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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 6 November 2000


The Environment British-Irish Council Sectoral Meeting

Family Law Bill: Second Stage

Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill: Consideration Stage

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Electricty Costs

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

The Environment British-Irish Council Sectoral Meeting


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the British-Irish Council Environment Sectoral Group meeting held in London on Monday 2 October.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at a meeting of the British-Irish Council on the Environment on 2 October. The UK Government were represented by the Environment Minister, Mr Michael Meacher MP, who chaired the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. The meeting was also attended by representatives of the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales, the Isle of Man Government and the States of Jersey and Guernsey.

A full list of delegates is attached to the communiqué that was issued after the meeting and placed in the Assembly Library. This statement has been agreed by Mr McGuinness and is being made on his behalf.

At the first summit meeting of the British-Irish Council, on 17 December 1999, the environment was selected as an issue for early discussion. The UK Government were tasked with taking the lead in this area and under the chairmanship of Mr Meacher, the environment sectoral group was established to consider the environmental issues affecting the member Administrations and to report back.

The members agreed that the group would provide a valuable forum for the exchange of information and the discussion of matters of mutual interest. The group discussed a wide range of priority areas for future consideration. These included: the impacts on the environment of climate change, agriculture and aquaculture; waste management, waste recycling and radioactive and chemical wastes; water quality under the water framework directive; and environmental research. Many of these were put forward by the Northern Ireland Administration.

After discussion the group agreed that consideration over the next few months should concentrate on radioactive waste from the Sellafield site, in respect of which the Irish Government and the Isle of Man would lead the preparation of a paper for the next meeting; the impacts of climate change, in respect of which the United Kingdom Government would take the lead; and waste management, in respect of which the Scottish Executive would prepare a paper on initiatives being pursued in Scotland. The work will be progressed by working groups of officials under the leadership of each Administration, who will report back to the environment sectoral group.

I expressed a particular interest in water quality management in the context of the Water Framework Directive, and it is my expectation that consideration will be given to this at subsequent meetings.

The group also considered a paper by the United Kingdom Government which reviewed the conclusions of the OSPAR regional quality status report on the Celtic seas. The group reviewed the issues of concern identified in the report and the ways in which they are being dealt with in various forums. It was agreed that a high level of liaison and co-operation should continue between the Administrations concerned to facilitate the implementation of all appropriate measures and the identification of any new initiatives that may be required. It was agreed that periodic reports on progress should be provided to the group.

Finally, the group considered and agreed the text of the communiqué which was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library. The next meeting of the environment sectoral group will be hosted by the Scottish Executive.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for his report on the British-Irish Council meeting. It is no surprise that the first highlighted item was radioactive discharge into the Irish Sea from Sellafield, although the heading refers to waste from Sellafield. Can the Minister confirm that in dealing with radioactive waste from the Sellafield site he will be dealing not only with the high and medium grade waste stored on land but also with the discharges of low level radioactive waste into the Irish Sea? Can he indicate whether or not the British Government — the major shareholders of the main offender, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) — have declared an interest in this matter? The British Government signed the OSPAR agreement. In July 1998 they indicated that they would reduce radioactive waste into the Irish Sea to nil by 2020. In view of the fact that they have further licence to reprocess particularly at the MOX plant at Sellafield, how do they propose to achieve zero outflow by 2020 if they are increasing the discharges?

Mr Foster:

The operation of the Sellafield plant and its impact on the Irish Sea is of considerable interest to some sections of the Northern Ireland public, and Mr McGrady shows great interest in it. So far as I am aware, the levels of radioactivity measured by the Environment and Heritage Service are of negligible radiological significance. The Environment and Heritage Service arranges for samples of seaweed, sediment, fish and shellfish to be collected quarterly for analysis. We also monitor the air over coastal intertidal sediments. This reveals minimum amounts of radioactivity which are consistent with normal background levels. The Northern Ireland programme has been in place since the early 1970s and is reviewed annually to ensure that any changes in discharge are assessed — for example, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) Start-Up Scheme in 1994. I can assure Members that these issues have come to our attention, and that the level of radioactivity measured in the environment is not of any great significance.

The Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Rev Dr William McCrea):

I thank the Minister for his statement and for raising many issues which will be of interest to my Committee. I note that working groups are to be set up to deal with specific issues. Will the groups include staff from Northern Ireland? If not, why not?

Radioactive waste from Sellafield is an important issue. Is the Minister’s Department monitoring the effects of Sellafield discharge around the Northern Ireland coastline? If so, what are the findings? Northern Ireland produces less than 3·5% of the United Kingdom’s total greenhouse gas emissions, yet we are still affected by the impact of climate change and cannot afford to be complacent. Are there specific plans to further reduce these emissions in Northern Ireland?

Waste management is topical and we had a helpful exchange on the issue last week. I note that a paper on waste management initiatives in Scotland is to be presented to the sectoral group, and local councils are currently drafting plans for departmental perusal. Does the Minister think that Scotland can show Northern Ireland the way forward, and can he say which particular initiatives will be of local interest?

Finally, on a personal note, I note that Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin/IRA Member, was at the meeting. As the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has decided that Sinn Féin/IRA is to be banned from North/South bodies, can the Minister confirm that this ban will be extended to the British-Irish Council meetings?

Mr Foster:

The Member’s last question is one for my leader to answer.

One question concerned the officials who will be operating —

Mr Speaker:

For the sake of clarity, let me point out that it is the First Minister who would deal with the Member’s question. I know that the Minister’s leader and the First Minister are one and the same person, but technically it is a matter for the First Minister.

Mr Foster:

Yes, it is for the First Minister to decide, and I cannot answer for him.

Officials from the Environment and Heritage Service will play a full part in the working groups.

The Environment and Heritage Service has 40 estuarine and coastal monitoring points around Northern Ireland. These include seven stations that are part of the UK’s national marine monitoring programme, which sets the protocols for best practice in marine monitoring. These arrangements apply at all our sampling sites. My Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are working together on the nutrient enrichment of our sea loughs.

The Department of the Environment’s draft budget includes £3·5 million to help local district councils to implement the waste management strategy. Three waste management planning groups have been formed representing all 26 district councils and their plans are due by June 2001. A consultation paper on partnerships between councils and with the private and voluntary sectors to implement the strategy was issued in August. Further planned work includes the establishment of a new advisory board to help my Department in implementation of the waste management strategy, the issue of planning policy statement on planning and waste management and the introduction of further waste management regulations.

While local authorities in Northern Ireland are working out their waste management plans, in Scotland recycling markets and other initiatives are well progressed, and we may be able to follow the lead of the Scots, take their advice and adopt their guidelines.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the study into radioactive waste from Sellafield, and I hope the Minister took the opportunity to raise the issue of cancer clusters on the east coast, which affect not only the Irish Government but also the Assembly. These are issues in which we take a close interest.

10.45 am

However, my response to the Minister’s statement relates to two closely interconnected issues in particular — the impacts of climate change and waste management. We can no longer deny the consequences of these: we have all seen the daily weather bulletins and the images of flooding in recent days. I would be interested to know how much more advanced the Scottish Executive’s waste management programme is. Did they, for example, bring any information to that meeting that indicated that they were putting structures and legislation in place to ensure that we control the level of waste being produced as well as procedures for reuse and recycling?

Mr Foster:

Waste management is very much advanced in Scotland, and, as I said in my earlier answer, we are willing to take advice from Scotland and its officials, with whom our officials are in touch. We will willingly take any guidance or help we can get. They do seem to be a little bit more advanced than we are in this part of the world. We are willing to follow that through and take from it what is beneficial.

The Member referred to the treacherous climate change. The Department of the Environment fully supports the climate change programme currently being drawn up by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions and the devolved Administrations. The programme will set out a range of measures to meet the UK’s Kyoto obligations for a 12·5% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2008-12. A major study will be commissioned to identify the key areas in which climate change is most likely to have an impact on Northern Ireland. The results of this preliminary study will form the basis for future work on climate change here. The most likely areas requiring detailed attention are water resources, flood protection, buildings, habitats and land use planning. The Member referred to waste management. This is a big issue, and it is going to be a difficult one. It will be a slow, educational process. We are willing to work on it in co-ordination with the Scottish people.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Ms Hanna):

At the environment conference on 25 October with the Prime Minister, the CBI and the Green Alliance, it was announced that moneys would be made available — to the tune of about £100 million — through the Carbon Trust and the New Opportunity Trust, to encourage cleaner technologies such as wind, solar power and renewable energy, and to help further engage consumers with initiatives. Did the Minister get an opportunity to discuss a share of this money for Northern Ireland, which would work out at about £2·5 million?

Mr Foster:

No in-depth discussion took place at that particular meeting because we were discussing many other matters. However, those are certainly issues that we will follow through and address, because if money is available, we want to ensure that we receive it too.

Mr Ford:

I welcome the Minister’s statement, although it seems that the major question that must be asked of most of the statement is "When?" A number of priorities were highlighted, and there is great concern in the Chamber and outside about matters such as Sellafield. Perhaps it would have been beneficial if the Minister had given us some idea of the timing of any changes within Sellafield and of his Administration’s approach to the running down of the plant.

Climate change and waste management are priorities. My concern is about climate change. Can the Minister explain how matters like public transport, which are not in his Department’s remit, will be dealt with by the British-Irish Council’s Environment sector? Who will cover those issues on our behalf? May I have an assurance that the work being done by the three groups in Northern Ireland on waste management will not be delayed now that the Executive is in consultation with the Scots in the British-Irish Council? When and how quickly can we expect action?

Mr Foster:

There will be no delay whatsoever with any of the plans that are afoot. It is difficult to say when the waste management strategy will be finalised, but I assure Members that the Department will pursue all the issues with haste, to the benefit of this part of the world.

Dr Birnie:

I thank the Minister for his statement. In a sense, the environment is an eminently suitable subject for the British-Irish Council. Environmental issues can spill over — technically and literally — from one country or jurisdiction to another. A co-operative approach is therefore welcome.

The Minister highlighted the important issue of climate change. Our country — the United Kingdom — has made considerable progress in implementing so-called carbon taxing, including the climate change levy on energy prices and the escalator on transport fuel. Both of those moves have, of course, caused problems, as we have previously noted. The Republic of Ireland’s Government have been much slower than the United Kingdom’s to adopt the practice and the principle of taxing economic activity according to the amount of climate-changing carbon that is produced. What progress is being made through the British/Irish Council to persuade the Dublin Government, like the United Kingdom Government, to take more seriously their international obligations on climate change?

Mr Foster:

Climate change is a big issue. Each jurisdiction has a responsibility to fulfil, and that will be vigorously pursued. If the Republic of Ireland is falling behind, that issue will be pursued with its Government. I am concerned about climate change. There is clear scientific evidence that sufficient damage has already been done to the earth’s climate to cause a range of potential changes, regardless of the influence of action under Kyoto.

Key policies include improving businesses’ use of energy, using the climate change levy; stimulating new, more efficient forms of power generation such as renewables, combined heat and power plants; cutting transport emissions through fuel efficiency and taxation; promoting better energy efficiency in the domestic sector; reducing emissions from agriculture through better management, cuts in fertiliser usage and energy efficiency; and setting a good example of green housekeeping in the public sector. The Department of the Environment, in conjunction with the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER), is about to commission a major scoping study into the impacts of climate change in Northern Ireland. The results of that preliminary study will form the basis for future work on climate change.

Mr Poots:

Why did the Minister omit the names of the representatives of the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales, the Isle of Man Government and the states of Jersey and Guernsey? That is not very inclusive. I would be as interested to know about their representatives as about those of the Irish Government.

Regarding the OSPAR regional quality status report on the Celtic seas, did the Minister raise the issue of munitions dumping in the Beaufort’s Dyke and the problems with munitions washing up on the County Antrim coastline?

Mr Foster:

The names of those who attended are in the communiqué.

Mr Poots:

What about the statement?

Mr Foster:

The statement is in the Library. The statement that I gave earlier referred to those who were there.

I did not pick up Mr Poots’s question fully. I said that the Scottish Executive were there, as were the National Assembly for Wales, the Isle of Man Government and representatives of Jersey and Guernsey.

Mr Speaker:

Would Mr Poots like to put the question again?

Mr Poots:

Who represented the Scottish Executive and the other named bodies?

Mr Foster:

Their names were unfamiliar to me. I had never met them before. I can provide the Member with their names by written reply.

What was the Member’s other question?

Mr Poots:

Was the issue of munitions dumping at Beaufort’s Dyke raised in relation to the OSPAR Commission’s regional quality status report on the Celtic Seas?

Mr Foster:

Beaufort’s Dyke was referred to and will be dealt with in due course. I now have the names of the delegates. Does the Member want to know who was on the United Kingdom delegation?

Mr Poots:

All of them.

Mr Foster.

The members of the United Kingdom delegation were Ms Dinah Nicholls, Mr Andrew Burchell, Mr Henry Derwent and Mr Alan Simcock. Those on the Irish delegation were Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Ms Geraldine Tallon and Mr John Kelleher. The Northern Ireland delegation comprised Mr Sam Foster MLA, Mr Martin McGuinness MP MLA, Mr Felix Dillon and Mr Jim Lamont. Those representing Scotland were Ms Sarah Boyack MSP, Ms Nicola Munro and Mr Sandy Cameron. The members of the delegation from Wales were Mr Bob Macey and Dr Havard Prosser. The Isle of Man representatives were The Hon Walter Gilbey MHK, Mr Anthony Hamilton, Mr Martin Hall and Dr Paul McKenna. The Jersey delegation comprised Senator Nigel Queree, Dr Michael Romeril and Mr Gerard le Claire. The Guernsey representatives were Deputy Roger Berry and Mr Stephen Smith. The British-Irish Council secretariat was represented by Mr Mike Sweet and Mr Kieran Madden. It is not easy to remember all those names.

The OSPAR Commission report referred to Beaufort’s Dyke. Beaufort’s Dyke has not been forgotten. It is still highlighted, and will continue to be so, because I know that there are concerns about the Antrim coast.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The specific question was whether the issue was raised at the meeting.

Mr Speaker:

The Minister may have missed that part of the question.

Mr Foster:

The issue of Beaufort’s Dyke was raised at the meeting and remains an issue of concern.

Mr Speaker:

There being no further questions, we shall move on.

Food Standards Agency

Food standards agency

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that she wishes to make a statement on the general objectives and practices of the Food Standards Agency.

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

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas Cheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm Ráiteas ar Chuspóirí Ginearálta agus Chleachtais na Gníomhaireachta um Chaighdeáin Bia a chur faoi bhráid an Tionóil inniu.

Bunaíodh an Ghníomhaireacht um Chaighdeáin Bia faoin Food Standards Act 1999 leis an tsláinte phoiblí a chosaint ar phriacail a d’fhéadfadh a bheith ann maidir le bia a thomhailtear agus le leas tomhaltóirí a chosaint i dtaca le bia.

Tá cur síos ginearálta sa doiciméad ar an dóigh a mbeidh an ghníomhaireacht ag feidhmiú. Leagtar amach na príomhchuspóirí agus na cleachtais ghinearálta atá beartaithe ag an ghníomhaireacht a chur i bhfeidhm nuair a bheas sí i mbun a cuid feidhmeanna.

Ceanglaítear ar an ghníomhaireacht faoi alt 22(4) den Acht dréachtráiteas a chur faoi bhráid Airí lena gcead a fháil. Más mian le hAirí leasuithe ar bith a dhéanamh ar an ráiteas seo, is gá dóibh, faoi alt 22(5), dul i gcomhairle leis an ghníomhaireacht. Is gá faoi alt 22(6) an ráiteas ceadaithe a chur faoi bhráid na Parlaiminte i Westminster, Tionól Náisiúnta na Breataine Bige, Pharlaimint na hAlban agus an Tionóil anseo.

I ndiaidh comhairliú forleitheadach poiblí a dhéanamh, tá an Ráiteas ar Chuspóirí Ginearálta agus Chleachtais ceadaithe ag an Státrúnaí Sláinte, ag an Aire Sláinte in Albain, ag an Rúnaí Sláinte sa Bhreatain Bheag agus agam féin. Molaim don Tionól é.

11.00 am

I am pleased to present to the Assembly the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Statement of General Objectives and Practices. The FSA was set up by the Food Standards Act 1999 to protect public health from the risks that may arise in connection with food consumption and to protect consumers’ interests in relation to food.

The document describes in general terms how the agency will operate and sets out the main objectives and general practices that the agency intends to adopt. Section 22(4) of the Food Standards Act 1999 requires the agency to submit the draft statement to Ministers for their approval. Should Ministers wish to make any modification to the statement, section 22(5) requires them to consult the agency before doing so. Section 22(6) requires that the approved statement be laid before the Parliament at Westminster, the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and this Assembly. After wide-ranging public consultation, the Statement of General Objectives and Practices has been approved by the Secretary of State for Health, by myself, by the Minister for Health in Scotland and the Health Secretary in Wales. I commend it to the Assembly.

Mr Bradley:

The recently published Phillips report into the BSE crisis included some serious findings. What steps has the Food Standards Agency taken to adopt the recommendations made in the report?

Ms de Brún:

As the Member said, the Phillips report included some very serious statements and set out actions to be taken. Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, welcomed the publication of the report on the Phillips inquiry into BSE on Thursday 26 October 2000, and pledged that vital information on food safety risks would never again be withheld from the public. He also said that many of the key changes identified by the inquiry as being necessary to protect consumers had already been adopted by the agency.

The FSA has made a clean start on openness and public accountability; its research and advice are open to scrutiny, and where there is uncertainty or risk the agency says so. The FSA has been reviewing BSE controls since April 2000 and has held a series of public meetings. It will submit a report to Health and Agriculture Ministers in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and this Assembly, taking account of the report of the BSE inquiry.

Mr McCarthy:

I welcome the Minister’s statement on the FSA. It must be a priority to maintain high standards, restore confidence to the consumer — not only in Northern Ireland but across the world — and regain local producers’ lost export business. Openness and transparency are of great importance. I hope that lessons have been learnt from the experience of previous Administrations. The Minister briefly referred to those lessons in relation to BSE, a devastating disease. Will the agency be able to bring its full authority to bear in examining all the food that is imported into Northern Ireland? Will that come under the FSA’s umbrella?

Ms de Brún:

I agree with everything that Mr McCarthy has said about openness and transparency. The statement shows clearly that the agency believes such things to be paramount. The FSA will work with local enforcement agencies to improve quality and has made a framework agreement with them. The agency will also work with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, setting out overall strategic objectives and monitoring their enforcement. Through setting these objectives, monitoring and working with other agencies, the FSA will be able to ensure that food safety is paramount from the farm gate to the plate.

Mr Berry:

I welcome this UK body, the Food Standards Agency — and I emphasise "UK body".

First, as regards part 5, "Our Working Practices", will the Department detail the policy that will be followed to ensure that the agency’s working practices are transparent? Secondly, when there is conflicting scientific advice, what policy will be followed? Thirdly, what will be the relationship between this body and the all-Ireland body launched in Enniskillen on Friday?

Ms de Brún:

On the issue of transparency and openness, the Food Standards Act 1999 gives the agency the power to publish its advice to Ministers, and this principle is embodied in its proposed code of practice on openness. The agency will normally publish the advice and information it receives and provides to others. It is committed to issuing clear and timely advice, in plain language, on all issues relating to food safety and other consumer interests regarding food. In addition, a large amount of information on the Food Standards Agency, its responsibilities and activities will be included on its website.

I will briefly explain how the agency will act on occasions when there is scientific uncertainty. The proposed statement on the agency’s approach to risk — on which it is currently consulting — describes, in general terms, how it intends to deal with risks from the time when the agency first becomes aware of them through to the decision making and enforcement stages. The agency will take a precautionary approach — it will not always wait until it has proof of a potential hazard before acting or issuing advice.

On the issue of working with other bodies to promote food safety, it is clear that the Food Safety Promotion Board will have the lead role. The Food Standards Agency will have a role in working on draft legislation and will provide, in an EU context, advice to the Assembly and Ministers. The two bodies do not carry out the same functions but a relationship between the local executive of the Food Standards Agency and the Food Safety Promotion Board will be needed. To facilitate effective co-operation, a concordat will be put in place following agreement by the two bodies, which will set out the arrangements for co-operation and liaison.

Mr Leslie:

I welcome the Minister’s statement on food standards. The theme running through this document starts with basing decisions on best scientific advice; later it refers to sound scientific advice and finally it recognises there is uncertainty in the science. How does the Minister and this agency propose to reconcile the three situations? It is realistic to say that there is uncertainty, so how do they propose to identify the best advice?

The agency’s Statement of General Objectives and Practices contains the following objective:

"To ensure that the interests of UK consumers in relation to food are effectively promoted within the European Union and in other international forums."

That is a fairly ineffective statement of intent. The problem we have with food standards in the United Kingdom is that, whilst the food produced within the United Kingdom is subject to rigorous standards, the food that is imported and sold on the same supermarket shelves is not subject to anything like the same standards. Do the Minister and her colleagues propose to address this matter, with a view to providing some means of protection to consumers in the United Kingdom from imported food subject to much less rigorous standards?

Ms de Brún:

I addressed the issue of how the agency will deal with the uncertainties in my previous response. It will work on the basis of the best scientific advice available, and, as the Food Safety Agency, it will have access to scientific advice from England, Scotland, Wales and here.

The local board of the agency will have access to that advice. Given the precautionary principle, that will be the key basis for informing decisions and informing the agency, so where there is uncertainty, that is how it will be approached. Indeed, it is of paramount importance that the consumers have clear advice and clear, open information about the state of play.

As regards setting policy, it will also try to ensure that there is open consultation with a wide range of people. When the agency is making decisions, such as setting overall parameters in the importing of products, it will consult with all of those who could be or are affected — it is currently preparing guidance on that — and, in line with the agency’s commitment to improve continually the way that consultation is conducted, it will invite stakeholders to comment on the guidance that it has.

Mr ONeill:

I would also like to welcome the Minister’s statement, and particularly the emphasis she put on the openness and transparency of the working practices of the Food Standards Agency. Did she take note of the work that agency has done in the UK in that the entire sheep flock is to be screened in case there is BSE in that flock masquerading as scrapie? In the light of the openness and transparency that the Minister emphasised so much, can she advise us of the position in Northern Ireland and what plans the Food Standards Agency here has for this?

Ms de Brún:

The more general questions in respect of the handling of BSE will be dealt with in a statement tomorrow. I can say that the controls for sheep were introduced on a precautionary basis as a risk-reduction measure, since BSE has never been found in the flock. These controls are regarded as adequate, although there is a great deal of uncertainty about BSE and sheep, and the agency considers that it is important to clear this up, so it is pressing for further and faster research.

Mr Shannon:

I too welcome the consistent approach to the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom.

In relation to the funding of the agency, the £90 levy has been dropped, but a charge will be made by way of a licence fee. People are worried that these licence fees could be as much as £600 per shop or establishment. Some were already saying that the £90 was too much. Would it not have been better to ensure that the extra work for local environmental health groups was funded centrally through the Government?

I would also like to have a commitment that the promotion of public health will be given equal status to the protection of public health, and I want to know exactly how that will work. Paragraph 11 of the statement mentions the fact that the agency’s information should be placed in the public domain. Can we have a commitment on that or, if necessary, a clear reason that it should not be so? I am concerned that we may not have the transparency that Mr McCarthy and Mr Leslie talked about.

As for the pooling of resources, the statement refers to provision for technical and scientific specialist support although, in many cases, local government is already doing that. I want to ensure that there are sufficient resources and that the system we have will work effectively.

11.15 am

Ms de Brún:

The Member has raised several important points. Licensing is subject to the existence of enhanced hygiene conditions; documented hazard analysis and critical control points; food safety management controls; and improved hygiene training for staff. A charge of £100 will be payable by businesses to the issuing authority on receipt on the licence.

In relation to the promotion of food safety, it is clear from the agency’s statement that it has set itself the target of measurably improving public confidence and public information. Openness will be pursued as one of its key objectives. The agency will conduct and publish annual consumer attitude surveys on food issues and on the Food Standards Agency itself. It will publish annual reports concerning its scientific and surveillance work, in a manner which consumers can understand. It will enhance its website so that that is completely interactive by 2002, thereby allowing the public to tell the agency what they would like it to do.

Facilities to provide consumer advice will be developed, and new approaches that harness recent developments in e-technology will be piloted. The agency will hold public board meetings and open discussions in order to listen to, and act upon, public concerns. It will also encourage local authorities to publish local information on hygiene standards in food premises. Details of the performance of enforcement activities will be made public. Availability of research results will be increased and a system for post hoc audits of major food incidents, involving the relevant stakeholders, will be established. It is important to note that the agency can provide and publish advice to Ministers without having to seek ministerial approval.

With regard to the withholding of information, the proposed code of practice on openness makes the disclosure and publication of advice and information the norm. In accordance with this principle, information will only be withheld when strictly necessary. The code of practice on openness lists the various legal constraints on publication. Openness will be the key factor in the agency’s operation.

Mr Hussey:

I welcome the Food Standards Agency’s statement of general objectives and practices. In the section dealing with accountability, the board accepts collective responsibility for the co-ordination of the agency’s activities across the United Kingdom, and its accountability to the various Administrations. With regard to the regulatory work of the board, it is important that there is proper communication within those Administrations. Can the Minister tell us what internal lines of communication she has put in place to ensure the efficient and effective cross-departmental referencing that will be necessary in the area of regulation?

Ms de Brún:

The agency will liaise; it will set up concordats, liaison and monitoring groups. Also, in the area of enforcement, the agency, in trying to improve standards, is seeking to strengthen and develop links with those in local authorities responsible for enforcing food laws.

As part of this joint Government and local authority initiative, a group was set up in May 1999, which included representation from the Assembly. The culmination of the group’s work, and that of the two sub-groups established to examine the details, was the development of proposals for the Food Standards Agency framework agreement. Those draft proposals were issued in April for a three-month consultation period, which concluded in July. The majority of comments received largely supported the underlying principles of the framework agreement. Therefore the agency has set in place, and is continuing to set in place, specific written policies and practices to ensure proper co-ordination of all aspects of its work with each of the agencies involved.

Mr Poots:

Will the Food Safety Promotion Board — the all-Ireland executive body — adopt the best working practice, as set out in the Food Standards Agency’s statement? If so, will the board raise the issue of the dumping of BSE carcasses close to rivers in the Irish Republic, where there is official support for such dumping? We know that JCBs have been used in BSE dumping for quite a while in the Irish Republic.

Ms de Brún:

As I said, the Foods Standards Agency is in the process of working out its relationship with the Food Safety Promotion Board and the two bodies are to agree a written concordat. In advance of that, it is not possible to say exactly what proposals the Food Standards Agency might bring forward that the Food Safety Promotion Board might or might not adopt. I stress again that, to some extent, the two bodies carry out different types of work, although they work in the same area and we will need to have overlapping arrangements. Clearly — [Interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. Would Mr Poots like to put the question again?

Mr Poots:

There has been dumping of BSE-infected carcasses close to rivers in the Irish Republic, and that has been supported by the Government. Will the standards that apply in Northern Ireland be applied to animals in the Irish Republic, and will the Minister take steps to stop the importation of animals that do not meet the standards that are required of farmers in Northern Ireland?

Ms de Brún:

The Member should check Hansard to see whether or not he asked the specific question that I was specifically answering when he interrupted me.

Neither the Food Standards Agency nor I can impose a specific requirement relating to the way in which others carry out their work. However, all concerns raised about food standards and safety will be discussed.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Can the Minister reveal to the House the cost of her visit to Enniskillen for a meeting at which, I understand, food safety was on the agenda? One newspaper said that the Minister’s Nationalist talk-in in Enniskillen cost the equivalent of two hip replacement operations. Is that the best use of resources by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and her Department? Which officials accompanied the Minister to her Nationalist talk-in in Enniskillen? What was the total cost of the junket?

Ms de Brún:

I am not sure that the question relates specifically to the Food Standards Agency statement. However, as regards the food safety aspects — and all the other aspects — of Friday’s bilateral ministerial meeting, my view is that it was, indeed, a very worthwhile use of resources, which will lead to considerable tangible benefits in food safety and health provision throughout the island of Ireland.

I shall write to the Member about the officials who accompanied me and the costs of the day.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Family Law Bill: 
Second Stage


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Family Law Bill [NIABill 4/00] be agreed.

I present this short Bill because of my responsibility for law reform, with particular reference to family law, in Northern Ireland. The Bill contains only a few policy aims, but they are very significant.

The Bill seeks to facilitate the acquisition of parental responsibility by unmarried fathers for their children. As an ancillary measure it also seeks to make the acquisition of parental responsibility by step-parents for the children of their spouses more transparent. At present the usual method is through the formal adoption of a child, but this should not always be necessary.

The Bill also creates a statutory presumption of paternity in two sets of circumstances — where a man is married to a woman at any time between the conception and birth of a child, and where he has been registered as the child’s father in the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The Bill also seeks to update the law on the range of tests that a court may authorise to be used to prove or disprove the parentage of a child. Parentage in this context is whether someone is or is not the mother or father of a child.

The Bill contains only three substantive clauses. I will deal with each of them and illustrate how they will interact with existing family law principles. Members have already seen the Bill and the accompanying explanatory and financial memorandum.

I will make some preliminary remarks about the policy behind the reforms. In Northern Ireland, marriage remains the norm for couples wishing to share their lives with their children, and in that situation husbands and wives share parental responsibility for their children. However, more couples are choosing not to marry — at least not straight away — but they desire to establish a family relationship with children. In 1998, for example, 6,743 live births occurred outside marriage. This represented 28·5% of all live births. In such cases only the mother will have parental responsibility for the child. The unmarried father will have no formal legally recognised relationship with the child, although he can establish such a relationship by marrying the child’s mother or by taking other steps to acquire parental responsibility.

Parental responsibility is defined in the Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 as

"all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property".

There is no exhaustive list of what a parent may or may not do for a child, but parental responsibility includes decision-making powers with regard to education, health care, religion and other everyday matters, and the law relies on the courts to determine the extent of parental responsibility.

The proposals in the Bill do not seek to pass judgement on the different family relationships which adults choose for themselves and their children. They seek to ensure that, where appropriate, the child’s interests are secured by the legal recognition of the relationship with the child’s father and others such as step-parents who share in the day-to-day care of the child.

A step-parent, whether a man or a woman, has no biological tie to the child of his or her spouse. However, the step-parent has demonstrated a commitment to a family relationship by marrying one of the parents of the child. The Bill provides that a step-parent would be able to acquire parental responsibility for the child of a spouse only under a court order.

The second policy aim of the Bill is to place on a statutory footing the existing common-law presumption that a man who is married to a woman between the conception and birth of the child will be presumed to be the father of the child. The additional policy aspect is to create a new legal presumption that a man who is registered as the father of the child in the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages will be presumed, in law, to be the father of the child. This will, I believe, simply be a clarification of what is normally understood by the public, although this presumption is not a legal one under the existing law.

11.30 am

The Bill will also update the law on the range of tests that a court may direct to be used if a child’s parentage is in dispute. Since the passing of the Family Law Reform Order 1977, there have been significant advances in the technology available to prove or disprove biological parentage. Courts in Northern Ireland should now be able to rely on new technology in deciding cases of disputed parentage. The policy which this Bill seeks to implement has been under consideration in Scotland, England and Wales, and it is likely that similar proposals will be brought forward in due course. Traditionally family law has been very similar across the jurisdictions, with Northern Ireland law following the changes made elsewhere. In this instance I am pleased to say that the Assembly has an opportunity to take the lead. With the large population movement across these islands, there is a strong argument for maintaining a degree of parity in sensitive issues such as family law so that legal relationships between children and their parents are recognised, hence the responsibility for taking decisions for children. That is an important, practical point with regard to health care and education.

I will now address each of the substantive clauses of the Bill. Under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 unmarried fathers only acquire parental responsibility for their children if they take steps to demonstrate their commitment to the mother and child. The principal mechanisms are by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, which is registered in the High Court, or by obtaining an order from the court. Since the Children Order came into force those two mechanisms have not been used as often as had been hoped. As a result the vast majority of unmarried fathers have no formal legal relationship with their children.

In 1999 fewer than 200 parental responsibility orders were made in favour of unmarried fathers. A relatively small number of parental responsibility agreements have been registered with the courts, yet almost 7,000 children are born each year outside marriage.

Clause 1 provides that an unmarried father will have parental responsibility for his children if he and the mother jointly register the child’s birth. Members will note that the Bill provides that in Northern Ireland the unmarried father’s parental responsibility will be recognised if the birth of the child has been jointly registered in Scotland or England and Wales. A child’s birth can only be jointly registered by the mother and the unmarried father if they both agree to the procedure. This new provision will only apply to births registered after the Family Law Bill is introduced. Unmarried fathers of children already born, and jointly registered, will be advised of the availability of existing procedures.

Clause 1 also provides that a step-parent should be able to apply for a court order conferring responsibility for a child of his or her spouse. The court will always have the child’s welfare and best interests as the paramount consideration in deciding whether to make such an order. Where appropriate, the court takes the child’s views into account. The Bill provides that the acquisition of parental responsibility by a step-parent will not enable that step-parent to make decisions on the child’s adoption. This will prevent the new procedure from being used to circumvent the existing legislation regulating adoption. Where an unmarried father acquires parental responsibility by jointly registering the child’s birth, or where a step-parent acquires it by obtaining a court order, the court may terminate the parental responsibility if an application is made to the court. The fact that the court may do so provides a necessary protection for the child, and his or her mother, and is additional to the existing legislation in force to deal with violence in family relationships.

The new provisions in clause 2 create a statutory presumption of paternity which are not wholly innovative. The first part of the clause merely seeks to codify an existing presumption of common law, which is that a man married to a woman at any time between the conception and birth of a child is presumed to be that child’s father. This, of course, is the truth in the vast majority of cases.

Secondly, the clause provides that where a man is registered as the father of a child, he will be presumed, in law, to be the father of that child. Again, this is common sense, although it is not presumed under existing common law. Considering the content of this Bill, it seems sensible to include these provisions as a useful clarification of what is recognised as the reality in almost all cases. In both instances, of course, the presumption of paternity may be rebutted on the balance of probabilities.

Clause 3 is of a technical nature, because it amends existing provisions contained in the Family Law Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. Under the existing legislation, if the paternity of a child is in dispute, a court may only direct that blood samples be taken from the child, or putative father, in order to determine parentage. The amendments in clause 3 will enable a court to direct that bodily samples, such as saliva or hair, may be taken for the purposes of scientific tests to determine parentage. This is undoubtedly a far less invasive and distressful procedure, particularly for children, than the existing procedures, and I consider it to be a major improvement on the human rights aspect of the current law.

Members will wish to know that the amendments in clause 3 were drafted alongside parallel amendments contained in clause 65 of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, which the Assembly has already considered and agreed.

Following from what I have said, I hope Members will appreciate that, while this is a small law reform measure, it has some far-reaching effects. The policy conclusions which the Bill seeks to implement have been decided after the most rigorous consultation processes and close analysis of developments in family law, not only in Northern Ireland but in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, England, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and further afield. I am convinced that these proposals represent a small, but significant, improvement to the existing law. Some may say that they go too far and others that they do not go far enough. When legislation seeks to regulate family relationships we are right to adopt a progressive yet cautious approach.

I will try to answer as many of the Members’ points and questions during my winding-up speech as possible. Of course, if I am not able to respond today, I will write to Members.

Mr Leslie:

I welcome the Bill that the Minister has introduced today. It will make a number of common- sense amendments to current law. I sometimes think we do too much "guinea-pigging", but I do not think there is any reason for caution in respect of this Bill. I welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is leading the way within the United Kingdom in these matters.

The existing law on parental responsibility is most likely to be largely misunderstood by a considerable number of unmarried fathers who are registered as a parent. There has been an assumption that that law puts them in a legal relationship with the child, but it does not. The change that the Bill will introduce to ensure that registering does constitute a legal relationship is very welcome, and in the vast majority of cases that will be appropriate. I know there may be certain circumstances in which it may not be deemed to be so, but they will be in the minority.

Can the Minister confirm that it is at the discretion of the mother of the child that joint registration will take place? It would thus remain the prerogative of the mother to decide whether she wants to register jointly with a male — the father of the child — and so create the legal relationship between that person and the child.

There have been some suggestions that measures in the Bill should have retrospective application. That has been resisted, and I agree with the decision. Generally, one has to be very cautious about applying legislation retrospectively. The existing procedures, under what will become the old law, are available to rectify a position were an unmarried father wants to be in a legal relationship and there is overall consent to that. One area where retrospective application would be very useful is in relation to tax cuts. However, that involves another aspect of the Minister’s remit and is a matter for another day.

Finally, the last part of the Bill, which recognises the major changes in science that enable DNA testing to establish parenthood, is sensible and welcome. I generally welcome the Bill and give it my support.

The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Bill. This is an important stage we are going through. I speak as Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, which is dealing with the Bill. One of the issues that the Committee raised is that this type of Bill would probably be more suitable for, and sit better with, Health and Social Services or Social Development. We recommended to the Speaker that some of these Bills should be redirected. It is not a matter of getting out of the work - there are issues that would be dealt with by Health and Social Services or Social Development, and we need to have an input from those Departments and Committees to ensure that all the issues affected by this Bill are covered. However, the Bill is coming from the Office of Law Reform, so responsibility rests with Finance and Personnel. Our Committee will deal with it as quickly as possible.

It is important that we recognise the many issues in the Bill. There are human rights issues, competing rights issues, issues of father-and-children relationships and father-and-mother relationships. As the Deputy Chairperson has said, there is the matter of the mother having the final say and the matter of the Bill's not being used as a means of exercising control without responsibility. That latter aspect was raised by a number of people.

Human rights issues - and competing rights within those -will be raised by the Bill. I hope that members of other Committees who have issues that they want to raise will come forward to the Finance and Personnel Committee and raise them in the public sessions that will be held.

I will also alert members of the public today that this is an issue that they can have an input in. The Finance and Personnel Committee wants to hear their views and there will be an open session for them to exercise that right. The Committee will deal with the Bill as speedily as possible, and I hope that we will have input from both Members and the public. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr A Maginness:

I welcome the Bill. Mr Leslie mentioned its pioneering aspects, particularly the provision relating to unmarried fathers. If we value devolution and self-government, we should be innovative and pioneering. I will resist using the new verb that Mr Leslie has produced - "to guinea-pig" - but if one were to adopt that new verb, one should be prepared to be innovative. The term "guinea-pigging" is wrong because it suggests experimentation, and this is not necessarily experimentation.


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