Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 28 November 2000 (continued)
Mr Paisley Jnr:
That the agreement does not work.
I could say that Ian Paisley Jnr does not work, but I think that has been obvious to all of us for a long time. Ian Paisley Jnr has not made much of a contribution to the prosperity of the people of North Antrim during the time that he has been elected.
'Strategy 2010' was useful, but it may not have gone far enough, or been inclusive enough, but I believe that the sterling efforts of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee since then have gone a long way towards rectifying any possible exclusion. We must strenuously embrace a knowledge-based economy. There are a number of opportunities throughout the whole spectrum of e-commerce - and I include e-government in that, because we have got to embrace this, at Government level as well as a commercial one - and the whole field of bio-technology.
Therefore, we must try to achieve the right financial factoring for our small businesses. As the motion suggests, we must pay attention to the cross-cutting and inter- connecting issues with the Department for Regional Development, the Department for Social Development and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. We must also look at the availability of land use right across our community, in Belfast, Derry and the rural parts, in order to get the balance right.
Mr Speaker, I realise that time does not permit me to go on though I could.
Your time is up. A number of Members who have spoken have remarked on the shortness of their time. All of those who did so remark were at least able to speak. A number of Members who also wished to speak were unable to do so because of the shortness of time.
The length of the debate is decided not by the Speaker, but by the Business Committee. If Members want a longer time to be made available for debates, they should speak to their business managers, who, in turn, will strive to ensure that longer time is made available.
I am reminded of a Member who apologised to his audience for making a long speech because, he claimed, he did not have time to prepare a short one.
Dr McDonnell spoke about underpinning the peace. Perhaps he will help to underpin the peace by declaring that the SDLP will support the Police Service of Northern Ireland. SDLP Members should sit on the board of the Police Service rather than cling on to IRA/Sinn Féin or look over their shoulders at it.
I welcome the fall in unemployment that has taken place over the past years. Last month there was a rise in the unemployment figures, but that may just have been a blip. I imagine that it is possible to trace the fall in unemployment back to before the ceasefires. It has more to do with the world economy, new information and communication aids and job creation in those areas that are experiencing falling unemployment than with the security situation. It is related too to new Labour, the Assembly and a number of other political ideals that some people may have.
Northern Ireland has become less peripheral as a result of new communication aids and, therefore, we have greater opportunities to sell ourselves on the worldwide market. However, there are some issues that need to be addressed. For example, announcements are made about jobs that we do not get. I know of one factory that announced 500 new jobs. However, management was later notified that it was not to take on any more staff. This still stands. Those jobs have not come into being in spite of the announcement that was made a number of months previously. Job announcements must not be made for political purposes. When jobs are announced they should be genuine jobs that will come into being then and not at some time in the distant future.
A number of other matters also need to be addressed by the Minister. With regard to the quality of jobs available, Northern Ireland employees are said to be paid at a rate of 85% of what employees in the rest of the United Kingdom are paid. We must create a better quality of job to encourage people to come back to Northern Ireland and reverse the brain drain that took place during the 1980s. It is well-paid people who drive the economy forward. They invest more in the economy and do more to provide a greater number of jobs in it.
I hope to see a greater concentration of resources directed at indigenous companies, as such companies tend to remain where they are when the going gets tough. They tend to invest more into the economy and thus create more jobs. Given the high cost of flights, ferries and transport in and to Northern Ireland, we are paying through the nose for fuel. We are on the edge of Europe, and we seek to export our main manufacturing base to the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. This obviously costs us a lot more money because of the high fuel and ferry costs.
Those issues must be addressed by the Minister. I realise that in the matter of fuel costs his hands are somewhat tied by the Exchequer, nevertheless he has to make the case. That has been part of the problem faced by the manufacturing and agriculture industries, one that has had a major detrimental effect on them. The textile and agriculture industries have lost 8,000 jobs over the last five years, and while other industries - particularly electronics - have stepped into the breach, the transition has been a difficult one which has created problems, particularly in rural areas where there was a higher dependency on such jobs.
We also need to look at the current infrastructure. It is essential that the Department for Regional Development get sufficient finance to proceed with the intended road network. The £30 million cut should not take place in years 2 and 3, and the intended road developments should be allowed to proceed apace.
There is much merit in looking at the value added to what we produce in Northern Ireland, particularly by the agriculture industry. Companies such as Moy Park have done great work in developing that whole area, so why can it not be done in, for example, the pork and lamb industries? It can be done if there are companies which are prepared to do it. Unfortunately, one company involved in the pig industry here does not seem to be forward- sighted. It seems to wish merely to cream off the market here and not to create jobs and make real investment for the future.
Mr Gallagher proposed an amendment to this motion, although I did not hear anyone speak in support of it, including Mr Gallagher. In relation to the European dimension, it would be short-sighted to go into the Euromarket, to enter the euro-zone at this time. More difficulties would be created for the Irish Republic's economy as a result of the United Kingdom's not entering the euro-zone. It must be remembered that 71% of our exports are to the United Kingdom, and we are currently doing very well with low inflation and high growth.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I welcome the opportunity for this debate. There have not been many opportunities to concentrate on some of these very important matters. One has to remember that our economy, and how it progresses, affects every home in this Province, and sometimes that tends to get a back seat when other things are on the agenda.
A number of Members have focused obviously on unemployment. I want to strike a note of caution. We have been enjoying a significant fall in unemployment and long-term unemployment throughout the last few years. That has continued, but as everybody who knows about economics will tell you, we live in a series of cycles. My caution is that there are limits to how long this process can continue without some reverses being undertaken. We have been making very welcome progress, but that cannot be guaranteed to go on for ever.
Some Members have complained about unemployment in their areas, and that is fair enough. It has been said that no effort has been made by the IDB and other agencies to deal with particular districts which might be TSN areas. However, Members who frequently put questions to me about unemployment and how it affects their particular areas should look at some of the figures. In every single district council area - without exception - unemployment has dropped in the last year, although by varying degrees. The percentage is not uniform, but some of the drops are quite significant and are in some of the areas that have been worst affected. That is largely because those areas have further to go.
The approach of organisations such as the IDB and LEDU to TSN is serious, and I and my Department take the situation very seriously. If Members were to look at where jobs went last year they would find that three quarters of the new jobs brought in to Northern Ireland by the IDB went to TSN areas in accordance with the targets.
Mr Wells and others referred to another frequently raised issue - visits. No one, not the IDB nor LEDU, can dictate where companies go. We encourage companies to visit TSN areas and have set a target of 75% of first-time visits to go to TSN areas. The out-turn achieved last year was 76%. Companies decide where they go and where they invest their money. We will offer them additional incentives to go into TSN areas and frequently that does happen. However, the idea that we are some kind of Soviet-style economy that can direct companies to go to these places is not right. That does not happen.
It is a matter of regret to me that during the debate a number of Members who raised these points are no longer in the Chamber to hear my reply.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Minister has raised a number of points which I would like to respond to. Neither I nor my Colleagues are calling for the Minister to act like a Soviet director, dictating where certain businesses go. However, when businesses and trade groups come to visit Northern Ireland they should be brought to much wider areas than would previously have been the case. My area has on its doorstep a major university, a research facility. It has a high youth population which desires employment, and I hope that the Minister will be able to bring trade groups to the area and encourage them to invest.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member is correct that we can not direct; but it is appropriate that we encourage. Up to the moment we have been reaching these targets.
With reference to Dr Birnie's point, I have made it clear that with regard to the structural and institutional changes that we are proposing, subject to Executive approval, it is my intention to make a statement to the House before Christmas. I am awaiting a response from the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, and when that is received I will be able in the next couple of weeks to move towards making decisions. We do not want uncertainty or any further delay.
It is over 30 years since the structures were developed for LEDU, 20 years since the IDB was set up and 10 years since the IRTU, the Industrial Research and Technology Unit, was set up, and it is an appropriate time, now that local authorities are very active in local economic development, to review the situation and see whether we are delivering the services to the business community in the best way that we possibly can. Due to the changing nature of the businesses that we are dealing with - the whole innovation/ICT sector now emerging is very strong - it is appropriate now that we take the opportunity to review our structures. We hope to bring forward proposals to the Assembly within the next few weeks, and it is my intention, if possible, to get them in before the recess.
Dr Birnie mentioned significant cost and competitive issues. We all know about the energy situation, and a number of Members have referred to that. It is very depressing. I read an article recently that talked about gas and electricity charges in Great Britain going up by 25% due to fuel costs and gas pressures which might emerge early next year.
We are working hard to find a total package to deal, once and for all, with the question of energy costs. It has been a millstone around our necks for some time, and we have been severely disadvantaged by the privatisation that was carried out between 1989 and 1992. A very bad deal was done, and we are struggling with the consequences. That has a huge impact. We have opened up competition for the business sector, but sadly, as Members know, domestic consumers still do not have any choice and face significant difficulties.
Members referred to farming, rural diversification and tourism. In many rural areas, unemployment figures disguise the difficulties that farmers, suppliers and processors face. They may count as employed or self- employed, but it is no secret that they are in dire straits and suffering greatly. In the Programme for Government, we attempt to address those problems. My answer to Mr Paisley Jnr's question is that I have been in regular contact with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Through the vision group, we are examining the whole processing sector. However, we recognise that it goes much further than that; a number of farmers are not going to survive. What are the alternatives? That is where the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development comes in, because it is rural development programmes that will help to replace traditional jobs. Tourism can also play a role. We are underperforming significantly, for reasons to which I will refer later.
Members spoke about the trends in the economy. Mr McCartney said that there were many things over which we can have no influence and about which we can do nothing. I consider that to be a helpless attitude, although I appreciate that we are a regional economy, that many fiscal decisions are made in London, and that currency issues are dealt with in London.
I suspect that Ms Morrice thinks that the single currency might be the panacea. That is false. The euro is undervalued; sterling is not overvalued. There are downsides to that. For example, some companies have found the currency situation beneficial, because they are able to buy cheaply in the euro sector. If they are selling to the dollar area, where an increasing amount of our export trade is going, the disadvantage does not apply. However, I accept that many exporters suffer as a direct result of the currency situation. I hope that, in due course, the euro will come back up to a more realistic level; it is undervalued. Nonetheless, I am far from convinced that we can extrapolate from that that we would be better off within the single European currency.
Mr McCartney also referred to fuel smuggling. We have been lobbying the Treasury very vigorously, and I have had several communications with Stephen Timms, the Financial Secretary. Customs and Excise has recently introduced additional measures that have resulted in seizures. There are huge businesses involved, and we strongly believe that they are closely linked to paramilitary organisations. Huge resources are being syphoned off from the economy and directed into the coffers of such organisations. But we have been lobbying on this issue very strongly with Stephen Timms and the Treasury. They are very acutely aware of the situation, and some success has been achieved.
I must highlight the plight of the petrol retailers, many of whom have been brought by Members to see me. We have faithfully conveyed their views to the Chancellor. I have been working with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Durkan, in lobbying on the matter of aggregates, and we are very aware of their potential to do very significant damage to our economy.
A number of Members mentioned instability. As Dr McDonnell pointed out, a number of companies are delaying making major investment and employment decisions because we have not yet sorted out our problems. Business needs stability, and competition is intense for a limited number of mobile investment projects. We need to convince investors that Northern Ireland is good for business and that there is no longer any threat to their enterprises. Naturally, some investors are holding back, and I cannot blame them for delaying.
That is why I tell people to decide what they want and if they want peace and prosperity to do away with weapons and stop behaving like warlords, intimidating whole communities. People need to be aware that when they call for investment and the creation of jobs in TSN areas while continuing to insist on holding onto paramilitary structures and weapons, they stand little or no chance of attracting private capital. The warlords must make up their minds. They can continue to preside over continuing punishment beatings, growing hopelessness and dereliction, or they can acknowledge the great opportunity that awaits us all. We had to mobilise the entire political community and work extra hard to secure investments that were threatened by the disturbances surrounding Drumcree last summer. Other areas are also suffering. Tourism is operating at only one third of its potential, and it is very difficult to enhance performance unless issues such as Drumcree and the ripple effect throughout the community are sorted out.
We have the chance to establish a vibrant sustainable economy. We must not lose it or allow others to squander what is the best opportunity Northern Ireland has had since partition. Let us be under no illusions - investment today is mobile. It can be made anywhere in the world and there are increasingly fewer pieces of foreign investment with increasingly stiffer competition. India, China and the Far East are opening up as potential competitors with Northern Ireland.
Members made the point that the linkage between my Department and Dr Farren's will be crucial, and we recognise that - we have set up working parties between our Departments and we have had an away day. We recognise the point in 'Strategy 2010' that the degree to which we succeed will be directly linked to the degree to which we can match skill needs to the requirements of businesses, thus ensuring that a supply of labour is available. Members will also be aware that we launched the Back to Your Future campaign last week to attract back to Northern Ireland those who have had to leave our shores. This campaign is aimed at people who have gained experience, particularly those with three to five years of experience. We urgently need them to come back, and we are trying to get them back through a web site, exhibitions at airports and seaports and by tracking people individually. We will offer them the opportunity to come back and take up positions here because we need their expertise very urgently, and that is a wonderful change in circumstances.
However, it would be naive to assume that this can happen in complete isolation from what is going on around us politically. It is accepted that Northern Ireland has been improving since the 1990s, as illustrated by its production. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the ceasefires and other events of the mid 1990s played their part.
Our job now must be to seize this opportunity to put in place the high-value-added jobs that many Members have referred to. People have been somewhat dismissive about call centres; we have to be very careful about what we are saying here, because "call centre" is a generic term. There are very great differences between one and another. Some of them are very sophisticated; some of them have potential for growth; and some of them develop their own products and start to resell them.
If the House genuinely wants to get investment into TSN areas, we must all recognise first that it is going to require the continuing use of selective financial assistance and, secondly, that we have to bring into TSN areas jobs that the residents of those areas will be able to take up. There is no point in putting a factory or a call centre or whatever in a particular TSN area and congratulating ourselves, if the people who live in the area are unable to work in it.
We are overlooking one important point, while placing too much focus on visits. What we must ask is this: are the people in those areas trained? Can they apply for these jobs with a reasonable expectation of being hired? Without a skilled resource in a TSN area, there is no point in establishing an industry there.
A number of Members have talked about the redistribution of resources. In some industries, companies - particularly those on the high-tech side of things - simply have to go to areas with a high population density, because that is where the workforce is. Young people want bright lights and urban facilities. Some of them simply will not move away from that. However, one of our Department's objectives under the Programme for Government is to ensure that investment packages such as the broadband telecommunications infrastructure are spread throughout the Province to try to put everybody on a level playing field. In those circumstances, it will be up to us to see that skill audits are carried out in local areas to ensure that people can apply for jobs with a reasonable expectation of getting one.
I can say emphatically that we have a wonderful platform from which to launch ourselves - if we are really serious. This generation will never get another opportunity like this. These economic prospects are the best since partition. Opportunity knocks: I hope and pray that we have the will and the wit to seize it.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I acknowledge that the Minister has been present for the duration. In my view today's amendment takes into account the two biggest issues facing this community in the immediate future.
The implications of the Chancellor's policies, particularly the aggregates tax, have the potential to drive much of the quarrying industry south of the border and therefore to result in more job losses here.
The advantages currently enjoyed by the Republic of Ireland's economy are crippling and strangling the economy all along the northern side of the border. We must all recognise the particular difficulties that we have at present. Let me reiterate the fact that the impact of both those policies is greatest closest to the border.
Most of us here will accept that these areas have traditionally experienced high levels of deprivation and unemployment. I noticed the Member for North Antrim, Ian Paisley Jnr, behaving in his usual form as if no one other than he knew anything. He rushed to dismiss the plight of the people in the border areas and attempted to rubbish the amendment, ignoring the plight that the quarrying industry is now trying to address.
I make no apology for speaking up on behalf of the people I represent in the border areas. They expect to be part of this new and inclusive society we are all attempting to build, and they are entitled to share with the rest of Northern Ireland in our improved economic prospects. I hope the Executive will take note of the amendment. I listened to the Minister's comments, and I hope that all Executive Members will continue to lobby the Chancellor about the adverse impact of his policies. It is important to do that and to follow up on the commitments given by both Governments in the single chapter they submitted for the new round of European funds. In it they made commitments to bring about a greater degree of economic co-operation and harmonisation between the two parts of the island, especially in the border areas, and we should continue to remind them of that.
We all want to achieve a successful economy, but we must first recognise the context in which our economy operates. By voting for the amendment, Members will be recognising and acknowledging that that context is a wider European economy. If Members cannot support the amendment, they ignore the fact that this is the case, and they ignore the plight of people in the quarrying industry whose future jobs are under threat. This is why I support the amendment.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Leslie):
I would like to thank all Members who have contributed to the debate and to thank the Minister for his response. A number of useful points were made; I will not be able to answer them all, but I will choose those that I think are pertinent.
I would like to make some comments on the amendment. The idea that policies for promoting the economy should be linked to the wider European economy demonstrates a simple misunderstanding of the nature of that economy. I think Mr Paisley Jnr was right when he said that you cannot expect your European partners in a political project to be your partners in a business project. Nobody in the European Union has to, needs to, or will trade with somebody else in the European Union. Trading depends on price, quality, delivery and branding - the right product at the right price and in the right place. Perhaps someone will buy your product, but the fact that you are in the European Union is neither here nor there.
If someone wants to export to the European Union, he or she will have to produce to European Union standards. This applies to any market - you produce to the standards of the market you are trying to sell to. Look at Norway. Foreign export to European Union member countries constitutes a great deal more of Norway's gross domestic product than that of the United Kingdom, and Norway is not even a member of the European Union. Look at Japan's export performance in the 28 years since the United Kingdom joined the European Union. Japan has increased its rate of export to the European Union at a rate far higher than the United Kingdom increase. The increasingly important economy is the global economy.
Is the Member advocating that we pull out of the European Union? Is he also saying that we should reject the transfers we get from the European Union?
We pay a fortune for our transfers to the European Union. The United Kingdom pays £12 billion into Europe and gets about £6 billion out, so it is hardly good economics. What I am addressing is blind Euro- enthusiasm, of which, I think, there is far too much.
I would like to move to the Minister's contention that the Government cannot bring jobs to the people. The Government, however, do have to facilitate people's being able to get to jobs, and what we have here is another Euro-fallacy: the European Union is supposed to enable a member of one European country to move freely to a job in another European country, yet, funnily enough, it does not seem to work as well as it is meant to, not even at the legal level, never mind the practical level.
That is the huge difference between the European Union and the United States. In the United States not only is there a free movement of labour, there is a positively ruthless movement of labour. People simply get up and go where the jobs are. We should not lose sight of that massive difference. One or two Members mentioned the Assembly's relative lack of influence over economic matters. We have to accept that there is a measure of truth in this. It was also apparent to the electorate of the United States. It clearly understood that the Federal Reserve and not the President was responsible for the economic growth, and that contributed to the election result there.
On the subject of unemployment rates, the remarks made by some Members perturb and surprise me, given all the information available to the Assembly and the work being done in it. This is quite a simple piece of mathematics. If the rate at which people come onto the job market is greater than the rate at which jobs become available, clearly there is an imbalance and insufficient jobs. In fact, the current recruitment ratios accurately reflect the ratio between the communities. I accept that the long-term unemployed remain a problem. However, initiatives to address that are in train, with more to follow. I hope that they will be successful.
Mr McHugh said that the Robson indicators were still valid. What he is really saying is that they are still giving the answers he wants to hear. I do not regard those indicators as valid. A major review is taking place at the moment, and I look forward to its outcome and to the new census. We have to come up with a much more sophisticated system that is able to target deprived areas within affluent areas. That will give a different perspective on the subject.
Dr O'Hagan said that manufacturing had been subject to years of neglect, eroding our manufacturing base. I do not agree. If you look at the money that the IDB has thrown at manufacturing over the last 10 or 15 years, you could argue that, for an industry that was in fairly serious decline, it was used rather recklessly. That decline was well understood outside Northern Ireland, and it is a pity that it was not better understood here. We could perhaps have put money towards the developing economy rather sooner had we not been focusing so hard on businesses that turned out to be unsustainable.
Does the Member agree that products for which we have a worldwide reputation, such as Irish linen, should be promoted and developed?
We are able to sustain a brand for Irish linen that enables us to hold on to a share of the market. Unfortunately, linen can be manufactured to the same standards but at far less cost elsewhere. That is the essence of the problem. We have to be realistic about that. I fear that the mistake made there rather reflects the mistake being made in the amendment. You have to look much further afield than the European economy.
I did not think we would be able to get through the debate without hearing from "Team West Tyrone"; and so it was. While I appreciate the problems there, unfortunately in my constituency of North Antrim one area, Moyle, is in the unenviable position of vying with Strabane for the place at the bottom of the unemployment tables. The highest unemployment levels swing between those two council areas. I sometimes think that TSN has been redefined in the Chamber to mean "Targeting Strabane's Need".
The one growth industry you could have in Moyle is tourism. Tourism is an industry that is very clearly directly related to the state of peace. Business has proved itself to be remarkably robust, despite the predations of terrorism over the last 30 years. It is quite incredible that Northern Ireland's business base is so strong, given the difficulties it has had to endure. Tourism cannot be so robust. If we can achieve a peace that is believable, and demonstrably believable in terms of a considerable drop in the levels of violence and intimidation, then our tourism industry will grow, and we will be able to address difficulties in a number of peripheral areas and in the rural community.
We must accept that the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland has shielded us from the effects of the economic cycle. This was noticeable in the early 1990s, when not only did Northern Ireland escape the recession that occurred in the rest of the United Kingdom, but as Mr Wells correctly said, our economic revival began.
As the Minister has correctly said, we should not assume that we will be cycle proof in the future, and we must continue to develop business niches in which an economy such as this can prosper. I oppose the amendment, and I have pleasure in supporting the motion.
I wish to make a remark to the House, which in the nature of things does not apply particularly to those present, although I trust that the Members who are here, particularly the business managers, will convey it to those who are errant. A number of Members commented on the courtesy that the Minister did the House by being here throughout the debate. I echo that. It is a proper courtesy and one that we expect our Ministers to extend to the House. We are grateful to the Minister for doing so again on this occasion.
Some Members were very keen to put their own views and to ask questions of the Minister or the proposers of the amendment or substantive motion, but I regret to say that they were not here to hear the responses. That is not returning the courtesy in the way that the House ought to. This should be conveyed, not only to those who are errant today, but to others. This happens from time to time, and we should acknowledge that. I am grateful to the Minister.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It is the custom in the House of Commons, and a required courtesy, that a Member who has just spoken remain in the Chamber until the next Member has completed his address. However, there is no requirement for anyone to sit through an entire debate. Indeed, if that were the case, I doubt if the House of Commons could function.
I shall not comment on the functioning of the House of Commons, which frequently is less courteous than it might be. What I said was not a request that Members remain for the whole debate, even though the Minister quite properly did so. Some Members, in their remarks, were expecting, and properly expecting, the Minister to reply to questions raised, or that the proposer of the motion or the amendment would take note of their comments. However, they are not here to hear the Minister, nor the winding-up speeches from the mover of the amendment or of the substantive motion, and that is the discourtesy to which I refer - a discourtesy that is appreciated in the House of Commons and in other parliamentary assemblies.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 41; Noes 35.
Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, David Ervine, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Jane Morrice, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Danny O'Connor, Dara O'Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Boyd Douglas, Reg Empey, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, John Gorman, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mark Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly welcomes the recent announcement of a continuing decline in the rate of unemployment; and calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and all Ministers whose Departments have an impact on economic performance to continue to develop policies which promote a competitive, dynamic and sustainable economy, taking account of the wider European economy.
The sitting was suspended at 12.52 pm.
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -
I beg to move
That this Assembly supports changes to the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and any other relevant statutory provisions to legalise Sunday on-course track betting in Northern Ireland and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to bring forward proposals to this effect.
First, I want to apologise for my cold; it is a hurdle, or a handicap, but I will have to live with it this afternoon.
Before presenting the motion, I want to remind Members that I placed a second motion with the Business Office on the same day as this motion, which is equally relevant to my overall proposal, and which will, I hope, be debated before the Christmas recess.
The second motion deals with important employment- related matters relevant to the question of Sunday working at racecourses, which cannot be legislated for in the motion now before the Assembly. The necessary legislation required to deliver the desired outcome of my overall proposal falls within the remit of two separate Ministers, namely the Minister for Social Development, Mr Morrow, and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey.
I am proposing the motion to the Assembly today in the interests of a variety of people living in Northern Ireland, particularly those living in rural communities, and in the interests of the management committees of the two local racecourses who are seeking nothing more than parity with their counterparts elsewhere in these islands.
Horse racing is more than a leisure activity for a spectator to enjoy. The industry involves diverse economic sectors, including agriculture, tourism, sport, catering, entertainment, trade and professionals. Consequently, its success has wide implications, as the livelihoods of many individuals, either entirely or in part, depend on it. These include many farmers who have diversified from non-profit making enterprises to the equine business; horse breeders who sell their horses to horse-owners and horse-owning syndicates; those who rely on farmers and employ vets and trainers; those who employ staff such as assistants and stable hands; and racecourses, which employ regular and ancillary staff to provide the services to the public.
Finally, there are the public who pay to avail of such services, and the small businesses who sell their goods outside racecourse premises either in food stalls or in local pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. It is a huge economic field.
At present, Northern Ireland is the only region in the United Kingdom or Ireland where Sunday on-course betting is prohibited by law. Such betting has been available every year since January 1995 at over 60 Sunday race meetings held at racecourses located throughout the United Kingdom, from Musselburgh and Perth in Scotland to Salisbury in the south of England. Moreover, Sunday on-course betting is available every year at 60 Sunday race meetings held throughout the Republic of Ireland.
It is therefore understandable why the managers of our two racecourses are often quoted as seeking parity with their opposition elsewhere. Northern Ireland currently has 19 race meetings every year, including two very promising festivals. I refer to the Down Royal, a two-day event in November, and the May time two-day event at Downpatrick. Imagine the economic potential for locals in Northern Ireland if these events could be extended to three-day, week-end festivals of racing.
The lack of development of the horse racing industry in Northern Ireland appears to arise from the Government's lack of support for the industry - which contributes to Northern Ireland's being economically disadvantaged in the bloodstock and horse-breeding world - and from the absence of rates concessions on racecourse buildings.
In the Republic of Ireland the horse racing industry and surrounding industries are thriving. The continuous growth appears to arise from the Irish Government's positive approach to such industries. They recognise the particular contribution to the overall economy of the Republic of Ireland made by Irish racehorses. There is worldwide demand for them. Countries such as Australia, Japan and others in the Far East have identified Irish racehorses as a means to assist and improve their competitiveness in the lucrative worldwide racehorse market. The Irish Government continue to recognise the horse racing industry's contribution to the Republic's economy.
Earlier in the year their finance Minister announced that it was the Irish Government's intention to make all the taxes collected on the IR£500 million wagered in the Republic's betting shops available to the Republic's horse racing authority. Similarly, the British Turf Club has recognised the importance of establishing a board to protect and promote the industry in Great Britain. It is only proper that Northern Ireland's horse racing industry is given an opportunity to fulfil its potential.
I kindly request the Assembly to support the introduction of legislative measures to assist in attaining this goal. A good starting point would be the Department of Health and Social Service's consultation paper issued in 1997, which examined the existing legislation in Northern Ireland governing betting, gaming, lotteries and amusements. That paper led to an announcement in 1998 by the then Minister of Health and Social Services, Mr Tony Worthington MP, and the then Minister of State, Mr Adam Ingram MP, that it was the Government's intention to relax the legislative controls on betting and gaming in Northern Ireland, including those relating to on-course betting on Sundays, together with 14 other recommendations to reform betting legislation.
The proposed changes were to boost Northern Ireland's economy overall. It may be appropriate at a future date for the Assembly to discuss all the recommendations made by Mr Adam Ingram MP and Mr Tony Worthington MP. However, at this stage I want to concentrate on one of the recommendations, which simply seeks to expedite the legislation on on-course betting on Sundays in Northern Ireland.
The fact that I am proposing only one of the many changes sought will make it relatively easy for the Minister to implement it, because it will take up very little of the limited legislative time available to the Assembly. Furthermore, I am very conscious that the Department for Social Development has many greatly needed changes to bring forward. Therefore, I simplified my motion to the basic proposal it now is.
Of the 15 recommendations made by the former Ministers, the intention to legalise Sunday on-course betting was, and remains - in my view, and in the view of many others - the most important. As the anticipated impact on the North's economy will be considerable, the development will be welcomed in Northern Ireland and abroad by those who earn their living from the horse racing industry and spectators who enjoy the sport. Such change is welcome.
Members are probably aware that plans are in place at Westminster to review the current gaming and betting laws and to bring them into line with Europe. It would be so easy for Members to say that we should wait until then when the desired changes will come about. I understand that completion and implementation of the report could be four or five years away. For that reason alone, the Assembly should not force the industry and those depending on it to suffer such an unnecessary delay. The implication of going without for a long period was best summed up in newspaper reports in mid-July, when one local racecourse manager calculated that a lengthy delay would result in the loss of approximately £20 million to the Northern Ireland economy.
I propose this motion on the assumption that the Assembly has legislative competence, pursuant to section 6 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to amend the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries & Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 as suggested, so that Sunday on-course betting in Northern Ireland is legalised.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Two amendments in respect of this motion have been selected. I will call Mr S Wilson and Mr B Hutchinson respectively to propose their amendments. At the end of the debate, I will call the proposers of the amendments to wind up. Before the winding-up speeches, I will invite the Minister to respond to the debate. After the Minister's remarks, Mr B Hutchinson will wind up before Mr S Wilson. Finally, Mr Bradley will be called to wind-up the substantive motion.
Mr S Wilson:
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "supports" and add
"the decision of the Minister for Social Development not to give further consideration to a change in the law to allow on-course Sunday betting until he has considered the implications for Northern Ireland of the outcome of the current gambling review in Great Britain."
First, I want to deal with a couple of pertinent points from Mr Bradley's speech before explaining the reasons for this amendment. I understand the constituency interests that he has. I know that he, and probably other Members, have received a letter circulated by the Northern Ireland Course Bookmakers Association, pleading that on-course betting on a Sunday is a special case and should be introduced.
First, we have to understand that the plea that has come before the Assembly is on behalf of what can only be described as the narrow economic interests of the Course Bookmakers Association. The issue must be viewed in wider terms.
Secondly, I find the motion in Mr Bradley's name rather surprising, because the time to have spoken up for the inclusion of such a measure in the legislative programme would have been when we were discussing the Programme for Government. I took the trouble to look up the Official Report of the House on the Programme for Government. Mr Bradley did indeed speak in that full- day debate. I notice that he started by saying
"I welcome the Programme for Government".
So effusive was he in his speech that he welcomed the Programme for Government on no fewer than five occasions. Incidentally, he did not mention any legislation in respect of on-course gambling on a Sunday.
I wonder what has triggered this particular interest in the issue. Was it the missive that we received from those - I must emphasise it again in the House - who have a particular narrow economic interest in widening the gaming legislation to include on-course betting on a Sunday?
There are two reasons why I believe that the House ought to support the amendment that I have placed before it today. First, as the motion says, there is an ongoing review of gambling legislation in the whole of the United Kingdom, and the review body is to report to the Government in the summer of 2001. It is a wide-ranging review that takes into consideration
"the current state of the gambling industry and the ways in which it might change over the next ten years in light of economic pressures, the growth of e-commerce, technological developments and the wider leisure industry and international trends."
It is also very important, in Northern Ireland terms, to look at preventing gambling from being carried out in a way that allows crime, disorder or public nuisance. There is a need to keep the industry free from infiltration by organised or serious crime and from money-laundering risks. I could go on. Anyone who wishes to see the terms of reference of that review can obtain the necessary information from the Department for Social Development or from the Library.
Nevertheless, there is an ongoing, wide-ranging review. Anyone looking at its remit is bound to see that legislative change will be required, and this House will want to look at that. It would be most unusual for us to revise the existing laws and then to find, in the light of the outcome of this review, that there is need for another revision.
Does the Member accept that any review of gambling in the UK as a whole will start off from the basis of accepting the status quo in the UK, which would include a provision in the rest of the UK for on-course betting on a Sunday?
Mr S Wilson:
The Member misses my point. Perhaps his interests cloud his view. We all come to the debate with our own particular interests.
Let me re-emphasise the point. When the outcome of the review in the United Kingdom becomes known, there may be a need to change the legislation. The Minister for Social Development is being asked to change the legislation on on-course betting in the knowledge that, in a year's time or less, further changes will be required. As Mr McCartney said, those changes may well be on top of the issue of on-course betting on a Sunday.
If we know that there is a wide-ranging review taking place that is likely to result in changes in the present legislation, why rush into making changes now? If there are to be changes, let Members see what those changes are likely to be and then let them decide whether those changes are acceptable. The Assembly can debate the issues at that stage and make a decision on that basis.
Proposed changes in legislation require not only the time of the House, but also time for scrutiny in Committees. Mr Bradley said that such a change would take up very little time. I do not know if that view is coloured by his interest in the matter. I would like to think - and I have heard it said by many Members - that the advantage of doing away with the direct rule Administration and having a local Administration is that it gives us the time and opportunity to scrutinise legislation. I do not know if it would take very little time or a great deal of time. However, it would require a slot in the legislative timetable and in the work of the Social Development Committee.
There is already a full timetable of Bills before the House. The difficulties of that timetable have been exacerbated because different Committees have requested extra time to look at over half of those Bills. There are some Bills that are not on the timetable, but Members have given them priority. For example, I have not heard anyone from the Social Development Committee say that priority ought to be given to Sunday on-course gambling. However, I heard last week that members of that Committee wrote to the Minister for Social Development, because they had not yet been presented with the Housing Bill. That Bill has about 100 clauses, and it will go on top of the work that the Committee is presently carrying out on the Street Trading Bill.
If I had to choose between a Bill that represents and aims to cater for the narrow economic interests of the gaming industry and those engaged in on-course betting and one that deals with homelessness, disruptive tenants, houses in multiple occupation and the sale of housing association houses to their tenants, I know which I would give priority to, and I suspect that members of the Social Development Committee, by the indications they have made to the Minister, would endorse my view.
Most of Mr Bradley's speech was centred around the economic advantages to particular parts of Northern Ireland of allowing horse racing and betting to take place on a Sunday. I am sure that for some people that is an important aspect of the Assembly's work - and by some people I mean those who run racecourses and bookmakers. The Assembly and, indeed, the Executive produced a Programme for Government, which was endorsed by almost every party in the Assembly - although the party which gave the least support to it was my own. Yet we are now being told that this should be included.
I am not sure how quickly Mr Bradley believes that this should be introduced. For example, is it more important than a Housing Bill? Is it more important than the Street Trading Bill? Is it more important than the other 14 Bills that are already listed on the Assembly's official papers?
Given that there is an ongoing review of gambling legislation in Great Britain that will eventually have lessons and implications for Northern Ireland, and that we already have a full legislative programme, and there are many other priorities that Members are likely to endorse, I beg the Assembly to support the amendment which stands in my name.
Mr B Hutchinson:
I beg to move the following amendment: In line 4, after "Northern Ireland", insert
"and to provide for gaming machine permits to be made available to turf accountants,".
Before I discuss my amendment I have a couple of confessions. I come from a long line of gamblers, so I have to declare an interest in this. My father was one of the first people to manage what used to be called "pitches" when they were legalised in Belfast in the early 1960s. I also attend regular meetings at Down Royal, so I have an interest in this.
I put forward my amendment, because I believed that PJ Bradley's motion was addressing only half of the story. If we are going to move forward, we need to do so on the basis of the recommendations that were made in 1998 by Tony Worthington MP and Adam Ingram MP. We need to look at those proposals. They were not implemented as part of a gaming review in Great Britain - that came later - they were implemented following the introduction of the Lottery Bill. Anyone can now gamble in a garage or a shop by going in and buying a scratch card. There was only a certain amount of money that could be gambled in this society, and people decided that they would gamble it on the lottery or on scratch cards. This was a sweetener to try to offset the effect of the lottery, and we should look at it in that context. This is not just about on-course betting on a Sunday, it is about how we deal with betting shops throughout the United Kingdom.
One hundred and fifty jobs in the betting industry could go to the wall in Northern Ireland if we do not make these changes immediately. People are now spending their money on lottery tickets and other things. Betting shops in Great Britain were allowed to have two amusements with prizes (AWPs). These machines paid out a maximum prize of £10. The Treasury, in its wisdom, has now increased this to £15, because it wants to get a slice of the action. By allowing this increase the Treasury will be able to take some of that money back and recycle it throughout the Government. If I remember correctly, Tony Worthington recommended back in January 1998 that there could be two gaming machines in betting shops with prize money of £10 each.
Some people might not want to see gaming machines. As a member of Belfast City Council I have opposed gaming machines. I have opposed their being put near bus stops where children congregate on their way to and from school. However, we are talking here about betting shops and where betting takes place in a controlled environment and those who use them must be at least 18 years of age. Gam Care, which is a nationally respected charity for people with gambling problems, supports this and believes that that sort of environment is the best place for gambling to take place.
I hope that Members will remember that the relaxation of these laws was to counteract the effects of the lottery on bookmakers and their shops. I also want to say to the Member for South Down that this amendment is designed to complement his motion rather than to challenge it.
There are some issues that I want to raise regarding Mr Wilson's amendment. We should realise that the review that is taking place in Great Britain is about the technological changes that are going on. Last Sunday afternoon I was watching television, and Leeds United were playing Arsenal. I could have put on my digital television, accessed a company called Blue Square and placed a bet of whatever amount I wanted - as long as I had enough money in my bank account - that Leeds United would beat Arsenal one nil. I did that, so I should have some money in my bank account by Friday.
I could also have chosen what was going to be number one in the UK chart by Christmas. I could have chosen Westlife. I could even have chosen Willie McCrea, but I realised that he probably would not reach that slot, because he is already number one with the Pope. That is probably enough for him, going by some of the newspaper reports.
My point is that one can gamble on just about anything. If people have access to a digital television, they can gamble on a Sunday on who is going to die in the next soap opera. People also have access to computers. Through the Internet, people can access William Hill, Coral or any other company and place a bet. However, those who calculate odds on those bets and pay out winnings could be somewhere in Saudi Arabia, not in the UK. They could be offshore, and, therefore, no money will go to the Government. That is what the betting review is about. It is not about whether Sunday racing is going to take place.
The hon Member for North Down made the point to Sammy Wilson that it is unlikely that they are going to change the status quo. In the UK race meetings are held on a Sunday, and because of that, 63 race meetings are no longer held during the week. Consequently, betting shops that open from Monday to Saturday have lost that income, and they want to get it back from gaming machines and on-course betting on a Sunday.
I want to emphasise that in changing the law there is no suggestion that betting shops in streets across the Province would be open on a Sunday. That is not what this is about. It is about gambling at a course - either Down Royal or Downpatrick.
As regards the income that comes from tourism, I remind Members that for every horse which comes to Northern Ireland to race - and there has been racing in Ulster for 316 years - four people come along with it. Each of those people needs food and drink and a bed for the night, because for most of them it has been a long journey, and they cannot travel back on the same day. I remind people of the amount of money that such tourism could bring in.
There was a race meeting held at Down Royal - I think that Mr Bradley referred to it earlier. I attended it. Some other Assembly Members attended and were given corporate hospitality. I notice that they are not here today. Some Presbyterian ministers and others might have phoned this morning and left messages for them, but they are absent.