Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 13 November 2000 (continued)

Mr McCarthy:

The words "cohesion", "inclusion" and "justice" underpin the implementation of all Government policies and programmes. These are laudable sentiments and can only be welcomed. However, after reading the document I am sad to say that I am disappointed. I want a cohesive, inclusive and just society, but I am afraid this Programme for Government does not deliver. It falls far short, leaving too many things unsaid and too many problems unsolved.

I am heartened by today's developments in the Assembly. I presume that since only Minister McGimpsey and Minister de Brún are speaking, they will also be speaking for their Colleagues in other Departments. It is indeed reassuring that the Executive is so cohesive and so inclusive that the Minister of Health can speak on behalf of the present Minister for Social Development.

The Alliance Party, without the help of the Economic Unit special advisers and a building filled with civil servants, has already put forward its own Programme for Government and has even managed to deliver it before the Executive. We agree with the Government on some points. We too call for a consolidated Equality Act and for the application and monitoring of equality schemes, but even here the Executive's plans fall short. We want the fair employment categories widened to apply to all of our increasingly diverse society, but the Programme for Government makes no mention of this.

We want the existing legislation applied to tackle the problems of graffiti, illegal flags and paramilitary murals that pollute our public places and intimidate the average person in Northern Ireland and visitors too, but the Programme for Government makes no mention of this either.

We would like to see the Assembly's taking the lead in ensuring equality in its workforce through the use of innovative programmes such as flexible working, job- sharing, childcare provision and disability access. As an elected representative I think that part of my duty to the electorate is to lead by example, and this Assembly affords us an opportunity to do so, but the Executive ignore this, and there is no mention of it in its document.

I very much welcome the commitment to providing free travel for older persons. Members will know of my concern and interest in all areas affecting the elderly. The Alliance Party has advocated this policy for some time now; we feel this is necessary in order to build the inclusive society that we desire. We believe that this commitment is so important that it should have been specified that the Assembly fund this travel - not the councils by using rates. Alliance does not want to pass on the responsibility for this programme to overstretched councils which are already juggling many resource demands. However, I do not find this commitment in the document.

We have also called for the establishment of a public health strategy, as does the Programme for Government. We have called for all policies and legislation to be audited for their impact on people's health.

Of course I cannot speak on health matters without spending a few moments talking about hospital closures and, indeed, condemning last week's scandalous inability of the Ulster Hospital, due to a lack of finance, to provide a bed for a seriously burnt patient from Bangor. I say "Shame on the Department and its Minister". I see that she is here today, and I hope she will take immediate action to ensure that this will not happen again.

Alliance advocates the innovative use of local hospitals by allowing them to develop into different areas of expertise. In this way more closures and bed shortages would be avoided while allowing for the concentration of specialities and a more efficient use of resources. It is hoped that this is the kind of policy the Executive will pursue, although no mention is made of it in the Programme for Government.

I welcome many of the proposals, aims and actions in this document. However, I believe that they fall crucially short of providing for an inclusive society. We in the Alliance Party want to see the Assembly promoting sharing over separation and leading by example.

Dr Hendron:

Health has been defined as being a state of complete physical and mental well-being and not merely the absence of disease. It is a fact that the health of Northern Ireland's population, is, in general, not as good as that of other similar countries in western Europe. There must be major improvements in people's health, especially in the case of our children and young people, since our future rests on their development. We need to ensure that our policies and programmes take account of their needs.

There has been concern in recent years over the quality of provision of children's residential care services in Northern Ireland. The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, as part of its scrutinising role, has conducted an inquiry on residential and secure accommodation for children here, and we hope to present the report of that inquiry to the Assembly before Christmas.

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Too many of our children are living in poverty. As stated in the Programme for Government, we acknowledge the close relationship between family poverty and higher infant mortality, between poor general health and an increased risk of social problems. When a child is born its IQ (intelligence quotient) is partly due to genetic factors but, as it gets older, intelligence is also due to environmental factors. So it is not just a question of being born bright or stupid; a child's development is also affected by its environment. Therefore a school-aged child from an underprivileged area or from a family living in relative poverty is at a gross disadvantage compared to other children in the community, especially with regard to education and health. That point has been proven over and over again and is supported by examination results in some areas. Of course we pay tribute to the people who are teaching them, but young people from poor backgrounds are at a gross disadvantage. They encounter higher levels of unemployment, and what jobs they do get seem to be the lesser types of jobs. In areas like that, young people are also more likely to smoke.

The problem of inequality in health must be tackled. Diet also affects lifestyle, and this is a factor that many of us try to teach our children. Hamburgers and fast food are particularly dangerous. Members may remember the experiment in Vietnam on thousands of young Americans aged between 18 and 20, whose post mortem examinations showed that most of these men were found to have atheroma. In other words, the hardening of their arteries started during their childhood.

Mr McCarthy spoke about the elderly. The recent findings of the Royal Commission on the elderly should be implemented. That is a massive debate on its own.

I shall move on to the issue of young people with learning difficulties. Much has been said about Muckamore. I am sure the Assembly supports the Friends of Muckamore in hoping for the very best for their people. A lot of them are adults who have been there for many years - if they are to move into the community, there must be proper resources to assist them. Some people would like those patients to stay in Muckamore for longer than necessary, but human-rights legislation stipulates that such people are entitled to proper care in the community. Provided that the proper care is available there, we support their return to the community.

The ongoing crisis in hospitals is a massive subject, but we will not resolve that by attacking individuals - and certainly not by attacking the Minister. The problems go back for years, when beds were closed by other Administrations. When beds are closed you cannot just open them up again. You need the resources and you need trained nurses. Some of the boards are getting nurses from abroad. I am sure they are very able girls, but a consultant recently told me about a nurse trained in the United States, who had impressive qualifications. When asked to take a patient's blood pressure, she did not know how to do it. I am not belittling that nurse - she was trained in a certain way - but training is a major problem. I know that the Minister and the Department are tackling it, but all of us must work together on this crisis.

My last point is on primary care. The Minister is publishing her document, and I hope it will affect everybody in this Chamber and every person in Northern Ireland in primary care.

Mr B Hutchinson:

When we get to this stage, after having talked so much, there tends to be a lot of repetition. The Programme for Government affords an excellent opportunity for us to discuss policy. As other Members mentioned earlier, this is the first time in 25 years that something like the Programme for Government has been discussed by local representatives. However that does not mean that we should refrain from criticism, and there are a lot of things in this document which do need to be criticised.

This document seems to be very aspirational. It uses a lot of flowery language. It actually talks about implementing new legislation and policies. However, it does very little about developing programmes, and that concerns me. For instance, as far as promoting equality and human rights, as stated on page 18, is concerned, the document simply lists all of the things that the Government must do anyway. It does not tell us how that is to be communicated to the communities.

In terms of listing the actions to be taken to ensure human rights, the document could have stated how we could use affirmative action policies to meet the targets when set. That work has been lost in this draft programme, and I hope that Ministers consider including it at some stage. I hope people will forgive me for thinking that the Natural Law Party had been elected and is actually in Government. The proposal to set up centres for curiosity and imagination sounds like something it would come up with.

As a Belfast City councillor, I know that there already is a good community arts sector. It is well organised and is coming up with lots of ideas. We need to take arts to the community so that people can understand what it is about. I get no sense of that when I look at the objective of setting up centres of curiosity and imagination. It is a very bland statement and suggests that people do not have imagination and are not curious about the arts. We need to be more positive rather than negative. Perhaps the Programme for Government will outline exactly what that means.

I was astounded that people talked about how they were going to improve community relations by educating people together and building houses for them to live together. This programme does not mention anything about an integrated housing programme or integrated education. Yet people talk about both of those things helping improve community relations.

The Government have also shied away from the fact that Catholic and Protestant teachers are trained in different establishments. There is no mention in the document of why we need two teacher training colleges. Teacher training methods are the same, and it does not matter whether you are Protestant or Catholic. No one in the Government has talked about this. They have just come up with flowery language and aspirations suggesting that we intend to deal with community relations. We need to encourage people to live together and be educated together. Our present integrated school system has been refused funding by the Government, and it is parents, not the Government, who are driving it. We have actions in the draft programme to improve community relations, but there is no notion, or no mention, of how we are actually going to achieve it.

Public health and the prevention of ill health were very well prioritised and well laid out. Unfortunately the issue of access to acute services in rural areas was not mentioned. That has been the subject of great discussion, and I had hoped to see how we would deal with it. The last action point says

"by 2002, revise a curriculum for schools to enhance the status and impact of health education."

It does not tell us what they are going to do to achieve this. I suggest we introduce education on relationships and sexuality. We need to think about things like this, rather than just make bland statements about revising the curriculum.

Mr Berry:

I have read the Programme for Government, and I do not know whether to laugh or to cry. There are not only contradictions between sections, but even within the sections themselves. I want to concentrate on section 3. The first thing that is apparent is the absence of reality and priority.

This is nothing but a wish-list. If acted upon, it would require every other Department to be closed down to achieve these goals. This drives home the fact that if any Department needs to be reviewed, it is the present Health Department. If this Administration were to attempt to follow what is written here, they would either fail completely or require it to be very domineering. That, no doubt, would suit the terrorist ideology of the party to which the current Minister of Health belongs and which she represents.

Secondly, there are some very dubious claims made on the causes of ill health. There is an old saying that if one makes a half-truth the whole truth, it becomes a lie. Worse than that, no budget will ever be able to meet what the ideology of simply looking at alleged causes would require. We have a nanny state that is out of control.

We get the usual Republican rant about cross-border issues. The ordinary people will quite rightly fail to see how that will solve the real health problems in Northern Ireland or return accident and emergency services to, say, Whiteabbey. It will simply provide the most lucrative gravy train since fuel smuggling started. Perhaps it is a placement for unemployed terrorists.

Thirdly, the number of areas that the Department presumes to have authority over, and seeks to control, is huge. Here is a programme that is going to look after housing, wages, family life, diet, disability, the mentally ill, the terminally ill, Sure Start, residential care - and the list goes on. It is little wonder that nothing is being done to deal adequately or effectively with these problems. The areas where goals will definitely be achieved should have been set out, and priorities should have been stated.

Fourthly, I note that of all the hospitals in Northern Ireland only two get a mention in this document. I recall my Colleague Iris Robinson referring to the current Minister of Health as a west Belfast politician with a west Belfast mentality. That seems to have been borne out yet again. All the other hospitals do not matter enough to get a pledge for anything.

Fifthly, there is a very suspicious and rather worrying statement on page 33. It reads

"Everyone has a right to timely quality care based on clinical and social need."

To use social need to determine health care is a very dangerous concept. Where is the proper view that health care is free to all? That point needs to be addressed. What rules will be used to determine this? Who will determine this? There seems to be a deliberate shift of emphasis in who is going to get health care. On this point alone this entire section should be scrapped and replaced with something acceptable.

The current section is too ambitious. By trying to do everything, little will be achieved. Furthermore, there is no mechanism in existence that could possibly monitor or control everything mentioned.

This section will not be fulfilled, and its failure to deliver will result in a deliberate falsification of what is achieved - on the same scale as was operated by bureaucrats under Stalin - to make it all read right in the newspapers. It will produce bureaucracy obsessed with image and spin. If the answers to written questions are anything to go by, that process has already begun.

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not know how I am going to follow that. Sinn Féin's goal is to improve the health and social well-being of the people on this island. Everyone is entitled to access to a quality health service. We are all conscious of the social, cultural and economic inequalities that exist in the Health Service and other areas. Added to that, the poverty and disadvantage faced by our communities will have a direct bearing on the state of public health, on individual self-esteem and on human rights.

I welcome the statement in the draft Programme for Government where the Executive point out that they too recognise the inequalities in the life experience of our communities in poverty, health, housing, educational and economic opportunity and disability. I welcome the fact that the Executive are determined to tackle them.

It has been clear for quite some time - and it has been reaffirmed in the draft Programme for Government - that people in the North suffer from high levels of ill health.

The death rate shows that. The figures for problems such as heart disease and teenage pregnancy are among the highest in Western Europe. Given that record and the fact that the Programme for Government admits that the provision of services to treat illness is falling behind, we must ensure that the Department of Health is properly funded. The document says that the Barnett formula is not fair, but what have the Executive done to address the matter? Barnett himself has criticised the formula because it does not reflect need.

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Under the heading 'Working for a Healthier People,' the overall strategy to improve public health focuses on reducing preventable disease, ill health and health inequalities. Does that mean that the Executive will work to redress the inequalities faced by people living west of the Bann? If the Programme for Government is realistically to tackle the cycle of disadvantage and focus on the causes of preventable diseases, it needs to ensure that policies, funding and programmes strike at these problems. Among the range of factors that contribute to disadvantage is low income, and there is also a close connection between family poverty and high infant mortality.

Another priority of the Executive is to ensure that the environment supports healthy living and that recreational facilities are improved. Where does that leave the issue of glass-fronted fires, which statistics show have led to an increase in asthma among our young people? Will the money be provided to remove these fires, thus improving public health?

Have the Executive the power to direct local councils not only to improve but also to provide recreational facilities? For years, local councils have discriminated against working-class and Nationalist communities. While the lead Minister is Bairbre de Brún, cross-departmental responsibility requires that all Departments target resources to the most disadvantaged areas. I am disappointed that not all Departments are involved. We are all aware that health affects us all.

I agree that the action to produce cross-departmental plans for securing reductions in the main causes of ill health requires specific measures to reduce poverty by tackling the community differential. While the Programme for Government informs us of the implementation of the new TSN action plans there is no mention of whether those plans address the community differential, or whether resources have been skewed to the most disadvantaged areas. One example is the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which is entitled to grants under TSN as it falls in a TSN area. That omission needs to be corrected.

If we are to provide timely and effective treatment, the Programme for Government must address the allocation, location and siting of resources. We must ensure that the proposal for a modern acute hospital service and the measures to maintain, where possible, safe and effective services at smaller hospitals do not result in even greater levels of disadvantage. If the trend towards centralisation of services in bigger hospitals, particularly in the Greater Belfast area, is not reversed, many rural communities will be further disadvantaged.

Ill health is not confined within borders, and given the size of our island there is a necessity for us to work together and address health issues on an all-Ireland basis. The Programme for Government includes an action point to take forward work in the North/South Ministerial Council giving an immediate priority to cancer, et cetera. As a party, we are clear about the importance of that work. However, we recently witnessed the First Minister playing politics by vetoing Sinn Féin. Given Mr Trimble's clear disregard for people's health, will the North/South Ministerial Council be able to function on health issues?

Mr S Wilson:

The last speech indicates the flaws in a Programme for Government that allows the bone-breakers of IRA/Sinn Féin to stand up and eulogise about human rights and the health of the community.

The First Minister used colourful language to describe the Programme for Government: it is a road map; it is a contract between the Assembly and the people. On a previous occasion he called it a shining light in the dark recesses of Government. When we look at the Programme for Government, we see that it is none of those things.

I want to talk about a few issues to illustrate this. Chapter 2 talks about the viability and the integrity of rural and urban neighbourhoods. The Government are committed to maintaining those. When the Minister of Education came to the Education Committee, I asked him what that meant. How would the Department of Education fulfil that part of the contract? Would he give the same treatment to small rural schools that he is offering to Irish-medium schools, where they can start if they have twelve pupils? He would not give that commitment, yet this is meant to be a contract. He would not give any commitment. He either would not or he could not, and yet we are told that this is a contract.

We are told that it is a road map which will tell us how to get from one place to another. There is a lot of information in it about tackling disruptive behaviour and raising literacy standards. When I asked the Minister of Education if he would he give me just three things that would be done - three ways of getting from one place to the other - to improve literacy standards, he could not give them, yet this is meant to be a road map. Perhaps his reluctance to answer questions is a hangover from his previous employment, when he found that answering questions was a rather dangerous occupation.

As has been said by other Members today, on one hand we are told that the Programme for Government has been carefully costed - that is what the First Minister said this morning - and then in the next breath he told us that we have to use our imagination. Either it has been carefully costed, and there are commitments, or it has not. It is odd that we are given some specifics - for example, so many houses will be improved. However, in other cases we are just given vague generalisations. If the whole of this programme has been costed, surely we ought to be able to know what lies behind each statement. The vast majority of these statements use words like "we will establish"; they say that they will continue to do something, or produce certain things, and the specifics are left out. The cynic would say, of course, that they are left out so that when they are not delivered, you cannot point the finger at anybody.

This is the contract we are being asked to sign. I do not believe that this draft Programme for Government is an important document. I do not believe that it shines a searchlight into the darker recesses of Government, nor indeed is it a contract which any lawyer would encourage you to sign. I have given two or three examples, to illustrate the point.

This is a contract so full of loopholes that it could be better described as a fishing net. For that reason, I believe that those who really want to see effective, efficient and accountable government in Northern Ireland would say that it falls short and is not worthy of support in its present form.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am disappointed that the Programme for Government did not mention the private finance initiative (PFI), which was introduced by John Major's Conservative Government in 1992. The motivation behind PFI was to reduce public expenditure at a time when public borrowing was out of control. Put simply, the aim of PFI was to achieve public sector investment without appearing to increase public sector borrowing. It was a sleight of hand in many ways.

It has been strongly opposed by Unison, the largest union in the public sector. Significantly, the British Medical Council has added its voice to those opposing PFI. The British Medical Journal described PFI as

"perfidious, financial idiocy that could destroy the NHS."

PFI is expensive and wasteful.

Private finance initiatives will damage the NHS, now and in the future, and PFI projects are escalating in both scale and cost. They reduce pay, employment and working conditions. Most importantly, PFI represents an unacceptable increase in the privatisation of economic and social life. Critically, PFI involves the determination of such public services as health and education, using unaccountable, commercial criteria rather than those based on social need. In a nutshell, PFI represents profit before people. This has been illustrated by the latest increase in electricity charges by a rate three times greater than the rate of inflation. People are now being asked to get subsidies for private investment which will be paid for by the Government.

A further example of this theory is the privately owned car park at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the use of which by staff is subsidised by the board. Money is being paid out by the board to a private investor, when it should be being asked to reduce the board's expenditure. In the education sector, the closure of school maintenance depots, because of the contracting out of services under PFI, is creating job losses. School governors have to be more careful about their expenditure, with the result that school maintenance is affected.

Since the Labour Government came to power, £45 million has been paid out by the Department of Health to lawyers, financial advisors and other consultants. Government figures issued last March show that the bill for PFI consultants since 1997 would pay the salaries of 3,230 nurses for one year. It would also have allowed the Health Secretary almost to double the allocation of new money for heart operations.

Private companies which build or refurbish hospitals to lease back to the National Health Service earn over £20 million. Financial consultants have been paid £20 million, while other consultants have received £10 million. We can only guess at how many beds this wasted money, used to subvent private investment, could have provided for the Health Service. The private finance initiative is merely a dressed-up term for privatisation.

Essential services, such as health and education, must remain under the protective responsibility of public bodies, the core responsibility of Central Government. No party which calls itself a social democratic party or, like Sinn Féin, a Socialist Republican party - and I do not use the term "Socialist" in a dialectic sense - indeed, no party with a social conscience, which cares about the protective social fabric of our society, can give way to the concept of PFI without scrutinising the social implications of a laissez- faire attitude towards it for health and education. We must not allow PFI to compromise further those who are already socially and economically disadvantaged.

Mr M Robinson:

The overwhelming wish from this most wondrous wish-list, namely a cohesive, inclusive society, is stated again and again in this document, and the overriding and central element needed to produce this seeming Utopia is "A feeling of justice for all."

To create this form of justice for at least a minority of the citizens of this Province, it has been necessary to strip the name of one of the best police services in Europe, if not the best one. This has been done not in part - the name has not been given second place - rather there has been a complete annihilation of that name, even though such action has been deemed shocking and unfair by the Lords of the Realm and in spite of promises to the Unionist community by persons of the first order. However, perhaps this action is now to be known as an innovative policy. If this ongoing sublimation of pride is to continue, and if the expected observances of one side of the province's citizenry are to be viewed as aspiring to a feeling of justice for all, a unique idea of justice must be envisaged.

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Is the Unionist/Protestant community to go on as over the past decades with a give, give, give policy and the Nationalist/Roman Catholic community with more, more, more or take, take, take tactics before finally, if ever, admitting that they feel a sense of justice for all? Is there even a faint possibility that at the dawn of that ever- elusive day, any remaining members of the Unionist community will feel that same sense of justice and enjoy life in such "a secure and cohesive society"?

In one of the few places in this Programme for Government where actual, hard and fast figures are given, we are informed that Province-wide there will be 400 more offers under access to work, 50 places in employment support and 60 work trials under the job introduction scheme. Almost 510 jobs are envisaged. Then follow 26 paragraphs promising arbitration schemes, accessibility to culture, improved transparency, new formulae, equal impact assessments and cross-departmental approaches. This soaring list of promises lacks one notable entity - specific quantities. Until we read 26 paragraphs, there are no figures of any kind.

Then we see some figures which are very specific. By keeping to the present level of co-owners' support, 570 families Province-wide will gain a foothold on home ownership; 36 more families will be allowed to purchase from housing associations per year; and disabled people will have access to 1,500 more buildings in the Province. The paucity of these figures sits uneasily beside the grandiose schemes described on those pages where no parameters are given at all.

Under heading 2.2.1. the final action promised is a review of the appointment and promotion procedures in the Northern Ireland Senior Civil Service. Does this herald another purge of Protestant senior civil servants? These people have worked for years to obtain by merit a high position in their chosen field only to be replaced by someone who claims discrimination and who gains under the politically correct banner of under-representation. Perhaps we should see any such allocations as the workings of TSN "re-direction of resources". The senior civil servant now holding the resources will henceforth be discriminated against in favour of another, who will be positively singled out for preferential treatment. Will this ever further the core element of a feeling of justice for all?

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. A recent newspaper editorial read

"Why don't our leaders tell it as it is? Nothing will ever be the same again in this island."

The UK and Irish Governments have signed an internationally binding agreement regarding the future of this island and specifically in respect of the Six Counties. This means great change for all of us here, and for some people this is the change that they cannot countenance. Painful as it may be, change allows the possibility of debate and a dignified response to this Programme for Government. If we do not all pull together on this, we may be in danger of pulling ourselves apart. If that happens our communities will suffer.

It is important that the Programme for Government extends the opportunity to all citizens of this country, North and South, to get real and to join together in seeking new solutions to new problems and new solutions to old problems. That might enable us to address the current paranoid myth which says that if Catholics get more, Protestants will get less. Targeting social need means that whatever their religious or political beliefs, resources must be targeted at those most in need. If through the Programme for Government we create equality, parity of esteem, rights, and action TSN, really nothing will be the same again. The promotion of equality and human rights is now enshrined within law and central to the agreement, as they are to the Programme for Government.

They must form the basis, not in rhetoric but in action, of how this Programme for Government will address the most vulnerable members of society, the young, the old, the victims and survivors of the conflict, the disabled, the travelling communities, those living west of the Bann and those on the Shankill Road. However, the Programme for Government does not tell us how the Assembly will contribute to the Bill of Rights, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. Nor does it tell us if the Assembly will set up a cross-party human rights Committee.

In terms of victims, the Northern Ireland Office, which represents the state, needs to acknowledge that it has not been a passive or neutral player in the experience and management of conflict and is therefore not a neutral or passive player in managing how the needs of victims of state violence are met. In this respect it is not clear under paragraph 2.2 what exactly will be the nature of the cross- departmental strategy group or the interdepartmental working group, and how these will relate to the victims' liaison unit and the victims' unit, and these to date have created total confusion among victims and contributed to the notion of a hierarchy of victims. The work of groups who are dealing with victims of state violence at grass-roots level is being constantly undermined by the victims' liaison unit and the victims' unit, not to mention the duplication of resources.

Under paragraph 2.3.1, travellers, the most marginalised group on this island, are discussed. From 2001 it is proposed to develop appropriate permanent accommodation to meet travellers' needs. Having listened to a direct rule Minister some years ago, I had hoped that this particular programme would be under way. I am now told that it is not. In paragraph 2.3 we find these words:

"ensure appropriate measures are taken to address the educational needs of Traveller children and children from other ethnic minorities",

The Programme for Government does not tell us how or when this will happen or what timescale is envisaged.

In terms of employment support for the disabled, some of those who were encouraged to sign on for New Deal programmes are now being penalised by losing entitlements to disability living allowance and incapacity benefit. Under paragraph 2.2.1 it is not clear how the needs of the disabled will be addressed in terms of access for them to sports, arts and venues.

However, I would like to welcome free travel for our senior citizens, which will now bring us into line with provisions in the Republic.

Under paragraph 4.3

"We will seek to ensure that all our young people have the skills and qualifications to gain employment in a modern economy."

To address this inequality, we must, as stated, concentrate on the digital divide and explore ways to equip those living in the most disadvantaged areas to exploit the opportunities of technology. How do we propose to make all our young people computer literate? Existing plans for 4,200 additional undergraduate places by 2004 must address the disparity of places in those disadvantaged areas.

Finally, I welcome the proposed single equality Bill, which may address the existing discrimination in terms of gender, employability, and the elderly.

Rev Robert Coulter:

I give a broad welcome to the Programme for Government. Much has been said about its aspirational language. However, at the beginning of section 3, there is an honest recognition that our general health record is not good. Even though the Health Department has inherited an array of National Health Service problems, once we recognise the initial premise, we can instigate the necessary programme of activity to redress the wrongs. You only have to look at the thousands on waiting lists, the cancelled operations and the long waiting times at accident and emergency units to know that there is a need for immediate action. If we are to tackle these problems effectively, it is essential that we focus on their causes and ensure that our policies and programmes tackle them.

However, the next paragraph states

"We need to create the right socio-economic conditions and break into the cycle of disadvantage which is the major cause of ill-health."

That has not been proven philosophically or otherwise. Reducing preventable disease must be the first objective of any health service. I am glad that the programme will demand the attention of other Departments - seven others are mentioned. The Department of Health's problems cannot be seen in isolation as being the answer to the problem that faces us all. The causes of ill health must be taken on board, and throughout this section we are returning to the primary cause of our future needs - dealing with the causes of ill health. Modernising and improving hospitals and the primary care services is also considered, and the logic of the argument for acute hospitals is sound and acceptable.

I spoke to a group of people in the south-west of the Province the other evening, and they admitted that no one would mind going to acute hospitals for acute services. The problem is not with the acute hospitals, but with the aftercare. When the operation is over and the patient is in need of 24-hour professional nursing care, he is sent home because the acute hospital is so busy and under such demands. Therefore, I suggest that the acute hospitals cannot be looked at in isolation. Mention is given to developing proposals for a modern acute hospital service. We must take steps, where possible, to maintain safe and effective services at the smaller hospitals. I am sorry that more attention was not paid to providing aftercare in community or convalescent hospitals in the main centres of population.

New management arrangements for the recruitment and training of additional nursing and front-line staff were mentioned. We have already heard about the problem someone in one of our major hospitals faced the other evening. He was looking for an acute bed for a seriously ill patient and could not find one. Finally, Craigavon Hospital said that it had found enough nurses to man another acute hospital bed.

This section deals with the very heart of the problem in our modern Health Service - the lack of nursing and front-line staff. That is the critical problem. Following a motor accident in my part of the Province, North Antrim, the victims had to be taken to Craigavon Hospital for treatment, when there were two hospitals within 20 miles of the scene of the accident. What can be done, or what should be done, about that? The Ambulance Service was also mentioned -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Member's time is up.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is difficult not to feel like a member of the band on the Titanic when debating this issue. In the week that the Programme for Government was launched, the First Minister and his party were plotting an exit strategy from these institutions. Granted, the First Minister's was a temporary exit strategy while others in his party would prefer a permanent one.

The future of the Programme for Government may be dubious, but it is important to comment on the equality aspects in the document. Sinn Féin will be measuring the potential success of the Programme for Government against its stated ability to deliver on equality obligations - to deal with entrenched social, economic and cultural rights as well as with the civil and political ones at the heart of its operations; to tackle the religious differential in employment; and actively to target social need.

1.45 pm

Bearing that in mind, it is disconcerting that the mission statement in paragraph 11.2 fails to mention equality or measures for tackling structural discrimination. The section on promoting equality and human rights fails to take advantage of the scope for positive discrimination. The action plan does not mention the strategy for tackling religious differentials in employment, and it does not refer to partnership arrangements to deliver any of the programmes.

In the section on tackling poverty and social disadvantage, the Executive missed a golden opportunity to put in place an anti-poverty strategy encompassing all sectors. TSN alone will not address society's deep-rooted problems of poverty and disadvantage. This requires a unified, strategic approach across Departments and sectors, with a commitment of resources as well as specific goals and timetables.

Paragraph 2.5.2 fails to take into account the position afforded to the Irish language under the Good Friday Agreement, and it does not apply the equality duty to the rights of the Irish-language community. Paragraph 1.16 refers to the equality impact assessment carried out on the Programme for Government. How was this done; who was consulted; and what were the recommendations? The equality duty places an obligation on Departments to consult on the equality impact of all functions and policies - how was this done?

We challenge the assertion that it is not possible to apply a detailed impact assessment of equality to the whole Programme for Government. A method for this must be found and, as far as possible, it should be uniform across the Departments. The Executive and the Programme for Government should not be exempt from monitoring and impact assessment.

Sinn Féin believes that the Equality Unit's suggestion in the Programme for Government and the Budget that the criteria for measuring need should vary according to the policy or practice under consideration by the Department or public body is a charter for chaos. There must be consistency in how need is measured if the same need is to be addressed.

A further difficulty is the scheduling of publications. While there are references throughout the document to TSN action plans, these plans are not available to the public, so no one can judge the efficacy of claims made about the delivery of equality and TSN to detailed actions and budgets. It is therefore impossible for the beneficiaries of the Programme for Government to make any genuine assessment of it. This must be urgently addressed to ensure that there is full delivery and accountability.

TSN is a policy initiative. It is complementary to the equality duty, and it must be governed by that fact. It is therefore illogical that TSN action plans have not been included in the Programme for Government to ensure scrutiny in the context of this duty. TSN should be redesignated as a public expenditure priority and featured as such within the Programme for Government and the Budget. The TSN action plans must be formulated in compliance with the statutory duty to promote equality of opportunity and detailed explicit programmes of affirmative action with targets and timetables deliberately designed to lift those most disadvantaged in our society. This has not been done, and that is a major flaw in both documents. This also distorts the debate on the equality duty and the eradication of religious discrimination in this society. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

I speak as the Minister for Social Development, dealing with matters within my brief, unlike other Ministers who have wandered outside the areas of their briefs. I assure Members that my Department and I will continue to work vigorously to promote the interests of the most deprived and marginalised members of society. Meeting social and economic need lies at the core of my Department's programme, and that is strongly reflected in the Programme for Government.

Within my Department the provision of affordable social housing is a key priority and a vital component of regeneration and the promotion of social inclusion. People in Northern Ireland, particularly those on low incomes and the disabled, expected us to produce effective policies for meeting their housing needs, to tackle unfit accommodation and to enable them to get on the ownership ladder. My aims are to provide affordable social housing, promote more effective and economical heating systems, maintain or improve the present level of co-ownership, increase the numbers who can buy their homes from housing associations and increase the number of adaptations to existing buildings to improve access for disabled people.

In my recent meeting with the Social Development Committee on the Programme for Government, the Committee indicated that it would like to have seen specific mention made of improving the level of unfitness in rural housing and the setting of more measurable targets. I wish to confirm that I will acknowledge these views as we continue to refine our commitments in the programme in the light of final decisions on the Budget for 2001-02. I have not yet decided on the rent increases for Housing Executive tenants from 1 April 2001. I met the Committee recently, and I discussed this matter. It has deliberated, and I am awaiting its views.

Another key priority for the Department for Social Development is tackling poverty and social exclusion, particularly where children are affected. I am determined to target its causes and effects. I was disappointed that action for children was not accorded a higher priority in the Programme for Government. We will ensure that all objectives in the new targeting social need action plans are achieved, and we will work with other Departments to promote social inclusion.

The Assembly has passed the Child Support, Pension and Social Security Act, which is awaiting Royal Assent. It will help to ensure better support for children and improvements in the provision of retirement pensions. It is the only piece of substantial legislation that has been passed by the Assembly.

There is continuing evidence of deprivation and social exclusion in the Province. The Department for Social Development must take the lead in implementing definable improvements in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and assist in empowering local communities. A new urban regeneration strategy will be launched early in 2001, aiming to bridge the gap between the most deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of Northern Ireland, lower long-term unemployment, reduce crime and promote better health and educational qualifications. There will also be strong linkages to the provision of good and affordable housing. Inner north Belfast will benefit greatly from the URBAN II programme. It is an excellent opportunity to address, in a co-ordinated way and with local people, the physical and economic decline and dislocation of the community infrastructure in that area.

I recognise and appreciate the work of the various voluntary and community organisations in Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government reflects the important and invaluable contribution these organisations make to the social and economic well-being of our community. The Department for Social Development will continue to work to maximise the contribution this sector can make to the delivery and implementation of the programme.

I would like to emphasise that the actions I have outlined are not merely aspirational; rather we are embarking on clearly focused programmes of work. In due course these will be underpinned by measurable targets and objectives against which our performances can be assessed. I have agreed to share this information with the Social Development Committee.

The social security system plays an important role in the social and economic life of Northern Ireland. The majority of people who claim benefits do so honestly and properly. We know, however, that others do not, and I am determined to take whatever action is necessary to prevent fraud and abuse of the system. The targets I have set for reducing fraud and error levels are challengeable and realistic.

Finally, the provisions in the Programme for Government reflect the priorities and direction of the Department for Social Development. They take account of the Department's draft budget allocations, but they can be further refined in the light of the views given in the consultation programme. I am grateful for the constructive and positive contribution the Social Development Committee has made in our discussion programme. I will take its views on board as we proceed. There is much more I would like to say, but time does not permit me to say it.

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

Tógadh réimse leathan ceisteanna ag Teachtaí le linn an tráthnóna, agus leis an am atá fágtha agam, ba mhaith liom freagra a thabhairt ar oiread de na pointí a tógadh agus a thig liom.

A wide range of issues has been raised by Members in the course of the debate, and I would like to address as many of them as possible. Clearly time is of the essence. I will try to cover as many points as possible, including those that are the responsibility of other Ministers, drawing as necessary on material provided by the relevant Departments. Any points I am unable to address may be covered at a later stage in the debate, possibly in writing by the relevant Minister.

Nigel Dodds said there was nothing new, and Billy Hutchinson asked for further detail. Unfortunately neither is here to hear the answer. In the Programme for Government we have set out very clear priorities and detailed plans of action to carry them through, using the available resources to improve people's health, education and skills, create jobs, tackle disadvantage and protect the environment.

Mr Dodds asked specifically about funding for the North/South Ministerial Council. It must be pointed out that the figures in the Budget proposals were expressed on the basis of a financial year and therefore do not tally precisely with those initially agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council, which were based on a calendar year. Where the most is made of economies of scale, expenditure on North/South bodies - provided, of course, that they continue to exist and are not blocked - will save money, and this action will improve services for all throughout the island.

Éamonn ONeill asked if the money being allocated would address new priorities or merely be put to addressing underfunding in the recent past. I cannot speak in detail for each Department; that must be a matter for the Ministers themselves. In health and social services the money is going towards addressing problems which have arisen as the result of recent historical underfunding. Had we not had a situation in which, over the years, £190 million of savings were made by the Department - more than by any other local government section here - we would be in a very different position. Those savings were not put back into health and social services here, unlike in England where they were put back into the National Health Service.

John Kelly asked about the private finance initiative. The Programme for Government includes a commitment to review, by 2002, opportunities for the use of private finance in all major public service provisions and decide whether such partnerships are practical. There will be full public consultation to help us develop a cross- cutting public health strategy. We shall examine proposals for health impact assessment on all policies. Paul Berry said that was being overambitious for one Department. This is, of course, a cross-departmental strategy.

Given that time is of the essence, and since I see that people have left, I may pass over some responses in case I do not manage to deal with everyone's questions.

Kieran McCarthy, Robert Coulter and others raised specific questions about the Ulster Hospital and bed shortages in general. The draft Budget allocates an additional £7 million to combat the pressures on hospital beds and waiting lists in 2001-2002, and we will now be able to provide 13 high-dependency beds to improve capacity in this vital area. In the Ulster Hospital, there will be two extra intensive care unit beds this year. Next year, there will be six extra high-dependency beds.

We are very much aware that it is not merely a question of the beds themselves, and I welcome Robert Coulter's comments about the need for a more integrated service. That is precisely what I wish to see. I appreciate Joe Hendron's comments that we are addressing an inherited situation, and I have asked for a review of our acute hospital capacity to be completed by September 2001.

Billy Hutchinson asked about the promotion of equality and human rights. Specific actions to promote equality and human rights are detailed on pages 19 and 20.

The debate stood adjourned.

The sitting was suspended at 2.00 pm.

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


Oral Answers to Questions

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

West Tyrone: Investment Projects


2.30 pm


Mr Byrne

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will detail the number of inward investment projects the Industrial Development Board secured for West Tyrone in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 275/00)

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

No green-field, foreign direct investments have been secured for West Tyrone since April 1994. However, since that time the Industrial Development Board (IDB) has financially assisted eight expansion projects from externally owned companies, and these have created 372 new jobs and safeguarded 438 existing jobs.

Mr Byrne:

There has been great concern in West Tyrone for many years about the IDB's track record in bringing inward investment to and creating jobs in this area. Does the Minister agree that the IDB's track record is poor?

Will the Minister and his Department reassure the people of West Tyrone that they will put into practice the equality legislation and the new TSN in order to achieve balanced economic development across Northern Ireland? Will the Minister ensure that the IDB will exhaustively examine and evaluate all potential job creation projects presented to it, particularly any projects that may be currently on the desks of IDB executives? The people of West Tyrone are in grave danger of losing faith in the IDB because of its very poor record.

Sir Reg Empey:

It is unfair to condemn the IDB in that way. First, the IDB is committed, as is the Department, to working with local authorities. Only recently the IDB held a meeting in West Tyrone - in Omagh - and had discussions with many local representatives. The Department is fully committed to the equality legislation and has set a target for first time visits of 75% to new TSN areas. Currently that target is being achieved, if you take the Province as a whole, and we are strongly committed to ensuring that that continues.

I want to make a number of observations. The position in both council areas concerned is that there is continuing downward pressure on unemployment. Unemployment is falling in the Strabane and Omagh district council areas. If the Member cares to examine the most recent figures, published last month, he will see that that is the case. The difference is quite marked compared to two or three years ago.

Most of the jobs created in West Tyrone, as with everywhere else, come from indigenous companies. Foreign direct investment is only responsible for a relatively small proportion of the new jobs created in Northern Ireland. The vast majority are created by businesses that are already there. The Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) is extremely active in the area, and many client companies throughout West Tyrone are receiving attention.

Other problems arise because of, for example, the concentration of the textile industry in that part of the county. The Member will be aware that the Department is very much involved at the moment with the textile sector. Next month I expect to publish the Kurt Salmon Associates proposals that have been created in conjunction with the industry, which is strongly represented in the Member's constituency, and I look forward to the development of a strategy to help that sector.

I can assure the Member that, as far as this Department is concerned, West Tyrone and other new TSN areas will continue to receive a very high priority. We will continue to do everything in our power to strengthen the economic infrastructure in the area.


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