Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 13 November 2000
Mr P Doherty:
Given the support that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have given the Omagh 'Strategy 2010' document, a document I also commend, does the Minister agree that a multi-agency task force should be set up to capitalise on the initiative both in Omagh and in the West Tyrone constituency area, as envisaged in that document?
Sir Reg Empey:
I will, of course, look at any proposals. However, we run the risk of treading on the toes of the existing agencies that are already functioning in the area - for instance, both local authorities are extremely actively involved in economic development. We know that there are local partnerships, area partnerships and European partnerships, many of which have been extremely successful, and they are very vibrant organisations. I am conscious of the visit made by the First and the Deputy First Ministers to West Tyrone and of the matters they referred to. It is perfectly obvious that sometimes you reach a point where, although a great many organisations have been set up, things are not necessarily being done. You can sometimes have too many organisations. However, I would certainly be prepared to look at any realistic proposal.
I reiterate the point I made in my answer to the Member's Colleague from West Tyrone. I am aware of the great pressure on the agriculture sector in West Tyrone. It is, however, outside our control; it has been imposed on us, not only by the currency differentials, which have affected the amount of support, but by a range of matters that have directly affected agriculture and had a knock-on effect. In fact, the progress that has been made on the industrial base in West Tyrone has, to some extent, been masked by the fact that the difficulties in the agriculture sector have been superimposed on it. Without making any firm commitment to the Member, I will certainly look at proposals, but I stress that there is a great deal of ongoing activity, and one would have to be convinced that any new suggestions would add value and not distract existing organisations from their current work.
The Minister is quite right when he says that an industry is growing up - it is called "the development industry" - around trying to attract money. In view of the fact that there has been such a downward trend in the farming industry and we now have the new poor in great measure, what is being done by LEDU to encourage indigenous industries? We need new infrastructure such as the Strabane stage 3 bypass, the Newtownstewart bypass and phase 3 of the Omagh bypass - which is £17 million of investment - to make us much more viable from the point of view of transport - bear in mind that we have road transport services only. What is being done to ensure equality of opportunity? This is something that is levelled against all developing authorities. Things are more favourable for those who come from outside, but the local entrepreneur has great difficulties. What is being done to encourage -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I must advise the Member that he must limit himself to the question in hand.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am conscious of the infrastructural weaknesses in the district. The Member has referred to some of the planned remedial measures, but there are others. Infrastructure is not confined to roads; it can and does include telecoms, which are basic infrastructure. I am currently studying a report on that matter, and it is perfectly clear that towns in the west of the Province will be directly affected. Our objective will be to ensure that there is as level a playing field as possible, because in respect of telecoms, infrastructure is fundamental to the ability to attract industry and business.
The Member feels that indigenous companies do not get the same attention as foreign investors. Over the next decade the vast majority of jobs created in Northern Ireland industry will have to come from indigenous companies. There is a trend for less direct foreign investment, and incoming projects are generally smaller than they used to be.
If we have to create some 112,000 jobs over the next decade, they will not be created by direct foreign investment. They can only be created by indigenous companies or by the expansion of foreign-owned companies. The eight projects that have been supported by the Industrial Development Board, came from existing foreign-owned companies. The Local Enterprise Development Unit is active and successful in this area, and we are looking at the entire support package, and at the balance of that package, for the small business sector in particular, because that is the growth area of the future.
Ninety-nine per cent of companies in Northern Ireland employ fewer than 250 people, so if this sector is not receiving attention, then no sector is receiving it. I can assure the Member that these points will be kept in mind when we are reviewing the package.
Small and Medium-Sized Local Enterprises
Mr J Wilson
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will outline his plans to increase assistance to small and medium-sized local enterprises; and if he will make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am almost afraid to answer this question because the Member is sitting so close to me.
I will continue to ensure that the type and balance of assistance given to indigenous businesses, more than 99% of which fall inside the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) category of employing fewer than 250 people, is the most effective method of achieving our objective of an enterprising, knowledge-based economy.
Mr J Wilson:
The South Antrim constituency is made up mostly of the entire local government district of Antrim and most of the local government district of Newtownabbey. Both areas have much to commend them to inward investors. Can the Minister tell the House what the IDB's record is in attracting investment to the two areas and how the IDB is marketing them?
Sir Reg Empey:
The IDB continues to work with Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Councils to market the area to potential inward investors. It has invested signficantly to ensure that appropriate property is available, spending £4·3 million on the infrastructure and development plateau at Ballyhenry. The IDB expects to see ProLogis Developments Ltd act as development manager, drawing down the land from the IDB on an agreed profit-sharing basis as occupiers fill the site. Additionally, it has spent £11·5 million on the infrastructure and buildings at Antrim Technology Park since it opened in 1986.
The IDB will hold a regional meeting in the Dunadry Hotel on 29 November, where elected representatives and representation from client companies, education and the Antrim and Newtownabbey communities will have an opportunity to speak with the IDB board and executives on issues affecting the area. There are 48 clients on the list in the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council areas, which together employ 9,300 people.
Since April 1995 the IDB has offered client companies in the council areas assistance totalling £26 million in support of projects involving a total investment of £132·2 million. These projects anticipate a total of 1,444 new jobs and will safeguard a further 1,560.
The area of West Tyrone that I represent and my home town of Strabane would welcome any assistance for small firms and enterprises. However, the bureaucracy involved in helping small firms can take forever. If and when the agencies are restructured, will the Minister consider setting up a special task force to cut out the red tape and thus expedite assistance to these small companies? Will the Minister also share his thoughts with us on the issue of the US Small Business Administration (SBA) as distinct from selective financial assistance?
Sir Reg Empey:
A number of Members have asked me about bureaucracy recently. Two years ago there was a review of all Government Departments and the necessity to produce paper for people to fill in. All the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment forms were reviewed, a number were eliminated and a number were redesigned. Within the last few weeks, I have asked officials to take each form and examine not only the need for the form but also the policy rationale for it.
Tourism is the first section that is going to be done. The objective will be to see whether it is absolutely necessary to have the form, whether there is a statutory basis for it, and whether it is a policy issue or purely an informative issue. I am going to go through each division of the Department systematically to see if all these bits of paper are essential.
Having been in business myself, I know only too well how frustrating it can be. Some things are inescapable, as the Member will know from his own experience. Where public money is involved there are accountability issues. The Government need certain information, which can only be obtained by asking questions. I am conscious of the pressures that companies are under. I will be taking personal interest in this to see if it is absolutely necessary to have each piece of paper.
With regard to the Small Business Administration in the United States, I have met the Cabinet Minister responsible, Aida Alvarez. She gave a seminar in Belfast in December 1998. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee delegation that went to Washington last August had a further meeting with Mr Charles Tansey, a senior official. There is no question that the potential of the loan versus selective financial assistance model is quite attractive.
However, there are statutory differences. First, the banking sector in the United States has certain statutory obligations to the community that do not obtain here. Secondly, where guarantees are given for loans, under current Treasury rules the Department would have to assume that the total value of the guarantee was spent. It would have to hold that cash back in reserve and not spend it. While those rules exist, or are applied in that fashion, there would be little gain. The American experience has been that only 5% or 6% of their loan book is actually called in in any one year, and Congress provides that revenue support, whereas under current Treasury rules we would have to provide 100% support.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I am aware of the time constraints and the number of people wanting to speak. I ask the Minister to be brief in his responses.
ICT-Based Information and
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will detail where the regional outlets for the information computer technology information and advice centres will be located.
Sir Reg Empey:
No decision has been taken as to the location of the regional outlets. It is intended that they will be based within existing public buildings, as the purpose of the regional outlets will be to provide easy access to information and advice on health and safety at work issues.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I trust that he will very soon move beyond the Programme for Government and see the need for more issues than just health and safety to be addressed. Will he also look at the issue of the total number of outlets? At the moment, a large number of SMEs need not just access to the Internet but advice on navigating it. That is something that is not best done on a regional basis but may well be required in every district town.
Sir Reg Empey:
The likelihood is that one or two pilot offices will be established initially to see how things go. The Member is correct about advice and so on. It does require a degree of spreading out. Certainly there will be one office in the Greater Belfast area. I think there will be at least two pilots initially, but I take the point he is making. It really is a question of how the pilot projects run. If the demand is there, the principle could be applied to a whole range of other services outwith health and safety, which happens to be what I am focusing on at the moment.
It is really a matter of seeing how it goes and how the pilots perform. If the Member wishes, when the pilots are established and the results of their operations become apparent, I will keep him informed.
Will these centres be fully equipped? I know of similar situations - I think the Minister will be familiar with them too - where such equipment was set up and did not quite meet expectations. The Minister mentioned a couple of services. Will any others be provided? Will there be a fee per item, or will it be free? Ultimately, what are they expected to achieve?
Most importantly, with reference to Mr McMenamin's earlier question, would it not be possible for some of the forms that confuse and overload people to be put on a database so that form-filling could be interactive, and they could be prompted. My information is that in the United States, for instance, where people fill in forms on a computer the number of mistakes is reduced dramatically. I welcome the move, but I wonder -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Thank you. The question has been asked.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am conscious of the point made by the Member. As he says, there is an opportunity for other organisations to be involved in the services. It will be an advice centre. I am aware that in Canada and in other places form-filling has been successfully dealt with in that way, and there is a very high take-up. We want these centres to be places where people can walk in off the street and have access. We have not yet worked out whether the pilot will be free or whether charges will be made, but we have to maximise the use of IT in the delivery of public services. We have a long way to go and, quite frankly, we are only at an early stage. I take the Member's points under consideration.
The Minister advised that the likely location would be in an existing public building. Does the Minister accept that that would further disadvantage those constituencies - for example, East Antrim - where the number of civil servants is already low?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member's point is that from a cost-effectiveness point of view it makes sense for the centres to be in buildings that are already in public occupation rather than go to the expense of acquiring more buildings. The object of the exercise will be to ensure that on completion there will be a regional spread. We are only at the pilot stage, so we will have to see how it goes and learn. It may be that, if things are on line and available anywhere in the Province, the location of offices will be less significant, and what they actually do will be more significanct. It is too early to give the Member a definite answer, but I assure him that I understand the point he is making, and that will have to be taken into account when the final decisions are made.
Down Business Park: Investment Projects
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will outline his current and future plans for the location of inward investment projects at the Down Business Park in Downpatrick.
Sir Reg Empey:
The IDB is working with councils, the private sector, universities and further education colleges to win new knowledge-based projects for Northern Ireland. The new Down Business Park forms an important part of this strategy.
I thank the Minister for his short reply to the question. It does not give me much to go on, but I draw his attention to statistics indicating that inward investment visits to the constituency of South Down and to Down District Council were consistently less than 2% each year over the past decade and beyond. The ministerial team said here on 17 October that, since December, the IDB has promoted 7,100 jobs - 3,000 more than in the previous year. I would like to know where those jobs went. They certainly did not go east of the Bann or to South Down.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am conscious of the Member's representations. He has to be aware - he is aware - that the obligation on the IDB is to ensure that the maximum number of visits are to new TSN areas, and we are doing that to the best of our ability. However, people have to be aware that a company goes largely where it wants to go.
We can try to market an area, but a company will go where it wishes. Take the Down district area, for example. Between 3 July and 5 July of this year a Korean company visited the Down Business Park units. That was a repeat visit. Between 23 July and 25 July a USA company visited the area; between 24 August and 26 August a Korean company visited; between 1 September and 3 September another Korean company visited; and between 27 September and 29 September a third Korean company visited Down Business Park - again, that was a repeat visit.
There is activity taking place, and I am conscious that Down District Council is working hard to help with the strategy for the Down Business Park, about which the Member has written to me on a number of occasions. I assure the Member that activity is taking place and that the IDB is involved in that. I have just mentioned five visits which have taken place since July 2000.
My supplementary question related to Question 3 - I was not called.
Will the Minister confirm that inward investment projects at the Down Business Park in Downpatrick will not prevent similar investment projects from taking place at Killyleagh, some eight miles from Downpatrick? Does the Minister's Department intend to make similar provisions in Killyleagh, in the light of the 200 to 250 job losses there in the last 18 months?
Sir Reg Empey:
There is an assumption that the IDB can tell a company which is coming to Northern Ireland from abroad "We want you to visit here" or "We want you to go there". Members have to understand that the IDB cannot be as prescriptive as that. Clearly the pattern of business location in Northern Ireland has developed through the years as businesses have come and gone. We have projects such as Down Business Park, which the IDB has assisted in the development of. There is now a place in the district where companies can quickly establish manufacturing or other activities. I am conscious of the difficulties that arose in the textile industry in Killyleagh and the surrounding area in the Member's constituency about this time last year. It is understandable that his Colleagues and he wish to draw attention to particular blackspots in their areas. However, Members should not exaggerate the degree to which the Government are able to determine where companies visit.
I take the point the Member has made and will ensure that the IDB is aware that it has to take into account other areas in addition to existing business parks where investment has already taken place.
Lagan Valley Constituency:
Tourist Board Support
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will outline his plans to address the shortfall in financial support from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for the Lagan Valley constituency.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) administers a number of grant schemes, which are open to applications from across Northern Ireland. The Tourist Board therefore encourages applications from the Lagan Valley area. Provided an application meets the published scheme criteria, the NITB will consider it on its merits.
I thank the Minister for his response. I know that Lisburn Borough Council has been active in tourism and spends something like £0·75 million per year of its budget on it. Therefore it is somewhat depressing when Lagan Valley is awarded £121,000 while other inland councils such as West Tyrone are offered £1·5 million. That is how it goes in the marketing end. We would like to see more hotels in the Lisburn and Lagan Valley area.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Will the Member ask a question please?
Is the Minister prepared to lift the moratorium on grant aid for hotels outside the 10-mile radius of Belfast?
Sir Reg Empey:
The reason the moratorium was imposed in the first place was that there were enough people prepared to build and establish hotels with their own money, without recourse to public resources. If any arbitrary limit is imposed, such as nine, 10 or 11 miles, there is always a difficulty because people get on the wrong side of the limit.
The Member will be aware that there has been a difficulty with hotels in the Lisburn area for a number of years. Hotels closed down at Hilden and elsewhere. It has been difficult for hotels to establish themselves in this area. Part of the reason for that is their proximity to Belfast and, of course, the Forte hotel has now moved to Belfast. I do not have plans to remove the moratorium at the moment, but if I were convinced that there was a need or that it would make a difference, I would reconsider my position. With regard to the wider question -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The time, Minister, is up.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am trying to answer the question, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Time is up.
Career Development Loans (Students)
Mrs E Bell
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will detail his plans to make career development loans available to Northern Ireland students studying in Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
My Department is considering options for introducing supported loan arrangements, particularly for further education courses. This will take account of the role that career development loans have played in Great Britain. I expect to be in a position to announce the outcome of work on how they may be developed in the future and the impact of individual learning accounts early in the new year.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for his very encouraging answer. I am sure that the Minister will agree that this type of loan for vocational, rather than academic, courses is very necessary in today's world.
I agree with the Member's comments on the need to provide additional support to students, particularly those pursuing vocational courses at further and higher education levels. As I indicated in my response to her question, my Department is actively considering the matter of career development loans, and I reiterate that I hope to be in a position to make an announcement early in the new year, when all the deliberation is completed.
In view of the difficulties that there have been in the administration of student loans, does the Minister accept that there may be a case for transferring this role from the Student Loans Company, which is based in Glasgow, to a locally based company?
The initial question addresses the issue of career development loans, which are administered in Great Britain by the commercial financial institutions - by a number of the banks. The question that is now being posed relates to student loans for undergraduate students pursuing higher education courses, which are administered by the Student Loans Company in Glasgow. It is an entirely different matter.
Training Facilities (East Belfast)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will outline his plans for the provision of training facilities in East Belfast; and if he will make a statement.
The Training and Employment Agency, through existing programmes, currently contracts with five local training providers to offer a wide range of training which best meets the needs of employers. Future training developments will continue to concentrate on enabling local, particularly long-term, unemployed people, to get access to both new and existing jobs.
Does the Minister realise that the proposed closure of the training facilities at Templemore Avenue, Willowfield and Park Avenue in east Belfast from the end of this academic year would create a severe shortage of such opportunities from Newtownards right through to Belfast city centre? Will the Minister agree to meet with representatives from the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, the Greater East Belfast Partnership, East Belfast Community Development Agency and other groups to hear of the concerns of the residents on this issue?
There are currently five recognised training organisations offering job skills training to a total of 440 young people in the area. Those are the five training providers that I referred to in my initial response.
In addition, Castlereagh College and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, which has 600 places, serve the needs of people from east Belfast and further afield. Access training is available locally, and modern apprenticeships are widely accessible through local employers, in particular in Shorts-Bombardier. The various New Deal strands cater for adults, and they are complemented by the provision of a range of bridge-to- employment opportunities.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
As Mr Tierney is not here, the Member will receive a written answer to his question.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will detail the current status of the Training and Employment Agency and plans he has to review its status.
The question relates to the current status of the Training and Employment Agency. It is a Next Steps agency within the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. I have recently reviewed the Training and Employment Agency's status and have concluded that its formal status as a Next Steps agency should be discontinued with immediate effect.
Can the Minister give an assurance that the services provided by the Training and Employment Agency staff and offices will continue, or at least will not be disadvantaged, by the loss of agency status?
I can answer both questions in the affirmative. The services will continue to be provided, and the jobs and conditions of service for members of staff will not change. My decision will also not have any impact on the customers of the Training and Employment Agency.
Walsh Visa Programme
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will detail (a) the number of young people who have participated in the Walsh Programme so far, (b) his satisfaction with the jobs allocated, and (c) the drop-out rate of those participating.
Question 6? Has question 5 been withdrawn?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The Member entered the Chamber at the moment question 6 was being put.
The number of young people from Northern Ireland who have participated in the Walsh Visa Programme to date is 254. I am satisifed that the jobs available, although they are at entry level to match the limited experience and skills of the target group, offer opportunities for further skills development and career advancement. To date, 139 participants have returned from the United States.
I thank the Minister for his report, which is fairly damming. It was envisaged that up to 4,000 young people a year would participate in the programme. We have 254, with a drop-out rate of 139. The jobs are not satisfactory, and a review of the Walsh Programme is needed. I ask the Minister to review this issue, as it is not satisfactory.
I do not accept that this is a damming situation, nor that it is unsatisfactory. The matter, with respect to the Walsh Visa Programme, has been under constant review from the outset. When the programme was put into operation it was recognised on all sides that the numbers originally targeted to participate annually were overly ambitious. That is the view of the Training and Employment Agency and FÁS, and is shared by the Department of Labor in the United States.
A number of drop-outs from the programme was expected, given the nature of the target group and the difficulties that they were already experiencing in the Northern Ireland labour market. The scale of the drop-out, however, is greater than anticipated and was a key issue for the scheduled review of the programme and the planning of the next phase.
Since early summer officials in my Department have had regular contact with the Department of Labor in Washington and have visited the USA for discussions with them and the US programme administrator. While there some weeks ago, my officials and I took the opportunity to discuss and review the Walsh Visa Programme with the Department of Labor. I also met some of the young people participating in the programme. I assure Members that many of them were quite satisfied with the administration of the programme.
Members will appreciate that there are many reasons, both personal and job-related, for so many drop-outs. I assure Members that when the review of the Walsh Visa Programme is complete, its reintroduction next spring will be in the light of a thorough consideration of all issues raised in the course of this year's experience.
I confirm that several participants are well satisfied with the Walsh Visa Programme, especially those from the Newry and Mourne area. The uptake was not what some of us had anticipated - something similar to what happened with the Morrison Programme. Will the Minister outline his contacts with the United States and other officials regarding the Walsh Visa Programme?
The contacts are those mentioned in my response to the supplementary. Officials have been in regular contact with the Department of Labor, and FÁS, our co-partners in recruiting participants to the Walsh Visa Programme. On my recent visit to Washington I had a thorough discussion with representatives from the Department of Labor who are administering the programme. I visited and spoke with participants in two locations in the Washington area, and they expressed a considerable degree of satisfaction, some greater than others. Undoubtedly, in a programme of this nature, for some the experience has not lived up to expectations. It is important to remember that the Walsh Visa Programme is targeted on those who have experienced unemployment in Northern Ireland. Therefore, difficulties come into the programme as a product of those individual experiences. Some who have remained are gaining an invaluable experience, and some who have returned prematurely have brought home a positive experience. Not all come back with a negative attitude towards their experience in the United States.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's assurances. Was the drop-out rate connected to the administration of the programme by Logicon, who I understand have had the contract renewed? Given the serious problems which young people encountered earlier this year, is the Minister satisfied that these difficulties will not reoccur, and is he satisfied with Logicon's performance?
We cannot guarantee that problems will not arise when a programme has many participants. We must expect some problems, either amongst the participants themselves, or as a result of the context of the strange surroundings in which they find themselves living and working.
Administration of the programme in the United States is a matter for the Department of Labor. That Department issued terms and conditions and invited companies to tender for the contract. Only two companies tendered, and the successful company was Logicon. Logicon is in regular contact with the Department of Labor and officials from the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
The three Government Departments involved-the Department in the Republic of Ireland that administers FÁS, my Department, which administers the Training and Employment Agency, and the Department of Labor in the United States - and Logicon have reviewed good and bad experiences from the first few months. We should remember that the project has not yet completed 12 months. I assure Members that there is an ongoing overview of the programme and that it has many positive aspects. The experience that the participants have gained in different workplaces and the new skills that they have acquired and developed will be beneficial to themselves and to our developing economy.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I ask the Minister to be brief in his response to the next question.
Further and Higher Education Students:
Mr A Maginness
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will detail the socio-economic profile of students at further and higher education establishments in Northern Ireland in each of the last five years.
The socio-economic status of students in the institutes of further and higher education is, unfortunately, unavailable, as such data have not been collected hitherto. Information on the social class breakdown of students entering degree courses at Northern Ireland universities is collected through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). It shows consistently that the majority of students - between 64% and 67% over the past five years - came from the professional, intermediate and skilled non-manual groups. More than a third of new entrants - between 33% and 36% over the same period - came from the skilled manual, partly skilled and unskilled groups.
Mr A Maginess:
The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment should set targets in relation to the numbers of - essentially - working-class entrants in higher and further education. The figures that the Minister has produced show that participation rates in higher education are not as high as one would like. The Minister should ensure that increasing the numbers of working-class entrants to higher and further education - particularly higher education - is a central aim of his Department. Has the Minister looked at the situation in other countries to see how successful they have been in attracting a higher number of working-class students into higher education?
The Member's question relates to access in this country and the experience elsewhere. With respect to the second part of the Member's question, experiences elsewhere reflect a rather patchy situation. Members will have noted a significant report published recently in the South, which has raised concern that in spite of finance initiatives to support students in further and higher education, there has been an undesirably low level of participation by people from unskilled manual working backgrounds. Even now, the situation in the South compares unfavourably with that in Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):
We can perhaps take some cheer from the statistics since the width of social access to our student body is probably better than that in the Republic of Ireland and England. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, and the Minister rightly referred to that recent and interesting research carried out in Dublin by the Higher Education Authority. Does the Minister agree with one of the report's main conclusions, namely, that an increase in grant support to students is crucial to raising access for those from unskilled and skilled manual working- class backgrounds who are underrepresented?
I agree that we must examine all elements of student support to determine the balance between the various options available to us. Issues related to maintenance certainly seem to be of significance and must therefore be given special attention. The question is of particular relevance given the final stages we have reached in our review of student financial support.
The Minister referred to data held on students admitted to universities in Northern Ireland. Are there any data on the social background of Northern Ireland students at universities in Great Britain, where I suspect there is an even greater skew towards the middle classes than in local universities? Further to his response to Dr Birnie, does the Minister not agree that the whole issue of student finance has now fallen seriously behind in Northern Ireland and should be addressed, given the fact that Wales has now followed Scotland in taking the Cubie approach well ahead of us, meaning that our students are having difficulties not being experienced elsewhere?
Over the last five years Northern Ireland students who have gone to Great Britain to study are more likely to have come from the higher social classes than their counterparts who stay. Approximately 58% of Northern Ireland students who went to Great Britain were from the professional or intermediate classes, compared to 49% of those who stayed in Northern Ireland to study. Conversely, around 9% of Northern Ireland students who went to Great Britain were from the partly-skilled or unskilled classes, compared to around 11% of those who stayed to study in Northern Ireland.
On the second part of the question, I am not sure where the Member has been since February when I announced the terms of reference for the review of student financial support. We are taking account of what has transpired in Scotland, and we are way ahead of our colleagues in Wales, who have only recently announced that they are to undertake a similar review.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is now starting to respond to the second part of questions. My question was in two parts, but he answered only one.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
We do not take points of order during Question Time.
New Deal for Disabled People
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will detail the number of people who signed up to the 'New Deal for Disabled People' option and who consequently were disallowed incapacity benefit or disability living allowance or both.
I am advised that no client has been disallowed either incapacity benefit or disability living allowance due to participation on the 'New Deal for Disabled People' programme. Participation on the programme does not affect entitlement to either of the benefits.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his reassurance, but I have a constituent who signed up to the 'New Deal for Disabled People' and, two months into the programme, was disallowed her disability allowance benefit. This may be a coincidence, but I hope that no disabled person signing up to such a programme will be penalised for doing so.
I would welcome any information that the hon Member has in respect of constituents' situations. I must point out, however, that entitlement to incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and disability living allowance is subject to a regular review of claimants' circumstances. Review dates are set by the Social Security Agency and are not affected by clients' participation on the programme. Decisions taken at reviews may have an effect on participants' benefits.
Department's Relationships with
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what steps he is taking to develop North/South relationships between his Department and those in the Republic of Ireland.
In the context of the North/South Ministerial Council I have pursued areas of common interest through the Trade and Business Development Body. I have had a number of meetings on areas of mutual interest with Irish Ministers in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Education and Science and with the director general of FÁS. I have also attended and participated in a range of events involving higher education, professional and training institutes in the Republic.
Does the Minister accept that closer links between the North and South are vital to the future economic well-being of people in both parts of Ireland? Will he give an undertaking that bureaucracy and red tape, where it exists, will be removed to ensure that no obstacles stand in the way of students or workers who wish to move between jurisdictions?
The Member can be assured that any inhibitions to the mobility he refers to will be looked at and examined in order to have them removed. The considerable degree of mobility with respect to workers at all levels is evidenced by the very few, if any, restrictions on people moving from the North to the South, or vice versa, for employment purposes.
A visit to our universities and to many of our colleges of further education will reveal varying levels of participation by students from the South. The same is true, particularly at university level, with respect to Northern students and Southern institutions. I have been encouraged by the openness evident within my Department, and with our counterparts in the South, towards improved forms of co-operation.
Public-Sector Homes (Rural Areas)
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister for Social Development what plans he has to improve the conditions of public-sector homes in rural Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
This question really is a matter for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, whose chief executive has advised me that, until recently, the Housing Executive defined rural properties as those located outside the Londonderry City Council area and the Belfast urban area, which is defined as including the Belfast, Carrickfergus, Newtonabbey, Lisburn, Castlereagh and North Down Council areas. Within this definition the Housing Executive planned improvement schemes for five years commencing in April 2000, and covering just over 7,000 of its properties. These involve either multi-element improvements, which may include a range of improvements, or single-element improvements. The latter involve specific upgrading: the fitting of kitchens, central heating installation, or major adaptation work such as property extensions. In addition, as part of its rural housing policy, within the next three to five years, the Housing Executive intends to make improvements to 800 of its rural cottages which still require them.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Perhaps I may probe a little further and ask the Minister about the levels of rural unfitness in public-sector housing across Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell the House what plans he and his Department have devised to tackle levels of rural unfitness in public-sector houses? Can he also assure the House that he will make the issue of tackling rural unfitness a priority for his Department?
I come from a rural constituency. For that reason, among others, I can assure Members that rural unfitness gives me considerable concern. In County Fermanagh, for instance, the last survey showed that rural unfitness there runs at 17·1%. We hope that on the publication of the next report on rural unfitness, there will be a substantial fall in that toll. I can assure the Member that my Department and I take rural unfitness very seriously, and we will be devoting our energy to it in the coming weeks and months. The 1996 House Conditions Survey recorded just under 23,000 unfit dwellings in rural areas, excluding Belfast, Londonderry and other towns. This represents some 52% of all unfit properties. In 1996, rural unfitness was recorded at 12·1% - a reduction from 17·2% in 1991. We are better off then than equivalent areas in the rest of the UK. We take little comfort from that, because we are still striving to ensure that we deal adequately with rural unfitness. My Department and I will be giving much time and attention to this issue in the future.
Can the Minister review the existing policy of his Department with a view to funding primarily multi- element improvement schemes at the expense of single- element schemes? The effect is that the queue for much- needed improvements in the rural public housing stock is extremely long and is getting longer. In many of these houses, simple improvements to a kitchen or an electrical system may be the overriding priority. Would it not make more sense to do one scheme now and, perhaps, complete the other house improvements further down the line?
Most unfit rural housing is in the private sector, not the social housing sector. I want the Assembly to be clear about that. I listened carefully to what the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr Fee) said: it makes a lot of sense. That point will be given careful consideration when the Department decides on its priorities, and I undertake to provide the Member with a more comprehensive answer at that stage.
Does the Minister recall a recent statement in which he acknowledged that much still needs to be done on housing? Furthermore, does the Minister accept that nothing needs attention more than public-sector rural accommodation? The Executive Committee's decision to commit an extra £27·3 million to social development gives him the opportunity to effect real improvements. Has the Minister's party given him permission to remain in office long enough to make a difference to rural housing?
That question has more to do with politics than housing, but, nevertheless, I will make an honest endeavour to answer it. The question of my position as Minister is not part of my brief - the Member should address that question to others. I will be here for as long as my party leadership decides, be that a long or a short time. That is the best answer that I can give. Decisions on my departure are not in my hands, but I am ready to go or stay.
I am aware of the statement that I made. I want to emphasise again that I have a keen awareness of housing issues. I was a member of a district council for 27 years and an estate agent. I believe that a good home is not a privilege but a basic human right. I intend to work as hard as I can to ensure that everybody in Northern Ireland has a good home to live in. The Member for East Londonderry (Mr McClarty) can go to bed content tonight, knowing that, in this case, his principles and mine are similar.
Mrs E Bell
asked the Minister for Social Development if he will detail his plans to co-operate with the Minister of Education on the issue of social exclusion.
My Department works closely with other Departments, including the Department of Education, across a number of areas relating to the issue of social exclusion.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for his brief statement. Does the Minister agree that social disadvantage can have an adverse effect on the education of vulnerable pupils and that it should be addressed as a priority both by his Department and the Department of Education?
The answer to that is yes. However, education is not my field.
Mrs E Bell:
On a point of order-[Interruption]
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. If the Member wishes to raise a point of order, she can do so at the end of the Minister's Question Time.
I welcome the Minister's assurance that he co-operates with the Department of Education. Will he also assure the House that there are no other individuals or groups on his exclusion list? Can he explain why he refused to attend a recent strategy launch by Limavady Town Centre Forum, which is made up of community groups, local councillors and a plethora of individuals?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
That question seems unrelated to the statement. Does the Minister wish to respond?
I do not see the relevance of the question to what I am here to deal with today. However, perhaps the Member knows more about why I was not there than anyone else.
How many meetings has the Minister had at ministerial level with his counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to deal with the issue of social exclusion?
I have made attempts to meet with my counterparts in England, and they cancelled the meetings - I did not. Lest the Member go home and lose a lot of sleep about that, may I emphasise that there is nothing of any significance in that; it was due to timetable problems across the water. I was ready to fly to London to have the necessary meetings, and I am ready to do so again.
Housing Executive Rents
asked the Minister for Social Development what steps he is taking to keep Housing Executive rents low for those who choose not to buy their home.
My overall objective is to set a rent affordable to tenants on low income, while at the same time meeting the Housing Executive's income requirements to enable it to maintain that accommodation to standards acceptable to the tenants. I made a bid for additional funding for the Housing Executive under the spending review 2000. Only some of those bids were met, but I will continue to argue the strongest case possible for the proper resourcing of maintenance funding for Northern Ireland Housing Executive stock so that rents can remain at affordable levels.
Will the Minister give an assurance today that any rent increase for 2001-02 will not exceed the rate of inflation?
I can give no such assurance. Suffice it to say that in keeping with my party's policy and with my own interest in Housing Executive tenants, I can assure the House that rents will be kept to a minimum. Also, I have met with the Committee on a number of occasions - indeed as recently as last Thursday. I put this issue to its members again and informed them that I have not yet decided the level of rent increases. I am waiting for the Committee to tell me what level of rent increase it would find appropriate, and I am assured that it is currently considering the matter. I look forward to receiving a reply soon, maybe even this week.
Mr S Wilson:
I suggest that the Minister inform the Assembly of the shortfall in the Housing Executive budget which would result if the proposal from the Member for Strangford were implemented. Does the Minister agree that if programmes for roomheater replacements or kitchen improvements were to be cut as a result of this proposal, the Member for Strangford would be the first to squeal about it?
The Member has dealt with a number of issues. I will try to give some figures to indicate the impact of increasing rents at certain levels. The physical consequences of a GDP plus 2% rent increase's not being imposed would be as follows: if we froze rents at their existing level, a loss of £13·6 million would be sustained. That would result in no new starts in the year 2000 and the deferral of 1,000 multi-element improvement (MEI) schemes.
If we increased rents in line with GDP, which we are told we must calculate at 2·5%, a revenue shortfall of £7·8 million would result. There would be no new starts in 2000, and 400 MEI schemes would be deferred. At GDP plus 1%, the shortfall would be £5·4 million, and there would be no new starts in 2000. At GDP plus 2%, the shortfall would be £3·1 million, and there would be a choice between 2000 planned replacements or 1500 MEI schemes, but not both.
I trust that those figures clearly illustrate the impact that that will have on the housing scheme, particularly to the Member who said that the rate of rent increases should be below that of inflation. I ask the House to reflect on those figures and think about them carefully, because it is not a simple equation.
Go raibh maith agat. The Minister rightly said that he met the Social Development Committee on a number of occasions on this issue. However, he said that he asked the Committee for its view on how much rent should be increased by. Will the Minister clarify that it is he who makes those decisions and not the Committee?
I have not asked the Committee to make any decisions for me. I have asked it for advice, to identify its priorities and what level of increase it would like to see. I may or may not agree with the Committee's views, but I assure the House that those views will be taken into consideration before any decision is made on any level of rent increase. I will take the decision. I will not ask the Committee to make my decisions for me. I am ready to make the decision, but it is only courteous to ask the Committee for its views and take those views into consideration.