Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 11 December 2000 (continued)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail any discussions he has had with Northern Ireland Electricity plc regarding electricity price rises.
Sir Reg Empey:
Following privatisation, responsibility for ensuring that electricity prices are cost-effective rests with the independent regulator. Northern Ireland Electricity plc (NIE) and the regulator issued a joint statement on 7 December on the introduction of a comprehensive package of measures aimed at mitigating the effects of the 9% increase in tariffs from January 2001.
While accepting that the regulator, rather than the Minister, has direct responsibility in this area, I am sure that the Minister will accept that all of us in the Assembly have a duty to address the problem of fuel poverty, which leads to hundreds of deaths every year. Will he and his Colleagues in the Executive Committee undertake to persuade NIE to take account of those in fuel poverty before it hikes its prices again?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am very conscious of the anger that was expressed in this House on the day that the increase was announced. You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we were having a debate on that very day and the views of Members were expressed from all sides of this House with equal vehemence.
The Member for East Londonderry (Mr McClarty) will be aware that the question of fuel poverty rests with my Colleague, the Minister for Social Development. However, my Department and I are conscious of the overall position with regard to electricity prices in Northern Ireland, which is and remains totally unsatisfactory.
As Members know, part of the problem rests with the contracts that were entered into in 1992, and part rests with the costs of distribution and transmission - which remains an NIE matter. Another part, which is outside our control, relates to rising world fuel prices throughout the year 2000. A cocktail of issues is involved.
We are trying to address those issues through more open competition - 35% of the market will be open for competition by April 2001. That primarily affects the commercial sector. However, the reality is that we are continuing to seek a long-term viable solution to this energy problem which has haunted us for the last nine years. It is only when we try to look at the global picture that we can get a response. Every time that there is an increase we are increasing upon a very high base. That is the fundamental problem, and we are trying to address its core rather than take a piecemeal approach to it.
The Minister's reply illustrated the problem and the extent to which he appears to be powerless. He pointed out very strongly that the Assembly had debated this matter and that there had been accord right round the Chamber. Surely it is important, after nine or 10 years of these impossible contracts, that we should in some way be able to buy ourselves out of the horrible situation where domestic electricity prices are 53% greater than in the Republic and industrial electricity prices are 75% greater. How can we compete in the industrial sector?
Can the Minister engage with the chief executive of NIE on two issues - first, on the prices which have been referred to; secondly, on shareholders taking less and passing more profits back to the consumer, given the total cartel situation? Will he look at legislation to give the independent regulator more power to address the gross distortions that have been mentioned in relation to transmission and distribution?
Does the Minister agree that we must take action rather than wait for something to happen?
Sir Reg Empey:
I assure the hon Member that I am taking action. I am involved with the issue continually. However, he knows that contracts were entered into some years ago. They are legally binding contracts.
He talks about buying out, but we are talking about huge sums of money here - and I emphasise that. This is not small change; we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. I am trying to find a mechanism to deal with this that does not break the bank of the Department of Finance and Personnel. Consultants have been appointed, and a team is looking at this every few days with a view to finding a solution. I can assure the hon Member, however, that it will not be easy.
At present, the regulator is engaged in a review of transmission costs. That is something over which he and Northern Ireland Electricity have some control. The differential between distribution costs here and those on the mainland is growing, and that is a worrying factor. I said in a previous debate, and I repeat now, that we are planning to introduce a new utilities Bill in the next session. That will look at the regulator's powers. It is my intention to increase the regulator's powers.
With regard to electricity charges, many people, particularly farmers, find it unsatisfactory that, in addition to paying for the metered units, they are being charged ground rents. Does the Minister not think that that is double-charging? In any other industry those charges would be incorporated in the per unit price. Perhaps that should also be considered with a view to reducing prices.
Sir Reg Empey:
I did not catch the early part of the Member's question, as the sound system failed.
With regard to fuel costs, the Member will know that the contracts that have been entered into with the generators have two parts. There is a standby cost, which is an availability payment that the generator gets for having the facility available to Northern Ireland Electricity. There is also the direct cost of the fuel that is necessary to generate the electricity. The contract therefore has a variable part in the sense that the fuel cost element of it is directly linked to market prices.
The problem with this is that they are starting from a high base. When the contracts were entered into, the extent to which generators could make efficiencies in the power stations was underestimated. The efficiencies that were made have resulted in there being large gaps between the cost of generation and the contracts themselves, and so the generators have very lucrative contracts under those circumstances. The only solution to that is contained in my reply to the hon Member for South Down (Mr McGrady).
The other matters that the Member referred to - if I picked them up correctly - are primarily ones for the regulator to deal with. When we introduce a utilities Bill, which we will have the opportunity to discuss in great detail, it is my intention to get down to the actual cost detail. That is the position, for instance, in Great Britain. Then there is the whole question of who and how. The consumer's interest, of course, has to be represented in these matters, but that is a question for another day.
North/South Trade and
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to make a statement on the budgetary allocation to the North-South Trade and Business Development Body.
Sir Reg Empey:
The latest estimate of expenditure for the body shows a budget spend of £3·1 million for the year ending 31 March 2001. That is made up of contributions of £1·06 million from Northern Ireland and £2·132 million from the Republic of Ireland. The budget for 2001-02 is £8·63 million sterling. That is made up of £2·8 million from Northern Ireland and £5·75 million from the Republic of Ireland.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We should all take special note of the relative proportions of contributions coming from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Can the Minister assure the House that Northern Ireland will make a fair proportional contribution to the total, rather than one which is excessive?
Sir Reg Empey:
Yes. As the Member knows, the financing of these bodies varies. In one case, the Republic of Ireland's contribution is eight times that of Northern Ireland. In this instance, a two-to-one basis was deemed appropriate. There are variations across the board, according to the work that is undertaken and the nature of the body.
Throughout, of course, the expenditures are subject to agreement and scrutiny by this House, and all Members have the opportunity at any point to examine the plans for the bodies. The details are available in the Assembly Library. After every meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, the relevant Minister will be present to answer questions in the House. I am satisfied that Members will ensure that there is genuine accountability for the funds that are expended.
Mr S Wilson:
Given that Northern Ireland's contribution to the budget will be about 33%, on what basis does the Minister judge that this kind of North/Southery creates good value for the people of Northern Ireland? Is he valuing it in terms of jobs promoted, and if so, can he tell us how many? Is he valuing it in terms of contacts made for new investments, and if so, can he tell us how many? Is it on a per head basis or per county basis? How exactly does he judge that a third of the cost is good value for the people of Northern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
The first objective is to increase trade. Clearly, the Republic has been one of our fastest- growing markets for a number of years. Looking at other examples in the EU where two countries have a land border, the relevant trade here is on a much smaller scale than is the case in France, Germany, Holland or Denmark. We are building supply chains. For instance, if there are companies on this island that could be trading with each other, there are opportunities for reducing supply chains, thereby reducing stockholdings. Goods could be sold on a just-in- time basis.
We will be looking at measurement. Output can be measured, in part, by the growth or otherwise of the amount of trade undertaken between companies here and companies in the Republic of Ireland. There will be networking opportunities, and we have already tried to promote some trade shows - we have had four so far - to try and get people to realise the potential of trading with those who are close to them. For example, Belfast City Council had "meet the buyer" days, which were intended to bring in people whom the council traded with, and people whom they did not trade with. New people came in and we generated new suppliers that we did not have before. The principle is exactly the same. One of the best methods of measurement is to see how trade actually increases, and we intend to do that.
Natural Gas (North-West)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what progress has been made on extending the natural gas pipeline to the north-west.
Sir Reg Empey:
It is primarily for the private sector to initiate commercially viable projects to take gas to the north-west. The Director General for Gas Supply is currently considering a number of applications for licences to take natural gas to that part of the region.
Does the Minister agree that there could be some linkage between the proposed development of a North/South natural gas pipeline and that to the north-west?
Does he also agree that proposals to impose a public service levy in the Republic of Ireland could be detrimental to both projects?
Sir Reg Empey:
The public service levy could have a detrimental effect on the viability of the North/South pipeline, but I want to take this opportunity to make it clear that the Department's policy is to see pipelines North/South and to the north-west as an integrated system. We do not want any part missing; that is our objective.
I must stress to the Member, however, that in the private sector, there has to be economic viability, and there must be people who are prepared to carry out the work and undertake the commercial risk that is involved. We are putting an enormous amount of effort into this project. I have been in regular contact with my opposite number in the Republic, Mrs O'Rourke, and it is my earnest hope that these matters will crystallise within the next few weeks with an outcome that Members of this House will be able to support.
Students: Republic of Ireland
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the decrease in the number of students from the Republic of Ireland studying at universities and further education colleges in Northern Ireland over the past two years and if he will address this in the forthcoming review of student finance.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
The number of students from the Republic studying at Northern Irish higher education institutions fell slightly from 3,846 in 1998-99 to 3,354 in 1999-2000. However, the number of Southern students studying in Northern Irish further education colleges increased from 1,617 to 1,845 in the same period. The Member and, indeed, others should view these figures in the context of demographic trends in the South, where the 17-to-18-year-old cohort is now in decline in overall numbers at an estimated rate of 14% over the period from 1997 to 2004 and at increasingly greater rates thereafter. The terms of reference for the review of student finance focused on Northern Irish domicilied students.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
I thank the Minister for his response and his assurance that this is more to do with demographic trends than with the poor level of support from the funding system in the North. I tabled this question on behalf of students in the Republic who are receiving maximum maintenance grants of IR£1,775 but lose £440 when this is converted to sterling. Also, students from the Republic are not entitled -
Madam Deputy Speaker:
May we have your question, Mrs Nelis?
Yes. Thank you.
I did not hear a question.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Mrs Nelis, will you please put your question.
I asked the Minister to give me some information on the decline in the number of students from the South of Ireland. He assures me that this has to do with demographic trends. My point is that I welcome that.
I note the reference in the question to the forthcoming review of student finance. In the light of the detailed work and consultations that the Minister is undertaking, can he give us any indication of when he will be in a position to publish the work done so far on the review?
As I have frequently told Members, I have been working fairly strenuously on this issue for a number of weeks, and we are now in the penultimate stage. With respect to my proposals, I think that the forthcoming budget statement will give some indication as to the overall context. I also like to think that I will be in a position to announce the broad framework of my proposals later this week.
While accepting that students from other countries may enhance any academic institution, may I ask whether the Minister agrees that his first responsibility should be to ensure that students from Northern Ireland who wish to remain here for university- level education should have the right to do so? Furthermore, will the Minister undertake to increase the number of university places during his term of office?
The Member's question relates to an issue that I have frequently referred to in this House. Significant increases have been planned throughout the period 1999-2004 in terms of higher and further education places in Northern Ireland. My first responsibility as Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment is to those students who are domiciled in Northern Ireland, just as my counterparts in neighbouring jurisdictions have a primary responsibility to the students domiciled in their jurisdictions.
Equal Community Initiative
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline the key features of the EQUAL Community Initiative and to indicate how the programme will benefit the unemployed.
The EQUAL Programme is a European Union initiative designed to test and promote new means of combating all forms of discrimination and inequalities in the workforce for the unemployed and those in work.
Projects must entail transnational co-operation with similar projects in other member states. In the light of local consultation, we propose that the Northern Ireland EQUAL Programme funding of £7 million throughout the period 2000-06 be directed at action under the two pillars of the European Employment Strategy; namely employability and equal opportunities. The benefit to the unemployed will be in the outcome of projects and that best practice in identifying inequality will be identified.
Does the Minister agree that the greatest challenge will be to design a training programme that the long-term unemployed can really benefit from, particularly in those areas that have suffered long-term unemployment?
EQUAL Programme funding is not intended - as I think the Member's question is suggesting - to go directly towards training programmes. The amount of funding, namely £7 million, designated over a six-year period, is rather small. However, the programme will identify best practice through a number of highly focused projects, which will deal with all issues of equality in the workplace, for those already in work and for the unemployed. There are a range of other programmes attracting greater levels of investment from my Department, which go directly to the training programmes that the Member has expressed concern about.
Is the Minister satisfied with the consultation process involved in the programme, especially in terms of the community and voluntary sectors?
I am not aware of any concern regarding this matter. Written consultation with almost 150 interested bodies was undertaken in June and July of this year. In addition, a number of workshops were held for special interest groups to outline their views on the EQUAL Programme.
The findings indicated that the greatest support was for facilitating access and return to the labour market, which is in the employability pillar. Under the equal opportunities pillar, reducing gender gaps and supporting job desegregation was also well supported. These two areas are included in the draft proposal. Promoting lifelong learning and opening up the business creation process for all were also popular areas in which initiatives can be taken. However, these areas are already being dealt with by significant Government and other EU programmes.
Educational Guidance Service for Adults
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what action he is taking to ensure equality of funding through the Educational Guidance Service for Adults to all constituencies.
I trust that the Member is referring to the Educational Guidance Service for Adults (EGSA) and its role in allocating and administering funds under the European Peace Programme. EGSA is contracted by the Department to undertake this role. In allocating funding it is required to contribute to the peace objective of benefiting communities in an equitable and balanced way, focusing particularly on those areas and sections of the population most affected by conflict and suffering most deprivation. Its specific contribution is to direct support towards those with the greatest need for educational guidance, counselling services and learner support.
It is interesting that my question follows a question on equality. Does the Minister agree that there is a continuing need for education in all constituencies? Is he aware of the £4·3 million spent during Peace I? Only £26,000 was spent in my constituency of East Antrim. If there is a continuing role for EGSA during Peace II, can the Minister ensure that the funding will be spread more widely to areas of need throughout Northern Ireland in the future? I am sure he will agree that all constituencies have such areas.
I agree that there are areas of need. EGSA responds to need. However, EGSA allocates its resources not on a constituency basis but on the basis of need that has been identified. That is in accordance with a fundamental principle of the current Programme for Government - namely, Targeting Social Need and simultaneously ensuring equality of opportunity for all. If, however, the Member has specific concerns I will be only too pleased to receive the details and to discuss the situation with him.
The Minister will be aware that adult learning centres are located in large towns, in urban environments. This has the unfortunate effect of discriminating against those in rural areas, where such centres are not available. Twenty-four per cent of the working population make up what we call the low skills base, and this is largely centred in rural communities. In view of that, I propose the creation of a mobile literacy centre, which would enable the more widely distributed rural communities to take advantage of adult learning programmes. Will the Minister consider funding such a scheme?
The Minister is always ready to consider schemes which address particular needs bearing on the responsibilities of his Department. Certainly, if Mr McGrady has particular suggestions in mind, I am open to receiving them and giving them detailed consideration.
Part of the question may anticipate issues relating to initiatives that may be taken with regard to a University for Industry, and the learndirect centres that will be established under its auspices. These are beginning to take root right across the North. Using modern means of electronic communication in particular, and ensuring that people from all backgrounds - and particularly those with special needs - have access to these centres, we will be able to go a long way towards meeting some of the concerns lying behind the Member's question.
These issues will recur with a later question.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline how Northern Ireland compares to other parts of the United Kingdom in relation to university places per head of population.
First, it is necessary to explain that the ratio of places to population is calculated using full-time undergraduate enrolments at higher education institutions in 1999-2000 against the 18-to-54-year-old population, and these figures are expressed per thousand of the population. The ratio of full-time undergraduate enrolments at Northern Irish higher education institutions per thousand of the population was just under 30 at 29·8. That compares to ratios of 32·4 in England, 40·3 in Wales and 42·3 in Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that information, which clearly shows that we are not just in deficit against England but in major deficit compared to Scotland and Wales in terms of the number of places in higher education. Has the Minister raised the issue with other UK Ministers, and what plans has he to expand undergraduate enrolments, perhaps through using the institutes of further and higher education to ensure that more graduate places can be supplied?
It is amazing how frequently the same issues come up under different questions. I addressed the issue in a previous question pertinent to the Member's supplementary. I repeat myself for the Member's benefit. As a result of the 1998 comprehensive spending review and my announcement earlier this year of Government support for the Springvale educational project, some 2,240 additional university places will be phased in between 1999 and 2004. Any further expansion will be subject to consideration of budget proposals. With respect to our further and higher education institutions - the FE colleges, as they are more commonly called - the Member may be aware of initiatives I am taking to expand enrolment in those institutions. In particular, as the experimental phase of the foundation degrees, which will be introduced next September, rolls out, we will see over the coming years an increased number of places made available.
Many students wish to pursue courses that are not currently available and unlikely ever to be made available in our existing institutions. Many Members will agree that we should afford students the opportunity to pursue studies across the water and not inhibit them by denying them access to the same levels of funding as those who attend institutions here enjoy.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom eolas a fháil i dtaca leis na tosca sna sé chondae is fiche.
Will the Minister outline how the Six Counties compare to the rest of Ireland in relation to university places per head of population? Has he explored or will he explore the feasibility of establishing a university in the north-west, across a number of cross-border sites, to meet future requirements and which may have the potential to generate EU funding?
There are many issues in that question. The Member is inviting me to stand up and unveil a new higher education policy in order to answer it.
Ach ar aon gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil suas le naoi gcéad ochtó is a hocht mac léinn ó Thuaisceart Éireann ag gabháil do chúrsaí sa Phoblacht agus go bhfuil, mar a thuigfidh an tUasal McElduff, a lán mac léinn ag teacht ón Deisceart go dtí an Tuaisceart mar a léirigh mé i mo fhreagra ar an gceist a chuir a chomrádaí, bean Uí Niallais. Tá comhoibriú ar siúl idir tuaisceart agus deisceart na tíre maidir le cúrsaí ardoideachais agus cuidím leis sin; agus tá sé sna pleananna s'agamsa maidir le cúrsaí trasteorann treisiú leis an méid comhoibrithe sin atá ar siúl. [Interruption]
A translation of the above paragraph, supplied by the Minister, is provided at the Annex to this Report (see page 36).
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. I was waiting for the translation.
As it was a supplementary question, I answered spontaneously, as I am quite capable of doing, in the Irish language, which, under Standing Orders, I am entitled to use.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. As a courtesy to those Members who do not understand Irish, the Minister is invited to translate his words.
I expressed myself spontaneously. My concentration at this point is on the next question. If somebody has kept a record of what I said in Irish I will certainly give a translation. Those who are anxious to receive a response will - [Interruption]
Mr P Robinson:
How can we ask supplementary questions if we do not understand the answer?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
After Question Time I will provide a written translation to all those who seek it.
Is it appropriate for Ministers to answer in this way?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Training and Employment Agency
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to make a statement on the Training and Employment Agency's Next Steps agency status.
I will endeavour to answer in the best - dare I say it? - Queen's English.
I refer the Member to my answer to Assembly question 293/00 on 13 November, when I announced that I had recently reviewed the agency's status and concluded that its formal status as a Next Steps agency should be discontinued with immediate effect.
Why has the Minister decided to do that now, ahead of a general review of the whole administration?
The agencies were created with the aim of allowing Ministers to set policy and gives officials responsibility for day-to-day operations, with greater freedom to manage, while being held publicly accountable for the quality of service. As a local Minister answerable to the public for all the Department's activities, I judged it to be no longer appropriate to have 90% of my Department in a separate agency. I took that step in order to enhance the administrative arrangements within the Department. It prejudices neither the terms and conditions of the people working in the agency nor any accountability to the House.
Access to Employment:
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment how the 'Work-Life Balance' campaign will promote access to employment among parents and part-time workers.
The 'Work-Life Balance' campaign will encourage employers to look closely at the business benefits of flexible working. The campaign will help parents to return to work or remain in employment in a way which will enable them to balance their work with their other responsibilities. Members may have noted that I inaugurated this campaign last week, and detailed information about it can be obtained, on request, from my Department.
Will the Minister expand on what prompted this campaign and which factors influenced the Department's thinking on this initiative?
The campaign itself has grown out of a number of previous initiatives within my Department, focusing on childcare needs and the development of what might be described as family-friendly policies in the workplace. It is designed to be much more inclusive, prompting employers to take account of many of the needs and interests of their workers, as opposed to focusing exclusively on the family needs of workers.
In many respects, it is likely to focus on the management of time, flexitime and part-time work. In this age, as the use of electronic means of communication in the workplace increases, we will have to consider whether it is necessary for all work to take place on the actual premises of an enterprise. It will consider a wide range of related issues, as well as workers' outside interests, such as service to the community. It will ask how employers might make adjustments to take account of those factors and create more positive conditions for employees, particularly in enterprises. Obviously, over the next three years of the campaign, time will tell how effectively those broad objectives are being met.