Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 4 December 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I must inform the Assembly that I have received a letter from Mr John Hume, a Member for Foyle, resigning his seat in the Assembly. Accordingly, and as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I have written to the Chief Electoral Officer to inform him of the vacancy in the Assembly’s membership.
During the debate on the Social Security and Child Support regulations on 27 November 2000 the Chairman of the Social Development Committee, Mr Fred Cobain, requested a ruling on whether it is proper to introduce, in a single statutory rule, provisions which are subject to the negative resolution procedure alongside provisions subject to confirmatory procedures. In particular, Mr Cobain cited a ruling in 1950 by the Speaker of the House of Commons at Westminster. In respect of the ruling by the Westminster Speaker on 15 November 1950, the situation was significantly different because, as a result of a drafting oversight, an attempt was being made to annul regulations that had already been approved. The statutory instrument in question contained two regulations which had already been approved in draft — the affirmative resolution procedure — and two regulations which were to be subject to the negative resolution procedure.
The situation raised by Mr Cobain is of a different order. None of the provisions contained in the Social Security and Child Support regulations have previously been subject to procedures in the Assembly. The Member’s concern was that both confirmatory and negative resolution procedures are required for different aspects of these regulations. While it is not desirable that regulations contain a series of provisions which are subject to differing resolution procedures, it is not improper for a Department to lay down such an instrument, the lower approval requirement being subsumed in the more stringent requirement. It would, however, be improper to combine, in one set of regulations, provisions that are not subject to parliamentary procedures along with provisions that are subject to affirmative, confirmatory or negative resolution procedures.
I hope that the House is assisted with this guidance.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council agriculture sectoral meeting held on 17 November 2000.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I would like to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in sectoral format, in Greenmount College of Agriculture and Horticulture, County Antrim, on Friday 17 November 2000. The Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster, and I attended the meeting. The Government of the Republic of Ireland were represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. This report has been approved by Mr Foster and is also made on his behalf.
This was the second meeting of the Council in its agriculture sectoral format, and it dealt with issues relating to enhanced co-operation on agriculture matters. The Council received a report which set out the current position on progressing further collaboration in the area of animal and plant health, research and development. The Council noted the high level of existing co- operation and agreed the approach taken by the two Agriculture Departments in identifying those areas with the greatest potential for further research, collaboration and co-operation.
The Council also approved a proposed timetable for future work, as well as endorsing proposals to formalise liaison arrangements at an official level on animal health matters. It agreed the establishment of a strategic steering group that would co-ordinate animal health policy on the island. The group would replace existing arrangements.
To support the strategic steering group, policy working groups would also be set up to consider animal health policy issues that apply to the whole island. Working groups will be created to explore eight different areas, including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, animal welfare, and disease surveillance. These groups would be stood down, or new ones formed as requested. The Council also requested the steering group to prepare an initial report on animal health on the island of Ireland for the next agriculture sectoral meeting, with a view to the development of joint strategies for the improvement of animal health on both sides of the border by March 2002.
The Council noted that progress has been made on the pig meat processing study and that the study was now being brought to a conclusion. It is anticipated that a report will be available to the Council at its next meeting. The Council also noted that the reconstituted steering committee on cross-border rural development had held its first meeting on 29 September 2000. The steering committee’s proposed programme of work was endorsed.
Membership of the committee comprises officials from the rural development divisions of the two Departments of Agriculture, representatives from the Special EU Programmes Body, officials from the Council’s joint secretariat and, where appropriate, officials from other Departments and agencies.
Noting the progress made, the Council asked the steering committee to draw up a shortlist of priority issues relevant to the needs of rural communities on which joint demonstrations or pilot models of cross-border actions could be engaged, or identified for priority action; to exchange information on experience and best practice on rural development in both jurisdictions; and to provide a progress report to its next meeting in this sectoral format.
On the issue of less favoured area payments, the Council noted the high level of interaction between the two Departments of Agriculture during the respective negotiations with the EU Commission. In particular, the Council noted the provision for an adequate safety net to protect farmers who may be detrimentally affected under the new arrangements. The Council agreed that such co- operation should be maintained during the implementation of the schemes.
The Council discussed the forthcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) round, EU enlargement, and the review of the common agricultural policy in the context of Agenda 2000. Ministers agreed that these were extremely important issues for the future of the agriculture industries on the whole island of Ireland and recognised the need for close co-operation to ensure that any outcomes impacted fairly on the agrisectors on both sides of the border and avoided trade distortions between the North and the South.
Ministers further agreed to liaise closely on these issues as the negotiations progressed with the objective of ensuring that the outcome has the least adverse effect on the farming sectors in both parts of the island.
The Council also agreed final recommendations for the budgets of the six implementation bodies for the period 2001-03, as approved by both Finance Ministers. The Council noted that the budgets would now go forward as part of the estimates processes, North and South, for approval by the Assembly and the Dáil respectively.
The Council considered and approved the programme proposals for the URBAN II initiative and noted that these proposals would be submitted to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation and agreement.
I would also like to cover two items that do not fall within my responsibilities but were dealt with in the course of the NSMC agriculture sectoral meeting on 17 November. The Minister of Finance and Personnel touched on these briefly in his statement last week.
First, following approval by the Executive, the NSMC agreed final recommendations for the budgets of the six North/South implementation bodies. Details of the proposed budgets for each body are set out in the table attached to the communiqué. The contributions from North and South will go forward for approval by the Assembly and the Dáil respectively as part of the respective budgets and estimates. Thus the Executive agreed the Northern contributions that will be recommended to the Assembly as part of the revised Budget, which Mr Durkan will introduce later this month. In total the recommendation for expenditure by the bodies in 2001 amounts to £48·8 million. Of this total, the Northern contribution amounts to £11·3 million. The amounts proposed make provision for the continuation and development of the important work of the bodies.
Secondly, the Executive had agreed on 16 November that the URBAN II programme proposals for Northern Ireland should be submitted to the NSMC, and that was concluded at the NSMC sectoral meeting on 17 November. The Council agreed that those proposals should be submitted to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation over the next five months.
The Council agreed that its next meeting in sectoral format would take place in the South in February 2001. The text of the communiqué that was issued following the meeting was agreed. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Mr Savage):
I welcome the comments made by the Minister, but I would like to draw to her attention paragraph 2 of her statement:
"The Council noted the high level of existing co-operation and agreed the approach taken by the two Agriculture Departments in identifying those areas with the greatest potential for further research."
Northern Ireland has a high level of traceability with regard to BSE, as well as good testing strategies. Do we have to sit back and wait for others to catch up, or can we go ahead? What is the situation in Northern Ireland? Our traceability record is second to none, and I know that many other countries lag far behind.
I take it that Mr Savage is referring to the proposals for obtaining low incidence status and a relaxation of the beef ban. I agree that our traceability system is second to none and will form part of a very strong case when we are in a position to go to Europe with the possibility of a successful relaxation of the ban.
As I said in the House last week, my judgement is that it would be foolish to proceed with this case in Europe at the moment. Even today, discussions are ongoing about how further controls and restrictions can be brought in. There is a sense of panic about BSE in Europe. One has only to read our own national press, or indeed the European press, to see that. Given that situation, I know that if I were to proceed immediately with those proposals, people would not listen to us.
The hearing would be based on the panic and emotions that have been aroused in Europe. We will get only one shot at this, and advice from the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr Byrne, and other Ministers in Europe indicates that this is the wrong time for us to go, so I have decided that I would rather wait a while and get it right than go now and get it wrong.
I would like to compliment the Minister on a very comprehensive report on some exciting prospects for the future of agriculture on the island of Ireland. I would like to ask her about provision to set up strategic steering groups for bovine TB and brucellosis. Is she aware that there is great concern among the farming communities at the considerable spread of bovine TB and brucellosis, especially in the south and east of County Down? Has she any information regarding the surveys that took place in County Offaly on this disease eradication programme? Further — and I know this is a delicate area environmentally — has she considered, or would she consider, the introduction of a legislative arrangement for licensing individual badger culls or closing certain badger setts, because the farming community is convinced that the spread of bovine TB is directly related to the number of badgers that have proliferated in the North of Ireland, particularly on the east coast?
I am not sure that I have any information on the situation in County Offaly, but I will certainly look into it and discuss it with my counterpart in the South. I am aware of the concerns about the role that badgers may play in the spread of brucellosis. As the Member has said, there is a worrying increase in the disease, especially in some border counties. There is evidence to suggest that the badger may play a more significant role in the spread of TB than was previously thought. In 1994 a survey suggested that there may be 38,000 badgers in Northern Ireland with a higher sett density than is the case in GB. Work is currently being undertaken in GB to evaluate the effectiveness of different badger control strategies. We in Northern Ireland will take cognisance of any measures that flow from that work in progress.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I note that £11·3 million is the Northern contribution to the running of these bodies; the Minister revealed that in her statement. Does she accept that her Department could make better use of these resources, particularly on the implementation of the vision group findings when it finally reports in 2001? Does she not agree that this money would be better allocated directly to the Department than to the operation of these bodies? Has she seen or studied the Better Regulation Task Force report? I refer in particular to regulation 1:
"… to ensure that European Commission (EU) Directives properly reflect the interests of British farmers and are practical and enforceable."
Does she believe that the regulations that she is pursuing meet that strategy?
Mr Paisley Jnr has queried the £11·3 million that is being spent on the North/South implementation bodies. The North/South implementation bodies’ roles are to provide services which are beneficial to the people of this island, North and South. The body for which I have responsibility, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (FCILC), will benefit from the enhancement of co-operation on the loughs, tourism and the development of aquaculture. The £11·3 million that the Member mentions, which is the Northern Ireland contribution, is out of a total budget of £6 billion. I believe that my Department’s contribution to the FCILC is £1·45 billion. That money is well spent on services which will benefit people, North and South. In Northern Ireland we apply regulations set down by Europe. If we do not apply those regulations, we stand to be penalised. Is the Member asking that we not apply the European regulations? It is not clear.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
We should not implement regulations that are a waste of resources. Does the Minister not agree?
Is the Member asking us not to apply these regulations?
Order. It is not appropriate for Members to to and fro in this manner. If Mr Paisley Jnr would like to clarify the question, I will then call on the Minister to speak.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I appreciate that, Mr Speaker, and I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. There was no lack of clarity in my question; there was a lack of certainty in the answer. The issue is that the task force is a British Government report. Does the Minister agree that no EU regulation should be applied to British farmers here in Northern Ireland that is not practical or enforceable? There are certain things that the Minister has announced today which do not meet that test of being practical and enforceable.
The regulations will apply to British and Irish farmers in Northern Ireland. We do not over- implement any of the regulations. We implement the regulations as set down. In all instances we do our best to make it as simple as possible for farmers to understand the regulations and to comply with them. We assist them in every way possible, and we will continue to do that.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the statement on the implementation bodies and the fact that we can now move forward. It is good value for money, considering what it can do, and has the possibility of doing, compared to the British Government policies imposed on our farmers down the years.
I would like some assurance that more will be done, particularly in south Armagh, about brucellosis and its cross-border connection. It poses a major threat to the South, an area which is currently clear of brucellosis. However, it may not remain clear because on our side of the border large parts of Armagh are badly affected. Furthermore, there does not appear to be enough money at present to counteract it.
In relation to BSE, are we putting forward the possibility of marketing our food in Europe in the light of the situation that we currently face? Is the message being put forward by the Department that our food is clear and safe? We do not want to be guilty by association, by keeping quiet and not pushing our case.
There is a worrying increase of brucellosis in Northern Ireland, particularly in the border counties. We are concentrating more testing than usual on south Armagh because of the increase there.
With regard to marketing the safety of our beef in Europe, there should be no doubt about the work I have done, and will continue to do, to get the message across to Europe and elsewhere about the high standard of controls in Northern Ireland. The discussions in Europe will bring that out very clearly as people talk about meat-and-bone meal and so forth. It will become clear that we have had those controls in place for some time.
We have some money for marketing, and we will use it. Marketing is an important part of our strategy. The beef quality initiative is also in place.
I have already received some money from the recent allocations round to kick-start that, which will ensure that the quality of our beef is improved. That will help our marketing position. When the time is right the ban will eventually be relaxed. We are working on all fronts, and I assure the Member that everything will be done to ensure that we will be ready to hit the ground running.
I thank the Minister for her statement, which seems to reflect some practical work on co-operation to which none but the most recalcitrant Unionist could object. It will certainly prove to be in the interests of the industry, North and South.
Concerning the strategic steering group on animal health, the Minister detailed three areas for work, while referring to exploring eight different areas. Can she tell us about the other five? In particular, can she indicate the priorities, because it is difficult to prioritise eight different matters simultaneously? Is nothing being done about plant health within that work, for example, or brown rot in potatoes?
In relation to the steering committee for cross-border rural development, the Minister’s statement did not include the prospect of greater consultation with Northern Ireland interest groups, which seem to have been left out, given the plethora of agencies and Departments which will be included in the consultation. Can the Minister assure us that the increasing consultation and co-operation North/ South will not rule out these groups?
Finally, when the Minister refers to EU enlargement and the World Trade Organisation, she mentions seeking the "least adverse effect on the farming sectors". Can she please be a little more upbeat and tell us that she is seeking the best outcome, not the least worst?
When I am asked four, five or six questions at one time I find it difficult to follow all of them. I will do my best. If I do not answer them all, perhaps the Member will bear with me.
That is the prerogative of the person who is answering, is it not?
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I could more easily take the questions one at a time.
The first question was in relation to animal diseases. The Member is quite right. Animal disease is not a respecter of political boundaries. It is important that we take measures to deal with diseases on both sides of the border. The steering group will co-ordinate policy and review the activities of the working groups; it will be the prime advisory group to the Ministerial Council.
Initial working groups have been established to cover eight different policy areas. These are: the import and export of live animals and their products; bovine TB and brucellosis; transmissible spongiform encephalopathy; veterinary medicines; zoonoses and exotic or new diseases; animal welfare; animal health schemes; and disease surveillance. Working groups will be stood down and new groups formed as necessary. Clearly, I expect that the priorities will be discussed and decided by the working groups at any given time.
I am not aware of any brown rot in potatoes in the Republic at the moment, but contingency plans are being examined should that situation arise. As a result of the current enhanced co-operation, that issue will be dealt with.
In relation to the world trade organisation, the new round is widely expected to involve further reductions in domestic agriculture supports and improvements in market access by the lowering of import tariffs. Reduction is expected in export subsidisation, both in quantities of subsidised exports and in the value of export subsidies. That is a vital issue, which I was keen to discuss with my Southern counterpart at the north/south ministerial council.
At present, domestic agriculture support is classified in three ways. It can be trade-distorting, which is being in the amber box; it can be long trade-distorting, which is being in the green box; or it can be potentially trade- distorting, which is being in the blue box.
Most common agricultural policy direct payments are in the blue box. Under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the Uruguay round, "green box" and "blue box" support are exempt from reduction commitments. However, in the new round, undoubtedly the USA and others will target "blue box" measures. The USA is looking for two categories only — exempt and non-exempt.
It is important that the EU negotiating position, which we have already agreed will look at the multifunctionality of agriculture as opposed to just one aspect of it, will take on board the vital interests of Northern Ireland farmers. There is a convergence of interests between us on the island of Ireland, and a divergence between the interests of farmers in Ireland and those on the other side of the water. We will look for the best outcome, but we have to recognise that there will not be agreement between the Governments of these islands on how to go forward.
My responsibility, as the Minister of Agriculture for the people of Northern Ireland, will be to ensure that in my discussions with Nick Brown and the Ministers across the water, and with Joe Walsh in the South, our interests are not forgotten and will be taken on board. That is what I intend to do, and that is why I will have talks with Nick Brown and Joe Walsh in the near future.
A line in the Minister’s statement caught my eye, as it did the eye of Mr Ford. In the context of EU enlargement, it refers to ensuring
"the least adverse affect on the farming sectors in both parts of the island."
I welcome the realism that that statement contains. Has the Minister any thoughts at this stage on which sectors of the farming industry will be least adversely affected? Is she implying that they will all be adversely affected by enlargement, or does she believe that there will be winners and losers as enlargement evolves?
Given what I have already said about what pressures there will be for change within the World Trade Organisation, and the move away from direct subsidies, it is clear that there will be particular pressures on sections of our farming community that have depended on direct subsidies. Many of those are in the less favoured areas and the regions that need help.
The multifunctionality of agriculture will be to the forefront in the European negotiations. It is difficult to state categorically, but clearly the sectors which are most dependent on direct subsidies will be those most affected by any changes. I am anxious that our voice should be heard in order to protect that section of the farming community.
I also welcome the Minister’s statement and in particular the reference to the endorsement of proposals to formalise liaison arrangements at official level on animal health matters. I have no doubt that the Minister played a key role in promoting the liaison arrangements. I also note that the Minister had discussions with her counterpart in the South, Mr Joe Walsh, on the pig industry. What have the Government done to support the pig industry? What has happened to the proposed pig restructuring scheme?
As well as the pig welfare compensation scheme last year, I have worked hard to try to help an industry which I recognise has been in severe difficulty.
First, I have examined all suggestions to help the sector financially: for example, in relation to the proposal to pay a subsidy to cover the UK’s higher feed costs. In this context I met with Commissioner Fischler early in the year; however, the Commission rejected my proposal. As the Member is probably aware, we have also examined all indirect ways of helping, for example, by having the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee review the ban on meat and bone meal in pig rations.
Secondly, we would like to have the labelling provisions on pig meat reviewed in order to avoid misleading claims as to national origin. We have also written to public procurement bodies to promote the use of home produce. I am pleased to report that, after many months of negotiation, the European Commission has confirmed that it is content with the outgoers element of the pig restructuring scheme. Some details still need to be sorted out, but Nick Brown is expected to make an announcement later today.
The scheme, including the ongoers, is expected to receive formal clearance by the Commission later this month. We hope to be in a position to open the ongoers’ phase in January 2001. This will be very good news for the most hard-pressed sector — the pig industry.
Will a farm quality assurance scheme, equal to the rigorous scheme which exists in Northern Ireland, be developed in the Republic of Ireland as a result of liaison between the two Departments? That has serious implications.
The farm quality assurance scheme is a commercial matter to be dealt with by bodies with commercial interests. It is not, strictly speaking, a matter for the Departments.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Republic has a lot of catching up to do in improving animal health on both sides of the border. First, what time limit has the Republic set itself for raising animal health standards on this side of the border?
Secondly, on the issue of less favoured area payments, there is mention of a welcome provision of an adequate safety net to protect farmers who may be detrimentally affected under the new arrangements. This will involve a tremendous amount of forward planning. Can the Minister indicate or estimate how many farmers will be deemed to have been detrimentally affected?
Finally, the first part of the statement dealing with the URBAN II community initiative programme proposals for Northern Ireland says
"the Council … noted that these proposals would be submitted to the European Commission".
Later, however, the words "the Council agreed" appear. Can the Minister confirm that these proposals will be forwarded to the European Commission, irrespective of whether the North/South Ministerial Council agrees to them, and that this is a matter for Northern Ireland? While support for the proposals would be welcome, they can be submitted without agreement.
The first part of the question relates to when the Republic of Ireland will play catch-up. That is a matter for the Government of the Republic. Those matters are currently being discussed in conjunction with the Agriculture Council. Member states will deal with them, as set out by the Council.
At present, it is very difficult for me to forecast the impact of the less favoured area payments and the safety-net arrangements. The safety net will lessen the impact significantly. Under the original decision, against which we fought with success, there would have been many losers and few big winners. Under the current arrangements, more than 50% of farmers will lose less than £500, perhaps even less than £100, per year.
I will obtain the exact figures for the Member. As for the proposals on the URBAN II initiative, those were indeed agreed at the North/South Ministerial Council, but the Member will be aware that everything that is agreed there will subsequently be put to both the Dáil and the Assembly for their agreement. Those are some of the checks and balances that were introduced at the time of the agreement to assure people that nothing would be done without their consent.
I also welcome the Minister’s statement. Will she elaborate on the role of the cross-border steering committee on rural development? What areas will it deal with in its programme of work?
The steering committee on cross-border rural development was established following ministerial discussions at the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in 1991. The purpose of that steering group was to act as a formal discussion forum and to encourage and oversee projects on cross-border rural development.
The revised terms of reference for the steering group agreed at the North/South Ministerial Council on 26 June reflect the revised role proposed by the Council. Those terms of reference are: to promote maximum co- operation in the implementation of rural development and EU programmes; to exchange information on experience and best practice of rural development in both jurisdictions and to examine the scope for a common approach to the feasibility of developing cross-border area-based strategies and rural development research. As the rural development programme 2000-06 unfolds, it is likely that the following areas will have potential for cross-border co-operation: INTERREG III, Peace II, LEADER+, the Common Chapter of the Structural Funds Plan and the exchange of information on experience and best practice.
I noted in a previous answer to one of my Colleagues that the Minister referred to "British and Irish farmers in Northern Ireland". Perhaps she could give us a breakdown; my understanding is that they are all British subjects.
The document says that a report on best practice is being prepared. Was there any discussion on worst practice? In particular, I would like to refer the Minister to the EU directive on the spread of sewage sludge on agricultural land. The Irish Government have not met the obligations laid down by this directive. Bearing in mind the fact that the Environment Minister was in attendance, did the Northern Ireland delegation voice concern that the Irish Republic is spreading sewage sludge containing heavy metals on agricultural land and that this could enter the water systems?
With regard to British and Irish subjects, we now have an agreement that allows people to be what they feel themselves to be, not what others tell them they are. Some farmers consider themselves British; that is their right, which I totally uphold. Others consider themselves Irish; equally, I uphold their right to think of themselves as such.
The answer to Mr Poots’s question is that the matter of sewage sludge was not raised or discussed at our last meeting. However, all those matters can be discussed as our officials continue to meet in the new context of enhanced co-operation.
I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement about a recent meeting with his Scottish counterpart on transport.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement on my recent visit to Scotland. I am conscious that comments have been made in the Assembly to the effect that DUP Ministers have not yet met their ministerial counterparts from England, Scotland and Wales. Rather than respond at that time, I thought it was more important to schedule such meetings, as was always my intention, and to report to the Assembly subsequently.
On 28 and 29 November I visited Edinburgh to learn about the Scottish approach to public transport, roads, water and sewerage services. I had an opportunity to meet Sarah Boyack, the Minister for Transport in the Scottish Executive, thus enabling me to fulfil a long- standing commitment given by my predecessor Peter Robinson to meet Sarah Boyack in February of this year — a meeting that had to be postponed because of the suspension of the devolved arrangements.
During the visit I had discussions with senior transport officials. I met the convenor of Edinburgh City Council’s transport committee and saw at first hand the traffic management and bus priority measures in the city. I also met senior officials from the Scottish Executive responsible for water and sewerage services and the Water Industry Commissioner for Scotland, Alan Sutherland, who acts as the regulator for the industry.
This was a very useful visit. I was able to examine the arrangements for providing water and sewerage services in Scotland through three publicly owned water authorities and the approach to meeting the funding needs of these services, the methods of direct charging used and the provision for economic and consumer regulation.
Like the Water Service, the water industry in Scotland needs significant investment over the next 15 to 20 years. I was extremely interested to hear how the Scottish Executive and the independent regulator planned to address the funding need through a combination of charges and efficiency targets for the three public water authorities. I was particularly interested to learn how the Executive plans to reconcile its social obligations to lower-income customers and customers in rural areas with the need to increase charges.
The discussions on transport ranged widely — from the approach being adopted in Scotland to achieve a sustainable, effective and integrated transport system, to the current thinking on tolls, road-user charging and work-place parking levies, to the intention to introduce free off-peak bus travel for senior citizens and the disabled, and to the measures being taken to lever in private sector investment for roads and public transport. There was also discussion about the scope for improving transport links between Scotland and Northern Ireland and improvements to the roads to the main Scottish ports serving Northern Ireland.
During the visit to Edinburgh Council I saw the work that has been undertaken to improve bus services, to develop cycle routes and to give greater priority to buses and pedestrians. I also had a briefing on the development of proposals to introduce congestion charging in the city, with the resources raised being earmarked to improve public transport.
All in all, this very constructive visit strengthened the existing good relationships between my officials and their counterparts in Scotland, created further contacts at a political level and opened up new opportunities to exchange experiences and expertise to the benefit of both Administrations.
In the near future the Scottish experience will be helpful to a number of my departmental actions contained in the draft Programme for Government. As Members will be aware, the Department for Regional Development is undertaking two major change processes — ‘Roads Service: Delivery Excellence’ and ‘Water Service: Moving Forward’. The processes involve a wide-ranging review of the policy and financial context within which both agencies operate and aim to improve the efficiency and value for money with which roads, water and sewerage services are delivered. The Scottish experience is of direct relevance to both these processes and will inform our approach. The Transport (Scotland) Bill that emanated from the Transport White Paper ‘Travel Choices for Scotland’ will be of invaluable assistance as our Transport Bill progresses.
The Scottish experience of concessionary fares will inform our approach to introducing free fares on public transport for older people. I hope our progress will be more significant and rapid than Scottish progress has been. The Scottish approach to delivering its strategic roads review will help inform our strategic planning approach to the key transport corridors in Northern Ireland, details of which will be laid out in ‘Regional Development Strategy’ and its daughter document ‘Regional Transportation Strategy’.
The Scottish approach to modernising railways, through the rail modernisation fund and the rail passenger partnership, will inform our approach to consolidating the rail network over the next three years while advancing our thinking on public/private partnerships. Members may also be interested to note that I had a most useful visit to Chiltern Railways the week prior to my Scottish visit, as part of my effort to ensure that we learn from best practice elsewhere.
Subject to diary commitments, I intend to arrange similar visits to my counterpart in Wales, Sue Essex, and my counterpart in the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Lord Macdonald. I was due to meet with Lord Macdonald on 14 September, immediately prior to the third UK Local Authority Chairs of Transport conference in Manchester, only to be thwarted by the Minister’s need to deal with the fuel price crisis.
Likewise, I intend to meet with my counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, Mary O’Rourke and Noel Dempsey, to discuss transportation matters of mutual interest to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I will inform the Assembly following any such ministerial meetings.
The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness):
I thank the Minister for his statement. I also congratulate him on his series of, albeit belated, meetings with other Ministers and bodies with responsibility for transport, water, and so on. I am sure that the House welcomes this progressive step.
Given that he has met Scottish Ministers and has plans to meet others, how soon will he meet with Mary O’Rourke and Noel Dempsey to discuss mutual transportation interests between the North and the South?
Moreover, in relation to the Minister’s Edinburgh visit, the Belfast area has five miles of bus lanes compared to 15 miles of Greenways in Edinburgh. Does he have any plans to extend the bus lanes in the Belfast area to help combat congestion and improve public transport, which is at a critical juncture, with many members of the public constantly complaining about it?
I thank the Chairman of the Regional Development Committee for his questions. First, I will deal with the issue of the belated meeting with Sarah Boyack.
I do not understand the accusation. Arrangements had been made for my predecessor to meet Sarah Boyack. The meeting would have gone ahead had the devolved arrangements not been suspended in February, which neither my predecessor nor I can be held responsible for. The meeting with Lord Macdonald was scheduled to take place within six weeks of my becoming Minister, and I was present to meet him. Unfortunately, he could not meet me because of the fuel crisis that occurred on the day of my visit. The meeting with Sarah Boyack was rearranged for as soon as was practicable; it took place last week. I hope, therefore, that I have dealt with the allegation of belatedness by showing I am more than anxious to meet with my counterparts.
Mr A Maginness asked about the timescale of my meetings and about my willingness to meet with my counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. I intend to meet them as soon as is possible and practicable. Diary commitments permitting, I would like to have those meetings, and also the meetings with Sue Essex and with Lord Macdonald, as soon as possible.
I take the Member’s point about bus lanes. From the Edinburgh meeting it is clear that what would equate to quality bus corridors in Belfast have been successfully in place in Edinburgh for some time. I hope to draw on the success that Edinburgh has had with those bus corridors. The hon Member has quoted some figures, but it should be borne in mind that Edinburgh’s population and transport system are larger than those of Belfast. Members should therefore not be of the opinion that Belfast should be exactly in line, mile for mile, with Edinburgh as regards quality bus routes. However, the principle is there, and I want to ensure as quickly as possible that Belfast commuters get the advantages of successful quality bus corridors that Edinburgh commuters have enjoyed for some time.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr McFarland):
I am most encouraged to see that the Minister — à la Sinn Féin — is happy to engage in bilateral discussions with Ministers from the Republic of Ireland, despite his refusal to take part in the North/South Ministerial Council. However, I understand that his Department is withholding co-operation from the British-Irish Council sectoral study on transport, even though his Department is the lead body in the United Kingdom on the study. Will he explain the DUP’s hypocrisy in holding back the proper functioning of the British- Irish Council, the key strand three east/west body which cements together all parts of the United Kingdom?
I thank the Member for his question, despite the inaccurate information behind it. I have no difficulty whatsoever with consultation and the development of good relationships with other jurisdictions. I have not had any difficulty with it in the past, do not have any difficulty now and will not have a difficulty in the future. Mr McFarland correctly said that the DUP is not prepared to go along with the North/South Ministerial Council. However, he raised an issue relating to the British-Irish Council. I have made it very clear to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, both publicly in the Chamber and privately, that I am willing to attend the British-Irish Council if nominated to take the lead in respect of that responsibility. I repeat that willingness today. I do not understand the attempted criticism of my party. It appears to be politically inspired. We are more than willing, and have repeatedly demonstrated our willingness, to take part in genuine co-operative relationships with Ministers of the Republic of Ireland and with the relevant Ministers in the United Kingdom.
Mr R Hutchinson:
I thank the Minister for his statement. Did he discuss improvements to the A75 Stranraer-Carlisle road with his Scottish counterpart? Such improvements would greatly assist those travelling from Larne via Cairnryan or Stranraer on their onward journeys to Carlisle or beyond.
Immediate transport links on either side of the ferry connection were raised. When I spoke to Sarah Boyack, the Scottish Transport Minister, I was concerned with the A75 in particular. There have been many representations and some criticisms over the years regarding the lack of overtaking facilities on the link on the Scottish side. We raised that issue, and I made it clear to Ms Boyack that I would support her in the upgrading of that link. I cannot indicate whether there will be an imminent upgrading. Ms Boyack is aware of the feelings of Northern Ireland commuters.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Has the Scottish experience any relevance to the large amounts of money pressed for here for railways versus roads? People living in rural parts of the Six Counties have no choice but to use cars. Will our budget for roads lose out accordingly?
In relation to the Minister’s own adherence to best practice, does the fact that he does not attend the North/ South Ministerial Council have a detrimental effect on his ability to carry out his functions relative to his counterparts in the South?
I am at something of a loss to ascertain the question to which I must respond. However, if there is political criticism of the attitude shown by myself and my party towards the North/South Ministerial Council, I accept it happily. I have made it clear in response to other questions that I am more than happy to bring about and participate in genuine co-operative arrangements between both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and Northern Ireland and Scotland, England and Wales. I do not see how best practice in any way conflicts with my readiness to join in such arrangements with any part of these islands.
I welcome the Minister’s intention to meet Mary O’Rourke and Noel Dempsey, but I should like to give a word of advice to his chauffeur about the dangerous stretch of road between Loughbrickland and Newry, on which he should drive carefully when travelling South to meet them.
Are there any specific measures in place in Scotland that the Minister might consider implementing to alleviate difficulties here? Was the problem of cryptosporidium discussed during his visit?
I thank the Member for his question and note his comments about the Loughbrickland stretch of road. On a previous visit of mine to Newry and Mourne District Council, public representatives made their views clear to me on that issue. I am hopeful that we shall be able to secure sufficient funds to complete that road scheme and others.
The issue of cryptosporidium was raised, and I was pleased to hear from the Scottish commissioner about his efficiency programme for the Scottish water authorities. I see considerable merit in working with him to promote consumer interests in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Contact has been initiated between officials from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and they will continue. If issues of considerable benefit arise from the Scottish experience — as I am sure they will — I shall be happy to consider their implementation in Northern Ireland. I shall also make the Member, and others in the House, aware of their nature.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the answers he has given thus far. It is essential that Members cross to Scotland to discuss improvements to roads which will enable us to get to Rangers games much more quickly, and I welcome that development.
Does the Minister agree that his meeting with his Scottish counterpart was able to take place without the unnecessary and expensive apparatus normally associated with meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council? Let us congratulate him on his prudence with departmental resources in that regard. Can he assure us that such good and sensible co-operation will continue? Has there been any indication from the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister of support for this approach to such meetings?
I shall reserve comment on the first part of the question about crossing to certain football matches — perhaps until the end of the season, when we shall know if it is worthwhile.
I shall leave the subject of prudence shown in the funding of such visits for others to judge.
The Deputy First Minister made several critical comments in the House on 16 October 2000 about not meeting ministerial counterparts. I have had no correspondence or communication from the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, either since they were informed of the meeting or subsequent to it.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is interesting that the Minister can meet his counterparts from England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic but finds it difficult to meet his own Executive here. It is also interesting that some Members can talk about Rangers matches and make no reference to the photographs that appeared in yesterday’s newspapers. Those photographs showed Rangers footballers meeting those who have been or who are terrorists, including Mr Stone.
The Minister said that he had discussed the Scottish strategic roads review. The most strategically important road, for those of us living west of the Bann, is the road from Belfast to places west of the Bann and Derry city. And there is the Toome bypass. Has the Minister learned anything from his Scottish experience that would compel him to give us a starting date for the Toome bypass?
I will endeavour to respond to each of the issues raised. The Member said something that was either a question or a comment about my willingness to meet my counterparts from England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland and my unwillingness to meet certain individuals in the Executive Committee. I shall make my position clear: if any of the counterparts whom I have met, and am willing to meet, had been guilty of terrorist offences or fronting a fully armed terrorist army, I would not have been willing — and would not be willing — to meet them. To do so would be to give them a veneer of respectability. I have not done that and I will not do that.
The Member also raised the extraneous issue of a newspaper photograph relating to a football match. I imagine that players in football teams, particularly successful football teams, meet hundreds of people and pose for photographs. Players who come from the Netherlands or elsewhere in mainland Europe will be unaware of the background of individuals with whom they are asked to pose. That is a matter for others to comment on.
I repeat what I have said on several occasions, in the Chamber and publicly, on the Toome bypass. I hope to proceed with the Toome bypass and other schemes as quickly as is practicable. To do that, I need resources and funding for the Department for Regional Development. Without that funding, how can I begin, let alone complete, such major road projects? I intend to complete those projects, but I need the resources.
Like other Members, I thank the Minister for giving us an update on the meeting with his Scottish counterpart. The road haulage industry in Northern Ireland has long wanted co-operation between the Minister here and the relevant Scottish Minister on the A75, as so much of our road haulage traffic goes through Larne. It has been a difficult issue for a long time. I welcome the Minister's willingness to meet his counterparts from the Republic. Those of us who live in border areas want to see meaningful co-operation on transport.
How does the Minister envisage that his bilateral arrangements will work, given that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has identified transport as a priority issue? How does he hope to resolve that issue?
The Member makes a valid point about border areas. In many circumstances where there is a land border between two countries - whether it is in the Nordic countries, the Iberian peninsula, or North America - it makes practical sense to co-operate in the construction and alignment of roads between one country and the adjoining jurisdiction. In that sense I am fully committed to that type of co-operation and co-ordination.
However, the Member raised the issue of transport, and the previous statement of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I hope that he and others will understand and recognise that the legal responsibility for transportation issues falls within the remit of the Department for Regional Development. It is that Department which implements policy and puts strategic road networks in place. It remains the responsibility of that Department, and I hope the hon Member and the other hon Members will recognise that reality. I intend to further develop and deepen transportation links with the Republic of Ireland, and with Scotland, England and Wales.
The Minister said that there had been discussion about the scope for improving transport links between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Was there any discussion about the imminent movement of Stena Sealink from Belfast to Larne, which would undoubtedly speed up the journey time between Northern Ireland and Scotland by ferry, and about the implications of such a move on roads? Were any concerns expressed by his Scottish counterpart about the need to upgrade the Larne-Belfast road when that move takes place?
Any alteration to Stena Sealink operations is a matter for that company and the respective ports. The Member could not expect me to comment in detail on those discussions.
I have had discussions with the Larne and Belfast ports, and the issue was mentioned briefly during the meeting I had last week with Sarah Boyack. However, its importance is not underestimated. In the next few months the Department hopes to see developments about the implementation of the Stena decision. If the Regional Development Department could take any decisions about the upgrading of roads in order to facilitate smoother and quicker transportation between Northern Ireland and Scotland, I would be happy to examine them.
Like Mr Paisley Jnr, who commented on the speed of transport to Glasgow, I welcome the fact that that issue is being addressed - even for myself, who might be travelling on to Leeds.
I may be forced to ask all Members to declare an interest with regard to that.
I welcome the meeting with Southern Ministers. The Minister will understand the great difficulties concerning the A5/N2 route, which I suspect he might use rather than going down the road through Loughbrickland. I want assurance that that route will be discussed on the occasion of a meeting with Ministers from the Republic of Ireland.
Reference has been made to the rail modernisation fund. We have great difficulty accessing that fund. Are there any plans for the Department to seek direct access to the rail modernisation fund? The Minister discussed with Scottish Ministers the methods of direct charging being used for water. Is there a suggestion that the Northern Ireland Department is seeking to introduce water charges?
The Member talked about transportation links with Glasgow and then Leeds. However, I hope that he does not travel via that route because it will take him considerably longer. The Member raised a number of issues, and I will try to deal with each of them.
As I understand it, we cannot access money through the rail modernisation fund, but we are examining any way in which leverage can be applied to enable us to receive additional funding and resources for Northern Ireland Railways. Each of them will be examined closely, particularly in the context of the consolidation option put forward by the railway task force, and contained in the transportation strategy, to ensure that Northern Ireland Railways is not only consolidated but developed. Public/ private partnerships are being examined to see whether it is possible to lever in additional funds from that source. I hope that some progress will be possible.
The Member also asked about the A5 and the N2. The route I take will depend on where I start from. If I were to start from Londonderry, I would go by the A5. If I were to start from my office in the Department, I would probably take the route that Mr Bradley referred to, to enable me to see the nature of the road linkage, particularly on this side of the border. That will undoubtedly feature in our discussions, as will the other main linkages between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The Member also mentioned the issue of water. On a number of occasions I have referred to the significant 30-year underinvestment in Northern Ireland's water infrastructure. I have said to the Committee for Regional Development that every possible way of raising additional funds must be looked at imaginatively. Any avenue that has not been previously accessed, but is now being considered, will not be accessed until I have spoken to the Committee for Regional Development, to which the hon Member belongs, nor will anything be done without my coming before the Assembly. The short answer is no.