Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 21 November 2000 (continued)

Mr Ervine:

I do not rise to commend the Committee; I rise to commiserate with the Committee. It has been grappling with an ethos that was delivered through the back door. It began under the Tories and has been vigorously maintained by a Labour Administration, to the extent that it is now accepted practice that students must contribute to their own education.

However, students are not being educated only for themselves. They are being educated for society - we get something from them - but the first thing that we do when they sign up is to say to them "No. We want something from you." My brother and I were talking last night about the time when we were kids and could rhyme off 12 people from a working-class background who had gone to university -12 people from one street. I could not name 12 people of similar background in my entire constituency who are able to go to university today.

The ethos that has been delivered to us and maintained against a backdrop of "Education, education, education" is the big problem. However, I do not see the Minister, or the Committee, addressing this. We need to give consideration to east/west relationships, formulate alliances with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Westminster, and begin the process of explaining to the Government that investment in people will get a return. If we fail to invest in people, we will not achieve the return. My party will not be supporting the motion, and it most definitely will not be supporting the amendment.


Mr Hay made a comment about Mr Dallat. Mr Dallat behaved to his Minister much in the way that the Democratic Unionist Party behaved to its Minister on the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. They said things that they did not believe in order to support narrowly - pathetically, in many ways - things that they did not believe. Unless we get radical and there is, dare I say, a form of rebellion, we are not going to achieve very much.

The aspirational circumstances mentioned in this report may or may not achieve something. If we manage to get businesses and Governments, and anybody else who wants to, to throw a few quid in, it is speculative how much would be returned from the students. The situation is simple: either we believe, as an Assembly, that there is a right to free education, as Mr Carrick said, or we do not. Most Members, whether they are on the Committee or whether they have to grapple with the difficulties in the Department, have accepted that education does not have to be free.

Here is a radical idea. Members earn £38,000 per year and are over the threshold for paying something back. Not all Members went to university; we know that the Minister of Education never did, and neither did my Colleague or I. However, plenty of Members did. Some members of the Higher and Further Education Committee went to university, but they never suggested that if we are going to charge the kids of today, why not share the burden? Why not make sure that everyone who has had a university education makes some contribution? The Committee members have only tinkered around what their masters asked them to do.

Is that what a Parliament is about? Is it just to rubber- stamp or play with the figures handed down from Westminster? Or is it about challenging them? Is it about saying "No" and reminding the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the funding has to be made available to help to create visions from dreams? Unless we are prepared to do that, we are wasting our time.

While I appreciate that the Committee has grappled with the issue and that it has been very difficult, the report says much about what we are prepared to put up with rather than about our concerns for education. I have no doubt that the Minister and the members of the Committee have a grave concern and desire that we should promote free education as of right, but instead of rebellion we just get compliance.

Mr Attwood:

Reflecting on what David Ervine said, I remember that I cut my political teeth in the students' union movement in the days when we organised and occupied to kick the Tories out. There may be one or two people sitting not too far away from me who shared that particular experience. It is that experience that informs me in the comments that I make now.

First, I want to acknowledge what Esmond Birnie said: the report outlines targets and goals not realisable but to be aspired to. Whatever happens in this debate, and whatever the Minister might conclude in the next number of weeks, I accept the spirit of the report, even if I differ on some of the details.

There have been some very thoughtful and technical speeches from the likes of Mrs Bell, but there have also been speeches that, in my view, have missed the point of this debate and of the Minister's contribution. For example, Monica McWilliams spoke in various terms. She accepts that there are gaps in the figures used to form the right approach to student funding, access and needs, but she blames the Minister and carries on regardless. However, I have written to the Minister, pointed out where the gaps are and asked him to commission the research to find out what is required. That is a much more helpful and creative approach.

Ms McWilliams:

Does the Member accept that the Women's Coalition did that but got a blank sheet in return?

Mr Attwood:

You did not get a blank sheet, and I am sure that the Minister will address that in his concluding remarks. However, you should also acknowledge that there are - [Interruption].

Mr Speaker:

May I encourage the Member to speak through the Chair.

Mr Attwood:

The Member should also acknowledge that there are still serious gaps in the figures. It is not appropriate to make judgements at Committee level, in the Assembly or elsewhere. Members should try to commission the required information in order to make a thorough and informed judgement. If there are serious gaps in what the Committee has outlined to the Assembly they should be acknowledged by the Member rather than ignored by her as she first carries on.

John Kelly rightly talked about the burden of debt and debt aversion. However, he ignored the evidence from the Republic of Ireland on the abolition of tuition fees and the fact that access is still being denied to under- represented groups, especially those from working-class backgrounds. One cannot accept that there are gaps in figures and evidence from other jurisdictions that should inform our debate, and then ignore them. Members should be more thorough and thoughtful.

The Minister dealt with a number of principles. I have not heard any proper, serious, structured rebuttal of them. Those principles should inform the debate in the Assembly.

Mr S Wilson:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood:

I have two and a half minutes left, and it would not appropriate to give way, having already done so once. Mr Wilson can speak later.

The Minister dealt with principles that will, I presume, inform his final determination and recommendations. The first of those principles was targeting social need. The Committee's recommendations genuflect towards that issue but do not address it - and it needs to be addressed. I trust that when the Minister speaks in the Assembly in the next number of weeks that will happen.

The Minister also addressed the matter of equality between further education and higher education. The Committee genuflects towards the further education sector, but the Minister's responsibility is to ensure that there is equality between the trainee medic and the trainee electrician. If that judgement informs the Minister when he makes his determination, advances can be made on that.

The Minister also addressed widening access to those people who are underrepresented in further and higher education and those who are averse to debt. If the Minister addresses that issue in the way that he is indicating, some progress may be made on the matter.

We should also seek to bring about a situation in which there is financial security in the first instance and financial independence in the second for those in third-level education.

Those four principles informed the Minister's comments today and will, I presume, inform his judgement in the coming weeks.

Those are the correct principles, but that does not mean that what I aspired to and enjoyed as a student 20 years ago will be delivered in the first instance. But there will be a system that will promote access to education for the underrepresented and disadvantaged, create a degree of financial independence and security for those in third-level education and create equality across all sectors. Those are appropriate principles that should inform our educational and political new order. I have not heard any serious rebuttal of what the Minister said.

Mr R Hutchinson:

In response to Mr Ervine, may I say that I sat on the Committee and never had the privilege of going to university. It oversimplifies the matter to say that it is OK for another member of that Committee seemingly to change his mind in order to facilitate a Minister from his party. This is far too important. The education of our children is of paramount importance. I was more than a little angry when I noticed the Minister's amendment to our proposal this morning. What is the point of having Committees if a Minister can come and, with a stroke of a pen, try to undermine what that Committee has done? My Colleagues and I spent many valuable hours debating this, and to have this amendment put before us this morning is a little mischievous, to say the least.

The economics of modern life in Northern Ireland make university study a two-edged sword. At present, young people who decide to go to third-level education do so knowing that they will commence their education in debt. I have a vested interest in this because my son started Queen's University this year, and he is the first in my family to do so. He is more fortunate than most because he can travel to university from home, but we can see the poverty of some students. As a Committee we have drawn a responsible conclusion to all that we have said and done.

I call on the Minister to look maturely at our considerations, to listen to what we have said and to change the realities of finance in third-level education today. Children are suffering through lack of money, and it is important for the Minister and the Committee not to get bogged down in the semantics of recommendations. We have an obligation to focus on policy and on what is happening.

More attention needs to be levelled at the difficulties encountered by part-time and mature students. These complicated circumstances are worthy of further scrutiny. However, in the light of the decline in numbers of Northern Ireland students going to the mainland to continue their academic careers, the Minister and the Committee have an ever greater responsibility to facilitate third-level education.

There is much of merit in the Committee's report, setting repayment thresholds on graduate salaries, for instance. Some Members of the Committee had difficulties with certain recommendations that were put forward. Mr Dallat knows that we argued over recommendations time and time again, but, because of the unity that was needed for the report, many of us accepted the majority decision of the Committee. I challenge Mr Dallat: do you still recommend what you recommended in this report?

Mr Speaker:

I encourage Members to speak through the Chair.

Mr R Hutchinson:

The idea that business and industry should carry some of the financial burden is important, as is our suggested review of student housing. Important too is the suggestion that a single, independent and accountable funding body be established to administer an even-handed and objective evaluation of claimants in accordance with realistic criteria.

I call on the Minister to work with the Committee, not against it, so that student hardship does not become a compulsory module.

12.15 pm

Mr McElduff:

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh thuairisc an Choiste agus ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an oideachais shaoir do chách.

I speak in support of the Committee's report, albeit in a qualified way. I appreciate the involved process that the Committee has evidently gone through to arrive at consensus. As Eileen Bell has indicated, the Education Committee, of which I am a Member, is similarly undergoing an involved process in relation to selection and the 11-plus debate.

I believe that education is a right and not a privilege, and that education must be free for all. Alarmingly, the SDLP members of the Committee now appear to be backing away from positions that they evidently endorsed in the Committee deliberations and when they signed the report. I would like to hear whether Mr Dallat and Mr Byrne support what they signed up to.

In reality, higher education is still out of reach for many people, and we must all focus on the key objective of significantly increasing the participation rates in further and higher education. Higher education does not come cheaply, but we must seek to provide adequate financial support for students. It is totally unjust to expect the parents of students, as well as students themselves, to shoulder this burden.

We all agree that the current system is not working. The shift from grants to loans has resulted in a decline in the number of students in further and higher education institutions in the North. It is unacceptable that graduates should begin their working lives facing such considerable debts. I agree absolutely with Mary Nelis when she said that regardless of the issue of the handcuffing of the Minister, we should not cripple our students.

There has been significant growth in student financial hardship and poverty. Of necessity, many, if not all, have undertaken part-time jobs, even though they are meant to be on full-time courses. This has not only had a detrimental effect on their studies, but it has had an equally detrimental effect on the health of the students through poor diet. It greatly impinges on the quality of life of students who are working in low-paid jobs and who are unable to meet basic living costs. Similarly, students are required to work very unsocial hours. Again, this is not at all conducive to their studies.

We totally support the principle of free education for all. In a spirit of compromise, my party is prepared to endorse this report.

With regard to the Celtic tiger, I recently spoke to a Sligo County Enterprise Board official, who told me that the success of the Celtic tiger is very much rooted in investment in the education system. I want to emphasise that point. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr O'Connor:

We are here to discuss student finance. What exactly is a student? Is it just somebody at university or is it somebody in the higher and further education colleges throughout this country? Is it the person who attends on a part-time basis? Is such a person less entitled to adequate finances?

These issues do not seem to be addressed in this report. We talk about targeting social need. As my Colleague Mr Attwood said, the trainee electrician is just as important as the trainee medic. That is perfectly correct. For too long people in further education colleges have been the poor relations.

I want to draw some facts and figures to the Assembly's attention. Thirty-five per cent of Northern Ireland students travel outside Northern Ireland to study, and this report excludes them.

Dr Birnie said that the recommendations had not been equality proofed because they are only a set of recommendations. The reality is that in calling for the implementation of those recommendations -

Dr Birnie:

The Member specifically says that we did not have the recommendations equality proofed. We have done all we are obliged to do. We sent the document to the Equality Commission and it said that we were not obliged to do that. The Equality Commission can now look at it if it so wishes.

Mr O'Connor:

The point I am trying to make is that when we try to target equality and social need in the community the recommendations coming forward from the Committee, which is there to advise the Minister, should be proofed, as far as possible, for equality.

I want to draw the Assembly's attention to the fact that 40% of students currently pay the full fees. We have had three Members from Sinn Féin saying that they want free education for everybody. That is an honourable aspiration, but we are suggesting a situation in which 100% of people would be paying a graduate tax. It seems to me that one does not rest very easily with the other. Resources must be made available to target social need in working-class families. Several Members, including Prof McWilliams, referred to the fact that doing away with fees in Republic of Ireland three years ago had not increased the number of working-class people entering higher and further education - not even by 1%. When the Minister is making his decision he should make sure that the resources he has available are targeted specifically at working-class families and at the need that is there.

We have heard Members from the DUP advocating free education for all. Again, it is an honourable ideal, but it should be noted by the Assembly that the DUP was the only political party in Northern Ireland not to make a formal response to the review that the Minister is carrying out. It is all well and good to come in here and get involved in the theatricals when they are not doing very much on the outside -

Mr S Wilson:

Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Connor:

No, I have only a minute and a half left.

I would like to draw the Assembly's attention to an article in the 'News Letter' of Saturday 11 November about the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education:

"The recent report from the Assembly's Higher and Further Education Committee on student support paid little attention to either part-time students or those in further education.

Since current financial support regulations push an increasing number of students towards part-time study, this omission would have serious consequences if repeated by the Minister."

I am asking the Minister to look at the overall picture and to listen to people such as those in the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education rather than just to the Committee. The Committee has produced a worthwhile document, but there are inadequacies in it. I would like to see free education some day at the earliest feasible opportunity, but everything has to be paid for. Is the money going to come from health? As Mr Carrick said, the right to health is the right to life, so where is the money going to come from?

Mr Weir:

I am a member of the senate of Queen's University, and, having served on the student representative council longer than perhaps any other Member, I bring a certain level of knowledge about student issues to this debate. Anyone who knew me at Queen's, and knew the attitude I tended to take towards the Students' Union, will find it surprising that today I support the position of the Students' Union rather than that of the Minister of Higher and Further Education. That says a lot more about the shift in his party's stance on the issue than it does about me. I support the motion. This is a worthwhile report.

Some Members opposite have told us of the great inadequacies of this report; criticism after criticism has been levelled against it. It seems strange to me, as someone who is not on the Committee, that such an obviously inadequate report came to be endorsed by the two members of the SDLP on that Committee. Indeed, the motion itself was endorsed, but now they seem to be rowing back from it. To see how much of a U-turn the SDLP has made, look at its manifesto:

"In the new Administration the SDLP will work for . the abolition of student loans and the introduction of a proper grants system."

There is no reference, in its list of priorities, to the abolition of fees. I think it is taken as read that they should be abolished more or less immediately, but it wants to go further by abolishing student loans and introducing a proper grants system. Where now is the great party of socialism across the way there? That seems a very distant past.

Mr Attwood referred to his great fights with the previous Conservative Government. Yet for all the inadequacies of that Government, during its 18 years it never dared to introduce a fee system. The current Labour Government bear that responsibility. Now we have our own New Labour Minister across the way. I was gravely disappointed by his speech. The SDLP is timid on abolishing fees. It seems to say "We have to look at this situation and make sure that all the money is there. Perhaps at some stage in the future it can happen. We have to look at the TSN requirements and make sure we are compatible with England and Wales." The SDLP seems to put everything on the long finger.

From a Students' Union point of view, this report is not absolutely perfect - I am sure that some of the Students' Union activists would have gone a lot further - but it is grounded in reality. In fact, the report appears to be so weak in support of students that it even fails the test of Mr Ervine, who seems to think that it is not radical enough. I think we have, for those of us who live in the real world, something that is practical and that takes a major step forward for students.

In his opening speech, Dr Birnie quoted Neil Kinnock's remarks about his being the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university - a line that I think was later plagiarised by Senator Joe Biden. I am in a similar situation. Because of economic circumstances, this is the first generation of my family to have had the opportunity to go to university. I was one of the lucky people whose university career was in the last days of the student grants system. In my last couple of years, student loans were being introduced. I want to make sure that if my generation is the first with a proper opportunity to go to university, it is not also the last. Further and higher education, as with so much else, should be based on merit: it should be the ability of people, not the ability to pay. That, unfortunately, is the system operating at the moment.

What has been put forward, a gradual process following, in part, the Scottish model, is sensible. It has been said that this is not going to happen overnight. No one is saying that these additional costs will be introduced as part of the current budget, but it is setting down a strong marker that as part of next year's budget we should look at how we can better support student finance.

12.30 pm

This is a sensible solution to the problems facing us. We must invest something in the future to ensure we start attracting students back to Northern Ireland. As the report indicates, we must increase the number of places, because too many students have had to leave Northern Ireland unwillingly. We must ensure that students are properly financed for the future. Targeting social need has its place, but we cannot use that as a smokescreen to hide behind. TSN is not Holy Writ. We must put ourselves in a position whereby TSN, or any other excuse, cannot stop the Assembly from helping people.

As I indicated during the recent debate on the Budget, the key test of devolution would be the difference we could make. Let us make a difference today and back this report.

Mr Byrne:

I congratulate the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the way they have conducted their business and their contributions in the Assembly today. They have had a very balanced and reasoned position.

This has been our Committee's first exercise - and it has been quite an onerous one. The Committee carried out its deliberations primarily on higher education in Northern Ireland and full-time students in higher education. It may have been remiss of us to deliberate primarily on that group of people. However, the Committee was conscious that so many of our students at 18 years of age have to emigrate.

It has long been a deficit in this region that so many of our students have had to go to England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic in order to avail of a higher education course. As someone who has lectured for 20 years in a further education college, I have seen students having to emigrate to get a course because entry requirements were so much higher in Northern Ireland. I know the pain that many of them have gone through, in recent years, because of the worry of debt. Last year I had 20 students located in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic who were in deep financial trouble. The whole administration of the student loans company is one of the most painful exercises that many students and families have had to deal with in the last two to three years. Let us hope that the Department and the Education and Library Boards will deal with this issue at the administrative level.

Virtually every Assembly party believes in the principle of free education. My party has stood for that principle for many years. However, we live in the real world and we cannot achieve it in one year. The Executive have agreed the Budget. There are four parties in the Executive and the Minister has earmarked a certain amount of money for students. Mr Dallat and I argued vigorously for the principle of free education in the Committee. We argued for the plight of those in debt to be acknowledged and for the matter to be addressed. For that reason one of the recommendations was to develop a better grant system for those students who are less well off. I do not have to take lessons from anyone in here about deviating from a long-held party policy.

Forty-four per cent of all 18-year-olds in Northern Ireland now go on to higher education. When I attended Queen's University in 1973, the figure was only 15%. There has been enormous progress. However, the sad reality is that many students are now suffering severe financial hardship and debt and we must address that issue. I welcome the Minister's comments that he wishes to provide a greater sense of financial security to all of our higher and further education students.

There is another reality. The Assembly and the Executive are to carry out many reviews. Indeed, many reviews are being carried out at present. One example is the famous review of the 11-plus. I am sure the Minister of Education would not like the Assembly to come to a conclusion on that without a comprehensive review and a very considered outcome. It is just the same in this case. The Minister has held the review. It is disappointing that only a small number of submissions has been made to the Department. The Assembly Committee has deliberated on it for a long time and has given its considered view. We cannot yet ask the Assembly to give wholehearted endorsement to the recommendations, because we have to determine the relationship between an Assembly Committee and the decision-making process for budgetary matters. I am in favour of encouraging the Minister, the Department -

Mr J Kelly:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Byrne:

Just a moment, please. I am in favour of moving towards the goal that most Members spoke about this morning.

Thirty per cent of our students go on to further education, and they do not get much support. As I have lectured in further education, I know that students get only about £2,000 in grant towards the cost of their college education. Grammar schools get £3,000 on average. The further education sector has been the Cinderella of the education system for a very long time, and I hope that the Minister will address that issue.

Mr Speaker:

The Member's time is up.

Dr Farren:

I have listened very carefully to a debate which has revealed deep concerns and deep convictions about how we should proceed to frame proposals for student financial support across all key categories of full- time university students - full-time and part-time students at both higher and further education levels. Please appreciate the comprehensive approach that I am adopting.

It was acknowledged first by the Chairperson, Dr Birnie, and then by Mrs Nelis, Mr Carrick and others that they realise that these recommendations can probably not be implemented immediately. They are aspirations - some people use that kind of language to describe them. In other words, they are recommendations that we may see implemented over a considerable period of time; on the other hand we may not even start with very many of them. The urgency of implementation seems to have been highly qualified by some Members.

If my objective within the next few weeks is to draft a set of proposals which we can begin to implement, the House needs to hear those rather than comment on my contribution this morning as if it contained the seeds of those proposals. The motion before us today asks for approval and implementation of the recommendations of the report. It would have been dishonest of me not to have pointed out my reservations. This is because the views I have heard here today - however qualified with respect to implementation - certainly show that many Members want these recommendations implemented as part of my proposals, rather than be treated as matters that can wait for a more distant time.

That being the case, I want to make it clear that I have a responsibility to take forward proposals to my Executive Colleagues and eventually to the Committee and to the House. I have a responsibility to point out the reservations associated with the report's recommendations, lest it be understood that these recommendations were for the here and now and not for some distant future. It is important that Members hear my reservations in that context.

I was disappointed that equity - a major issue - was hardly ever addressed. Prof McWilliams stated that she would address the issue of equity, but not a single word did she utter about the large number of students who go across the water. By the first recommendation in the Committee's report, these are the students who would be denied the abolition of tuition fees if that were to be the road we went down. Prof McWilliams and Members from Sinn Féin, who talk a lot about non-discriminatory practices and about principles and targeting social need, said not a word about the discriminatory approach that might result if we were to implement that particular recommendation. As a Minister, I will not introduce any proposal that discriminates against 17,000 students in Northern Ireland who go across the water for further and higher education. Tell me why I should.

The Committee members acknowledge that the report is virtually silent on the needs of further education and part-time students. I believe that I am one of the first people with responsibility for further and higher education in our community to highlight their needs constantly. Furthermore, as part of my proposals for new forms of student financial support, their concerns as well as the concerns of students in universities will be taken into account as fully as possible. I ask those who have ignored that issue and who have sought to say "It does not matter. We can approve the recommendations." but later come forward with proposals in respect of further education students, to go to the colleges in Magherafelt, east Down, Newry, Dungannon, Omagh, Enniskillen, the north-west and the north-east, and talk to their constituents there. They can then explain to them why they are recommending a set of proposals that is virtually silent on their needs. I will not do that. As Minister, I have a responsibility to them, as much as I have a responsibility to full-time university students, and I intend to discharge that responsibility.

Several Committee members said that there has been a communication failure between myself and officials in my Department and members of the Committee. I remind Members that officials, and in particular the official in charge of higher education, appeared before the Committee on several occasions, gave comprehensive information and answered questions raised by the members. I am aware that the Committee members have had recourse to outside advice. I applaud that course of action; they should not simply take the word of officials in any Department if further advice is available from other sources. We need to challenge one another. That advice also contains reservations with respect to the equality issue.

The Chairperson of the Committee said that the Committee had sent its report to the Equality Commission only to be told that the Committee was not obliged to do that. However, before that, the Committee had been told by its own advisers not to apply its abolition of tuition fees suggestion to those who go outside Northern Ireland, as that would not be compatible with New TSN. Mr Weir may say that New TSN is simply a minor irritant, something that we might have to take account of now and again. It is a basic requirement on all Government Departments, just as equality schemes are requirements on all Government Departments. It should be fully considered in this House, not simply waved aside as if it were a minor irritant.

12.45 pm

Mr Weir:

Will the Member give way?

Dr Farren:

No. I am winding up, and I am not giving way at this point. The Member has had his say.

We should be proud of what our universities and colleges have achieved. We have seen the numbers increase significantly. Participation in higher education by Northern Irish students has increased by 5% this year. We have seen an increase in part-time and further education enrolments. However, I am aware of the difficulties that students experience with respect to financial support. Within a week of being appointed, as I reminded the House earlier, I announced that it was my intention to proceed with a review of their financial circumstances. Is that betraying indifference to them? Perhaps one of the first reviews undertaken once the Executive was established last December was a review, announced by me, on behalf of students. This was to ensure that they would have as much financial security as we could possibly afford them and, in doing so, address the needs of those who are from backgrounds not traditionally associated with education at the higher and further levels.

Dr Birnie:

I thank all who contributed to this very worthwhile and sometimes heated debate. Those who have analysed our governmental arrangements under the Belfast Agreement have sometimes asked where the Opposition is. Today we have seen a partial answer. The Committees, on occasion, can serve as opposition, in the best sense, to Ministers and the Executive as a whole - though I did note that the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party seemed to imply that he himself might be the Opposition in this House.

We seem to be breaking new ground, in terms of the relationship between Committee and Executive. I concede that this is a challenge for those of us who are both Committee members and members of parties in the Executive. I do not think that it is fair to charge anybody in the Committee with acting in a dishonourable manner.

Many Members made very valid points. I will not attempt to reply to them in detail, except one where there is simply a factual problem. Mr O'Connor suggested that the report's proposals amounted to a graduate tax. That is not strictly correct. A graduate tax would be paid throughout a graduate's working life. Our proposal is a one-off contribution of a fixed sum. There is an important difference in principle and in financial terms.

I now turn directly to the comments of the Minister and to his amendment. I am grateful to the Minister for speaking. He made three particularly significant challenges to the Committee report. I will attempt to respond to them.

First, there is the point about the costing of our proposals. The indicative figures that were presented in the Minister's speech were of a similar magnitude to those presented in my own. The House will have to decide today and in subsequent debates on this issue whether, in the long run, we cannot afford a sum of £60 million per annum. In the long run, if we fail to perfect our student support system, there will be a grievous cost to targeting social need and to the generation of economic growth, which ultimately funds the public expenditure of all Departments.

As early as 2 June this year, I requested from the Minister costing details on the likely options for student support facing the Committee, the Department and the House. In my speech, I made a subjective indication, which will not necessarily be shared by all Committee members, of a rank ordering of the stages in which the proposals in the report might be implemented. The priority should be to increase grant support to widen social access. The Minister hinted at this in his speech and in his comments at the weekend.

In response to the challenge regarding equity, I accept that it is true that around 35% of full-time undergraduates leave Northern Ireland to study in Great Britain. I note that the Minister feels that our proposals could be challenged on the grounds of equality and discrimination. Obviously, this remains to be tested, but the Committee has been advised that legal appeals on this basis are not likely to be sound.

I do concede that I do not regard lightly our recommendation of support for some students to the exclusion of others. I can declare a personal interest in this matter because at one point in my career I myself left Northern Ireland to study, so I appreciate that there will be a perception of unfairness. However, the question of principle remains: should we fail to help the clear majority of roughly 65% of Northern Ireland students who study in Northern Ireland because, similarly, European Union law prevents us from helping those students who go?

I agree that the issue of further education is a critical one. The Committee, in its report, recognises the point about equity. We have recommended the establishment, for the first time, of a single statutory funding council to bring together higher and further education. We must all grapple with these increasingly new and flexible patterns of lifelong learning, and this will pose continual challenges to student support systems.

I am pleased with the way in which the Minister recognised and endorsed many of the broad principles of the report, and I am sure that this has also pleased the Committee.

1.00 pm

As to the amendment, I am bearing in mind this advice given by Abraham Lincoln: "It is not advisable to change horses mid-stream. " I remain undiminished in my advocacy of this report. The motion is not designed to handcuff the Minister - to use one of the images presented today. Rather, it calls for implementation "at the earliest feasible opportunity". Obviously a judgement must be made on what is financially feasible now, in the medium term and, ultimately, in the long term. At the same time, I welcome the tone of the amendment insofar as it would commit the Minister to bring to bear the report's principles and conclusions on his own forthcoming review.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 33; Noes 35.


Billy Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, John Gorman, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, David McClarty, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Eugene McMenamin, Danny O'Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Ken Robinson, Brid Rodgers, George Savage, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.


Eileen Bell, Paul Berry, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, David Ford, Oliver Gibson, Michelle Gildernew, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, John Kelly, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Maurice Morrow, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Dara O'Hagan, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Sue Ramsey, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly approves the first report of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment on student finance and calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to implement the Committee's recommendations at the earliest feasible opportunity.

The sitting was suspended at 1.11 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) -

Trust Ports


2.30 pm

Mr Hay:

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the intention of the Minister for Regional Development to provide legislation regarding trust port status, and calls upon the Minister to safeguard the future of Northern Ireland trust ports, including Londonderry, and especially the smaller ports which will be affected by the announcement concerning the port of Belfast.

Trust ports in Northern Ireland have been very successful, either on their own or with a board of trustees which reinvests profit for the benefit of port users and for regional and local interests. There are three trust ports in Northern Ireland - Belfast, Warrenpoint and Londonderry. There is also the port of Larne, which is operated privately. The port of Belfast is the largest, handling 60% of Northern Ireland's seagoing trade, with a turnover of between £15 million and £20 million per year, and pre-tax profits of between £9million and £12 million per year. It has 1·6 million passengers and roughly 15·7 million tons of freight passing through each year. The ports of Warrenpoint and Londonderry have turnovers of about £3 million, and pre-tax profits of £700,000. We have to ask why we wish to fix something that is not broken. Many of us involved in the private sector would like to see companies make that kind of turnover and profit.

Those of us who have been involved in trust ports in Northern Ireland have been attempting to persuade the Governent to look at the extension of their powers. It has been recognised that if trust ports in Northern Ireland are to act more commercially and play a greater role in the regeneration of the region, it is vitally important they have powers allowing them to achieve this. If the two smaller ports in the Province are to survive, they have to diversify into non-port activities. It has also been recognised that there has to be an easing of the financial controls with regard to trust ports. There is a desire to improve public accountability. Trust ports should be allowed to act as catalysts for economic regeneration. These changes would put Northern Ireland trust ports on the best footing for the future.

Another interesting issue is that the South of Ireland has for quite some time been extending the powers of its ports, which are essentially private. I remind Members that our trust ports are in direct opposition to those in the South of Ireland. For example, Dublin is in direct opposition to Belfast. That is why it is also vitally important that extended powers be granted as soon as possible to Warrenpoint, Londonderry and Belfast.

I should like to say a word of thanks and pay tribute to the former Minister for Regional Development, Peter Robinson, who, with his officials, recognised that as soon as he entered the Department. The issue is now very much driven by the present Minister for Regional Development, Gregory Campbell. About two years ago the Department of the Environment decided to review Northern Ireland trust ports in general after some very strong lobbying, especially from the two smaller ports - Warrenpoint and Londonderry. There was a great need to look seriously at the extension of trust port powers in Northern Ireland, not least because England, Scotland and Wales had already carried out such a review, with Northern Ireland lagging behind.

The review of the Department of the Environment identified a need to extend the powers of trust ports to ease the existing financial controls under which they currently operate to enable them to meet the challenges ahead in an increasingly competitive industry. There was a commitment to bring forward legislation "at the earliest opportunity". Those are the Department's own words.

Both Warrenpoint and Londonderry, the two smaller ports, welcomed the announcement of that decision very much. Then, of course, as soon as the announcement had been made, there was a very interesting situation in Northern Ireland, when the Chancellor's spending review was carried out in summer 1998. Members will recall the "additional" £150 million talked about, when we all wondered if that were really the case. The Chancellor made it very clear that the sale of Belfast port would raise £70 million and that the "additional" money would be drawn from this sum. He went on to say that the £70 million would have to be kept and that, regardless of how much was raised by the sale of Belfast port, Northern Ireland would get £70 million, with the British Exchequer getting the rest. He told us all that was a good deal for Belfast port.

Then came the report of the Ad Hoc Committee (Port of Belfast). I must pay tribute to the Members who served on that Committee, for they teased out a number of very interesting issues relating to the port. The report was very much driven by the Chancellor's announcement and the issue of raising money for roads infrastructure, which was where the £70 million came in. Despite that, it was very interesting. In February 2000, after quite a gap, the Department for Regional Development produced an option paper for Belfast.

That paper contained three options - a private partnership; a modified partnership proposal; and, of course, a restructured trust port with extended powers - and it was presented to the Committee for Regional Development for its views. The Chairperson guided us through that difficult report, sometimes under difficult circumstances, and the Committee unanimously opted for a restructured trust port with extended powers.

As the Minister already knows, Londonderry and Warrenpoint ports have a number of significant development plans and some of these are being seriously examined. For example, the port in Londonderry has spent around £2 million on a new fish quay. There is also Fort George - a unique site, and probably one of the best sites to come on the property market in the city for a number of years. It is certainly one of the best economic and financial sites to come into the hands of the port commissioners - having been occupied for a number of years by the Army.

These developments, and many more, can only be taken forward properly with the extension of powers to trust ports in Northern Ireland. At present, what needs to be developed at Fort George, and other areas of the city, can be done meaningfully only if the port has the power to do the job. It can be done in a way that will help the harbour, put it on a strong financial footing, and help the entire city of Londonderry to regenerate. The port does not have that power at the moment. With the new powers, the ports would also be looking at financing these developments.

I am not taking anything away from Belfast or its port because it is one of the top six ports in the British Isles. It is a leading port within the European structure and it is developing. I see that port as helping to develop Belfast and the rest of the Province. The ports of Londonderry and Warrenpoint have two concerns if there is any great delay in resolving the outstanding issues in Belfast port, especially those relating to the land in and around the port. We all know that legal discussions about land can take some time to resolve. In the meantime, the two smaller ports have to wait.

2.45 pm

Is there going to be a delay in giving those extended powers to the two smaller ports, which have trust port status, while the remaining outstanding issues in and around the whole issue of Belfast port are resolved?

Secondly, what are the outstanding issues regarding Belfast port? When are they likely to be resolved - either in the short or in the long term? Will it take one or two years? Warrenpoint, in particular, has a number of developments that it would like to get on with, and I have already mentioned the situation in Londonderry. What are the issues that need to be resolved, and when will they be resolved? The sooner we get answers to those questions, the better the opportunity for the two smaller ports to move forward. I would like to see the three ports getting their extended powers at the same time and getting the powers they need to operate more commercially and economically for their own area and for the economic regeneration of Northern Ireland as a whole.

The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness):

This is a very timely debate. I thank the Members who proposed this motion - in particular, Mr Hay, who served on the Regional Development Committee and who has taken a keen interest, not just in his home port but also in the position of trust ports throughout Northern Ireland. He referred to them as potential engines for economic regeneration in their areas. I agree with that description. The development of the trust ports in those areas will be one way of regenerating local economies, which have suffered a great deal over the last 25 to 30 years. In Derry, where the economy has been slowly developing, the new port at Lisahally can help to revive that local economy.

The Minister for Regional Development, who is from that area, firmly believes that it is an engine for regeneration, not because of any selfish local or constituency interests, but because he realises, as do all of us on the Regional Development Committee, that the development of the trust ports will provide great economic opportunity. However, we have to do it properly and carefully. One of the problems we have to face is the fact that the trust ports have been hampered and hidebound to some extent in that they do not have the powers that are necessary to operate as commercially as they could do within the open market.

As an Assembly we have to give them the power, the economic muscle and the commercial flexibility necessary to develop their ports as competitive businesses in the open market. Port business is very competitive. Ports situated in Northern Ireland are not insulated from fierce competition from across the water or across the border. Mr Hay has rightly pointed out to the House that the powers of ports in the Irish Republic have been extended. The trust ports there operate almost as private companies. That is a lesson that we can learn. If we are to develop a competitive economy we must give our ports the wherewithal to compete in the market place.

I can understand the degree of fear or concern that Northern Ireland's smaller ports have in relation to the development of the port of Belfast. However, I do not believe that the extension of powers will create an unfair competitive situation for the ports of Derry and Warrenpoint. I believe that they both have their own particular strengths that can be built upon if powers are extended. In the case of Derry, it has proved that it has a niche market. I do not think that it will be affected by the extension of powers to the port of Belfast. However, if the smaller ports' powers are extended, the powers of the port of Belfast must be extended too.

In particular, I want to address the situation in Belfast. The uncertainty that has been created in relation to the future of the Port of Belfast has tended to blight the development of that port and the others. It had cast a cloud over the proper formulation and delineation of policy by the Department in relation to the development of ports. I am hopeful - I am sure that other members of the Committee for Regional Development share this view - that we will soon come to a conclusion on the future of the Port of Belfast. As Chairperson of that Committee - and I think I reflect the views of other members - I would like to see the extension of powers for the Port of Belfast. That is as far as I will go until the Committee and I hear the substance of the economic appraisal that the Department has carried out on the restructuring of the trust port of Belfast and the extension of powers thereto. It would be wrong for us to come to the Assembly with a predetermined view.

I say to the Assembly, to the public and, in particular, to the Port of Belfast, that we want to see the port operating successfully. We want the port to be highly competitive. We want to give the port the commercial and economic powers that it deserves. I believe that that reflects the collective view of the Regional Development Committee. We will argue the toss about the detail, but our collective view is that we want to see the Port of Belfast develop properly again as an engine of economic regeneration.

No doubt we will return to the Assembly in the near future with legislation and on the issue of developing policy for Belfast as a whole. I know that the Minister has already indicated in correspondence that his Department hopes to deal with the extension of powers in three phases. I welcome that, because it brings an element of certainty and focus to the whole trust ports debate.

In the first phase, he hopes to give some additional powers to the various trust ports in Northern Ireland under the harbour orders. I welcome that also. In the second phase, which will be much more difficult, he will bring primary legislation to the House in order to shape and restructure the ports. We await that legislation eagerly. We are prepared to work constructively with the Minister for the betterment of all the ports in Northern Ireland.

A price has to be paid by the trust ports for the extension of their powers. That price is greater public accountability, for trust ports are not in the public sector per se. They are a hybrid - neither private nor public, but somewhere in between. There must be increased public accountability. That will be the price paid by the trust ports for the extension of their powers.

There is ever-increasing competition from the Republic of Ireland, which is not necessarily bad, but if our ports are to meet that competition we have to give them the additional powers that they seek - powers which I believe we collectively want to grant them.

There are also three smaller ports at Coleraine, Donaghadee and Carlingford Lough, and it is important that we address those ports as well, and see how we can assist them. I do not think that legislation is necessary, but we must seek to enhance their position because they form an additional element of the port structure in Northern Ireland.

This is a welcome debate that prefigures a very thorough and perhaps radical examination of the future of our ports. A very important service is being done in this Assembly today by bringing attention to this issue and forewarning Members that we will have to make policy and legislative decisions on the future of our ports. I believe that those decisions will be made in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and in the individual and collective interests of the ports.

Mr Neeson:

I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. The shipping industry in Northern Ireland has been of great interest to me for many years, and I recognise the major economic importance of our ports. Our ports are a lifeline for us. Because of our peripherality, they are vitally important. Therefore the interests of the ports are the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

In May 1998 the then Department of the Environment completed its review of trust ports in Northern Ireland. I made a submission on behalf of the Alliance Party at that time. Regrettably, when the Ad Hoc Committee investigated the issue, the then Minister, Lord Dubs, refused to provide the Assembly with a copy of the review. I hope that the Minister for Regional Development will not deny us access to it.


<< Prev / Next >>