Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 7 November 2000 (continued)

Mrs Carson:

I am prepared to give the legislation under discussion a general welcome, although I have misgivings. The Minister is proposing to make legislation in Northern Ireland more uniform with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. It will take a long time for the Assembly and the Executive Committee to undo the years of the lackadaisical low marking of direct rule. I commend the Minister of the Environment for his efforts to address this issue.

If there were doubts about the poor legacy left to the Province from direct rule, we can point to the fact that this legislation replicates provisions made for England and Wales almost a decade ago. The Assembly often laments 25 years of financial underinvestment and lack of planning in everything from the railway system to the Health Service. There was also underinvestment and a lack of planning in our legislative procedures. I am glad that we now have an opportunity to make a full contribution to that progress.

I regret that my contribution to this debate cannot be entirely positive. The shades of direct rule hover over this legislation. I am disappointed that there was no consultation on the Bill. The Department of the Environment was concerned that advance notice of the provisions might encourage pre-emptive compensation claims. I recognise the concern, but not disclosing information is not the best method a Department could employ in preparation for a heavier mailbag.

Mr Wells:

Will the Member give way?

Mrs Carson:

No. I am sorry, but I have visitors waiting.

This lack of consultation has excluded many people who have a right to be involved. I represent the largely rural constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and there are many in the rural community who have a view. They will feel slighted at having been ignored. There will also be many in the rural community who will interpret the proposed abolition of compensation in respect of planning applications for replacement dwellings as an attack on them.

I do not want to contradict my welcome of this replication of Westminster legislation, but I wish to ask for confirmation that Northern Ireland merits the level of replication proposed. In any claims procedure there will be a few rotten apples, but those who have made genuine claims should not be penalised as a result. There may be a reasonable explanation for this, although it is a concern. Perhaps the Minister would describe a typical claim made to his Department under the provisions of the Land Development Values (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. I would also appreciate the Minister's explanation for his decision that the provisions will apply from the date of the Bill's introduction to this Assembly, rather than from the appointed day on which the Bill will become law. Retrospective application may be considered underhand by some. It would be useful to have an indication of what savings might result from this decision.

In a similar vein, I note that the provisions giving rise to compensation are to be repealed, but not those allowing the Department to recover compensation already paid. I recognise that the circumstances in each case are different, but I feel it would be better to repeal the latter as well as the former. Otherwise, it will be hard to escape the perception that the Department is happy to apply one rule to itself and another to the general public. I generally welcome the Bill, although I would like some reassurance on the points I have raised.

Mr A Maginness:

This Bill is very welcome, for it is a long-overdue tidying-up exercise. The fact that we are nine years behind Britain in this matter speaks volumes. I accept the points that Rev William McCrea, the Chairperson of the Environment Committee, made. This Bill underlines the value of having this Assembly and devolution in Northern Ireland. I ask Mr McCrea and certain of his Colleagues to reflect on that and to appreciate the value of this Assembly and the Good Friday Agreement. I hope that Mr McCrea will -

Mr Poots:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is this in relation to the Bill?

Mr A Maginness:

It certainly is in relation to the Bill.

I hope that Mr McCrea will reflect on the fact that a Minister is coming to this House with a significant piece of legislation tidying up an anomaly in the law which permits people to enter applications for planning permission in the hope of being refused and thereby securing compensation. That is clearly an abuse. Of course, there may well have been genuine applicants. However, the level of compensation claims indicates some - I believe, serious - element of abuse. I welcome the fact that the Minister has come to the House at the earliest opportunity with this legislation to prevent such abuse from continuing.

I take issue with Assembly Member Joan Carson, who has now left the House, in relation to the retrospective application of this Bill. It is quite proper that the Minister should choose the date of the introduction of the Bill to this House, for it prevents belated applications from people who know that this Bill is going through the House but hope to benefit. The Minister is right to give a retrospective date as a cut-off point. Otherwise, quite frankly, further abuse would have taken place.

Can the Minister be more precise about the amount of compensation paid out? He has told us how much compensation might be in the pipeline, but not what compensation has already been paid or what moneys have been recovered by the Department in those cases where development took place after compensation was granted to applicants.

I also commend to the House the fact that the Department, in its wisdom, when considering the various options, rejected the do-nothing scenario. Everyone will accept that.

The alternative was to relax planning policies on dwellings in the green belt, which would have been disastrous. Most of us who serve, or have served, on local councils know the difficulties this creates. As good environmentalists we wish to preserve as much as we can of the green belts around our urban areas. Therefore I congratulate the Department on its refusal to go down that road, which would not be for the common good. It would have assisted in the erosion of our green belts - something which should be resisted strenuously by the Department and the Assembly.


On behalf of the SDLP, I give a general welcome to this Bill, which is long overdue. I hope that the House will support it and prevent further abuses. Those who have already made applications will not be disadvantaged by this legislation. I congratulate the Minister on introducing it.

Mr Poots:

Our party broadly welcomes the Bill. Members will not be getting from the DUP the confused messages that they got from Mrs Carson. She appeared to be supporting the Bill on one hand and criticising it on the other.

It would have been grossly incompetent of the Department to have failed to introduce the Bill retrospectively. Until Royal Assent was granted, there would have been a mass rush to make claims to the Department. If there has not been a significant number of claims over the past few years, there would have been in the coming months. The Minister, in his winding-up speech, could indicate how much money has been paid out since 1991 because a number of figures have been bandied about. There was £100,000 per year; the figure of £900,000 still in waiting, and we have the potential figure of £2 million. Has money been paid out in the past nine years, or has it been accepted that money will be paid to these people? Why is there still £900,000 in the pipeline?

The Committee will welcome the opportunity to look at this Bill, to scrutinise it closely and perhaps to make some modifications. I am particularly concerned about the item on listed buildings, and I want to examine that more closely, so that we do all that we can to ensure that our built heritage is maintained. Nothing in this Bill should deflect us from that. At present, the Bill adequately addresses this point, but further consideration will be needed at Committee Stage.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Sinn Féin also welcomes the introduction of this Bill, and I assure the Minister that we will give our general support to the principles underlining his approach. We congratulate him for moving so quickly, given that there has been a considerable time lag in the North of Ireland in relation to that.

We are talking about trying to create a planning system that operates on the basis of equality and which is for the common good, and we are conscious of the need for the interrelated development of the whole island of Ireland.

To that extent we welcome the approach taken by the Minister. This legislation is being introduced with a view to stopping exploitation of the planning system by landowners. That exploitation mainly takes a form, as has been described, of applications being made for planning permission which is clearly not going to be granted, for listed buildings, for building in areas where green-belt policies apply, or for building in areas where no development is generally intended. Then these applications are used as a basis for compensation claims. We offer support to the strategy that was outlined by the Minister, in relation to both retrospection and clawback. It is a sensible and just approach, and it will attract support from across the Chamber.

Clearly, a review of the legislation is genuinely required by planners, so that they can make decisions in the common interest, and not with a view simply to minimising cost claims against the Department of the Environment. We are talking about reducing anomalies and bad law. Some issues have been mentioned by other Members already. We are not talking about abuse; we are talking about the exploitation of legal provisions. We need to know that what was, in effect, created out of the Matthew Report in 1965 was a charter for compensation which was exploited to the full.

The anomaly to which a number of Members have referred requires answers. Why was it allowed to continue for so long? What was the total cost to the public purse? We are talking about bad law, and it always was bad law. We have to welcome the steps that are being taken to change it. We congratulate the Minister and look forward to working with him through the Committee Stage on the detailed issues that we all want to address.

This is an opportunity to correct a wrong that was actually created, as it happens, by the former one-party system that operated here in Stormont. We can use this opportunity to demonstrate that there is a better way in the modern world that is going to be good for politics generally. We congratulate the Minister and offer him our support.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Ford:

It is unfortunate perhaps that so many Members from the Environment Committee are speaking in this debate. I will not rehash everything that has been said by others, except to say that, on behalf my colleagues, I welcome the Bill. I hope my welcome to the Minister's proposal is as extensive as that of the DUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin and somewhat more generous than that from his constituency and party colleagues. Although there clearly are concerns about issues like consultation, I am certainly inclined to agree with what the Committee Chairperson said. We may now need to examine the issue of consultation in greater depth than the Committee, but the Minister was entirely right to put the date of 23 October 2000 into the draft Bill so that we can ensure that no further anomalies are allowed through.

There is a fundamental and legitimate question to be asked about why payments were ever made to people for not doing something that would have been detrimental to the public good. This does not apply just in the planning system; there are other areas that the Minister is concerned about. Questions need to be asked about other aspects of Government policy. Maybe we need a complete review, and perhaps we need to decide whether we might need something more like site value rating rather than the current rating system. However, I suspect that is a little beyond this Bill and its legitimate area.

On section 29, the Minister quoted a liability of possibly as much as £2 million, whereas his Department's notes say £900,000. That is a fairly wide range, thought I accept that the area is a little bit unspecific. However, particularly given the limited budget his Department has and the difficulty which those of us as members of the Committee know exists with funding for the EHS and planning, can the Minister give us an assurance that he will seek to get back from the Minister of Finance any savings which will result from the passing of this Bill? Will those savings be spent for the benefit of his Department, and will he make a good case to the Minister of Finance for £2 million and not £900,000?

Mr Wells:

I strongly welcome the proposed amendment to the legislation although, like many others, I have to ask why we are sitting here nine years after equivalent amendments were made to legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom. I would be interested in the Minister's answer to the question put by Mr Poots and other Members concerning the amount of taxpayers' money poured into the pockets of landowners as a result of the delay in implementing the amendments.

The original legislation was an anachronism from the word go. For 35 years, speculative developers have submitted applications in the full knowledge that they would be refused in the hope of obtaining compensation. It reminds me of a similar piece of legislation, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which operated in England, Scotland and Wales. Under that Act, people could submit applications to destroy some ancient woodland, or drain some bog, even though they had no intention of doing so. It was their hope that the application would be turned down, thus triggering a huge amount of compensation. That brought the legislation into disrepute, and it was not adopted in the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

It must be remembered that all applicants and developers have the benefit of full and open consultation during the formulation of development plans. They all come before public inquiries. If a developer's land is zoned for a certain activity, and he objects to that, he has the opportunity - in a democratic fashion - to go to a public inquiry and make representations to the Department. Similarly, if an individual application is turned down, it may be taken to the Planning Appeals Commission, and generally they are given a fair hearing. Indeed, one quarter of all planning appeal decisions overturn the Planning Service's original decision.

Therefore the Province has an equitable planning system. As politicians, we do not always agree with the decisions that are eventually reached, but we usually feel that everyone has received a fair hearing. Why, with all those opportunities, should someone have the right to have a second bite at the cherry and claim compensation?

One hundred thousand pounds strikes me as a considerable amount of money. It could be used to employ four extra staff in a divisional planning office. The Planning Service is under enormous pressure at the moment because of the upsurge in the number and complexity of applications. The last thing the Planning Service should be doing is handing out £100,000 per annum in compensation. I suspect that if the Department were to examine the actual cost of dealing with those applications, it would find that a considerable amount of money is being spent on legal costs and the assessment of compensation levels. Frankly, this amendment to the legislation could not have come quickly enough.

Mrs Carson made a point, and I have to say that her logic was extraordinary. She criticised the Minister - which was surprising in itself, because they are Colleagues from the same constituency and party - for including an element of retrospective application in the legislation. It is unfortunate that Mrs Carson has left the Chamber, because I would like her to think through the logic of her position. Consider what would have happened if the Minister had announced to the House a few weeks ago that he was minded to make this amendment to the legislation and that the opportunity of compensation due to the refusal of a planning application was to be removed.

There are interesting parallels with the Housing Executive's decision a few years ago to withdraw improvement grants for a period because money was running out. There was a veritable stampede of applicants to the Housing Executive's district offices to get applications in before the drawbridge was pulled up. If the Minister had made a similar announcement, hundreds of applications for planning permission would have been lodged with divisional planning offices throughout this Province, all with the express intention of being turned down in order to claim compensation.

I must declare an interest, which I can assure you is on the Members' Register. I studied planning at Queen's University, Belfast, and during my various attempts to develop a political career - most of which were unsuccessful, and I think this one is doomed as well - I attended public inquiries and lodged planning applications and so on on a freelance basis.

12.15 pm

I have to confess that I did not handle any specific applications for compensation, although I came across several of them. Any good agent would have been going around all his clients in the Province urging them to get their applications in before the deadline for the withdrawal of compensation. The Planning Service, which is already under the most enormous pressure from the number of applications, could not have coped with such demand. It would have brought our divisional planning offices to a standstill, if it had happened.

The Minister is therefore absolutely right to apply this Bill from 21 October. He has been fair to the people who have already lodged applications. The dogs in the street, as far as planning circles are concerned, knew that this change was coming. Once the 1991 amendment was applied to the rest of the United Kingdom, it became obvious that we in Northern Ireland would eventually follow suit. There has been an increase in the number of applications under the existing provisions. Once it became apparent that changes would be made, the whole system would have ground to a halt. However, the Minister has enabled those who got their applications in before 21 October to proceed with their claims, and that is a very fair way of doing things.

None of us like the retrospective application of legislation. There are always enormous constitutional difficulties with doing so, but on this occasion the Minister is absolutely justified, particularly as he has informed us this morning that they have already assessed a liability of at least £2 million - and that is without stimulating demand. The Planning Service needs that £2 million to carry out its present work, particularly in the preparation of area plans. It does not need to pour that money into the pockets of speculative developers.

The Planning Service, by granting planning permission, adds enormously to the value of land in this Province. Recently I was shown a site near Ballynahinch where one could hardly graze a goat, and the individual had bought it with planning permission for £70,000. I cannot believe the prices that sites are now going for in green belt areas of the Province. Therefore it is ridiculous to let people have their cake and eat it. The provision whereby they can apply for planning permission, get a huge increase in the value of the land if it is granted, or claim compensation if it is not, is an anachronism that should have been abolished long ago.

However, the question we all want to ask this afternoon is how much taxpayers' money has already gone down the drain due to the delay in implementing this legislation.

Mr Foster:

I thank all Members for their comments - the complimentary remarks and the brickbats - for I appreciate them all.

The Land Development Values (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1965, whose provisions formed the main plank of the repeals contained in the Bill, is a complex piece of legislation. In fact, when I looked at the Hansard Report of its introduction in 1965 I noted that one Member commented that

"if he had a choice between going to purgatory and reading this Bill, he would be very tempted to take the former choice".

Judging by the great interest shown today by Members, that sentiment does not apply to this Bill.

However, the strength of the Bill is not that it removes complex provisions from the statute book. Its strength lies in the fact that it removes provisions that have no relevance in the twenty-first century, and it brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK as regards the law on planning compensation.

Also, it confirms the long-established principle within a modern planning system that compensation is not paid for a refusal of planning permission, and, very importantly, it puts an end to an unnecessary drain on the public purse, which is showing no signs of abating.

I want to emphasise the fact - and good questions have been asked on the subject - that it is public moneys that we are dealing with here. We are the Government, and we have a responsibility to guard public moneys well. That is why I am taking the current steps.

I will try to answer Members' questions. My officials will peruse Hansard, and if a question should be left out, they will certainly follow up with a written answer.

Mr McCrea asked about why there was a delay in following Great Britain. While similar provisions were repealed in Great Britain through the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, that Act introduced a package of changes to planning law concerning development control, enforcement, and compensation. It also provided for a plan-led system in Great Britain.

The former Department of Environment started work to replicate this package for Northern Ireland, but I understand that this work was interrupted on several occasions to consider further changes being talked about in GB, particularly those concerning the removal of crown immunity from planning law. However, when the matter was brought to my attention and I saw the amount of money involved, I acted immediately and asked for these repealing provisions to be separated from the package and included in a Bill for the Assembly.

I am not sure how much compensation has been paid since 1991, but it is in the region of £1 million.

Mr McCrea asked what effect the drafting error in the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 has had. Legal advice states that it has had no practical impact and that it is just a matter of correcting the error.

I was asked how many cases had been recovered and what the value was. I have no figures to hand, but £500,000 is believed to have been recovered.

Evidence of abuse is largely anecdotal, but officials have received phone calls from agents expressing surprise that these provisions are still in place. This indicates more interest in compensation than in planning.

Mrs Carson asked for an example of a typical claim for compensation. A compensation claim starts when a planning application is made to the Department based on payments already made. The application is usually for the reconstruction of any building that existed in 1965, or during the five years before that date, but had been destroyed. Typically, the original building would no longer exist in recognisable form, and in many cases there would be no indication that it ever existed. Typically, the application would be to rebuild on the green belt. Under the Department's existing policies, the application would be refused. It would be regarded as an existing use development under schedule 1 to the Land Development Values (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. Once the application is refused, there would be an entitlement to compensation under section 29 of that Act. The case would be referred to the Valuation and Lands Agency, who act as our agents in these cases. They would negotiate with the applicant, whose claim would be based on the difference between the value of the land with planning permission and its value without it. There are significant sums involved, and recently we agreed the value of a claim at £275,000. That is a great deal of money, and it is the reason I intend to retain the provision in the Land Development Values (Compensation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1965 to recover any compensation paid where scheduled development is later permitted on the site.

Mrs Carson also asked why the provisions should not be applied retrospectively. In Great Britain similar provisions were repealed in 1991, and the new provisions took effect from the date of the Bill's introduction in Parliament. That was to prevent the Department from being inundated with planning applications to gain compensation between the date of introduction and the date of Royal Assent. This is justifiable as there is growing evidence that applications are not being made because there is a desire to develop the land, but for the purpose of gaining compensation.

The cut-off date of 23 October 2000 does not apply to compensation claims but to applications for planning permission or listed building consent. Any compensation claim made before 23 October will be processed in the normal way. The process is deemed to have started when an application is made.

Mr Alban Maginness's question about the preciseness of the compensation already paid was answered in my reply to Mr McCrea.

Mr McLaughlin's and Mr Poots's questions were also answered in my reply to Mr McCrea.

Mrs Carson and Mr Ford asked what the savings would be if the Bill is introduced. It is difficult to quantify that, but the figure of £2 million suggests that there would be significant savings in the future.

Mr Ford referred to the difference between the £900,000 and the £2 million referred to in the statement. The figure of £2 million reflects the updated position.

Jim Wells - and I thank him for his complimentary remarks - also asked how much compensation has been paid. As far as I am aware, that has been answered.

I hope I have addressed the Members' questions satisfactorily. I am sorry if any questions or points have been overlooked. My officials will scrutinise Hansard, and I will write to Members whose questions have not been answered. I thank Members for their interest.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Planning (Compensation, etc) Bill [NIA 7/00] be agreed.

The sitting was suspended at 12.25 pm.

On resuming -

Biomedical Sciences


2.00 pm

Mr R Hutchinson:

I beg to move

That the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety take immediate steps to redress the staffing inadequacies in the biomedical sciences in the Health Service, initiate a manpower planning exercise to consider the staffing levels, terms and conditions of employment of staff in these areas, and establish arrangements to address the needs of the Health Service in Northern Ireland in regard to this area of her responsibility.

This motion stands in my name and in that of Mr Berry.

The role of the biomedical scientist in the delivery of a fast and efficient Health Service is rarely acknowledged. The contribution made by this body of highly qualified professionals goes largely unappreciated because, despite the enormity and complexity of their demanding workload and the significant ramifications for the running of today's Health Service, where patient care is paramount, they remain without the public arena.

I present this motion in an effort to bring not only due recognition but appropriate financial remuneration to this hitherto silent voice of the Health Service. There is no room for ambiguity, because without the proper financial and manpower resources a crisis will inevitably occur in this sector. This House should take on board the very real probability of a crisis in this particular area. It is both a local and a UK-wide problem. Indeed, the situation has already caused serious repercussions in Wales. In May of this year, Llandudno Hospital was forced to close its accident and emergency department due to a shortage of biomedical science (BMS) staff, and it is not impossible that that will happen in the health sector in Northern Ireland.

If something is not done to redress this situation now, we will have to ask ourselves if we can seriously allow this situation to be repeated in Northern Ireland, especially as we face another winter. We all know the difficulties that were experienced in the Health Service last year, and these could be compounded by the ongoing difficulties in the biomedical sector.

A survey commissioned by the Institute of Biomedical Scientists (IBMS) in December 1999 warned that 88% of NHS laboratories are considered to be below strength in staff numbers. Over three quarters of laboratories surveyed reported the highest staff turnover rate at the medical laboratory scientific officer I grade, particularly in the 20 to 30 age group. Many had made the decision to seek alternative employment - for a number of reasons. Sixty-one per cent of those surveyed during exit interviews gave low pay as their main reason for leaving. A further 19% cited stressful working conditions, 18% cited low morale and lack of career status, and 10% wanted a career change.

That is a terrible indictment of this profession. If this were happening in some other professions in Northern Ireland, there would be an outcry, and people would be climbing the walls and doing all kinds of things to try to rectify it, but not in this case.

Just because these people are conscientious and carry on their jobs without spouting or putting up flags or crying wolf, they are taken for granted. It has to stop now. These people must not be taken for granted any more. They must be given the proper recognition and pay for the job they do. The drift away from this sector of the medical profession must be halted. How long will it take until the stress and the low pay sends this particular service into free fall?

Two principal conclusions can be drawn from the IBMS survey. First, a serious recruitment problem exists at medical laboratory scientific officer (MLSO) grade I level. Secondly, retention of trained staff is fast becoming a more serious problem than recruitment - we get them but, because of the conditions they have to work in we cannot keep them. The Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union confirmed this when it simultaneously lobbied Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies in April of this year. After four years of university training, and with a honours degree, a trainee MLSO can expect to earn £9,726 per annum. This is just over half of what is earned by a nurse with an equivalent qualification. A comparative starting salary for this particular science graduate in private industry, or in the Civil Service, is £15,500 per annum, while their BMS counterparts in the Irish Republic can expect to take home a starting wage packet of £IR 18,365 per annum. There is some difference between £15,900 and £9,726.

Mr B Hutchinson:

Does the Member accept that the standards of living in the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are different, that people in the Republic are in a higher tax bracket and that people in the United Kingdom are probably, just slightly, better off?

Mr R Hutchinson:

I accept Mr Hutchinson's point.

During that four-year degree course one year is spent in unpaid placement in a hospital laboratory. University fees of £525 must still be paid, and upon completing their degree course many graduate trainees are still forced to supplement their income with a second job, or by claiming family credit in the case of someone who has two children and is the sole earner. How would Members here feel if after four years of hard slog at university, and giving a year free in the sector, their starting salary was £9,726 per year? It is little wonder that tomorrow's health professionals are being lured away with promises of greater wealth elsewhere.

I take this opportunity to commend the work currently being undertaken by the Northern Ireland branch of the IBMS and the two universities in trying to make placements more attractive to local students. I also commend the Welsh model whereby the Department of Health provides annual bursaries for 30 biomedical placements. In England and Wales the non-medical, education and training (NMET) levy will be extended next April to include biomedical scientists for the first time.

Will similar provision be made in Northern Ireland, or will we once again be left behind as others forge a way forward? Disillusionment is commonplace, as are graduates who have studied for a career in biomedical science only to find they cannot survive on the salary offered. Their value and commitment to hospital services, private clinics and general practitioners is little known and seldom appreciated outside their own profession. Biomedical scientists feel themselves undervalued by the public they serve and the Health Service that employs them.

The Health Service in Northern Ireland is facing a crisis in pathology, another health provision thrown into turmoil. The investigations carried out by biomedical scientists play an important part in modern medical care. Without them, the evaluation of effective treatments and research and diagnosis into the causes and cures of diseases would not be possible.

I call upon the House to support this motion.

Rev Dr William McCrea: I thank Mr Roger Hutchinson and Mr Berry for bringing such an important issue before the Assembly. It will do the Assembly good to give due consideration and support to the motion.

Biomedical science has undoubtedly been the Cinderella section of the Health Service in recent years - a situation which must not be permitted to continue as these professionals work unstintingly behind the scenes for the well-being of the community. Their efforts, work and professionalism have a great impact upon our return to health and strength. I am sure that few of us here will live out our lives without enjoying the professional service that is given by biomedical scientists in the hospitals throughout our Province.

It is time that society spoke out on behalf of those forgotten professionals. As an Assembly, we ought to demand fair remuneration for their excellence and dedication. I was somewhat taken back by the intervention of the Member for North Belfast, Mr Billy Hutchinson, because there is a vast difference between £9,420 and £IR18,365, even taking into account the different tax brackets between Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland.

It is absolutely ridiculous for professionals, after years of education and laboratory training, to earn only £9,000 per annum for the service they give us. No Member of this Assembly would accept that as acceptable remuneration for the work he does. I also believe that, because they are in a caring profession, biomedical scientists and other Health Service professionals are often taken for granted because of their dedication.

2.15 pm

If evidence were needed to prove that these scientists are the Cinderella service of the health profession, one has only to consider what happened last Friday at Antrim Hospital. I was present when United States Senator George Mitchell opened the new renal unit there. Imagine the impact that that unit will have on the respective disciplines of biochemistry and haematology at the Antrim laboratory. It is interesting - and disgraceful - that biomedical scientists were not represented among the various dignitaries present. The other professions were, but, given the way in which that unit impacts on the biomedical science profession, it would have been appropriate to ensure that it was properly represented. That establishes my point that they are the Cinderella of the Health Service and have not been treated with the respect that they deserve.

The role that biomedical scientists perform in the delivery of a fast and efficient Health Service in Northern Ireland deserves the support of every Member of this Assembly. A laboratory team in a reasonably sized pathology department undertakes approximately one million tests each year. Biomedical scientists deliver a premium healthcare service to the Province's major acute and tertiary referral hospitals, private clinics and doctors' surgeries.

Of course, they are behind the scenes. When patients go into hospital they will see that the nursing profession is very evident, and rightly so. They will see doctors and consultants and be encouraged by their presence in the hospital. But without the depth of commitment and the contribution made by biomedical scientists in our hospitals, our Health Service would be completely deficient. They have been systematically ignored for too long.

Again this year, biomedical scientists, who remain without the pay review body, have received pay increases lower than those awarded to comparable staff within the pay review competence. Why have they not been brought under the pay review body? Why is their importance not accepted in the way that that of nurses, doctors and consultants is accepted? We hear them eulogised, rightly, for the work they do. They are on the front line; but without the support, experience and professionalism of those who back them up in their diagnosis and treatment, the health and safety of our population would be greatly impaired.

I will not labour the poor financial rewards for people who have entered a profession as graduates. Much was said on that point by Mr Roger Hutchinson. I could make comparisons with many other fields of employment in the private sector. It is right to look at them and consider that people with the same qualifications are employed in industry earning salaries vastly different from those in public service, particularly n the National Health Service. They have the same qualifications and have gone through the same education system, but their experience appears to carry very little weight when it comes to remuneration.

It is estimated that the shortfall at the cutting edge will be about 1,250 positions by the end of the year. That will place existing staff under further extreme stress and will be to the detriment of the Health Service and of staff training, and could ultimately result in a failure to meet guidelines laid down by quality assurance and quality control systems.

That latter point has exacerbated existing problems. More and more chief MLSOs spend a quarter of their working week tackling the mountain of paperwork associated with clinical pathology accreditation, which has increased and is becoming more rigorous as new targets are set. Health and safety regulations, quality assurance programmes, continuing professional developments only add to an already heavy burden, and these people are then insulted with a paltry sum of money.

Almost 17% of MLSO grade 1 staff left the biomedical profession in 1999, and, of those, it is estimated that 56% bid farewell to the Health Service altogether. Why is this happening? The factors which contributed to this shift away from the profession were deemed to be the poor level of pay, a poor public image and a general lack of career prospects. Fortunately, a crisis in pathology has so far been avoided, owing to the good employer/employee relationship between staff and the trust, as I witnessed in Antrim Hospital. However, will that relationship last and stand the test when employees can move to the private sector where they will be properly paid? We may respect the profession, we may utter many fine words about it, but we should remember that all the Assembly's eulogies will never pay their bills and provide them with the necessary financial reward for the work they have done.

Important lessons must be learned from the mainland, and the present inability to recruit qualified and competent staff for what is a highly responsible job must be addressed. Why would they stay? They are paid a paltry sum, and their profession is not respected in the manner it deserves. I trust that through the Assembly we will be able to make some improvement and make further representation, not only in Northern Ireland but also to the Minister of Health in the United Kingdom Parliament, for proper recognition to be given to these professions.

I welcome the announcement this week by the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, that additional funding will be made available for training posts for scientists and technicians in the Health Service. Will this apply to Northern Ireland? Will we lag behind as England forges towards a resolution of impending crisis, and ultimately avoids it? Are we going to be left behind?

I congratulate the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union and the Northern Ireland branch of the Institute of Biomedical Science for improving public awareness of the important role played by biomedical scientists in the Health Service. Until recently, the pay and conditions of these professionals were swept under the carpet. No one was willing to listen; no one was willing to hear their grievance or what they were saying; they were regarded as being behind closed doors. When a grievance cannot be aired when the patient comes in, who really cares? As long as the work is being done, who really cares about the remuneration of the professionals doing it? The Assembly owes it to those professionals to care.

We can show that we care for the caring profession by making representations at the highest level to ensure an appropriate level of remuneration. Pay and conditions for those professionals should be brought into the remit of the pay review body to ensure appropriate scrutiny. The Assembly would not accept anything less for itself, so why should it accept something less for those professionals?

We are now aware of the problem. By accepting the motion, we will show that we acknowledge its existence. Not only is it our duty to gauge the extent of the problem, it is our duty to those professionals to do something about it. Pay anomalies must be removed. I hope that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will consider specifically the pay and working conditions of biomedical scientists and not go off on a tangent to consider broader NHS salaries.

Biomedical scientists are vital to quality patient care in Northern Ireland. The motion gives the Assembly an opportunity to recognise the valuable contribution of those working in a hitherto forgotten wing of the Health Service. I thank my Colleagues and Friends for bringing the matter before the Assembly. We can show the strength of our feelings by adopting the motion unanimously.

Ms Hanna:

I accompanied several Colleagues on a recent visit to the Royal Maternity Hospital. We watched the biomedical professionals at work and took the opportunity to speak to them. Very soon I realised that, although some of them do not come into direct contact with patients and the general public, they play a vital role in the prevention and treatment of illness. They carry out complex blood tests, separate plasma from red cells, check heart functions, and help to install defibrillators. Biomedical scientists are essential to the successful running of our hospitals, but because they are demoralised, we are losing them to the private sector, where they can earn significantly more money.

Poor pay is the main cause of the problem and, unless we address it, the situation can only get worse. Pay awards for medical technical officers, speech and language therapists, clinical scientists and many other professionals are negotiated outside the pay review body, which sets the annual pay award for other health professionals such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. Without exception, that latter group is offered higher pay awards each year. The differential between the groups is about 30%. I am not saying that doctors and nurses are paid too much, but that biomedical staff are grossly underpaid. Entry qualifications for professional groups inside and outside the pay review body are similar; often, the work is similar.

I urge the Minister to do what she can to address the problem and ensure that the unfairness in the different systems is acknowledged and addressed. This is a critical time in the life of our National Health Service. We are in review mode, considering staffing levels, and we must get it right. We cannot afford to lose any of our committed, well-trained staff. In the past, it was decided that we did not need so many nurses, so we got rid of them: now, we are desperately trying to attract them back. We must not do that with our biomedical staff. We must address the issue of poor pay immediately.

2.30 pm

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I support the motion, although I am a bit disappointed that it addresses only the biomedical scientists and not the medical technical officers and others in the profession. First of all, I take issue with Billy Hutchinson. I do not think that the difference between £9,000 and £IR18,000 can be compensated for either by the punt differential or by the tax differential.

Mr B Hutchinson:

The point that I was making was that we need to compare like with like. I was not saying that these people do not deserve more money. I believe that they do. I would like people to understand what I was saying. I was saying that if we are going to compare this with the Republic of Ireland, then we need to take all of those things into consideration - the punt exchange, tax and the standard of living.

Mr J Kelly:

One of the things that was pointed out to us by the biochemists in Antrim Hospital and in the Royal Victoria Hospital was the drift from those places to the South of Ireland. People are making up their minds as to whether the differential is good or bad, and they think it is good elsewhere. However, that does not address the issue. The issue is that these are people, a LeasCheann Comhairle, who are at the very engine room of a hospital. No surgeon can perform an operation until he has a report from the lab. They are at the very engine room of the hospital, yet they have not only bad pay conditions but work, in some instances - not in Antrim Hospital, I must confess, but perhaps in the RVH - in conditions that are unsuitable. In some cases they are working with new machinery for which they have not been properly trained. It is handed to them, and there is no compensation at all for taking on new technology.

The issue, a LeasCheann Comhairle, is that the medical officers, the speech and language therapists, the clinical scientists and many other professionals have their pay award negotiated outside the pay review body. As Carmel Hanna said, we are not complaining about doctors or nurses or physiotherapists. We are saying that there should be parity in the Health Service. People who are performing a critical and crucial function in that service ought to be paid a commensurate salary.

Glaxo Wellcome plc, for example, is paying £5,000 more as a starting salary than the hospitals do. These people go into a hospital rather than into industry because they have a sense of dedication - in a way, it is their vocation. They suffer because of that. The very sensitive and crucial nature of their role in the Health Service means that they are not prone to taking industrial action.

Consider the different disciplines: histology, cytology, microbiology, virology, haematology, biochemistry, immunology - all disciplines with which they deal and which are critical to the life of the patient. A surgeon can make a mistake, and it can be fatal. If a biochemist makes a mistake, it can be more than fatal - it can be detrimental to the confidence of the whole hospital. They have a very sensitive role to play in the hospital services.

In the submission, a senior biochemist said

"I feel really guilty about asking staff to work so long and so hard when I can offer them nothing in terms of training, advancement, career prospects. I have never been so pessimistic about the future of the service. We are close to a time when staff losses will finally overload those left, to the point when they all decamp.">

That is, go elsewhere.

"They only stay through loyalty" -

through loyalty, the theme that came through from the people we met both in Antrim Hospital and in the RVH.

"Recent leavers have proved to me that ANY of my staff could get a much better job with 50% more pay without difficulty."

There are poor starting salaries and static promotion prospects. There are virtually no promotion prospects in this field at the moment, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There are unreasonable demands for more qualifications, and graduates reaching the career grade are so badly paid that they never trigger the level at which they have to pay back their student loans. Perhaps we could make a salient point there, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

This is a list of issues that biochemists have put before the Assembly for its consideration. They do not want knee-jerk reactions but considered responses to their working conditions.

Biomedical scientists and MTO grades must be considered by the pay review body. The pay of those grades of staff must be raised to bridge the 30% differential. Can the Minister assure me that staff will be fully involved in the pathology review that is underway at present?

Rev Robert Coulter:

I thank Mr Roger Hutchinson and Mr Berry for bringing this motion to the Assembly so that we can have a full debate on it.

We are by now aware of the importance of laboratories to the National Health Service. The importance of this work is illustrated by the fact that a wrong decision in the laboratory could lead to a wrong decision by a consultant which could cause the premature death of a patient.

There is an inverse ratio in salary - we have been told about how starting salaries after four years in university and an honours degree compare with starting salaries in the industrial and private sectors. Something is wrong with a system that allows people who are crucial to decision making in the system to be treated in this way.

Where does the equality agenda apply in this case? These people are so poorly paid in comparison with other employees at the same level in the system. It is therefore up to the Assembly to use its power to publicise the need for the Department to take immediate action to remove the salary anomaly. Above all, we do not want another crisis in the Health Service. If, in the future, laboratories were to close down because of the action of the assistants, the haemorrhage of staff would lead to a crisis, and consultants would not receive the expert and technical advice they need. Nevertheless, we admire the dedication of biomedical staff, and we do not foresee a situation in which this would happen readily. We must therefore address the existence of this problem in the biomedical science profession and look at it very seriously.

I ask the Minister to ensure that staff are deeply involved in the forthcoming review. I hope that this motion will be carried unanimously and that something will soon be accomplished to address the wrong that is in the system.

Mr Ford:

I very much support the sentiments which have already been expressed in the Chamber today. I was one of those who visited Antrim hospital laboratory in August. I met members of the staff there and saw some of their work. Although I have previously worked in the health and personal social services sector, I found myself to have been shockingly unaware of what goes on behind the scenes in the laboratories. Given the range of their duties, the skill and professionalism employed and the pressure and the speed with which work is done, employees' salaries are an utter disgrace.

Indeed, it has been suggested that the MLAs (Medical Laboratory Assistants) in Antrim Hospital probably deserve a higher salary than the MLAs in this building.

I was in the accident and emergency department of Antrim Hospital a few weeks later with a member of my family, late on a Saturday night. A blood sample was taken, two or three tubes disappeared, and a result sheet came back very quickly - produced by somebody who had almost certainly done a full day's work and was also there for a full night. Are these reasonable working conditions? As a social worker, I know what it is like to be on duty for one night in 17 and to have to make difficult decisions in the early hours of the morning. MSLOs may well be working one night in three. We need to consider their working conditions.

In September I asked the Minister two questions, which were answered on 13 October. The first question was on gender and equality in staff planning. Today the Minister may be asked to comment on the work being done under the Opportunity Now campaign and to look at staffing. In November focus groups are due to meet to discuss issues such as career development, pay and work/life balance - issues which come under the Minister's responsibilities and on which the groups will want a comment. I am interested to hear her report on the 24 October meeting, which looked at equality and workforce planning issues.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to co-operate on UK-wide issues, such as staff gradings. If a new system of proper job evaluation is introduced, I hope the Minister can tell us how quickly it will be implemented. Speed is of the essence.

My second question concerned early retirement, vacancies, staff recruitment and staff retention. Unfortunately, the Minister responded that the information was not readily available and could only be extracted at a disproportionate cost. I do not want to be the cause of disproportionate costs, but surely the Minister accepts that there are major problems in the laboratories and that something has to be done.

The Minister's response in October led me to believe that some work is being done locally, but clearly much more needs to be done. I want to draw to her attention page 33 of the draft Programme for Government. The first action bullet point under 3.4 (modernising and improving hospital and primary-care services) refers to

"recruiting additional nursing and other front-line staff".

There it is in a nutshell. We need the dedication of front-line staff, but after all the years of expressing concern, even the Programme for Government makes no reference to support staff, because they are not visible. I hope the Minister ensures that the final version of the Programme for Government recognises that there are equally important staff behind the scenes.

Can the Minister tell us what will happen on the pay review body? Is she using her powers of persuasion with her Colleagues?

I congratulate the Members who brought forward this motion, and I offer my support.

Ms McWilliams:

I am delighted that we finally have a motion dealing with the issue of low pay. The concept of poor pay is probably relative. If you ask anyone about his pay, he will always say that he wants more. However, today we are definitely talking about low pay - the facts speak for themselves. A medical technical officer, on scale one, earning approximately £10,418, is entitled to family credit if he or she has two children and is a sole earner. It is ironic that an arm of government is giving top-up funding to an arm of the public sector.

2.45 pm

The Department for Social Development is paying money to the Department of Health for salaries that are too low for people to live on. That is at the crux of the matter. I do not want to repeat what other people have said. The three key issues have been well stated: the profession is poorly paid by any standards; it can be seen to be poorly paid when the salaries of staff are compared with the salaries of staff elsewhere with equivalent qualifications; and it can be seen to be poorly paid when its earnings are compared with the earnings of similarly qualified staff in the private sector. Other Members have said that people are literally walking away from their jobs.

Having lectured in the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at the University of Ulster for 20 years, I know that many students do four-year degrees. I recall the famous equal pay case taken by the language and speech therapists. It is important to highlight the fact - Mr Ford referred to this - that the vast majority of those people were women, and that was why they were earning such low pay. They were doing four-year degrees, they were highly qualified, and they undertook difficult work placements during the summer. When the rest of our students were getting holiday work, those students had to take placements in order to fulfil the requirements for their degrees. They were studying for qualifications well above those of the average undergraduate.

Why were they doing this, when they knew that they were entering a profession - and biomedical science is similar to this - that paid so poorly? Because they wanted to. Many of them saw it as a vocation - they wanted to help others. Some did it because of their scientific backgrounds, and others because they wanted to work with children - this is similar to what happens in nursing.

We have put nursing on the agenda, and it is important to remind Members that although we hear about nurses being recruited back into the Health Service, they are not getting paid a penny at the moment. Those who are returning are being retrained in the Health Service and taking courses through the Beeches Management Centre, doing placements in hospitals and geriatric wards. They are state registered nurses, and for at least six months they are not getting a single penny.

Would we do that to any other profession? Just because people have vocations and work in the Health Service, should we treat them like that?

The second point that I want to make is that it is important that we have introduced job evaluation schemes. The poor old speech and language therapists took something like 10 years to fight that equal-pay case. My children were tiny when it began, and they are now teenagers. I used to assess the progress of the case against the age of the children. It took them years to fight that equal-pay case. Eventually they got it. But why did they have to go to Europe to get the equivalent of what others in the Health Service - equally qualified people - were earning? That group is one of the professions still outside the remit of the pay review body.

We should not put this in the hands of our current Minister, who inherited the system from a former Health Minister. According to the manufacturing, science and finance union, the reason they were excluded from the pay review body was political. If it was a political decision, let us address and rectify it politically.

The Minister may be able to tell us something about the Agenda for Change, under which these job evaluation programmes have been introduced. A 30% differential between similarly qualified individuals is not good enough. Biomedical scientists are getting 30% less than those covered by the remit of the pay review body are. It may have something to do with the Central Whitley Council versus the pay review body. It would be good for biomedical scientists to have the recommendations of the Central Whitley Council implemented. That is another problem.

Has the Minister discussed this matter with the unions which represent the staff to see if there is anything that we can do in the interim? The Agenda for Change will not be in place until 2003. We have three more years of pain and low pay. In the meantime, those highly qualified individuals are going to walk away because the private sector is encroaching more and more on their jobs. As Ms Hanna said, we will end up with the same crisis that we had with nursing, with highly qualified individuals going off to agencies rather than staying in the National Health Service. That is the last thing that we want.

We want to retain that skill, to have that continuity of experience. If you are mixing solutions and chemicals that go into people's bodies, you need to get it right. It can go wrong, as we know from experience. It can cause fatalities. Midwives and biomedical scientists take people's lives in their hands every day, so let us remunerate them for that level of stress. Their actions determine people's well-being. I do not want to exaggerate, but we need to put it into proportion. We should begin job evaluation schemes that list the type of job and evaluate it accordingly.

I am pleased that the Minister has attended this debate, though some might not regard it as the most major issue, given hospital reviews, the whole issue of primary care, the reorganisation of the Health Service, and so on. It is important that biomedical scientists, and others in allied professions, know that the Assembly took the time to debate this, with the Minister here to hear the range of arguments.

Between now and 2003, when I believe that the job evaluation programmes are to be completed - and there is a mission to bring them back under the pay review body - how will the Minister address the issues of recruitment and morale? On the current pay levels, biomedical scientists feel like second-class citizens in Northern Ireland, where we talk so much about equality of opportunity.


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