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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 28 November 2000 (continued)

Mr Ervine:

Mr McCartney tried to ask the Minister if he has a principled position. The Minister told us that he agreed with the previous Minister's decision, but he did not tell us why. Is this a principled decision by the Minister, or is it simply that there is no legislative capacity in the Programme for Government to take this legislation forward?

Mr B Hutchinson

With the exception of the DUP, most people in the House, accept that. It is a well-worn argument, and I would like to move on.

We need to introduce this legislation for gaming machines and for Sunday on-course gambling. Otherwise the industry will be curtailed and people will lose their jobs in bookmakers' shops.

Mr S Wilson:

One is tempted to draw a number of racing analogies in winding up this debate. The bookie's whip has been applied as far as some parties are concerned today, and I have already pointed out that it is significant that the motion before the House coincides with pleas to certain Members from on-course bookmakers.

There has also been a certain amount of grandstanding today. While people have been putting down motions -[Interruption].

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Are you flogging a dead horse or are you on a beaten docket?

Mr S Wilson:

I am flogging a dead horse, but I will come to that in a moment. Stop stealing my lines. I hope that my amendment is not a beaten docket, but the vote will decide on that.

There has been a certain amount of grandstanding today. Some Members, not all, have not taken this debate seriously and have used it as an excuse to attack the Minister for Social Development rather than further the case that has been put forward by Mr Bradley.

If Mr Bradley were really serious, or, indeed, if those Members who spoke so fervently were really fervent in favour of this legislation, why did they not bring forward a private Member's Bill to the House? Why did they not take the initiative rather than use this debate as an excuse to beat the Minister?

A number of people have jumped the gun - that really is a racing term, but I am sure that you get the idea. They have used arguments that neither the Minister nor I have advanced in the House. It is easy to set up fences that Members can subsequently knock down, or fail to jump.

The motion is not a Sunday issue. In the words of David Ervine, it is all about a puritanical dispensation. He had a field day today because he was given unbounded chances to use big words.

Mr Ervine:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Hansard will show that I did not say "puritanical".

Mr S Wilson:

I wrote it down. I got the "dispensation" part right and I am sure that "puritanical" was in front of it.

People have sought to put arguments and reasons into my mouth, and into the mouths of Members who have supported my amendment. I have not put forward such arguments. However, those people have failed, and that is important. It is easy for Members to put forward those arguments because it means that they do not have to address the questions I posed at the beginning of the debate.

Mr McCartney was first to mention a review, but other Members have raised it since. Any review is likely to add to the liberalisation of the gambling legislation. I suspect, given the terms of reference, that that is true. Particular measures will add to the liberalisation of the legislation. However, the legislation will require changes. Why not make all those changes at the same time, rather than bring in one piece of legislation and then another?

Mr McCartney:

Does the Member appreciate that it may be four years before that question is addressed?

Mr S Wilson:

I do not know the length of time that is likely to be involved - it may be three or four years. The direct rule Minister first mooted the issue before 1998 and made his announcement at the beginning of 1998. He did not feel that it was urgent, and he did not introduce it during direct rule.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Mr S Wilson:

The House has choices to make. Billy Hutchinson is right - we did not debate the case for and against Sunday betting. That is what Members would do if they had the Bill in front of them. The Assembly has to decide what its priority for legislation is. The House should give priority to the programme that it has before it and to those matters that the Social Development Committee has raised. Legislation can be looked at then.

Mr Bradley:

With regard to Mr Wilson's amendment, it was Mr McCartney who said that he admired Mr Wilson's sense of humour. However, Mr Wilson extended that too far when he said that my interest in the motion was geographical and constituency-based. My nearest racecourse is at Dundalk, and Down Royal is not in South Down. Therefore, either I got my geography wrong or I missed canvassing in those two areas during the election.

I cannot support Mr Wilson's amendment. Either he was not here, did not hear or did not wish to hear my opening remarks, and I also draw that to the Minister's attention. I will quote from my opening remarks to illustrate where I got the figure of £20 million:

"It is my understanding that completion and implementation of the report could be four or five years away".

For that reason alone the Assembly could not force the industry, and those depending upon it, to suffer such an unnecessary delay. The implications of going without for a lengthy period was best summed up in newspaper reports in July when one local racecourse manager, whom I regard as a professional person, calculated that such a lengthy delay would result in an approximate loss of £20 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Mr S Wilson totally failed to recognise the benefits to the economy that are contained in the motion. This morning his Colleague Mr Paisley Jnr stressed the importance of a thriving rural community. My motion deals with that. Therefore I cannot support the amendment.

I am more reluctant to go against the second amendment in the name of Mr B Hutchinson. It does not directly relate to the content or substance of my proposal. I recognise that Ministers Worthington and Ingram favoured the introduction of gaming machines in betting offices, and I accept that if they were placed in betting offices they would be subject to rigid control. However, that is a totally different matter from the debate before us. We all know that the issue of gaming machines can be very contentious, regardless of location. I also know that if the words "gaming machine proposals" were added to my motion, it would pose an undue delay on the introduction of Sunday on-course betting. It would add to the Minister's workload, making my proposal more difficult to introduce in the desired time frame. I do not want the Minister to have any excuse to put off on-course betting, or to put it on hold. Therefore in the interests of expediency and my concern about the timing of the implementation, I have to vote against Mr Hutchinson's amendment.

I thank all the Members who participated in today's debate, especially those who spoke in favour of the motion. As I stated at the outset, I propose the motion in anticipation of the long-awaited boost that it would bring to Northern Ireland's economy. It appears that those who earn their livelihood from horse racing, as well as those who simply enjoy the sport, have patiently awaited new legislation on Sunday on-course betting in Northern Ireland.

The Minister said that no one contacted him. Did his advisers not draw his attention to the 1997 consultation paper on Sunday on-course betting in Northern Ireland? The Department of Health and Social Services received over 2,500 responses from organisations, businesses and individuals from a wide range of perspectives including churches, bookmakers, district councils, youth organisations, local action groups and private citizens. Apparently 78% of those who responded were broadly content with the proposal to legalise on-course betting on Sundays in Northern Ireland, compared with 22% who were opposed. That is a ratio of approximately 4:1.

By supporting this motion Members will be supporting a variety of individuals and groups throughout Northern Ireland. In recent years millions of pounds have been invested at our two racecourses, Downpatrick and Down Royal. That level of investment has benefited local businesses as well as the wider economy of Northern Ireland. The racecourses and other businesses, however, have not fulfilled their economic potentials. This is partly due to existing legal restrictions such as on-course Sunday betting restrictions. The earliest possible implementation of the motion will allow such businesses to realise their potential and will help to boost the overall economy. If the relevant legislation can be guided through the House before next July, when the Irish racing programme is drawn up, it will facilitate the introduction, in 2002, of six or seven additional meetings per annum at the two local racecourses.

The motion does not seek to legalise Sunday horse racing, as the Minister and others have said. That activity is already legal in Northern Ireland. The motion seeks to legalise Sunday on-course betting in Northern Ireland, and that has been long awaited by those who earn their livelihood from horse breeding and horse racing, as well as those who enjoy the sport. I remind Members that the motion to be debated at a later date will deal with the protection necessary to safeguard the rights of employees who cannot work on Sunday for religious or family reasons.

In response to Mr P Robinson, I have to say that out of concern I did table the two motions at the same time, and I would have preferred them to be taken jointly as motion A and motion B. Unfortunately it did not happen that way.

I thank all Members who voiced their support for the motion and request that those who have reservations about it refrain from action that will deprive Northern Ireland's economy of any anticipated growth that the motion may facilitate.

4.00 pm

Question put, That the amendment in the name of Mr S Wilson be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 27; Noes 49.


Fraser Agnew, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Boyd Douglas, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.


Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, David Ervine, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Eddie McGrady, Martin McGuinness, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Danny O'Connor, Dara O'Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, George Savage, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the amendment in the name of Mr B Hutchinson be made, put and negatived.

Main question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 48; Noes 28.


Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, David Ervine, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Robert McCartney, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Eddie McGrady, Martin McGuinness, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Danny O'Connor, Dara O'Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, George Savage, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.


Fraser Agnew, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Boyd Douglas, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, David McClarty, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.

Main Question accordingly agreed to.


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 Irelnd and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to bring forward proposals to this effect.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in Chair)

Term-Time Workers (Education): Retainer Payment


Mr S Wilson:

I beg to move

That this Assembly supports the call for retainer payment to be made for term-time-only workers and commends the proposal of the Education Committee for the provision of funds from the education budget to pay the salary cost incurred.

In the past, some Members have been unhappy about the timing of this discussion in the Assembly. Negotiations between the unions and the joint negotiating committee are ongoing. Some have felt that, since the negotiations are not complete, it is wrong for the Assembly to reopen the issue. However, the motion was put to the Business Committee around two and a half months ago, and the timing is more to do with the Business Committee than with any particular event.

Nevertheless, the motion is particularly timely because we have reached a stage in the negotiations where the employers must consider the possibility of a total breakdown if there is not some movement. Secondly, the Department must realise that a satisfactory outcome to these negotiations cannot be reached unless additional money is made available.

There are two parts to the motion. First, there is a group of workers in the education industry who, because of the way contracts have been drawn up, are left in an untenable position over the holiday periods. The motion recommends a particular course of action. Secondly, if something is to be done about that, money must be made available.

I do not want to go through the well-rehearsed case of the hardships faced by term-time-only workers. Attempts have been made to paint these employees as people who are simply bringing in a second income to the household. Since some consider that just to be pin money, the conclusion reached is that this is not a big issue.

However, the vast majority of these workers are women and, for a high percentage of them, their income is the household's only one. Therefore, to be left for a long time without an income and without the ability to claim benefit is intolerable. The employment structure is totally chaotic. Among employees doing the same job, some are regarded as full-time workers, some are classed as part-time workers with payment during holiday periods, and others are part-time workers with no payment during holiday periods. They are all doing the same kind of work - sometimes in the same school - and that is untenable.

There is an equality issue involved because of the gender aspect and also because people are doing the same job within the same school, yet receiving different rates of pay.

The motion will command widespread support in the House. When the matter was debated before, Members saw the strength of the term-time-only workers' case, and they will give it a ringing endorsement today.

4.30 pm

This motion today is different, however, because it asks Members to go a bit further. This is where the difficulty is created. It not only asks for support for the case but also recognises that there are financial implications, which cannot be met within the existing schools budget. Therefore, if there is to be a satisfactory resolution, it requires additional money from the Department. I am sure that members of the Education Committee will rise and protest their innocence in this matter, but that particular issue has already been recognised by the Committee, which unanimously agreed that the Department should make the additional money available. We are talking about approximately £2 million to finance this scheme of retainer payments - half pay - for those who are term-time-only workers and who are currently not on retainers nor on the 52-week cycle.

It is, of course, the finance aspect which has caused difficulty. I am glad to see that the Minister is here today - perhaps we will get some answers from him. It is very easy for people in the Assembly to say that they support the case of term-time-only workers. The Minister did that. In fact, at the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance conference on 3 March this year the Minister was photographed signing the petition. Let me remind the Minister what the petition said:

"We, the undersigned, strongly support the payment of a retainer fee to term-time employees in schools and colleges during periods of school holidays."

On 3 March the Minister took the view that that was a great idea, and he gave it support. On 28 June the joint negotiating committee made an offer which did not contain any retainer payment. It simply said that they should take their income, which is presently allocated for nine months of the year, and spread it over 12 months. I want to come back to that issue in a moment, to see what it means for some of the people concerned. The Minister issued a press statement, encouraging the term-time staff to accept the payment offer. Therefore, from strongly supporting the retainer fee, we now find the Minister telling the staff to accept an arrangement which paid no retainer.

Of course, when I put it to the Minister in the House on 25 September he had changed his mind again, and he indicated that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the issue. I suppose we can be thankful that Minister is here today to tell us what his current position is. Is it the 3 March position, the 28 June position or the 25 September position, or is it some other position? Of course, promises from Sinn Féin, in this House or elsewhere - it does not matter whether those promises are to Mrs Hegarty in Londonderry, to the de Chastelain Commission, or, indeed, to the First Minister - are not worth the paper they are written on. The words spoken just disappear into the vapour. They are never followed up.

It is not just the Minister who seems to have this loss of memory. On 15 September the Education Committee wrote to the Minister indicating that it unanimously agreed that there was a need to take swift and decisive action and for the Department to make sufficient funding available to the education and library boards to pay retainer fees. It now seems that the two members of IRA/Sinn Féin on the Committee did not unanimously agree to this. They had a difficulty with this. I am sure that they will speak for themselves later.

I wanted this debate today in order to get some clarification from the Minister. I also wanted to give the House an opportunity to endorse the rightness of providing funding for people who could not in any way be described as well paid.

I want to look at the arguments that have been advanced for not paying a retainer fee. The joint negotiating committee has produced a booklet listing them. I find the first one very odd in light of the recent press release and the Northern Ireland Audit Office inquiry. It is that one cannot pay people for no extra work. If a retainer were to be paid to term-time-only workers, they would be getting additional money for no extra work done.

According to the Northern Ireland Audit Office, there are no such qualms when it comes to school principals. More than half of the principals surveyed by the Audit Office had no clear criterion on which they received a pay increase. The total value of the pay increase was £1·4 million, and in some cases the extra pay to individual principals was more than the yearly pay of term-time-only workers. Some principals got an increase of over £7,000. It is not right that in the education sector people can say that workers should not get extra money for doing nothing, while the people at the top of the education tree do - and in vast amounts.

The second thing is that this pay is not unusual, and these people are not the lowest paid in the education industry. The joint negotiating committee claims that some of them earn £7·00 an hour. I have a constituent who recently applied for a job as a school caretaker. His payment was going to be £4·86 per hour. Averaged out over 12 months, that would have become £3·49 per hour. As a school caretaker he would be earning less than the minimum wage, yet the argument is that these pay rates are not unusual.

Another argument put forward is that if a retainer fee were to be paid to people who are not working during the holidays, it would be a discouragement to the full-time staff who have to work over the holiday period. However, we are not asking for full pay over the holiday period for term-time-only workers. The retainer will be only half of what those who work over the holiday period - secretaries, technicians, or whatever - will be getting.

The next one - and I noted the wording used - is that if these people are paid then everyone else will want to catch up, and restoring differentials will create an enormous bill. However, the unions have not indicated that this will be the case. Even the joint negotiating committee's own document says that there might be a potential for additional spend, but it does not quantify it. It does not say that representations have been made by people who want differentials restored, but it simply throws it in as an argument.

There are some other arguments in the document, but none of them stands up to public scrutiny. It is untenable to maintain a situation in which different people are paid in different ways, where some people are left destitute over the holiday period, or where solutions are proposed that put people working in the education industry below the minimum wage. None of these situations is acceptable. The Minister may choose to ignore this, but he will have to account for the fact that he ignored the views of the Assembly. The Assembly should clearly signal to the Department of Education that people who are an essential part of the education industry are being badly and unjustly treated.

I would like to put this in context. The funds that the Minister proposes spending on the educational promotion of the Irish language would pay the retainer fees for those claiming them twice over. This Assembly should be sending a signal to the Minister of Education that it is wrong to treat these people this way. He should redress the situation by making resources available so that the joint negotiating committee can work out a solution.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

A large number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak. Each will have seven minutes.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issues concerning the ongoing dispute. The Education Committee has shown an interest in this extremely difficult year-long dispute. The Committee has stated many times that it wishes to see a speedy and equitable resolution to the problems experienced by all involved. As Chairperson of the Education Committee, I want to concentrate my remarks on the Committee's role in this issue. Later my Ulster Unionist Colleague Ken Robinson will outline the party's position.

The Education Committee has written to the Minister urging him to take swift action to make the necessary funds available so as to ensure that no further financial burdens are being placed on school budgets already under severe pressure.

Members should be aware of the extremely complex background to this dispute, which involves term-time staff throughout the Province. The Education Committee has received several briefings on this. We understand that approximately 5,000 staff fall into the category of term-time employee. They include classroom assistants who work in special schools and in mainstream primary and secondary schools. School secretaries and technical staff are also involved. They are contracted to work only during school term, and they play a vital role in the provision of our education system.

In the past, such employees were entitled to receive benefits from the relevant Government Departments when they were not working and receiving wages from the education and library boards. Owing to changes in the social security regulations such employees have been deemed ineligible for those benefits and have accordingly suffered grave financial loss.

4.45 pm

That situation is complicated by the fact that some of the five education and library boards' term-time staff are paid for the full 12 months of the year. This has arisen for a variety of reasons, and the Education Committee seeks an assurance that such anomalies will be rectified as part of the ongoing negotiations. The Committee has heard presentations from both trade union representatives of the term-time-only staff and the management section of the education and library boards' joint negotiating council.

At constituency level, I have received numerous representations from term-time workers who find themselves involved in this long-running dispute. The Education Committee and I believe that a more flexible and innovative approach is required to address this issue. I urge the Minister, as well as making strenuous efforts to have this matter resolved quickly, to ensure that the necessary money be made available for whatever solution is found. We have written to the Minister asking for swift action to do this so that no further financial burdens are placed on existing school budgets. That is an important consideration, and I hope very much that he will address these points when he comes to speak in this significant debate.

Ms Lewsley:

I support the motion. Many people here will realise that the issue of payment for term-time workers is not new. Indeed, it has been with us for the last 20 years. However, the situation has been exacerbated in recent years by the Government's tightening of social security regulations to exclude term-time workers from claiming benefits during school holidays. Term-time workers include administrative staff, laboratory technicians, classroom assistants, school dinner staff and even cleaners.

The education and library boards did not deal with the problem of term-time workers; instead they swept the issue under the carpet, camouflaged by the fact that such workers could claim social security benefit during holidays. Since the changes in social security legislation, however, there has been significant hardship. As Sammy Wilson put it in his opening remarks, how can a person on a low income make financial provision to survive over the two weeks at Christmas, the two weeks at Easter and the eight weeks of the summer holiday?

Of these workers, 98% are women, and a high percentage head single-parent families. Many work part-time to facilitate their families because of the poor availability and expense of childcare. The hardship endured is totally unacceptable. Negotiations have been ongoing since April 2000, and we have seen the summer come and go without a resolution. We now have Christmas on our doorstep, still with no agreement. The circumstances of these employees have not changed over the last few years and still create hardship.

One of the biggest problems with this issue is the lack of consistency shown by the boards in dealing with the problem. There is an unacceptable, patchwork approach. Some boards have been involved in negotiations with term-time workers and unions, but I understand that one in particular refuses to talk to staff and unions while another has offered to spread payments for 10 months' work over 12 months. That would cause even more hardship for term-time workers, possibly taking their hourly rates to £3·49 - below the minimum wage.

Another board has offered a payment of £200. It is not clear if this is a one-off payment for this year only or if workers will receive this amount every year. I suspect that it is the former. Consider the emotional blackmail that many of these employees are put under and the gross demoralisation and demotivation among workers who are essential to making our schools function.

In our efforts to provide equality of opportunity for all, we must ensure that the plight of term-time workers is dealt with fairly and in accordance with the equality legislation.

Mr Fee:

My Colleague has just put her finger on it. This is about equality, fair play, treating employees properly and social justice. The people we are talking about make the education system work. They allow boards of governors to govern, civil servants in education boards to serve, teachers to teach, and children to learn, and I cannot think of a more offensive way of treating them. They are being told "You will be retained throughout the summer, and you cannot claim any benefit support, though you will not be paid. You must be here next September, in loco parentis, to look after and protect our children, look after their welfare and make our education system work, but we are not going to value your services."

It is in that context, and the context of fair play and equality, that this debate should be continued. I ask the Minister to look at the motion carefully. It does not tie his hands, as previous motions have.

Ms Lewsley:

I thank the Member for his intervention.

What is required is equality of treatment with other staff. These people need at least a 50% retainer during holiday periods. I am concerned that if the situation is allowed to continue, many of these workers, who are essential to the education sector, will look elsewhere for continuous employment. We need a Northern Ireland-wide policy. It is time for the Minister of Education to intervene by making the funds available and in future to ring-fence the money to provide funding for salaries. At present, money for term-time staff comes from school management budgets. Term-time staff, unlike teachers, have to compete with the need for equipment, books, and so on. We have also seen in recent weeks - Mr Wilson mentioned this - the pay increases that have been given to some head teachers. This is totally unfair and the situation needs to be redressed without further delay. I support this motion.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As the Committee Chairman has said, we have some difficulty with the motion. In the Committee there was agreement, to a large extent, that there was a need for an amendment as a more flexible and appropriate response to the ongoing negotiations. The motion moved by Mr Wilson is inappropriate and untimely. By going forward together, the Committee should try to resolve the issue and not create difficulties. Perhaps Mr Wilson was not in attendance when the presentation was made on this issue.

We have great sympathy for these people's situation. This problem has gone on too long, given that it is so important for schools.

They are very hard-working, committed and responsible people. Therefore they need our praise and our support, particularly for morale, so that they will stay. We need people to stay in these jobs rather than have them leave because they are not being properly paid. They have to commit themselves to the job as a full-time job rather than a part-time job. Also, they are key people in the schools; they are key to the overall running of the school and especially to the children's education at primary school level.

While, to some extent, full-time teachers are being paid off, the number of term-time people is increasing. It should be the other way round. We need more permanent staff and less use of putting people into this part-time bracket. This problem has been allowed to go on for years and the education and library boards did not try to deal with it although they had an opportunity to do so. The difficulty started when income support was removed. At least that was helping to alleviate difficulties during the holiday periods.

I could ask Mr Wilson to consider, as a way forward - and it is one of the flexible approaches that we are trying to get as far as options are concerned - to ask his own Minister, the Minister for Social Development, to reinstate income support for holiday periods. Ultimately, we are talking about which budget the money should come from. If we are arguing that money should come out of the present budget for children, should it be taken from the money for their books or their needs? Where should the money come from? These are particularly difficult arguments and we really do not want to get into them. We want the issue to be resolved. However, I could again point the finger at Minister who deals with social security. This is what joined-up government should be about.

The Department for Social Development has made considerable savings by putting pressure on people receiving incapacity benefit and other benefits to come off those benefits. Most people receiving benefits are in need of them. However, there have been massive savings so as to try and massage the figures so that things will look well at the next British Budget.

I want to see fair play and fair pay given to the term-time people in particular. This issue should not have been raised at Assembly level while negotiations are ongoing. For that reason, this motion is inappropriate and untimely. The Assembly's intervention could have been put off to another time. At the moment it amounts to interfering. From my recollection, the letter which was mentioned - and which was sent to the Minister - actually did not properly designate whose budget the money would come from.

If we try to go down the road that has been pointed out then the whole question is about implementation. How will it be enacted? There are particular difficulties with trying to enact what has been said in the motion. That is one of the problems, pointing again to the budget and who is going to end up paying. We certainly do not want to see children losing out.

I want to see this issue resolved as soon as possible for those involved. However, the substantive motion does not do this and it is inappropriate at this particular time. The Committee, including the Chairperson and the proposer, were happy to go forward with the amendment. We were all in support of that, and thus against the motion. To do the right thing we should - rather than getting into a controversial situation and causing difficulty - have been going forward with the most flexible and appropriate approach. What Mr S Wilson has proposed is not that, and I have great difficulties with it.

Mrs E Bell:

This issue has been rumbling on for some months and years, and it is still being discussed.

5.00 pm

Those members of staff who are directly affected have been left in confusion and anguish. Therefore we must show our support for them today, with regard to both their working conditions and their need for proper salaries. I must take issue with Mr McHugh and say that I do not think that this will be seen as interference; rather it will be seen as support for their cause. As Members of the Assembly we should demonstrate that support.

No one has given them any assurance that their salaries, or even their posts sometimes, are safe. As Ms Lewsley pointed out, there have been many meetings between the unions and some of the boards, but most of them have ended in acrimony. As usual, money is the bottom line. There appears to be no money in the Department, none in the boards and certainly none in the schools themselves for allocation from their local management of schools budget. We cannot treat people in this way.

For some time now, term-time staff have been left to their own devices over the summer and other holiday times. Some of them have holiday work, but most claim benefits so that they can have a break from their demanding positions and look after families, et cetera. Remember that we are talking about school secretaries, supply teachers, classroom assistants and school meal attendants - people whom any school would be hard pushed to do without.

The Education Committee has met with all the interested parties. The Committee has talked to those directly affected. It has discussed, in detail, the nature and role of the Education Committee and how it can encourage a realistic solution for all. I have to declare an interest and say that I have two relatives who are directly affected by this, and I have heard some disappointing stories from them.

The necessary resources must come from the Department of Education. Perhaps the Executive's Programme for Government and the Budget could be examined. I do not think that the money can come from any other source, but, again, I hope that the negotiations will assess that.

Furthermore, as Ms Lewsley said, the money must be ring-fenced and directly focused on the payment of those salaries so that it does not go anywhere else, leaving us in the same position in the future. The problem has been around for some time. Staff who are classed as term-time workers have worked with commitment and loyalty. That record must not be forgotten. We cannot treat people so badly.

Following its discussions, the Committee hopes that a mutually acceptable and adequate solution can be reached during the current negotiations. I hope that this debate will not restrict that goal in any way. It will be helpful for the Minister to know that he has the Assembly behind him when he talks to the unions and the term-time employees.

We must allow these negotiations to continue, and it is our wish that a speedy and equitable outcome be achieved. The decision must be made soon so that staff will not feel forced to take industrial action. That eventuality may be on the cards. We cannot treat people like that. Members of staff have been left in the dark for too long. They must be given some comfort and assurance that their posts are secure and that a consequential salary will be provided. I am concerned about the wording of the motion, because it talks about a retainer fee while the matter is still under negotiation.

In conclusion, I express the hope that the Minister and the Department will take on board the view of the Education Committee and the Assembly and, once a solution has been reached, allocate the necessary funds for salary costs. It is my desire that a decision be made soon so that there are no more holiday periods without income. I support the motion as a gesture of solidarity with the staff. The decision must be made as soon as possible. Would that not be a nice Christmas present for them?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Before calling the next Member, I want to remind Mr Wilson that he was allowed to speak for approximately 10 minutes without an ongoing private conversation in the background. He will please afford that same courtesy to others.

Mr Douglas:

I support the motion, and I commend the Education Committee on its proposal that funds be made available from the education budget to pay the salary costs incurred by a retainer payment. I must refer to the excellent service provided by classroom assistants.

These are professional people who are committed in their support for the teaching staff and to the well-being and education of children. They are valued throughout Northern Ireland for their considerable input in the development of young children, who will be the adults of tomorrow.

Up until the summer of 1999, term-time employees were able to claim jobseeker's allowance. It meant that at least some form of income was available and that their national insurance credits were kept up to date. Unfortunately, after the new ruling by the Department of Health and Social Services came into practice, term-time employees who worked more than 16 hours per week were ineligible for such an allowance. As a result, as has been referred to, for a period of two months no payment is received at all and no credits are paid. Moreover, once back at work, they receive no salary until the middle of October.

In addition, I draw Members' attention to the fact that at Christmas and Easter classroom assistants receive no salary for two weeks. Therefore their income in January and April is also low.

The union that represents term-time employees has been negotiating with the education boards to get a retainer fee that would bring them back into line with other ancillary staff. I have been in contact with the Western Education and Library Board in my own area, and, to date, it has offered merely to divide the current income over 12 months. That would be most unsatisfactory because overall it reduces the monthly income and still does not solve the jobseeker's allowance issue. Reducing the agreed hourly rate in this way would devalue their status. The choice appears simple - either permit them to apply for the jobseeker's allowance or pay them a retainer fee.

In February of this year I asked the Minister of Education to advise what measures were being devised to end these short-term contracts. At that time he indicated that it was a matter between the term-time staff and their employing authorities. However, he assured me that the discussions were ongoing. Nine months later this important issue is no closer to being resolved.

This debate gives the Assembly the opportunity to see progress on this question and a resolution to this long-standing problem. It is inconceivable that trained people with appropriate qualifications who provide a dedicated and essential service to teachers and young people alike should not have their worth recognised and be lost to another profession.

To lose the people with these skills and experiences is extreme folly, the impact of which may not be fully known for years to come. However, that is clearly the way that this matter is heading, given that people are faced with no choice but to find alternative employment in other areas unless substantial action is taken.

Consequently I welcome this motion from the Deputy Chairperson of the Education Committee and support it wholeheartedly.

Ms McWilliams:

There are a number of principles that I would like to raise, particularly as the Minister is with us today.

First of all, why is there such a variation between the boards in relation to this issue? Also, why do we allow in Northern Ireland such a lack of uniformity across the public sector? Workers doing the same job can have different conditions depending on where they are placed. As I understand it, in some board areas the conditions apply for 38 weeks and in others for 40 weeks. On average that leaves around nine weeks when no payment is received. That is the first issue - the variation in the number of weeks. Would it not be better if we applied the same conditions to all workers across all boards and that that edict came from the Department?

Secondly, 1,000 of these workers currently receive their full entitlement and 4,000 do not. Why is that the case? I believe it is because of the expansion by employers of term-time contracts.

The issue of "can't pay", "won't pay" and low pay will be raised. I think that we can pay. I have received a costing of between £2 million and £3 million - of course, a million pounds does make a substantial difference.

In this country, it makes economic sense to pay manual workers a decent level of pay throughout the year. Research shows that when that happens, the money is spent in Northern Ireland. However, if the level of pay among professional workers is increased, the money is spent outside Northern Ireland. Therefore, for economic reasons, never mind reasons of morale, it makes sense to pay that money to those people who are part of the school support structure. They are essential workers.

In recent weeks there have been annual prize givings in schools, and, like a number of other Members, I have been asked to address them. When making those addresses, we are conscious not to comment only on the input of the teachers, but to refer also to the school support staff. I know that because I made a telephone call this afternoon in response to a call from a school secretary. They are absolutely essential for the protection of children.

My child, who is in year eight, had missed the school bus and was stranded. He did not know who to go to, so he went back into the school and the secretary was still there. Very often the secretary is the only person still in the school at that time of the evening, long after others have gone.

Laboratory technicians are in a similar situation. This is not the first time that Members have commented on the conditions - not just the pay - of laboratory technicians. No doubt, there will soon be another motion on the variations in pay for manual and non-manual workers in this country. As Ms Lewsley says, it is no coincidence that well over 90% of those workers are female. It was once argued that those people work from their heads, but they work with their hands and they are working with their hearts. That is all demanded of their skill. However, they are told - particularly the classroom assistants, laboratory technicians and secretaries - that they will not be remunerated for a number of weeks, even though they probably burnt themselves out being part of the tool belt of the school throughout the year.

It is unfair that that message has to come from the school. I believe that the Department of Education can find the money for retainer payments. The Assembly should send out the strong message that our education system counts for something and that all those involved in it should not suffer from low morale because of the conditions under which they are expected to work.

An important message has come from David Blunkett. He recently issued a press statement saying that he supports the issue in relation to teaching assistants. It would be incredible if that message came from London and a different message came from Belfast.

Estelle Morris from the School Standards Office released a report in which she said that

"a package of measures to improve the role of teaching assistants in the classroom"

should be introduced. She went on to recommend that package, one element of which we are talking about today.

Rather than there being differences among the various departmental boards in Northern Ireland, it is shocking to think that we may fall behind England, Scotland or Wales on this issue. Let us agree to lead the field and not be behind it.

Mr K Robinson:

I declare an interest in the debate.

There are several points to be considered, but I will take up on what Ms McWilliams said about ancillary staff. A lot of those have recently come to schools because of the changes in schools and the curriculum, et cetera. However, there is a group of almost entirely female workers who have endured this problem for over 20 years - the school secretaries. It is their role that I will address.

Schools depend on the loyalty of all their staff, but it is the school secretary in particular who gives a school its positive public image. The secretary is the first point of contact on the telephone or when one enters the school. Sadly, in modern times, it is the school secretary who operates the security system that schools are forced to have.

If there is an unruly entry into the school, that person often arrives at the school office first, and some unpleasant experiences can occur. Therefore, the tact, patience and guile of the school secretary is vital to the public image of the school and its efficient day-to-day working.

5.15 pm

Their conditions of service have also changed. Once upon a time, they answered the telephone, gave out the dinner tickets, and that was it. Today, they are required to have adequate IT skills because all schools, including some smaller primary schools, are going onto the computerised local administration system for schools (CLASS). The daily role expected of schools from the ever expanding CLASS system is quite horrific, and the school secretary bears the burden of that.

Over the last 20 years, in my former role, I worked under three school secretaries, and I could not have operated efficiently without their confidentiality, loyalty, tact and humanity. The school secretary deals with the child who has missed the bus, or with the child who has fallen. If the teacher is not sure whether the injury is serious, the school secretary has to telephone the pupil's home, without alarming the parent or, in many cases, the grandparent or the childminder. The school secretary has a tremendous social role as well as an educational one. The "Miss" in the office is known to every child in the school. They may not know who the principal is, but the child will always know the "Miss". She gives out dinner tickets, sorts out school trip problems and deals with parents in very sensitive situations.

For the principal, the confidentiality of school secretaries is absolutely central to the smooth and efficient running of the school. They exercise interpersonal skills that are very hard to quantify, but without secretaries the schools would be much poorer places. For almost 20 years, the school secretary has not qualified for a retainer fee. To add insult to injury, the secretary has had to fill out the timesheets for those employees who were entitled to retainer fees. So we have been rubbing salt in the wound, to some degree.

For the last 20 years I have taken the earache, so today I am willing to transfer it to you. On many occasions, you have talked to us, in the context of many topics, about equality. This is an issue of equality. As my Colleague Sammy Wilson said -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Please address your remarks through the Deputy Speaker.

Mr K Robinson:

We have a group of poorly paid workers who bring a particular expertise into the school, and that benefits the school population as a whole. There is a burning sense of injustice among school secretaries. I looked up some old newspaper headlines - "Insult added to secretary's injury", "No retainers for the faithful". It seems that their loyalty to the school is not being recognised. I and my party think that this injustice needs to be dealt with now. We have a local Administration, and this is an opportunity to bring its resources to bear on this problem. The case is nearing resolution. It should not be brought to an industrial tribunal, and I am sure that those affected do not wish to take industrial action. I ask the Minister to treat this issue seriously.

If money can be set aside in the budgets for other new education sectors, why can it not be used to address this long-standing problem for these long-serving workers? Given the political will, we have the solution. I am not in total agreement with Mr S Wilson's timing, but I am in total agreement with his sentiments.

Mr Dallat:

I support the motion, although I feel uncomfortable with the term "retainer fee". In a sense, it makes a statement that these workers are in some way less valuable than other employees in the education system. That is not in the interests of the people who matter most - the children. I have often spoken in the Chamber about literacy and numeracy problems, and I will continue to do so until the problem is addressed. However, on a positive note I draw some comfort from the enormous contribution made by classroom assistants who give many children the first leg-up that they desperately need to avoid becoming the next generation of people who have problems with reading and writing.

Through my own experience as a teacher I have seen how much term workers mean to children, and I deeply regret that management does not value them more. In many cases they have been the springboard that has enabled teachers to raise standards and build relationships with parents. If management had appreciated the contribution made by term workers the many problems, which those management boards are accountable for, might not exist.

Term workers carry out a variety of jobs. They may work on a one-to-one basis with children with disabilities, and many do. What more honourable vocation could one have? Yet, they are classified as being almost a by-product of the education system - second class and not equal. Not only is it wrong, it is a fundamental flaw because it prevents the whole concept of equality and targeting social need becoming a reality for children and workers.

The term worker is often a critical resource, helping to provide many children with a healthy breakfast when they arrive at school. I recently saw that on a visit to schools in Belfast. What better way for a child - particularly if that child has special problems at home - to start the day than with a nutritious meal before going to the classroom? That is what is happening in many socially deprived areas of Northern Ireland, and I applaud it.

Term workers are involved in many other aspects of school life, for which they receive meagre pay. Much of their additional work is done on a voluntary basis with no recompense, yet they do not complain. They are a bit like the home helps. Very often, term workers are people who have made great sacrifices to gain qualifications and experience - but for what? Is it to be treated as second-class citizens and be devalued in what they do?

Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the annual awards of the Northern Ireland Playgroups Association in Templepatrick. I met some of those wonderful people who have devoted their lives to the care of our young people. Surely it is unjust - and it does not coincide with the aspirations enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement - to treat them unequally. Those who are holding up progress are doing no one any favours, not least the children.

This anomaly cannot be addressed adequately without a complete transformation of how management views children and the term workers who support them. The very expression "term worker" fails to recognise how critical they are to the well-being of schools. The term may be more adequately applied to such seasonal activities as potato harvesting. However, children are not vegetables; they are human beings with distinct personalities and needs - and so are the workers who mould their lives.

I support the motion, but I am firmly convinced that much more has to be done if we are to seriously address the needs of our people and not least our children who benefit from the support they receive from the people we call term workers.

Let us give term workers equality. By doing so, we will strike out positively for children. They are our investment in the future, if we treat them properly. It means giving equal status to all those who are helping to mould their future. It is fundamentally wrong to deny some of those workers pay while simultaneously denying them benefits, and it must be put right. The issue has much to do with justice - there can be no "ifs" or "buts". It has to be either right or wrong, and I believe it is right to treat people in the spirit of justice and fair play. That is what the Good Friday Agreement promised the people of Northern Ireland, and it cannot exclude any of them. This issue cannot wait any longer; it has got to be addressed and addressed now.


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