Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 23 October 2000 (continued)
Does the Minister agree that it would be best if decisions regarding the transfer of funds were made by elected representatives, and that there is now a greater urgency to review the role of health trusts and replace them with elected representatives?
Ms de Brún:
Regardless of who is making the decisions, I believe that where circumstances arise that necessitate a particular transfer of funds, that should occur. We will come to the question of the review of structures later, within the overall Executive programme for reviewing public administration.
Can the Minister assure us that this is not happening in any other trust? Does she agree that once you start doing something like this, it becomes custom and practice?
Ms de Brún:
I agree that once you start a practice like this, it does continue. However, one of the problems with ring-fencing - which is, of course, the other way of tackling this problem, to ensure that transfers cannot be made - is that the flexibility to deal with emergencies is not there. If it became clear that certain services were constantly losing, and losing substantially, to other aspects of the service, I would immediately take action. However, where emergencies arise and there is a temporary transfer of funds which is clearly intended to be replaced and is not a large-scale pattern, the matter needs to be left open to those on the ground dealing with particular situations.
Acute Hospital Beds:
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will detail what provision is in place to avert a winter bed crisis in acute hospitals.
Ms de Brún:
Ar an 16 Deireadh Fómhair bhuail mé le cathaoirligh agus le príomhfheidhmeannaigh na mbord chun aithbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar na pleananna a bhí acu chun déileáil le brúnna an gheimhridh. Tá na boird agus na hiontaobhais i ndiaidh pleananna cuimsitheacha a ullmhú chun déileáil le brúnna an gheimhridh. Bainfear breis úsáide as scéimeanna cúraim idirmheánaigh chun líon na ndaoine a chuirtear gan ghá chuig ospidéil a laghdú agus chun a chinntiú go bhféadfar daoine a chur abhaile nach gá dóibh fanacht san ospidéal a thuilleadh.
Maidir le cúram príomhúil, tá socruithe déanta le breis seirbhísí liachleachtóirí agus cogaisíochta a sholáthar taobh amuigh de na gnáthuaireanta i rith an gheimhridh. I ndiaidh dúinn leas a bhaint as na ceachtanna a d'fhoghlaim muid anuraidh, is iad seo a leanas cuid de na bearta atá curtha i gcrích cheana: beidh leapacha breise géarchúraim, ardspleáchais agus míochaine á soláthar; beidh an vacsaíniú in éadan fliú á thabhairt feasta do dhaoine os cionn 65 bliana d'aois. I limistéar Mhórcheantar Chathair Bhéal Feirste beidh ionad le haghaidh iontrálacha éigeandála agus beidh sé ina chuidiú i dtaca leis na hiontrálacha éigeandála a chomhordú i gcás roinnt ospidéal.
On 16 October I met with board chairpersons and chief executives to review their plans for dealing with winter pressures. Comprehensive plans have already been drawn up by boards and trusts. Greater use will be made of intermediate care schemes to reduce the need for inappropriate hospital admissions to ensure that people who do not need to be in hospital can be discharged. In primary care, arrangements have been made to provide additional out-of-hours GP and pharmacy services over the winter.
Building on the lessons of 1999, the measures in place include extra intensive care and high-dependency beds, additional medical beds and the extension of flu vaccinations to the over-65s. In the Greater Belfast area, an emergency admissions centre will help to co-ordinate emergency admissions for a number of hospitals.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
There are no points of order during Question Time.
Given that we had a crisis last January, to hear that the meeting only took place on 16 October causes me some concern. I am not sure whether it is because I wrote to the Minister a few days earlier.
United Hospitals Trust has had a proposal for 20 additional medical beds in Antrim Hospital for the past 18 months, but no action has yet been taken by the Northern Health and Social Services Board. Is the Minister aware of that? Presumably, she is aware of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board report that an additional 100 medical beds are needed in Belfast hospitals. I know where the extra intensive care beds are, but could the Minister please tell us where extra medical beds have been provided since last January? They are needed to deal with a crisis that will inevitably blow up within two months at most?
Ms de Brún:
The Member will be aware that I commissioned two reviews immediately after last winter's pressures; one was into the availability of intensive care beds and the other was into community care. That resulted in the report 'Facing the Future', which came out during suspension. The report included specific measures and timetables, and I have consistently followed up on progress with boards and trusts and reported to the House. The suggestion that I met the boards to review progress only on 16 October is completely and utterly unacceptable and does not reflect the situation.
Board plans have included a number of measures, including extra beds, that will be put in place. Each board will have detailed plans as to where those beds will be. This winter, boards plan to introduce around 300 additional hospital beds to cope with likely pressures. They will also have about 1,000 additional community care places this winter. That figure includes intermediate care schemes to reduce the need for inappropriate hospital admissions, as well as schemes to ensure that people who do not need to be in hospital can be discharged.
I am aware of the problems facing hospitals. I have made it clear to the board chairman that plans must take account of the pressures facing specific hospitals before I will approve them. Following my meeting on 16 October, at which planned measures were discussed in detail, I asked my officials to take up a number of issues with the boards, including the impact of current pressures on hospitals.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I remind the Minister that a substantial number of people want to ask questions, and we are only now at Question 3.
As the Minister said, outbreaks of flu play a critical part in the annual beds crisis. Obviously, vaccination of Health Service employees, to avoid staff shortages at such a critical time of the year, would help with that to some extent, but which institution would carry the cost of such vaccination? We should ensure that GP surgeries and hospital trusts have a financial incentive to vaccinate staff against flu to ensure that workers are available at peak times of demand in the winter.
Ms de Brún:
Boards and trusts have taken on board the issue of vaccinating Health Service staff. We have dealt with the question of the uptake of flu vaccination for the over-65s, and officials are now discussing with trusts the progress made in encouraging staff to take up the vaccination. There is a clear incentive for trusts and GP surgeries to ensure that staff are vaccinated, so that the full complement of employees is there to cope with winter pressures.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In recent years - particularly last year - one of the major causes of the winter pressures was elderly people falling on ungritted footpaths. Has the Minister any plans to meet the relevant Minister to discuss how the dispute between local councils and the Department of the Environment about responsibility for gritting footpaths could be resolved?
Ms de Brún:
As I have frequently said, pressures on the Health Service do not arise only from matters that fall within my Department's remit. Indeed, some of the measures that could be taken to improve the health of the population are not solely the responsibility of my Department either.
I look forward to the full co-operation of my Executive Colleagues in helping to ensure that all measures come together so that the winter pressures do not have the same impact this year and in years to come.
The crisis in acute hospital services is having an enormous effect on the people of the south- west area of the North, particularly Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh. Does the Minister agree that in the light of the population projections compiled recently by the Statistics and Research Agency, which estimate a growth of 11% in the population of the Western Health and Social Services Board's area over the next 13 years, the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh need support from her Department?
Ms de Brún:
Is there a link between the specific question and the acute hospital review? It is precisely because I consider local hospitals so crucial to their communities that I asked for a short, focused review that will report to me in the new year.
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to outline the steps she is taking to ensure that her Department has adequate safety provision to protect against paedophiles.
Ms de Brún:
Reachtálann mo Roinnse an tSeirbhís Chomhairleachta Réamhfhostaíochta a ligeann d'fhostóirí agus d'eagraíochtaí deonacha measúnú a dhéanamh ar oiriúnacht daoine atá ag iarraidh a bheith ag obair le páistí. Beidh mé ag cur moltaí chun tosaigh maidir le Bille um Chosaint Leanaí, lena gcuirfear an tseirbhís seo ar bhonn reachtúil.
Chomh maith leis sin, chuir mo Roinnse ábhar ar fáil don treoir-lámhleabhar ar mheasúnú agus ar bhainisteoireacht priacal maidir le ciontóirí gnéis a d'eisigh Oifig Thuaisceart Éireann.
My Department runs the pre-employment consultancy service which allows employers and voluntary organisations to check the suitability of those applying to work with children. I plan to propose a Protection of Children Bill which will place this service on a statutory footing. My Department has also contributed to a guidance manual for the assessment and management of the risks posed by sex offenders, issued by the Northern Ireland Office. My Department is represented on the joint working group on child protection established by the North/South Ministerial Council. This group aims to develop an arrangement for the reciprocal identification of people considered unsuitable to work with children.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Given that her own party has failed to hand over to the authorities three known paedophiles identified in 'The Sunday Tribune' of 27 August 2000, is this House expected to take the Minister seriously on the subject? Does she accept that it is unacceptable for her to remain as Minister while her party protects these undesirable individuals?
Ms de Brún:
My Department and I have done, and will continue to do, everything possible to ensure adequate safety provision against paedophiles. Furthermore, throughout my political career I have consciously avoided making a political football of this issue. I have never made any statements regarding allegations of child sexual abuse - whether they were against members of the RUC, against members of other political parties, or against members of other churches. This is something that happens in every section of society, in every social class and among every political persuasion. We must take action to prevent child abuse and to ensure that there is no complacency at any level in dealing with allegations about this crime. Those with a statutory responsibility to co-operate in investigating child abuse must discharge that responsibility. Our work must fully protect the rights of the child and minimise the distress caused.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
You can have all the legislative and policy change you want, but unless parents understand the real risks their children face, how can they actually protect them? Does the Minister agree that in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Office and the statutory and voluntary agencies her Department should lead on a strategic approach to this issue? What steps is the Minister's Department taking to fund a mainstream parent education programme?
Ms de Brún:
It is very clear that something needs to be done. I discussed this recently with the Health Committee to ensure that on this question and a range of others there is the greatest possible collaboration between Departments, a co-ordinated effort to ensure that our children have the protections and services they deserve. This is one reason I welcomed the setting up of the joint working group on child protection in the North/South Ministerial Council's education sector that was organised by my Colleague Martin McGuinness. It will ensure that co-ordinated action of this nature is implemented throughout the island of Ireland. I accept that there is a need for the maximum information to be given to parents so they know the dangers their children face. More importantly, information should be provided to children who may face abuse in their own homes as well as abuse outside. We are very anxious to see initiatives to set up helplines and provide information for children.
Mr S Wilson:
The Minister has mentioned the need for maximum information to be provided to parents and children, and she has said we can afford no complacency. Will she give the House an assurance that if her Department is aware of paedophile activity, it will pass on such information to the RUC so that the appropriate action can be taken?
Ms de Brún:
I refer the Member to the previous response, where I clearly said that there has to be maximum co-operation among all those bodies who have a statutory responsibility for investigating child abuse. As for my Department's liaising with the RUC, checks are already carried out against criminal records under the pre-employment consultancy service that my Department runs, and there are also links to the social services.
Does the Minister agree that the judiciary and the rule of law are the only appropriate means of dealing with allegations of child abuse? Will she dissociate herself from paramilitary groups who have taken the law into their own hands and attacked people who have been accused of child abuse and who have made allegations even against members of her party?
Ms de Brún:
My view of those who take the law into their own hands and physically attack people is that it is wrong, that it should not happen and that it should stop. As to whether the judiciary as opposed to the rule of law is the only avenue, some people prefer to deal with social services, with groups such as community-based restorative justice, or with women's organisations or others. If people in local areas find that members of their families have allegations of abuse against others and wish to use other avenues, I will certainly not dictate and say that there is only one way in which to deal with such a matter. However, any approach has to be within the law, within human rights norms, and in the interests of the child or the person who is alleging the abuse.
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she intends to introduce a regional cancer plan similar to the national cancer plan in Great Britain, and if she will make a statement.
Ms de Brún:
Tá clár á chur i bhfeidhm cheana chun nuachóiriú agus feabhas a chur ar sholáthar seirbhísí ailse anseo i gcomhréir leis na pleananna a fógraíodh i Sasana ar na mallaibh. Tá na nithe seo a leanas i gceist sa chlár atá go maith chun tosaigh: ionad réigiúnach ailse a fhorbairt i mBéal Feirste chomh maith le haonaid ailse in Ospidéal Cheantar Aontroma, in Ospidéal Cheantar Craigavon, in Ospidéal Alt na nGealbhán agus in Ospidéal Uladh.
A programme of modernisation of, and improvement to, the provision of cancer services here, similar to plans announced recently in England, is already under way. The programme, which is well advanced, includes the development of a regional cancer centre in Belfast, as well as cancer units at Antrim Area Hospital, Craigavon Area Hospital, Altnagelvin Area Hospital and the Ulster Hospital. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy services currently provided at Belvoir Park will be relocated to Belfast City Hospital, where a state-of-the-art oncology centre will be built. Work on this project is on course to be completed by 2003. To support this programme of work, a further £8 million has been allocated this year.
I welcome the Minister's comments. Does she not agree that the plan announced by the Prime Minister of Britain, Mr Tony Blair, at the Labour Party Conference contained aspects that would be of great benefit to cancer research and cancer services? Does she not also agree that all those involved welcomed that plan and pointed out how people in Northern Ireland would benefit from its introduction here?
Ms de Brún:
I agree that people welcomed the plan but many aspects contained of it are already under way here. Thanks to tripartite arrangements with the rest of the island of Ireland and the USA, cancer services here are well on the way to being at the cutting edge. I hope to be able to further this progress within the available resources.
The cancer units being developed at the Altnagelvin, Antrim, Craigavon and Ulster hospitals will mean that chemotherapy services and outpatient clinics in breast, colorectal, lung, ovarian and neurological cancers will be available locally. Patients with more complex cancers will, of course, be treated in the cancer centre in Belfast. We have made great strides in our work on the cancer registries and with the National Cancer Institute in the USA.
Go raibh maith agat. What liaison has taken place with the Minister for Health and Children for the rest of the island, Mr Micheál Martin, with a view to improving North/South co-operation in fighting cancer?
The time for this group of questions is up, and on behalf of the House I request the Minister to reply in writing to the last supplementary.
EU Structural Funds
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will make a statement on the establishment of the new European Union structural funds monitoring committees.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
Pending the completion by the European Commission of its Community Support Framework (CSF) for Northern Ireland, an interim CSF monitoring committee was established, representing the social and economic partners, as well as the Government, local government, equality and environmental interests.
Following the resumption of devolution, I asked a working group of that committee to consider how the new structural funds monitoring committees, to be established under the EU regulations, might be composed and structured. The conclusions reached by the working group, and endorsed by the interim CSF monitoring committee, were presented to the Executive Committee in July, which approved the size of the sectors to be represented on each of the three monitoring committees. These are the community support framework monitoring committee, the Peace II monitoring committee and the committee on transitional Objective 1. My Department then invited nominations from a wide range of interests, including local government and the social partners. Nominations have now been received and will be considered by the Executive Committee soon - [Interruption]
Order. May we please have less noise in the Gallery.
I hope, therefore, to be able to announce the membership of the new monitoring committees soon. The Peace II monitoring committee will contain an equal number of representatives from the South, and we hope that we can make a joint announcement.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Leslie):
While I welcome the Minister's answers, I think the word "soon" could be subject to a variety of interpretations. Can the Minister reassure the House that by "soon" he means that these committees will be established before the end of the year? Can he also assure the House that the representation of locally elected representatives will be higher in the new committees than it was in the old ones?
"Soon" means well before the end of the year. As I indicated, I will bring the matter to the Executive Committee very shortly and after that I hope to be in a position to make an announcement. We have the nominations, on which there has been broad agreement.
We are particularly grateful for the work of the working group and the interim community support framework monitoring committee that helped to establish the new format for the monitoring committees. We are grateful too for the assistance that we have since received from the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe to consolidate and ease the nomination process.
I hope to be in a position to make those announcements soon. We have nominations available. I make the point that the Peace II monitoring committee will be a joint committee with an equal number of members from North and South. We hope to make a joint announcement in relation to that. It will certainly be well within the time limit that the Member has requested.
How does the Minister envisage those parties which are not in the Government being represented on these committees? How does the Minister expect the Assembly to scrutinise European affairs in the absence of a committee of this type?
I have already indicated in previous answers that I am in favour of the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee of the House to look at these points. This applies not least in relation to Peace II - all parties in this House are eager to guarantee the distinctiveness and the additionality of the programme. I explained this to the Finance and Personnel Committee.
All parties in this House were also members of the interim community support framework monitoring committee. There was a fairly desultory pattern of attendance at its meetings, and the proposals that came forward from the working group did not address the position of party members from an Assembly perspective.
In relation to the previous question, four local government representatives will sit on each of the three monitoring committees. I am considering accepting the recommendation that we increase the local government representation on the overall community support framework committee to five, precisely to accommodate a wider range of parties than is currently accommodated.
EU Structural Funds
and Peace II Programmes
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will detail the current position in regard to the finalisation of the EU structural funds and Peace II programmes.
The European Commission's community support framework for Northern Ireland for 2000 to 2006 will be implemented through two operational programmes: Peace II and transitional Objective 1.
While I had hoped that the Commission would have finalised its community support framework by the end of August, we are still awaiting the final text of the document. However, this has not prevented progress on our negotiations with the European Commission on the two operational programmes, original proposals for which were sent to the Commission during suspension last April. We received detailed comments from the Commission on both draft programmes in August and since then have sent back revised working drafts. These are now the subject of ongoing negotiations with the European Commission, which we hope will be finalised by the end of November.
I thank the Minister for outlining how the discussions and the negotiations are going. Does he agree that European Union funds have played a major role, particularly in helping to regenerate urban and rural communities, over the past 10 years or so? And does he agree that local delivery mechanisms are important for the administration of European-funded programmes, particularly the Peace programme? Given the merits of the district partnership model in Peace I, can the Minister say if any final decision has been made on how Peace II will be administered?
I recognise the value of the EU programmes to the whole region and to particular localities. However, I particularly recognise the value of the special and distinctive role played by local delivery mechanisms, not least by the district partnerships and the work they foster and sponsor. The Executive wants to see this role develop under the Peace II programme. Therefore we are trying to ensure that these mechanisms can evolve into more strategic development partnerships at each district level, furthering the existing partnership between local government and social partners, and representing community interests on district partnerships.
The Executive Committee is determined to secure primary allocations for the district partnerships, and also to promote local delivery through those measures that Departments themselves will administer and deliver. The Executive Committee is also setting a particular premium on ensuring that Departments employ local delivery mechanisms in social inclusion measures - particularly for women, children and young people - and in cross-border measures. These concerns are very much at the top of the Executive agenda as we try to advance the work on Peace II.
My question has been covered in the previous answer.
On the question of gap funding between Peace I and Peace II, is the Minister considering releasing more funds to fill that gap? Women's centres, cross-border projects and capacity-building projects in single-identity areas are desperately in need of funds. Could they possibly be given a loan from future budgets?
We have addressed these concerns over gap funding before. The Executive Committee previously allocated £2 million to assist the voluntary and community sectors involved in Peace I and other EU structural funds over this period. That assistance was made available through the Department for Social Development. Also, approximately £3·3 million was made available by the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to assist eligible, needy projects in the gap between the Single programme 1994-99 and the new transitional Objective 1 programme. We continue to monitor problems, and if people have detailed information on real problems I would appreciate their making it available to my Department. I hear many reports and discussions about the problem, but often the precise details do not materialise. Nonetheless, we want to continue to monitor problems, and the Executive will do this as it reviews our progress in negotiating the new programmes.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that one of the lessons learnt from the last funding, and from Peace I in particular, was the impact of the involvement of voluntary and other wide-ranging agencies? Will these lessons be drawn on in Peace II, and in distributing structural funds the next time round?
We want to build upon the positive lessons that were learnt from Peace I, not just to improve and bring forward developments for the life of the Peace II programme, but in ways that ensure the sustainability of these models and mechanisms beyond the Peace II programme. I do not believe in treating district partnerships and similar models simply as biodegradable containers for carrying money on a temporary basis from Europe. If we are serious about these models, we need to build them into our own long-term plans, and to apply them to our own measures. Therefore that will be a factor in how we approach Peace II.
Tomorrow I will meet a representative group made up of people from district partnerships, local government, intermediary funding bodies and so on, before having a wider and fuller colloquy with them next month. We aim to agree the best way forward under Peace II in order to make progress on the vital and important work that developed under Peace I.
The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):
Last week, when the Committee met a delegation of district partnership boards, there was still quite a gap in funding. A number of people who had applied for funding from the last round, particularly from the Department for Social Development, had been refused, and we have asked them to forward those applications to the Minister so that he can assess the current need.
I thank Mr Molloy for the helpful direction he gave to the groups who were in front of the Committee last week. The more solid information we have, the more helpful it is. All the money in Peace I has been allocated, but not all of it has been drawn down and it needs to be spent before December 2001. We are encouraging everyone with a direct interest to make sure they are making full and best use - and fairly ready use - of the moneys available under Peace I.
In relation to Peace II, we want to help people who will be genuinely caught with a gap in funding. Equally, we have to be aware that the European Commission requires Peace II to be a separate and distinctive initiative. Care must be taken when making assumptions about which programmes will continue on a roll-over basis from Peace I to Peace II.
A number of facts need to be considered. People who want to bring forward new measures, new proposals, new projects for Peace II have a relevant interest also. We cannot assume that everything funded under Peace I will automatically receive funding under Peace II and some comments being made about gap funding put us into that position. We are trying to be helpful to Peace I initiatives without being unhelpful to the other key interests that will come forward under Peace II.
The Minister is aware of concerns in the Unionist community - they were echoed by the Deputy First Minister when he realised that there was a slight problem in applications and that perhaps a proactive approach to encouraging applications from the Unionist community for this type of funding is required. What measures are in place to ensure that there will be a more equitable distribution of funding this time?
Equality interests are represented on the new monitoring committees, and the Equality Commission will be represented on those committees. Equality considerations have been built into the horizontal principles that will inform the programmes. That includes equality of opportunity for people applying for funds, and making good any gaps or disparities there have been in uptake or access in the past. The Executive Committee has been determined about that, and it is an area in which the European Commission has been particularly encouraging.
Newry Social Security Office
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he has plans to replace the Newry social security benefit office.
Yes, I intend to replace Newry social security office, and I will soon be inviting expressions of interest from developers.
I thank the Minister for the directness and the brevity of his answer. This is one of those occasions when a little more detail would have been helpful. However, I accept fully the direct reassurance the Minister has given.
Bearing in mind that the current benefit office accommodation in Newry for applicants and staff is so poor, can the Minister indicate the timescale for finding a new location, where that location might be, or how it will be determined? Can he give us any assurance that the current staff complement will not be reduced in future?
The Member asked for more detail - he is now asking for quite a lot of detail. With regard to time, I indicated that we will invite expressions of interest from developers. We hope that advertisements to that effect will be placed in a couple of weeks. We actually want schemes to be submitted by 24 January 2001 and we hope to have those assessed and appraised by early to mid-March. We hope to be in a position to make appointments then. It is estimated that it will take about 15 months to complete the building and occupation stages. I hope that work should be completed by summer 2002.
As to location, we will await proposals from developers. The previous site in Bridge Street is still there and is still available. However, developers might suggest other sites. The site would have to be within a mile of the town centre, which is taken as being the middle of Hill Street.
As far as numbers are concerned, all social security staff will occupy the new building. DHSS and Training and Employment Agency staff would also avail of the new building. Some of the other Departments made alternative arrangements since the fire, and those alternative arrangements will stand. Those people will not come into the new offices.
Before calling any further supplementaries, may I advise that I will rule Members out of order for asking for the replacement of offices in other places. This is not the first time I have had to take such a line, because Members are prone to give in to the temptation to take a question concerning a particular constituency and a specific issue and apply it willy-nilly to others.
I gaze around for any indication that a Member wishes to speak. Mr Hussey wishes to risk it.
I congratulate the Minister on his first answer. It is nice to hear a Minister giving a very short answer and I am sure Mr Fee appreciated it. Are there plans with regard to other social security offices throughout Northern Ireland, and is the Minister aware of the particular problems in Strabane?
On the latter part of the question, I am ruling the Member out of order. On the first part, I congratulate him on his ingenuity and the Minister on the conciseness of his earlier reply.
Mr Speaker, I thank you for advising the Members with that very helpful moratorium. We are aware that a number of social security offices, and indeed a number of offices of different services, need to be improved, and we are aware that commitments have been made to a variety of localities, not least the one that the Member rather sneakily mentioned. We obviously hope to be in a position to bring forward appropriate details when we are ready.
In considering the redevelopment of benefit offices, will the Minister look carefully at the approach taken in pilot areas such as Lisburn and Dungannon, where the benefit offices and the Training and Employment Agency have been integrated? Unemployment has been reduced by 25% and this has been attributed to the change.
That is one consideration that will be borne in mind when we look at future social security office accommodation needs. It would go along with all the other basic service needs of social security offices. In relation to the proposal for Newry, I did say that the Training and Employment Agency will also be located in the new office. The two Departments concerned - the Department for Social Development and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment - have been successfully developing the very pilot schemes that the Member referred to, and the Executive Committee wants to see further progress made.
I am grateful to the Minister for the information he gave about the location, or possible location, of the new office in Newry. In the light of forthcoming events at the weekend, I wonder whether he might be in a position to tell Members from Newry, and other Members, the location of their social security offices.
It is unreasonable to ask the Minister for information of that kind at a time like this.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will detail the number of administrative assistants employed on a casual basis by the Northern Ireland Civil Service over the last five years, and if he will make a statement.
In relation to the previous question, I will, of course, refer those who may ask to the Minister for Social Development - or, rather, a former Minister for Social Development. He might well have a helpful list somewhere.
The numbers of administrative assistants employed on a casual basis as at 1 January in the past five years were as follows: 1996, 1,272; 1997, 1,584; 1998, 1,391; 1999, 1,388; and 2000, 1,295. Casual appointments are made by the employing Departments to meet their business needs, particularly in relation to, for example, short-term vacancies, special projects and projected staffing levels.
I wish to ask the Minister why so few permanent positions were made available. Does the Minister agree that it is a waste of resources to bring these people in for a year, train them and then let them go? The figures he quoted in relation to the past five years prove the need for permanent staff in some areas.
Again I make the point that casual appointments are made by the appointing Departments to take account of particular circumstantial pressures and needs. In many cases, because of vacancies at other levels, people are "acting up", and that in turn creates temporary vacancies at the level of administrative assistant. That is why many of these appointments are temporary and casual.
While I gave the figures, as asked, for casual administrative assistants, perhaps I should also give figures for permanent appointments over part of the same period. During the period December 1996 to March 1998, 650 permanent administrative assistants and administrative officers were appointed. In the period April 1998 to March 1999 the figure was 1,640, and in the period April 1999 to April 2000 it was 1,590. While the figures for casual appointments may seem high, a considerable number of permanent appointments are being made.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he has any plans for a rate revaluation for domestic properties in Northern Ireland.
As part of the work on the Programme for Government, and as previously indicated in the Chamber, I intend to review the rating system in Northern Ireland, and a domestic revaluation will be considered within this review.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and I look forward to the review of the rating system. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that the current system, whereby money is raised from taxpayers throughout Northern Ireland, is based on a system that is not transparent, is not at all progressive and levies money through an iniquitous regional rate, which all of us abhor. Does he agree that the sooner such a system is done away with the better?
I make the point that I have made before. Clearly the Assembly has some reliance on the regional rate to fund part of our public expenditure. In relation to trying to overcome any of the anomalies, difficulties and problems that many have with the district rate, the regional rate and the rating system in general, we need to take account of what alternatives are available to us and what we would put in their place.
I do not believe that we can afford to opt for blanket abolition if we want to continue to spend at the sort of level we indicated in the Budget last week. If we are to create alternatives, we need this type of wholesale review to identify precisely all the issues involved, along with the alternatives and the possible problems that might attach to those alternatives.
The Minister will be aware of the concern that has been voiced about any possible increase above the rate of inflation in rents for Housing Executive tenants. It is an issue that many Members have concerns about, including those of us on these Benches. Can he give the House a reason why he proposes to increase the regional rate by 8%? When he considers rate revaluation for domestic properties in Northern Ireland, will he not reconsider this? I know that the proposed increase has caused concern to domestic ratepayers. The Minister has a little more work to do to persuade people that an increase of that magnitude is justified.
If we compare the total rates bills of householders in Northern Ireland with those across the water, we find that contributions here are not particularly high or excessive, even with the 8% increase scheduled on the domestic rate for next year. If we take a ready reckoner on this, each per cent of increase on the domestic rate would work out at £2·2 million in terms of public expenditure. Therefore, for each lower rate increase of 1% that we make, we have to alter the spending plans for next year accordingly by £2·2 million.
If Members want to suggest alternatives for funding the lower rate increases, then that is something that could be looked at in the context of the overall Budget consideration. We want to try to deal with many of the underlying concerns and anomalies in the rating system in the broader rating review. We want to make it more transparent so that householders - the key fund-givers - actually understand the value of what they are contributing to and the value of what they are getting in return.
The Minister has stated that he and his Department are looking at alternatives. Is it an alternative that this Assembly should have tax-varying powers?
Property-related taxation - the rates - comes within the competence of the Assembly. Tax-varying powers are a different area and are not transferred matters.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister agree that since £20 million is spent on North/South bodies, the people of Northern Ireland would probably appreciate no increase in the regional rate -
Order. The Member knows perfectly well that that is well outside any conceivable, reasonable supplementary relating to this question. It is also now outside the time, and I therefore move to the next item of business.
The Further Consideration Stage of this Bill having been completed, along with my own consideration, which is that the Bill, as it now stands, is competent and conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights, we move to the Final Stage. I call the Minister for Social Development.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
I beg to move
That the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill (NIA 1/00) do now pass.
In agreeing to the provisions of this Bill, the House will make a major contribution to the ongoing process of welfare reform. I will not go over the provisions in any detail, but I will comment briefly on what has been achieved. The foundations have been laid for a new, fairer, simpler system of child support which, above all, will do what child support has always aimed to do, which is to get the money to the children who are entitled to it.
In the field of pensions, the most significant achievement is the introduction of the state second pension to help those who, through no fault of their own, cannot earn enough to build up a good pension under the State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) or through an occupational or personal pension. We are doing much to increase the independence in retirement of a significant section of society, including carers and the disabled, who until now had no option but to rely on means-tested benefits in their twilight years. We have also improved the regulation of occupational pension schemes by extending the functions of the Pensions Ombudsman and making it easier to obtain information about prospective pension entitlements.
The provisions dealing with housing benefit decisions and appeals bring that benefit into line with procedures for other social security benefits and child support, and are entirely beneficial. After a lengthy debate, we have put measures on the statute book to allow for both the withdrawal of a driving licence for failure to make child support payments and for the withdrawal of benefits where a court decides that a person has breached a community sentence.
I am aware of the depth of feeling in the House about the severity of those measures. It is incumbent on me to remind the House that while those measures will be used if necessary, they are intended primarily as deterrents. The threat of a driving licence withdrawal is intended to deter non-resident parents from defaulting on child support payments. The benefits sanction is intended to encourage compliance with the terms of a community sentence. I remind the House that the provisions dealing with community sentences will not be brought into operation in Northern Ireland before they have been piloted in England and Wales. Following evaluation of the pilot schemes, they will both be brought into force throughout Great Britain.
I would like to put on record my deep appreciation to all those who contributed to the debates on these sensitive matters. Many people spoke with feeling and with considerable knowledge, allowing us to fully consider the relevant issues. David Ford and Monica McWilliams showed particular interest, albeit in opposing certain clauses. There were of course those who were very positive and who latched on to the merits of the Bill and spoke accordingly. These included Peter Robinson, Ian Paisley, Jim Shannon and others.
Several Members expressed reservations about the use of the accelerated passage procedure for a Bill of this size and complexity. I will not rake over the embers of earlier discussions about who may or may not have objected to the accelerated procedure had they been able to be here at the appropriate time. That is a side issue. The accelerated passage procedure is tailor-made to cover this area of legislation. The unique position of social security, child support and pensions is specifically recognised in the very Act that set up this Assembly and from which we draw our legislative competence.
Had we not been able to avail of accelerated passage, this Bill would, in all probability, have taken several months to complete its passage. In earlier debates I spoke at length about parity. I trust that all parties in the House recognise the major advantages that parity brings. It is clearly not right to delay the implementation of parity legislation for several months and to deny the people of Northern Ireland the same rights as their fellow citizens in Great Britain. Even we can avail of the accelerated passage procedure.
The procedure is not perfect, but in the course of the passage of the Bill we were able to fully debate all the issues that Members wanted to raise. As far as I am aware, every Member who wished to speak was able to do so. I trust that I answered every question asked of me. I ask those Members who expressed concern about the use of accelerated passage to consider carefully what I have said. In conclusion, I thank Members for their contributions to what have been lively and thought-provoking debates.
A Chathaoirligh, while I accept that this Bill has some merit and value, I would like to put it on the record that it contains clauses and principles that we cannot support. As we cannot support the Bill in its entirety, we will vote against it.
It will come as no great surprise to the Minister that my Colleagues and I remain unpersuaded by his arguments, specifically on clause 16 and clauses 53 to 57. We found the Minister's arguments no more persuasive than our friends who heard Ministers advocate similar arguments in Westminster did. Nonetheless, we recognise that 90% - if not more - of the Bill is uncontentious and contains principles of parity which we in this part of the Chamber fully support. Although we may not accept parity in every dot and comma, it is clear that there should be parity in the benefits paid in specific cases.
Ninety per cent of the Bill went through uncontentiously, and the Minister, his party Colleagues and his silent followers in the UUP defeated us on other matters. To date, the Bill has passed through its stages properly, and we will not oppose it further.
I welcome Mr Ford's remarks. Even if he has not seen the light entirely, at least there is a glimmer of hope. I thank him.
If you go on like that - [Laughter]
The Assembly divided: Ayes 57; Noes 14.
Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Eileen Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Seamus Close, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, David Ervine, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Oliver Gibson, Carmel Hanna, William Hay, Joe Hendron, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, David McClarty, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Sean Neeson, Danny O'Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, John Tierney, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
David Ervine, Michelle Gildernew, John Kelly, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Dara O'Hagan, Sue Ramsey.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill (NIA 1/00) do now pass.
The sitting was suspended at 4.29 pm.