Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 14 November 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting held on 23 October 2000.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the second North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment, which was held in Navan, County Meath, on Monday 23 October 2000.
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Brid Rodgers and I attended the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister of the Environment and Local Government, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed by Ms Rodgers and is also made on her behalf.
The Council was given a progress report on the development of a joint register of current research projects. This included plans for the further development of the register as a website. The Council noted progress and agreed that the Environment Protection Agency and my Department’s Environment and Heritage Service should proceed to tender for a jointly funded contract to develop a website of current environmental research.
A summary report by officials on the scope for co-operation on new technologies for monitoring emissions to air and water, the aquatic environment, air quality and deposition was also presented to the Council. The full report will be presented to Ministers shortly and will be available on the websites of the Environment Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service.
The Council agreed that the greatest scope for successful co-operation on new technologies lies, for the present, in monitoring the aquatic environment. It was agreed, therefore, that the initial work in this area should focus on chemical and biological monitoring of surface waters and assessment of fish stocks.
The Council received a progress report on the work of the water quality management working group, which was established to consider strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the EU water framework directive. The Council endorsed the work undertaken so far, particularly in developing appropriate arrangements for joint implementation of the Water Framework Directive in relation to shared waters, and the co-operation on associated technical issues. The group was asked to continue the effective development of the work and prepare progress reports for the Council.
The Council was also asked to consider proposals for the development of a database of environmental information, as a further area of co-operation. The Council noted progress to date, in both jurisdictions, on the development of environmental databases in a wide range of initiatives. It agreed that a database development and co-operation programme should be taken forward progressively by the Environment Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service. It was agreed that this programme should place particular emphasis on the following: examining the options for completing the CORINE Land Cover Project 2000 in co-operation with the UK; developing and integrating key databases on issues such as river water quality, air quality and groundwater quality and a register of environmental data sources; and developing a joint Internet portal, providing access to information on environmental data.
The Council also considered a proposal for developing co-operation on the issue of the environmental impact of agriculture. It was agreed that a scoping study should be undertaken to develop co-operation on nutrient management planning in agriculture and controls on the cross-border movement and management of slurries, particularly in the context of the EU Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.
The Council was asked to approve the release for public consultation of the draft equality scheme for the cross-border body on special EU programmes. That will assist the Special EU Programmes Body to finalise its equality scheme as soon as possible.
I took the opportunity afforded by this meeting to raise with Minister Dempsey several issues about which Assembly Members had expressed concern, following the report that I made to the Assembly on 11 September about our first sectoral meeting. The matters that I raised were as follows: the problem of pollution in cross- border rivers, such as in the Erne system; the spread of zebra mussels; the mutual benefits that could arise from the management of waste in a cross-border context; the problems with disposing of spent mushroom compost, which affect the mushroom growers on both sides of the border; and our concerns that the major accident hazards Directive has not yet been implemented in the Republic of Ireland. The Council noted those matters and agreed that they would be addressed as the work programme of the environment sectoral group was taken forward.
The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in February in Belfast and considered and agreed the text of the joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
I note the Minister’s statement. Last week my Committee wrote to the Minister about the Department’s budget for the coming year. Although we welcomed the increase in the overall budget, we were concerned that a number of bids had not been met. I am thinking in particular of the ongoing moratorium on the historic buildings grant and the £3·6 million needed for vital landscape protection projects and major conservation.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The question should be about the Minister’s statement.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
It is directly related to the statement.
I cannot remember seeing any reference in the bids or allocations to the work mentioned in the Minister’s statement. Where will the funding for the projects that the Minister mentioned come from? If it is to come from his Department, can he specify how much will be set aside in the coming year for those projects? The Minister mentioned a contract to develop a website for environmental research. How much is that contract worth? What benefits will it deliver? How much will it cost Northern Ireland Departments?
The Minister said that he expected that a full report on new technologies for monitoring would be issued shortly. How long will that "shortly" be? He also referred to the work undertaken to develop arrangements for the joint implementation of the water framework directive. How many of his officials are involved in that joint project, and what is the total cost to date — including salaries — to his Department? When will he advise the Environment Committee about that work?
Proposals relating to the environmental impact of agriculture were mentioned in the statement. Will the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pay anything towards them?
The Minister said that he had expressed concern on matters such as pollution in the system of Lough Erne, the spread of zebra mussels and the failure of the Republic of Ireland to implement the major accident hazard directive. He noted those serious issues, but when will something be done about them?
That was a long series of questions. I am afraid that I will not be able answer them all in the pedantic fashion that Mr McCrea seeks.
The meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council are, overall, very beneficial. The costs of attending the meetings are largely confined to the travelling cost of Ministers and officials to venues in the Republic of Ireland or the cost of hosting the event when it is held in Northern Ireland. For example, the cost to my Department of the environment sectoral meeting in Navan was approximately £1,000. The web site will cost £60,000, of which £30,000 will come from the Northern Ireland budget.
The EU Water Framework Directive requires cross- border co-operation. The water quality group would be carrying out that work, in any case. The work involves five staff from the Environment and Heritage Service. We will work closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on all environmental issues. I spoke recently to both the president and vice-president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. We are willing to work with them on any issue.
Mr J Wilson:
Following his statement to the House on 11 September, I congratulated the Minister on his commitment to the improvement of water quality. I congratulate him again on the action that he is taking to fulfil that commitment.
I noted in the statement that the Council received a report on the work of the water quality group. What progress has been made on arrangements for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive? Among the other matters that the Minister raised with his Southern counterpart was the spread of zebra mussels. Fermanagh is in his constituency, so he must be well aware of the infestation in Lough Erne. Will he focus on that issue as a matter of urgency?
I spoke about zebra mussels to Minister Dempsey at the North/South meeting, and he took my comments on board. I am very concerned at how Lough Erne has been infested with zebra mussels, and I am also aware of the problem in Lough Melvin at Garrison. We will watch the situation closely.
The Water Framework Directive requires that co-ordinated river basin management plans should be agreed between member states with transboundary waterways, such as those that we share with the Republic of Ireland. That is why implementation of the Directive was adopted as an early item of business for a water quality working group, consisting of officials from both jurisdictions. The EU Water Framework Directive has to be transposed into local legislation by member states within three years. It will establish catchment management plans and improvement programmes for the next two decades. We are making progress on that issue.
I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the Council on the work that was set out in detail in his report to the House.
What consideration has been given to the question of global warming? I am sure the Minister is aware that the Hague Conference meets this week as a follow-on from the Kyoto conference of 1997. Is he aware of the urgent report by 27 European climatologists which warns of the drastic effect of global warming? Will his Council take this on board? In view of what seem to be irreversible climatic changes, will it look at the effects on the local environment, the landscape and farming and make provision for them?
We do not take those big issues lightly, and we are monitoring the global warming situation. We are progressing with a scoping study to identify the key areas in which climate changes is most likely to impact on Northern Ireland. I assure the Member that the matter will not go unnoticed; it is being watched very closely.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat. I am grateful for the opportunity to welcome the statement from a Minister on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on the environment. In developing and establishing experimental issues across this island we shall all learn lessons which will enhance the importance of all cross- border ministerial meetings. It is, however, unfortunate that his party Colleague, the First Minister, has —
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is there a question in there, Mr Murphy?
Mr M Murphy:
— decided to exclude the key issues of health and education from the North/South Ministerial Council.
I am pleased to welcome the Minister’s statement that co-operation —
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Question, Mr Murphy.
Mr M Murphy:
— between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service will be taken forward. Does he agree that there is a lot to be learnt on waste management and recycling on both parts of this island?
I thank the Member for his question. It was a bit difficult to understand what it really was, but I think he referred to waste management and waste strategy. There is a lot to be learnt from cross-border issues, and I have no hesitation in working from one jurisdiction to another. It is useful for both sides of the community, so it does not concern me at all. With regard to cross- border institutions, two different jurisdictions working and living together in a neighbourly fashion are bound to help each other, and I hope it will remain that way.
I am pleased with the progress that has been made on implementing the waste strategy since its publication in March 2000. I am particularly pleased that the draft Budget proposals enable my Department to make available £3·5 million to help councils to implement the waste management strategy. That strategy requires district councils to submit individual or collective waste management plans to my Department by June 2001, and district councils have formed three waste management planning groups to meet this requirement. The north-west region cross-border group takes in Donegal County Council, and there is no problem whatsoever. We can learn from each other as two separate jurisdictions.
I too would like to welcome the statement but ask the Minister "When?" at least six times. The development of a joint register of current research projects is mentioned. When will we see it, please? When will we see the report on co-operation on new technologies for monitoring? What about the database development and co-operation programme referred to on page 3 — when will that be in place? What about the scoping study referred to at the bottom of page 3? There are probably too many questions to expect the Minister to answer now. My point is that, while this is a good report insofar as it goes — and I welcome its breadth — unless we can have a timetable, unless we can be sure that the report referred to will be produced and that the work referred to will be undertaken in the near future, it will not be of any benefit to us.
We are working on those issues. These are early days. The database was demonstrated at the meeting, and outcomes are expected over the next six months or so. The joint report proposed by officials examined the technology for monitoring emissions to air and water, the aquatic environment and air quality and the deposit of airborne pollution. The report concluded that there are well-established methodologies in place for monitoring emissions and air quality. We are working on it.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Members are reminded that it is extremely discourteous to continue private conversation while the Minister is responding. It will be difficult to hear what he is saying if Members persist.
When the Minister last reported on a North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting, a number of Members raised queries on a wide range of issues, from the increased number of zebra mussels to the major accident hazards Directive. I welcome the Minister’s willingness to take account of concerns expressed from the Back Benches of the Assembly. We are all grateful to the Minister for raising our concerns with his counterpart in the Irish Republic. Does he agree that this demonstrates how North/South co-operation can give us all a role in ensuring improvement to the environment?
As I said earlier, there is no hesitation as far as I am concerned. It is useful to have cross-border co-operation because we are living as neighbours, although we are two different jurisdictions. As for issues which concern Members in Northern Ireland, it was an ideal opportunity to make points about those. I was pleased to put those issues to Mr Noel Dempsey at our last meeting, and he took them on board. It was a useful, worthwhile discussion. Despite the cross-community question mark, I was willing to act as a conduit. The whole issue is the benefit that we can gain for Northern Ireland. It is a matter of living neighbourly with our neighbours, so long as they live neighbourly with us.
Mr A Doherty:
Will the new technologies for the monitoring of emissions to air and water provide accurate information about the nature and effect of the emissions from Sellafield?
On a different issue, will the Minister inform us of the current situation with regard to EU regulations on the transport of various types of waste across frontiers? Will these regulations impact negatively on the important work being done through cross-border co-operation on the development of waste management strategies?
Again, this is a matter of co-operation and working together. There is no doubt that there are benefits to be gained from this sort of thing.
The Member referred to the issue of Sellafield, which is raised quite often. The Sellafield plant is being watched closely. It is not our responsibility, but we do take water quality samples. Half of the radiation received by the average person in Northern Ireland is due to exposure to radon gas in the home, 12% comes from medical exposure, and nuclear discharges account for less than 0·1%. While there are concerns about Sellafield, it seems from my Department’s monitoring programme that there are no serious issues to be found in the water quality of the Irish Sea because of the Sellafield plant.
The overall question is co-operation and what can be gained by both parts of the community.
There is nothing pedantic about the Chairman of the Environment Committee asking reasonable questions of the Minister. It is the role of the Committee to scrutinise the work of the Minister. [Interrpution] I am coming to the question, Mr Deputy Speaker. You were fairly liberal with other Members.
I welcome the mention of the major accident hazards Directive. Did the Irish delegation give a timetable for implementing the Directive, and what excuse did they give for not having implemented it thus far?
I thank the Member for his reference to the concerns that were raised here last time. I made the point to Mr Dempsey, and he took it on board. He did not give any timetable. I am glad that I can put these questions to the Minister from the Republic of Ireland on behalf of the DUP. It wants us to act as a conduit, but to blame us if anything goes wrong. That is rather sad. It is a little hypocritical.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Get some answers.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
It is a little bit hypocritical.
Mr P Robinson:
He has waffled long enough.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The implementation of EC Directives by individual member states is monitored and regulated by the European Commission. However, as I said, I have registered a concern with Mr Dempsey in the Republic of Ireland. He has taken it on board. We are awaiting a response, but he has not given a definite timetable.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, will the Minister put it to Mr Dempsey that the proposed incinerator in County Louth, just across the border from us, will affect the clean, green image of the country as a whole in the future? We will not be able export food that is free from dioxins if we go down the road of incinerators to deal with waste management.
Will the Minister also impress upon the Department of Agriculture here that it is vital for the future of the environment that we have an environmental scheme in place to ensure good water quality in our lakes and rivers? Farmers will be policed by the Department, but there is nothing in place to address the difficulties that they face in keeping the water free from pollution.
Water quality is a big issue. Incineration is also a big issue at present. I have nothing definitive to report on that aspect yet, but, as the Member has requested, I will pass on his concerns the next time that I am in touch with the Minister. I have no hesitation in doing so.
The Member has referred to a number of issues. They will be taken on board. That is part of our role and responsibility in relation to the environment.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I note that he has diligently raised a variety of issues with Mr Dempsey that had been raised by the Assembly during questions on previous meetings of this sector of the North/South Ministerial Council. Does the Minister agree that it is somewhat curious and contradictory that he is expected and required by the DUP to raise matters on its behalf at the Council, yet its Ministers are unwilling to shoulder any responsibility in this regard themselves?
Yes, it certainly is a strange set of circumstances. There is no doubt at all about that. The DUP expects me to act as a conduit, as I said earlier. The question also gives the answer. It is circumvention. It is hypocritical and very sanctimonious. It is a pretence. The DUP ignores the bodies to which it wants questions put. It also communicates with the Executive Committee, despite the fact that it refuses to sit on the Executive Committee. It is highly hypocritical.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. With regard to work being done on water quality management in the Erne and Foyle catchment areas, does the Minister have any information about the effect of the current water quality on the health of the rich native mussel beds in Lough Foyle?
I am not yet aware of any issue relating to mussel beds in Lough Foyle. Could the question be repeated, please?
My question is about the water quality in Lough Foyle and the health of the rich native mussels. What effect is the water quality having on the mussels?
Water pollution is a major issue, and water quality is continuously monitored and assessed. However, consideration of mussel beds is not part of the Foyle catchment study. Nevertheless, the Member’s point will be taken on board.
Is the Minister aware that the only time the border with the South of Ireland has been sealed was when BSE first broke out in Northern Ireland? I note from his statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment the proposal to develop co-operation on the environmental impact of agriculture. What has been initiated by the joint committee to prevent the illegal importation of contaminated meat, live or dead and causing ruin, given the fact that we are pushing for a zero-incidence BSE status?
Secondly, what is being done on a co-operative level to prevent fishing in the Foyle estuary by poachers from the Republic?
Thirdly, can the Minister assure us that there are no zebra mussels in the Foyle estuary?
I thank the Member for his wide-ranging questions. Any cases of cross-border contamination will certainly be examined, for that is an environmental health issue.
I am not aware of the existence of zebra mussels anywhere outside the Lough Erne catchment area or Lough Melvin.
The importation of BSE carcasses has been referred to, and rightly so because there is a concern about contamination. This is a very important matter which is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and not just the Department of the Environment.
Will the Minister continue to listen to the views of the agriculture community so that it may be fully involved in any environmental improvements? I am reassured that the Minister of Environment is alert to the needs of the agriculture sector and to the impact of the environment on agriculture and on those who depend on the environment for their living, not least our farmers.
We take very seriously the impact of agriculture on the environment. Recently I spoke to the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and on Saturday I met the union’s deputy president. Everyone acknowledges that agriculture is a major contributor to the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Coming from a rural constituency, I fully appreciate the parlous circumstances in which Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry finds itself.
However, we must also recognise the potential impact of agricultural activities on the environment. The greatest problem is the run-off of nutrients to lakes and rivers, leading to the excessive growth of algae and plants, which can cause oxygen levels to fall. This is the most serious water quality problem affecting waterways on both sides of the border. That is why at a recent meeting Ministers agreed to examine the scope for co-operation on the environmental impacts of agriculture. We agreed that the most mutually beneficial areas for co-operation might include planning for the controlled use of fertilisers and manures in agriculture and controls on the cross-border management and movement of slurries, particularly in the context of the European Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.
What does the Minister mean by the joint Internet portal, to which he referred, and how does he envisage this working?
These are early days of co-operation, but there is no problem with our working together — it is very important that we meet and work with each other.
I asked what was meant by the term "Internet portal".
The joint Internet portal is a shared system of access to the web site, and it will give us a degree of awareness.
It will enable us to present our respective difficulties and interests, thus keeping us up to date with activity on either side of the border.
It would be easier on Mr Davis’s shoe leather if the civil servants whose messages he is carrying were simply to come and read out what they write.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Dodds, you know as well as I do that that is not a point of order.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
No amendments have been tabled, but some Members have indicated that they wish to speak on clauses of the Bill. It would be useful if they were to begin by clarifying which clause they are referring to.
Clause 1 (Power of Court to order destruction of dogs)
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr P Robinson:
Good intentions do not always make good legislation. I have concerns about this piece of legislation which I want to put on the record, and I hope, as we are still at Consideration Stage, that the Minister will be able to satisfy me that those concerns can be dealt with. I wish to raise matters in relation to clause 1 and clause 2.
Certain difficulties are becoming obvious for Members dealing with any legislation. First, I find that Members are beginning to think in sectors. For instance, if someone is on the Finance and Personnel Committee he tends to focus on business and finance. Because there is so much business in each of the Committees, Members are not looking at the legislation of Departments other than those whose affairs coincide with their Committee work. Indeed, this piece of legislation only came to my notice on Friday, and I only started asking questions about it yesterday as it was a matter which the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee was dealing with.
But it is a very important matter for local authorities. They have a key role because they will have to enforce the legislation. I therefore found it incomprehensible that the local authorities, which will be most affected by this legislation, were not asked by the Department for their views on it. On 7 November 2000 a dog control enforcement officers’ seminar in Craigavon made that very clear to the Department’s representative. It was felt that to some extent the district councils had been snubbed. Indeed, the Department took advice from other bodies, such as the USPCA. The legislation is all the weaker for this failure, deliberate or otherwise, of the Department to consult with those who will have to implement and enforce the legislation.
My second point is on the issue of discretion. There must be few, if any, Members who would deny that the Bill is useful to the extent that it will provide a court with new discretion when dealing with a destruction order for a dog. Under current legislation, no matter what the circumstances, councils are required to take the matter to court where, if it is found that the dog had attacked or worried, a destruction order must be made. That action is mandatory under the current law.
Clearly that is an unsatisfactory set of circumstances, but I wonder to what extent it will be improved by this piece of legislation. Some discretion is to be given to the courts, but are they being given enough and should discretion be being given to someone other than the courts?
Dealing with the latter issue first, should district councils have some discretion? Under this legislation, if a dog is involved in an attack, the matter will automatically be taken to court; there is no element of choice or freedom. Should that always be so? For example, say that your daughter is out walking Rover and is set upon by two or three louts, who perhaps intend to rape her or rob her. Rover attacks these people and, in fending them off, he bites or mauls them. Will a district council say "Yes, this dog probably saved the girl’s life, but we are going to issue a destruction order against it — we are going to take the matter to court"? Surely there are exceptional circumstances where a council should be able to say "This is ridiculous, we are not prepared to do this" and not proceed with a prosecution. The public will not view councils in a favourable light if they are seen to be taking a case like that to the courts.
Even if councils are not given that level of discretion, under the new legislation the courts will have very limited discretion. Either they will be able to have the dog destroyed or they will be able to impose measures on him. There is no such thing as exoneration for this dog, even though most people would say that he deserved a medal. The court has no alternative but to punish the dog. The legislation says
"Where it appears to a court that a dog has attacked any person or has worried livestock, the court shall".
There is a requirement on the court to do it. I am worried by any piece of legislation which, in the same context, contains both a "shall" and a "may". Clause 1(2) uses the word "shall", and then, when explaining the measures that might be specified, says
"An order under paragraph (1)(b) may include provision requiring the dog to be".
Can the Minister explain this?
Four provisions are specified. Is the Minister saying that these are the only four provisions that can be employed? Do the courts have the discretion to create their own measures? What are the implications for the general public and for the councils who have to carry out these additional measures? We are entitled to know if these are the only four provisions and if the court has to apply at least one of them. We need some clarity, but in the meantime I will assume that there are only four. These are the words of the first requirement:
"securely fitted with a muzzle sufficient to prevent the dog biting any person".
I notice in the Committee’s minutes of evidence that an official from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had this issue put to him. He did not answer the question, and what he said caused me more concern. After where it says that the dog should be muzzled permanently, he suggested the insertion of the words "when in a public place". That would be counterproductive because it could place legitimate visitors to the person’s premises in jeopardy. The milkman and postman would, in theory, be at risk if the dog were not, in law at least, muzzled in all places. In practice, I am sure, it would not be muzzled while on the owner’s premises. However, under the current wording, the owner would be responsible if somebody were bitten on his premises. I am pretty sure that if the courts were to apply the provision about securely fitting a muzzle to prevent a dog biting any person the intention would not be to exclude visitors to the owner’s home. The courts would not simply dismiss the incident with the words "Well, it is his fault because he did not have a muzzle on the dog."
The courts will want an assurance that fitting a muzzle will prevent anybody from being bitten. According to the evidence of the Department’s representative, there were caveats. I am curious about the phrase used. The milkman and postman would, in theory, be at risk if the dog were not, in law at least, muzzled in all places. That can only mean that it may be required by law, but common sense will prevail, because we cannot expect the dog to be muzzled in all places. My view is that it should be muzzled in all places if the circumstances require it.
At the beginning, the Member advocated that councils, or certain council officers, should exercise greater discretion. Now he is advocating that the owner of the dog should not be allowed to decide when it should be muzzled and when it should not. The only discretion that will be exercised in this matter will be by Rover. Can the Member clarify exactly where he is coming from on that point?
Mr P Robinson:
I am sorry that the Member is being obtuse — perhaps deliberately so. The discretion that I want is on whether measures are applied. Once that is done there should be no discretion, and those who ultimately have to enforce the measures will want to know exactly what they are enforcing.
We have to address the issue of enforcement because it is not clear. I am saying that the muzzle, in the circumstances I have referred to, should be on in all places, but I am not saying that it should be on at all times. The dog should be allowed to eat a meal or there will be feeding difficulties. However, it should be muzzled in all places, and that matter needs to be dealt with. The suggestion is that we turn a blind eye to various issues that the law should be concerned with.
The issue that follows on from that is while the dog may be muzzled, it is not required to be controlled on a lead, be in the charge of someone over 16 years of age, or be muzzled in a public place, as required by the Dangerous Dogs Compensation and Exemption Schemes Order (Northern Ireland) 1991. We need to clarify how this requirement will be enforced, and by whom. Once the courts have applied it, will district councils be required to check periodically to ensure that it is being enforced? Is it for a period or for the life of the dog, and what is required if there is a change of ownership? These issues are unclear, but this is what the people who have to enforce this legislation need to know.
The second requirement is that the dog be secured in a building, shed, yard or other enclosure. Will the courts be giving guidance as to the nature of the enclosure and the level of security, or is that going to be a matter for councils? If councils have that additional responsibility will additional funding be required? Also, is there any guidance on the size of the enclosure? The legislation is silent on all those matters and on where the responsibility will lie. Where legislation does not clearly state where responsibility lies, problems will occur. Inspection comes under this particular measure. Will there be inspections? If so, by whom? What powers of entry will the inspectors have, and when does the dog have to be confined?
The third requirement is that the dog be excluded from places specified in the order. If an accompanied dog goes into an excluded area what action is to be taken, and by whom? The legislation does not give any guidance, nor does it suggest that there is any sanction to be applied other than to follow the same procedure all over again.
The fourth requirement is that dogs shall be neutered, and — I like this — it adds in brackets
"if it appears to the court that the dog is a male".
I am not being mischievous, but how will the court make that determination? Before I get any suggestions, I assume that the dog will not be in the courtroom for the judge to decide. Without drawing pictures, it might be easy to determine whether a pit bull terrier was male or otherwise, but there might be difficulties with one of these long-coated hairy dogs. Are councils required to provide this information to the courts to facilitate such a determination? Although the Bill does not say so, I assume that the courts will require a veterinary certificate, or something similar, to confirm that the male dog has been neutered.
The matter of timescale goes across each of these four issues. Should the legislation not require the courts to specify a period within which compliance would be required? It is not currently the case, and it has caused problems for many local authorities. They have brought a successful prosecution, and the courts have specified, for instance, destruction, but this has not occurred. The only measure open to those councils is to repeat the process and show that the court order has been defied. There should be a clear timetable for a court order to be carried out.
As we are dealing with a Dogs Bill, I am disappointed there is nobody from the PUP present. I would have thought that the PUPs would have been the first to be present for this piece of legislation — I had to get that in somewhere.
The Bill has defects, and when it is operating at local government level, those defects will be more keenly seen. I would prefer a delay so that there can be proper consultation. If these matters can be raised after one phone call, what would proper consultation produce? Would the legislation not be improved if there were more clarity on these issues?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
In calling Mr Jim Shannon, may I ask for brevity as there are no amendments. This is merely an opportunity for comment.
I would like to make a couple of points, though not as eloquently as Mr Robinson.
Clause 1(2) refers to alternative measures such as the muzzling, keeping a dog confined, keeping the dog in certain places, and having the dog neutered. Who will monitor these alternatives? I presume this will be the responsibility of the council. From where will the funds and the time for this come? I would like some clarification with regard to the monitoring process. The provision refers to the action a court can take if a dog has worried livestock. The outcome could be that the animal is not put down. Is that good or bad thinking? A dog that attacks livestock gets the taste for the chase, the taste for the blood. More often than not, it cannot be deterred from that activity. If a dog worries livestock there is really only one measure that can be taken, and there should be no alternative.
Clause 1(3) provides for discretion. That is important. As elected representatives we have come across cases where a dog has been playful and has not viciously attacked anyone, yet a destruction order has been made against it. Current legislation states that a physical attack can mean physically harming the person, but it could also refer to the threat of attack or to someone living in fear of attack. A dog that playfully pushes someone over in an act of energetic exuberance would be destroyed as readily as an animal that viciously attacks someone. That has been the case until now. For that reason I welcome the changes. There has to be discretion, there has to be an alternative, and that option is in this legislation. However, the monitoring process needs clarification. Who will take charge of that? How will it be carried out? Finally, is it sufficient in the case of a dog that worries livestock to have any other alternative other than its being put down?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
Many issues have been raised. I will deal with some, but not all, of them today. Members could put down amendments at Further Consideration Stage. I will certainly consider everything that has been said today before the Bill returns to the House.
I have noted Mr Robinson’s comments in relation to the fact that he did not bring this matter to the House’s attention at the Second Stage of the Bill. That is understandable, since he is not on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. However, there is perhaps the implication in what he said that the Committee Chairman, who happens to be the leader of his party, and two Committee members who are also in his party have been somewhat remiss in not bringing this to my attention before now. Having said that, I accept that the Member has raised issues, which I shall consider.
I shall deal first with the issue of consultation. The legislation was ready to go through by Order in Council but was held back by the fact that, it was hoped, the Assembly would come into being and deal with the matter. The legislation was ready to roll when the Assembly got up and running and was immediately brought before the House so that it might be put through quickly. What we are doing at the moment is something we could not have done without the Assembly and our new structures, for the legislation would simply have gone through as an Order in Council. Now, however, we are going through the democratic legislative process. Mr Robinson is, of course, entitled to bring his concerns before the House, and I shall consider them as Minister. At least we have that amount of consultation now, despite the fact that there was none earlier.
I accept that there are implications for district councils, but they are not onerous. To put this into perspective, destruction orders were served on 56 dogs last year — roughly two per district council. There may be a number of appeals, and it could well be a matter of one dog per district council. There will be no huge monetary costs or onerous implications for them.
The question was raised about whether the court would have enough discretion. I can think of no other party which should have such discretion apart from the court. People can, in a sense, make their case in a court — they can appeal — and the court has been given discretion to consider that. The legislation is based on that which exists in Great Britain, where it is generally thought to be satisfactory, and I am not aware of any complaints.
If the Member wishes to table further amendments for consideration, we shall deal with them when the time comes. However, it is important to get ahead with this change, for as the Member will be aware, there has been great public demand for this legislation and for us to bring our laws into line with those in Great Britain. One must also remember that that the court will apply the penalty only if an attack is proved. It will not simply do what is laid down in the legislation without giving consideration to the views put before it.
With regard to Mr Shannon’s views on sheep-worrying, the present position is that the dog will be put down. I thank him for the welcome he gave to the Bill and the need to have flexibility. He is clearly articulating the public demand.
I shall sum up by saying to Mr Robinson and Mr Shannon that I have taken note of the issues they have raised. As Members are aware, they may table amendments for the Further Consideration Stage. I shall, of course, consider all their views in the meantime. There is, however, no possibility of removing the flexibility this Bill gives us, for it is a response to public demand. If there are areas where Members believe the Bill can be improved or clarified, we should certainly look at their ideas at the Further Consideration Stage.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 (Power of a resident magistrate to order destruction of certain dogs)
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have an indication that Mr P Robinson wishes to speak. I remind Members that there will be another opportunity to table amendments at a later stage.
Mr P Robinson:
It is hardly worthwhile speaking, for I raised a series of issues during the discussion on clause 1, and the Minister spoke to only one of them — and even then managed to miss the point I was making. I hope she will look at the issues raised in the report of these proceedings. I would rather be given answers to my questions than put down amendments, particularly if they are unnecessary.
I wish to raise only one issue on clause 2. This provision relates to articles 25A and 25C of the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, as amended by the Dangerous Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. It refers primarily to dogs such as pit bull terriers and dogo argentino. Under the current legislation, as I understand it, it is an offence to keep any of these dogs unless the keeper is in possession of a valid certificate of exemption and complies with specified conditions on how the dog is to be kept and controlled. If those conditions are not fully met, the keeper is in breach of article 25A of the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 and is liable to prosecution. If he is convicted, the court shall make an order directing that the dog, in respect of which the offence was committed, be destroyed.
I have some concerns about the bad administrative practices or the misbehaviour of owners resulting in dogs being destroyed. Presumably no one would suggest that it is the dog’s fault that the provisions laid down were not kept by the owner. I understand that this new provision means that on conviction of an offence under article 25A, the court would make an order directing the dog to be destroyed, and will do so unless it is satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public. Are there circumstances where the court could take into consideration the willingness of another person to become the owner of the dog? This might make the court believe that the dog would not be a danger to the public, providing it was satisfied that the new owner would behave in a more responsible manner.
In addition, there is the matter of a dog being kept during the two months given to obtain the necessary certificate of exemption. The main concern is that the dog would be likely to disappear during that period, given that the owner would be the person in default and might not be regarded as a responsible individual. If, to prevent that possibility, a dog is held in a secure place approved by the court, who will pay for kennelling costs? Is that to be a cost on district councils?
We must bear in mind that the opportunity given by the Bill to legalise the dog — if we might use that term — is being offered to someone who has been found guilty of an offence. The dog may have been seized in a public place or removed from his home as a result of a warrant being issued. Is it not reasonable to suggest that the dog be held in secure conditions, rather than being returned to the owner’s care, from where it could escape or otherwise disappear?
I will take legal advice and come back to the Member with regard to the matter of dangerous dogs, because complicated legal issues are involved. He asked who meets the cost of complying with any restrictions that district councils put on dog owners. Costs are borne by the dog owner, and not the district council. We are talking about very small numbers. I will also take legal advice about what discretion courts might have to change the legal ownership of dogs.
As regards the other questions to which the Member seems to think he has received no answers, I am perfectly open in saying that I have not answered all his questions because I had no notice of them. There are issues involved which I, as a Minister, would be foolish to address off the top of my head. I have done my best to deal with those issues with which I am familiar. I look forward to the Further Consideration Stage, when we may be able to clarify some of the issues raised today.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 3 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
That in accordance with Standing Orders 31(4) the period referred to in Standing Orders 31(2) be extended to 31January 2001 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Street Trading Bill [NIA 2/00]. - [The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development]
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
I beg to move
That the Assembly takes note of the draft Budget proposal announced on 17 October 2000 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Yesterday, we debated the Executive's draft Programme for Government. In calling for this debate my Committee wanted to ensure that Members also had the proper chance to scrutinise the Executive's spending plan proposal for the incoming year and to make our views and concerns known.
On 17 October the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the first Budget Proposal that has been prepared entirely under the discretion of the devolved Administration. At that stage the Minister remarked that the Budget constitutes a significant stage in the implementation of the Belfast Agreement and in the cementing of the new institutions. I agree, and, as was noted by a number of Members following the Minister's announcement, the Assembly, through its Committees, has a statutory duty to consider and advise on departmental budgets in the context of the overall Budget allocation. My Committee believes that if it is to meet its statutory duty in the future, then all Assembly Committees will need to be given adequate time and opportunity to consider the Budget Proposal, and to co-ordinate their responses to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive Committee for consideration.
I think everyone would agree that the timescales adopted this year have prevented the kind of research and in-depth analysis that is desirable if Committees are to contribute to a report that adds real value to the Budget consideration process. There must be a firm commitment by the Executive Committee and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to adhere to a satisfactory programme in future years.
In the Committee's view, this should be based upon an acceptance that the autumn session of the Assembly should open with the presentation of the Executive Committee's Programme for Government. The Programme for Government should be followed immediately by a Budget proposal. This will give significant time for the process of analysis and consideration.
In addition, each Department has a duty to ensure that its Committee has the information it needs to perform its statutory role in scrutinising and considering, and advising on, the departmental Estimates. It is our view that this process should commence in the spring and early summer of each year when the Departments are giving initial consideration to the formulation of the following year's Estimates.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I do not intend to go into the details of the Budget. Today's debate will enable my Committee to listen to the issues that are raised, to form its proposals and to advise the Minister accordingly. I want to mark up, as I did yesterday, the issue of using the rates as a means of taxation to finance the Budget. That issue has come up in the Committee, and we need to discuss it. The purpose of this debate is to give Members the opportunity to raise their concerns, to give their support to the various provisions and to ask questions.
That will enable my Committee to co-ordinate a response to the Minister of Finance and Personnel that encapsulates the views of the Assembly and its Committees. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Birnie):
I will start with the Barnett formula because I imagine that many Members will wish to comment on it and its impact on our Budget. Clearly, its impact is not satisfactory. By definition as a formula, it is somewhat rigid and mechanical. Undoubtedly, when Mr Barnett, as he then was, devised the formula in the 1970s he did not intend it to be a long-term arrangement. Indeed, I understand that he has recently implied that he is surprised that it is still in use a quarter of a century later.
The formula does give a certain set percentage increase for Northern Ireland public expenditure. Northern Ireland's population is taken as a percentage of either the population figure for England or the Great Britain population figure, depending on which change or base in public expenditure is most appropriate.
For example, that affects the case of the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, where there are clear cases of needs in Northern Ireland exceeding the relative percentage share of population. The percentage of long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland exceeds that in England. In percentage terms, there are also more 18- to 21-year-olds, and there are greater training needs.
What then must be done? First, I applaud the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive had success during the summer in negotiations with the Treasury in London, when the aim was to get a fairer base with respect to the changes in public expenditure in either England or Great Britain, which would then be set up for comparison and multiplication through the formula to give the Northern Ireland increase.
We could commission a fully fledged needs assessment to shift the measurements of increases in public expenditure in Northern Ireland from the rather mechanical and rigid Barnett-type formula to one based on an assessment of needs.
We could even - though this is a longer-term and perhaps tentative suggestion - allocate Northern Ireland a certain percentage of tax revenues that are collected locally. We could move closer towards the sort of federal system of revenue sharing that operates in a number of countries around the world.
At the same time, Members must recognise that the "begging bowl" approach - as it might be derogatorily described in some quarters - does have dangers. In some sectors a needs assessment might lead to Northern Ireland receiving a smaller percentage increase than it currently does because there are greater social needs in certain sectors in Wales or Scotland. When negotiating with the Treasury, Northern Ireland can only plead its special case status for so long. We have an opportunity to do that at the moment, but it will not last for ever. Northern Ireland's GDP per capita is already higher than that of some regions in Great Britain, and its unemployment rate is lower than the European Union average.
Yesterday we received advance notice of the provision in the Budget for cross-budget activities and the implementation bodies. Their budget amounts to approximately 0·2% of the roughly £6 billion in the departmental expenditure limits. The total employment in the six implementation bodies in Northern Ireland amounts to several hundred, compared to a central Civil Service employment in Northern Ireland of 20,000.
I raise those statistical comparisons for the sake of some Members in this corner of the House who seem agitated about the extent of North/South activity. Those Members should recognise that much of that employment relates to activity that has been going on for many years - for example, running and maintaining waterways and maintaining lighthouses. Don Quixote attacked windmills; some Members of the DUP probably want to attack North/South lighthouses.