUC, and who has not? Newspaper headlines stated "Paisley threatens the RUC". "Every decent, honest citizen should refuse to co-operate with the police; if their homes are attacked, then they should not come crying to me" said Dr Paisley. After the Patten Report was published the DUP -
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
It is amazing that he does not give the content to the report. The DUP and the Official Unionists were dragged out of this very House. Outside there were a number of womenfolk whom the police called "Orange bastards" and "whores". That is what they said. It is on the record. I made an official complaint to the police and told them if that was the type of people they were I would not support them. I stand over that, and I have submitted myself to this electorate over and over again. The Official Unionists have dragged this up, and the electorate has said "Nonsense." I have topped the poll in every European election that I have entered. The same matter was dragged up in South Antrim, and South Antrim gave its message loud and clear.
The First Minister:
I am sure that the House is glad to learn that due to alleged insulting remarks by some policemen, Dr Paisley considers the attacks on policemen's homes in Northern Ireland to be acceptable. He says that the policemen should not come crying to him because he objects to some insulting remarks that have been made. There is a serious question here about attitudes to criminality. Dr Paisley's statement clearly endorses attacks on policemen's homes. Criminality directed against the police is OK because they have been offensive. That is what Dr Paisley clearly said.
The House and the community will see that Dr Paisley supports the position that he then adopted: it was all right for people to attack policemen's homes because he was offended by them - [Interruption] I am responding to an intervention. This is the reality of the matter if we are talking about who has supported the police and who has not.
Then there is the matter of how the DUP has handled the policing issue and the way that Mr Robinson has handled it. It is clear to me and my Colleagues that the Patten Commission report departed from the agreement in a number of significant ways. The question of proposals that have support has been mentioned. We could mention the issue of discrimination. We could mention the constitutional provisions of the agreement which were not respected. However, there are also other matters.
Before the Patten Report was published some people argued that the police should be disbanded. There were people arguing that the police should be split up and that Northern Ireland should have several police forces. On all those matters the arguments that the Ulster Unionist Party put forward succeeded and, consequently, have preserved the existence of a single police force and also preserved its effectiveness.
The place to ensure the appropriate outcome of Patten and the legislation for it is in Parliament. It was in Parliament that my Colleagues worked very hard indeed, with considerable success. Where was Mr Peter Robinson? My party was represented on the Committee, and the DUP did not even ask to be on the Committee.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it appropriate for the right hon Gentleman to mislead the House? He and his party know perfectly well that we made representations to be on that Committee. It was through his influence that we did not get on the Committee.
The First Minister:
Dr Paisley should make further enquiries because his last comment is untrue. There was no obstruction to his party being represented from me or my Colleagues. Indeed, when the matter was being considered I said to Mr Ingram that a seat should be given to the DUP or to Mr McCartney if he wished to be on the Committee in place of the DUP.
The second statement made by Dr Paisley is not true, and I ask him to accept the truth of what I have said. I hear what he has said. I was informed to the contrary by the Government. However, if he assures me that the DUP made an effort to be on the Committee but failed to do so, I will accept what he says. But it still does not deal with the issue of Report and Third Reading, where the opportunity was there to make representation. I was present throughout the debate, and I saw Mr Peter Robinson and Mr McCartney come in for a short while before they slipped away. The pages of Hansard show how little they contributed to the debate, and the record shows that they could not even table one amendment.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
The First Minister knows perfectly well that it is nothing to do with the Government. They do not appoint the Committees of the House. The Committees of the House are appointed by the nominating Committee of the House of Commons. It was always accepted that the DUP should have a seat on that Committee, but the decision was taken not to put us on it. It was said that the Official Unionists did not want us on it. He can argue with that, but to mislead the House by saying that it had something to do with Adam Ingram is absolute nonsense.
Order. What are being raised as points of order are, it seems to me, disputes of fact and points of view but not points of order. I rule that we should not have any further such points of order or I will have to intervene and stop them. The arguments can be made in speeches or interventions, but unless they are actually points of order I will not be able to take them as points of order.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The First Minister has been speaking for 17 minutes and 22 seconds. Is it in order for him to speak about the actual subject some time before he sits down? This is a motion of no confidence in the First Minister, but he seems to have nothing to say in his defence.
Order. In fairness, when the Deputy First Minister raised a question of that kind he raised it as an intervention rather than a point of order. We must continue and let the First Minister speak.
The First Minister:
I was endeavouring to reply to some of the points raised by Mr Robinson, but apparently he does not want that. We have just a few minutes before lunch, and I do not want to prevent other Members from speaking when the debate resumes.
In reality, most of Mr Robinson's comments were about policing and decommissioning. With regard to policing, the DUP has done nothing. It makes criticisms of us, but it does not actually do anything to make things better. The same is true of decommissioning. It makes criticisms of us, but does it actually do anything itself? The truth of the matter is that, both on policing and on decommissioning, the DUP does not actually do anything. It "takes" with regard to decommissioning - it complains about it, but it takes its seats. It takes its offices, it takes its ministerial posts, and it cheers all those in my own party who would want us to resign.
If, just for the sake of argument, we did resign from the Executive, would it take up - [Interruption]
The First Minister:
I was going to ask whether in that situation the DUP would take up the extra ministerial posts that would come its way. I did not hear any answer to that one.
Again, the truth of the matter again is that in February - as a result of what the Ulster Unionist Party was doing because there has been no progress in decommissioning - this body was suspended as a result of our pressure over the failure to decommission. That week, did we hear a cheep from the DUP? We did not hear a cheep from the DUP - clinging to its offices all the time. And why? Because the primary objective of the DUP is simply to gain office and advantage for itself.
As for decommissioning, Mr Robinson told us the whole story. He said that the priority is not to get decommissioning. Speaking for his party, he said that that is not the priority. That is Mr Robinson's position. Our position, as I stated on Saturday, is to achieve devolution and decommissioning, and we continue to be committed to that. Mr Robinson should reflect on what I said on that matter on Saturday.
Of course, as we know, the object of this exercise is not to achieve progress. The object is for the DUP to try and pretend that it is fighting hard against the system, when it is fully part of it, fully within it, and in its heart it knows it wants it to succeed - but it leaves it to us to make the effort. It leaves it to the Ulster Unionist Party to make the effort to achieve progress, and it sneaks along behind us, taking advantage of all our hard work.
This debate will be resumed at 4.00 pm.
The debate stood adjourned.
The sitting was suspended at 1.33 pm.
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -
Deasung Circuits Ltd
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will confirm that Deasung Circuits Ltd, Woodside Road Industrial Estate, Ballymena, has gone into liquidation; to outline the amount of funding allocated to this company by the IDB and/or LEDU during the last three years; and to explain what plans there are to deal with any redundancy claims.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey): The creditors meeting took place on 6 October to consider a creditors voluntary arrangement proposal. The proposal was accepted, and a supervisor was appointed to implement the arrangement and the subsequent winding-up of the company. The supervisor will deal with redundancy claims. No selective financial assistance has been allocated to the company in the last three years.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Can the Minister go on to assure the House that he is doing everything possible, in general terms, to secure investments and jobs in the Ballymena area? In particular, does he accept the fact that rumours are rife about the future of this company, that has haemorrhaged employees. This could have a knock-on effect on how redundancies are treated and managed by this company and, indeed, by others who are watching it and who may wish to treat their staff in a similar fashion. Can he assure me that he will investigate the matter further and that he will do more to ensure that the rights of employees in this part of my constituency are protected?
Sir Reg Empey:
I intend to visit the Ballymena area later this week when the LEDU offices there will be celebrating an anniversary, as I am sure the hon Member is aware. I also intend to visit other locations during the course of my visit.
With regard to the general situation, the Member may be aware that this company has struggled to be successful since it opened, and, indeed, for the last three years, it has not been possible for the IDB to advance any further selective financial assistance. The IDB did, however, contribute towards the cost of a consultant to work with the company from November 1996 to September 1999 on marketing and manufacturing improvements.
In addition, the IDB met the company on a regular basis and monitored its position. A very small number of people remain - in single figures, I believe - and, as I pointed out, the supervisor will be responsible for dealing with redundancy claims. However, if the Member is suggesting that members of staff have not been treated properly with regard to redundancy matters, I would have no hesitation in consulting with my Colleague, the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, Dr Farren, to investigate any matters that particularly pertained to that. Having carried out that investigation, I would then write to the Member accordingly.
Does the Minister agree that Ian Paisley Jnr should have used a recent opportunity to speak to potential investors and look for a replacement industry for Ballymena, rather than giving the total -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. This is not a question about Mr Ian Paisley Jnr. Please put a question directly to the Minister.
The question is in relation to the Deasung plant. Instead of saying that the agreement is a failure and is not going to work but come and invest with us anyhow, the Member for South Antrim should have taken the opportunity to speak to investors or potential investors in an effort to look for a replacement industry.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I am a Member for North Antrim.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am not exactly clear, Madam Deputy Speaker, what I am being required to respond to. What an individual Member does or does not do in his constituency with regard to seeking investors is, of course, a matter for him, although from correspondence and contact I have had with the questioner, I understand that he certainly appears to have an interest in these affairs.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he is aware of the current short-time working at Adria Ltd plants; and if he will make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware of the short-term working at Adria plants. I understand it is a temporary measure implemented by the company in response to current demand for its products.
I am slightly disappointed that the Minister is not aware that the problem has been overcome, particularly in Strabane. At the same time I welcome the internal task force which has been set up by the textile industry with the help of the Department. The Minister will be aware that there is growing concern in the textile industry. Does he agree that a Harland & Wolff-type initiative is needed in those areas where there is an over-dependency upon one industry? Does the Minister also agree that an inter-agency action plan on diversification of the industrial base of such areas would be advantageous?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware that the situation at Adria's plants, some of which are in the Member's constituency and some of which are not, varies. There is short-time working, certainly in Newry, and I understand the situation is connected largely to Marks and Spencer-related issues, which, of course, apply to more than just this company.
On the wider front, may I say to the Member that since I came into office I have been very conscious of the difficulties in the textile industry. The Department, through the Industrial Development Board (IDB), has appointed international consultants, Kurt Salmon Associates, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Textile Association (NITA). This is not just another consultant's report; this is an interactive working party made up of companies associated with the industry and the consultants. It is not simply a matter of consultants sending down a report. They are working together trying to prepare not simply a general report but a new strategy looking at our markets and our strengths.
The fact is that despite all the negativity there is still a very good textile industry in Northern Ireland, employing upwards of 16,000 people. It is the apparel side that has come in for the greatest difficulty. Stitching operations in particular have been extremely vulnerable to low labour cost economies in the Far East and in North Africa. What we are trying to do with the industry at the moment is focus on those areas where we have strength - areas where significant capital investment has been necessary. The Member will know that in his own constituency Adria is a highly organised capital intensive business, and it is difficult for people to get into that business from the Far East and other locations.
The type of action plan I expect to emerge from this co-operation between the industry, the companies and the consultants is a strategy which will require a response from the Government. The IDB stands ready and waiting, and the report is targeted, at the moment, for the end of next month. I suspect that we will be hearing more. I will certainly wish to make a statement as soon as possible thereafter.
I concur with my council Colleague, Assemblyman Hussey, and share his concerns and fears. I am very concerned about the textile industry in Strabane and particularly in West Tyrone. The textile industry should receive the same kind of support and enthusiasm as the information and communications technology sector. It is easier to retain an existing job than create a new one. I ask the Minister if he would consider adopting a "buying Northern Ireland" campaign for all Government contracts so that people could be encouraged to check the labelling for country of origin and try to fight back against the multinationals flooding our retail market with foreign produce.
Sir Reg Empey:
First of all, the Member has written to me on these matters before, and there is no lack of support or enthusiasm in my Department for this industry. I have spent a lot of my time dealing with it, interacting with the consultants and attending workshops for the industry and the consultants.
We are very focused on this because, as an industry, it is one of our largest employers. We must see it in a broader context than simply a Northern Ireland one, albeit our reliance on the industry is proportionally greater than that in the rest the UK.
I have no difficulty with a "buying Northern Ireland" campaign, but the Member knows - and he is a strong advocate of membership of the European Union - that there are limitations to what we can do. We cannot direct contracts to any particular company unless it is in the European Union. We are prohibited, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, better than I, from engaging in that sort of market direction. However, it is not impossible to devise mechanisms by which we can encourage people to buy locally.
The fact is that the bulk of the apparel is made for UK high street stores. That is where the difficulty arises. The Member knows, as well as I do, the pressures and competition that affect those multiples. Our ability to direct or encourage people is limited to what we are allowed to do under European Union regulations. I would be prepared to consider and support anything short of a breach of those regulations.
I am very encouraged to hear the Minister's comments today. Can he give me an update on the factories in my own constituency at Lurgan and Donaghcloney?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That is not a question that would be considered in order in this context.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member for Upper Bann, Mr Savage, is referring to the recent Courtaulds announcement. It is true that some of those factories are up for sale. I understand that nobody is applying pressure to make that sale be at a rate above what the market will stand. I hope that the response from potential buyers will be positive.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will outline his plans to draw up a small-business charter to promote and protect the interest of small businesses.
Sir Reg Empey:
I have no plans to draw up a small business charter specifically for Northern Ireland. However, earlier this year the Council of the European Union endorsed a European Charter for small enterprises. The proposal for a charter originated in the United Kingdom, and it largely reflects our priorities for Northern Ireland.
Small businesses are a very important part of our economic well-being. Does the Minister acknowledge the high level of bureaucracy faced by small businesses? Many hours of valuable time are taken up by form filling of one sort or another. Has the Minister any plans to reduce this heavy burden on small businesses, thus giving them more time to generate, and go after, extra business?
Sir Reg Empey:
I have heard that point made on a number of occasions, and I agree. Having been in business myself I know only too well that time spent filling in forms for someone else is time spent not making money for yourself. I agree entirely with that point. However, the vast majority of the work that companies are currently engaged in relates to national issues. Work needs to be carried out on National Insurance, VAT and PAYE requirements, which are the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament. Frankly, I see no immediate prospect of a reduction in that particular workload.
However, to ensure that no new unreasonable regulatory burdens are imposed on business, Northern Ireland Departments are required to complete a regulatory impact assessment on all legislation brought forward which affects business. When every piece of legislation is proofed for equality and such issues, it is also proofed for its regulatory impact.
One thing that will impact is the equality legislation and the issues therein. There flows a natural workload from that, particularly for companies above a certain size. While we have no plans to do something specifically for Northern Ireland, I can assure the Member that we are conscious of the point that he is making and we do proof, and will continue to proof, any proposed legislative activity. There is also a Government office, based in Whitehall, looking at regulatory requirements across the entire spectrum of government to see what can be simplified. The Weights and Measures Bill brought before this House was designed as one small measure in that direction. However, there are others, and there will be a flow of those over the years ahead.
The majority of small businesses in Northern Ireland are run by women, and across the board they have lacked support. LEDU is usually in charge of that sector, and it is very selective in whom it supports. Would the Minister and his Department consider the Small Business Administration in America, which gives support to any type of small business? That could probably cut down on some of the bureaucracy.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am conscious of the role played by women in small businesses. In fact, one of Northern Ireland's successes has been in its creation of new small businesses. Our economy is dependent on them to a much greater extent than any other economy in these islands.
Therefore I am acutely aware that, while LEDU has to support selectively any business, it goes through a process of selection as to what constitutes a good project. The Member will be aware that a number of campaigns with European backing have been run that were specifically aimed at encouraging women into business. As a former member of Belfast City Council, she will also know that the economic development section specifically proposed and pursued a women in business programme, aided by the European Union and backed by the city council, directed at encouraging women to be in business.
The Member will also know that I invited Aida Alvarez, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, to come to Belfast. She came over in December 1998, following a visit we made to Boston, and she spoke with her officials and explained their proceedings. The Member will also be interested to know that in August, when I was in the United States with the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, we had a meeting with Mr Charles Tansey, her deputy, who went through the procedures as to how they assist people. They are achieving a very high success rate in attracting women into business. So we are very conscious of that.
As we move forward with restructuring we are looking continuously at the best ways of doing things. There is more than one way of moving forward. The Small Business Administration operates a loan guarantee scheme, which some people find more attractive than the particular proposals we currently use. However, I am open to any suggestions that might assist with, and aid, the further involvement of women in business.
Mr B Bell
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he would outline his plans to review the organisation of agencies for which he has responsibility.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he has any plans to restructure the agencies for which he has responsibility.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will outline his plans to create a single development agency.
Sir Reg Empey:
I will answer questions 4, 12 and 13 together.
Further to the announcement in the Agenda for Government this July of the reorganisation of the economic development agencies, I am currently considering options for change and will consult as appropriate in the near future.
Mr B Bell:
Will the Minister assure the House that he will have regard to the need for increased co-operation between the various regions of the United Kingdom in any reform he undertakes in his departmental organisations? Furthermore, in carrying out the review of these agencies, will he take into account the criticism of the IDB by the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster earlier this year in its report into inward investment?
Sir Reg Empey:
With regard to the need for increased co-operation with other agencies in the United Kingdom, the Member will be interested to know that our Department is in contact with the Department of Trade and Industry in London on some matter or other every day. There is regular correspondence between myself, Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry and other Departments.
He will also be interested to know that we have set up a restructuring branch within the Department to look at the question raised in the Agenda for Government. Researchers have been seconded to that branch. Detailed research has included a study of the methods adopted by and how they deliver service to industry in other regions of the United Kingdom, the European Union and further afield. In time, the results of this research will, it is hoped, influence the recommendations for the restructuring of our businesses which we make to the House.
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that whatever structural changes take place, the Industrial Research and Technology Unit (IRTU) will be expanded and strengthened and will not be buried under a heap of other larger organisations? We desperately need proactivity in innovation and development, and we run the risk of losing IRTU in one massive monolith.
Sir Reg Empey:
May I apologise to Mr Bell for not dealing with the second part of his question? Perhaps I may slip it in before I respond to Dr McDonnell.
I am aware of the criticism of the IDB in the House of Commons report. A statement was issued by the IDB in response to that. The Minister of Finance and Personnel and I formally responded to the House of Commons on that matter. I can assure the Member that all of those lessons have been taken into account and learned.
Dr McDonnell knows my views well. I accept entirely that innovation and associated matters are the spine that must run right through the way in which the Department and its agencies deliver their service. If we are intending to have an innovative, knowledge-based economy, innovation issues, be they information-age matters or others, must be central to everything we do. I can assure the Member that whatever proposals come forward, the intricate systemic involvement of innovation and its related activities must be at the core. I do not intend to discuss the intricacies of what effect that may have on IRTU or on any particular part of the agency's business. The clear principle is that innovation must be at the very genesis of whatever we do, otherwise we will inevitably fail to meet our other objectives.
Does the Minister agree that having a single development agency would be a much more efficient use of public money? Does he also accept that this would help to redress the lack of confidence on the part of clients who feel that they are bounced from one agency to another and that their ideas and aspirations are strangled by red tape and bureaucracy?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member is inviting me to anticipate the outcome of the review, and I do not wish to do that. Our current agencies have developed over time - LEDU is 30 years old; the IDB is almost 20 years old; and IRTU is almost 10 years old. Industry, commerce, the economy and the nature of the businesses that we are operating have changed, as has methodology. There are developments today that we could not have imagined in the past. I am certainly taking that into account. I have heard criticisms about a lack of client confidence, and we have to listen to them. When our proposals are brought forward and put to the Committee, I have no doubt we will have the opportunity to thrash them out there and subsequently in the House. I am conscious of the points that he has made but regret that I am unable to give a more detailed answer at this stage.
My question has been pre-empted. I was going to ask whether the amalgamation of the IDB and LEDU would better fill the gaps in relation to small industries than the present set-up does.
Sir Reg Empey:
Again, the Member is inviting me to be more specific. I am conscious that responsibility for inward investment is exclusively in the hands of IDB, which tends to deal with the larger companies. LEDU, which deals with the smaller companies, does not have a defined role in inward investment. I am aware of those points. There is, of course, the role of local authorities, as the Member knows. These are all matters that will be taken into account as the review goes forward, and I assure the House that there will be adequate opportunity for Members to express their views and to give advice on our proposals. The point that the Member makes is, undoubtedly, one of the central points that have to be taken into account.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what steps he will take to ensure that the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) form of superhighway telecommunications will be extended to rural areas; and if he will make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
Detailed work is nearing completion on identification of the most appropriate technologies to ensure an internationally competitive, broadband infrastructure in Northern Ireland in terms of capacity, access and cost. ADSL is only one form of broadband technology so very careful consideration of technical, legal and consumer issues will be required before decisions are taken in the context of a privatised and independently regulated market.
I acknowledge that there are many other forms of superhighway that may be constructed, but the Minister wrote to me at an earlier stage and said that by September, which has now passed, he would have a report on this issue from the Industrial Research and Technology Unit. Has the Minister received that report and will he ensure that, when he gets it, there will be budget provision to enable this part of Ireland to keep abreast of modern developments in the telecommunications strategy? Will he follow the example of his counterpart in Wales, who arranged a partnership between local government, central Government and the private developer to provide such an exchange throughout the country, including rural areas? He probably knows that the intention is to have it in only the most urbanised areas, but that would be detrimental to the whole concept of targeting social need and the development of our countryside.
Sir Reg Empey:
It is not my intention to have it confined to the most urbanised areas. That goes against the whole purpose of the facility, which is to create a level playing field for all parts of the community. Nothing could be further from my mind. I have not yet received the report; I am told that it is imminent. I want to study it carefully. As the Member knows, we are engaged in the exercise of budgetary provision right now. I have made appropriate bids to allow us to carry it out. I believe that it should be an integral part of our Programme for Government.
The Member will be aware that we have had a number of initiatives such as the Leapfrog Information Age Initiative. There is a range of technical matters. I do not have sufficient information at my disposal to say that ADSL is necessarily the right thing for Northern Ireland, but I can say to the Member that we are endeavouring to ensure that it goes outside the greater Belfast area. The Member will be aware that a network is developing and that it includes Downpatrick. The question of other provincial towns is one of great concern; we need a loop that goes round our major towns because if there is no access there, rural areas will have very little opportunity. I accept that there are equality and social issues. There is an opportunity to have an impact on the rural areas, particulary against the backdrop of the difficulties in agriculture. I assure the Member that it is a top priority issue in my Department.
New TSN Proposal
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if the new targeting social need proposals identify and target areas of long-term unemployment; and if he will make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
Having considered the consultation responses to the 'Vision into Practice' document, I have decided that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will continue to use its option of multiple-deprivation indicators to define areas of need. These indices have been supplemented with data on the long-term unemployed and will be reviewed next year when new deprivation indicators are developed.
Does the Minister agree that as well as the number of long-term unemployed, the total number of unemployed would be an appropriate factor? Is he aware that as part of the draft criteria, 11 district council areas were selected and that Carrickfergus, which has the fifth-highest incidence of unemployment, was not included?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member and the Deputy Speaker have written to me on these matters on a number of occasions. I am very conscious of the fact that simply relying on the number of long-term unemployed is a particularly blunt instrument. I therefore supported a major review, which is due to be completed in the first half of next year. This will provide us with what we believe will be a more up-to-date mechanism for measuring disadvantage. I am also very conscious of the unemployment in the Carrickfergus area, particularly male unemployment, which is at a very high level.
In the meantime we will be confining ourselves to using the Robson criteria supplemented by data with regard to unemployment. By so doing, we hope to have as broad a measurement tool as we can at this stage. Clearly this measure is not the end of it; clearly it is not entirely satisfactory. I look forward to receiving the new proposals early next year as they will give a rise to more equitable distribution of assistance.
Higher Education: Number of Places
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what steps he has taken to increase the number of places in higher education in Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
I have taken a number of steps to increase the number of places in higher education in Northern Ireland. My endorsement of the phased expansion based on the outcome of the 1998 comprehensive spending review, and my announcement in the spring of this year of Government support for the Springvale educational project, were main initiatives. These measures should see some 4,200 additional higher full-time education places, phased in over the period from 1999 to 2004. I am also seeking resources for further increases in the current spending review, but, of course, I cannot prejudge the outcome.
Of the 4,200 places, some 1,600 have been allocated to the universities; 400 have been split evenly between the two former teacher education colleges, now St Mary's University College and Stranmillis University College; and 600 have gone to further education colleges. The Springvale project will add a further 1,600 higher education places. I emphasise that all those figures are full-time equivalents.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is really good to see that so much time and effort have gone into this. Can the Minister also confirm for us just what proportion of the increased student places will be earmarked for courses relevant to the economy, and in particular to the IT sector?
I am grateful for that particular question. The bulk of places allocated are indeed earmarked under existing plans for economically relevant courses - for example, over 1,000 of the 1,600 places for the universities and all of the 600 places allocated to further education colleges are allocated on the basis of their relevance to economic development. Springvale, as I think many Members will appreciate, is also expected to emphasise an employment-related curriculum.
As regards the outcome of our current bids, the emphasis is on trying to secure additional places in those areas of the economy that need skills.
As for the allocation to IT courses, I do not have precise figures, but I would like to remind the House and the Member in question that the allocation of places to further education colleges was made on the basis of the colleges' responses to bids that precisely identified areas such as IT as areas for which they would be allocated additional places. In my Department IT has a very high priority when we adopt the criterion of economic relevance when allocating additional higher education places.
The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):
I welcome what the Minister has said about additional places, but I would ask him this: does he recognise that the figures which have been outlined this afternoon almost certainly do not go far enough? They do not go far enough, first, if we compare them to the recommendations of the Dearing Report three years ago and the recommendations of the two universities; secondly, if we compare the number of places available here per head of population with the number available in Scotland; and thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, if we address the fact that two thirds of the students from Northern Ireland studying outside Northern Ireland have gone unwillingly. While the 4,000 places are welcome, they do not plug the gap.
The Member himself, and the members of the Committee, will appreciate very keenly what it was that Dearing recommended a number of years ago. The figure 4,200 goes a long way towards meeting the 5,000 target that was set down at that time. As I said in response to the initial question, I am bidding for resources to enable us to go beyond what we had already planned for the period 1999 to 2004, and I trust that these resources will be made available. We have to wait for the outcome of the current budgetary negotiations before we will know what those resources will be.
Many of our young people do indeed go "unwillingly" to pursue further, and in particular higher, education across the water. In consultation with the universities and the colleges of further and higher education we plan to make enough places available in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is as little "unwillingness" as possible and that students do not have to go outside Northern Ireland to pursue further and higher education.
I welcome the additional places in higher education, but will the Minister assure us that equal attention will be paid to the need for positions in colleges of further education?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
This is not related to the question at hand.
Unemployment: Training Programmes
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what plans he has to reallocate funding from the New Deal programme to alternative training programmes to address the problem of unemployment blackspots.
As I think Members will fully appreciate from the discussion we had here only two or three weeks ago, funding for the New Deal programme is currently ring-fenced. It can be used only for New Deal purposes and cannot be reallocated to another programme. If the situation were to change, this could have an impact on future planning for the provision of training for the unemployed.
It is important to note that alternative programmes such as Bridge to Employment, whereby customised training is provided for the unemployed so they can seek job opportunities in particular enterprises, and Worktrack, which is directed at the needs of female returnees to the workforce, are currently available to help the long-term unemployed back into the workforce.
Go raibh maith agat. I appreciate the Minister's response, for we know that £163 million of New Deal money has been ring-fenced and imagine that, with such a huge budget, it is addressing unemployment black spots and new training initiatives. However, have there been any recommendations for change in the allocation of New Deal funding to assist the over-25 age group to access the Education and Training Opportunities scheme without their being in receipt of the jobseeker's allowance for 18 months? I say that in the light of continuing job losses in the Foyle constituency and the need to examine local labour markets and conditions in broad terms to ascertain the level and type of vacancies and the skills required. Does the Minister have any plans to reallocate funding for any potential new investments?
The Member, like all those present when we debated New Deal several weeks ago, will recall that in my contribution to that discussion I said that, in reviewing New Deal, a number of proposals had arisen and are currently being discussed. Among them were questions of how we might better serve and target the needs of the long-term unemployed. Correspondence has been entered into with my opposite number in London, and we should like to think that we will be in a position to take decisions based on those recommendations with respect to programmes commencing next spring.
Third-Level Students: Financial Provision
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment how he intends to ensure a fair deal in financial terms for third- level students; and if he will make a statement.
Mrs E Bell
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will make a statement on progress made towards the abolition of tuition fees for students in Northern Ireland.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I propose to take questions 3 and 9 together, since they address the same issue.
The review of student finance that I initiated last February will be concluded in the near future. I plan to announce my decisions then, but not before. The House and the Committee will have a full opportunity to deliberate on them.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I understand that the Minister does not wish to reveal his hand at this stage. However, when he comes to do so, will he take into account his election manifesto commitment to support young people through education, training and investment? Can the Minister assure the House that that support will be realised not just in the delivery and provision of education, but also in financial terms? Will he support in his review the abolition of parental or spouse's contributions towards undergraduate tuition fees for Northern Ireland students? Will he introduce a grant system to encourage the socially deprived to avail of the educational opportunities available?
The Member asked supplementary questions to which, as he acknowledged in his introductory remarks, I am not in a position to give answers. He said that he appreciated that I could not show my hand, but then invited me to do so. Since I do not have anything in my hand to reveal at the moment, I can certainly show it to him. As I said in my initial response, I shall address the issues under the terms of reference set down when the review was announced, and I am sure that the Member is very familiar with those.
The Minister, in his reply, referred to the review that he hoped would be concluded in the near future. Can he confirm that the outcome of the review, whatever it may be, will be in place for the intake of students to higher education next September?
It was my intention to have any proposals which are adopted following this review implemented as soon as possible. I can assure the Member that it is certainly my intention that they be put into effect without delay.
Will the Minister give an assurance that resources for further education will be on his mind when he eventually makes his report?
If by the phrase "resources for further education" the Member is pointing to the terms of reference of the review, which encompasses the needs of students of further education, full-time and part-time, I can assure him that it will address their particular needs.
Harland & Wolff: Redundancies
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline what action has been taken by the Training and Employment Agency in response to the redundancies announced by Harland & Wolff.
The Training and Employment Agency has established a jobcentre in Harland & Wolff to give immediate and wide-ranging assistance to those made redundant. In addition, to help with job applications, agency staff provide guidance services and advice on retraining opportunities. Specialist advice on redundancy payments, benefit entitlements and self-employment is also available.
By the evening of Friday 6 October, 337 employees being made redundant had received advice. Of these, 77 have already been referred to companies with job vacancies. The Training and Employment Agency is leading the task force, the membership of which was announced by Sir Reg Empey, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and myself.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Does he agree that certain large employers in Northern Ireland are free-riding on the training system? They wait for others to pay the cost of training and depend on other people to train workers to craft skill levels.
I find the question difficult to respond to. I would not accept the suggestion that large employers are freeloading or free-riding on the training programmes. If there are particular instances of any abuse, that the questioner has in mind, I would welcome such evidence and have officials in my Department investigate. The Training and Employment Agency and training providers have been working diligently within the terms of the various training programmes to ensure that we have a skilled workforce.
With respect to sad situations such as that in Harland & Wolff, through the efforts that I have indicated in my initial response, workers who wish to make themselves available for re-employment in other enterprises are given knowledge of vacancies. Those who wish to retrain or obtain additional skills are advised of the opportunities available to them.
Can the Minister tell us the make-up of the task force established in the wake of the Harland & Wolff redundancies? Also, what is the input from the east Belfast community to the work of that task force?
The task force is chaired by the chief executive officer of the Training and Employment Agency. There are officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and from my own Department, and two outsiders, one of whom is a prominent member of the east Belfast community. Through his participation, the general concerns of that community are reflected to the task force and taken into full consideration in its deliberations.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that his response has created a precedent? Will this initiative be put in place in all areas where major job losses occur?
The Member can be assured that wherever there have been major job losses, the Training and Employment Agency has been very proactive, and that where job losses are being anticipated, discussions have been entered into between officials of my Department and officials in the enterprise concerned. We will ensure, insofar as we possibly can, that the kind of action that has been taken with respect to Harland & Wolff will be taken and has been taken there as well. Careful attention is paid to such situations and there have been several examples of the Training and Employment Agency becoming involved in a similar way to what they are doing with Harland & Wolff.
Will the Minister ensure that, as well as helping those made redundant from Harland & Wolff, his Department pays close attention to the people involved in some of the specialist subcontractors that are heavily tied to Harland & Wolff? Those people may also find difficulties in future employment.
The terms of reference for the task force will ensure that any concerns such as those highlighted by the Member can be addressed. If he has any particular concerns in this regard, he should draw them to my attention or the attention of the task force.