Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 11 December 2000 (continued)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what progress he has made on the delivery of learndirect in Northern Ireland and what plans he has to expand the service over the next year.
Ceist uimhir seacht.
Tá mé sásta ceist uimhir a seacht a fhreagairt. I am pleased to answer question 7. I was able to remember that much Irish.
My Department has been working closely with the University for Industry to introduce learndirect to Northern Ireland. The Belfast call centre of the learndirect helpline has taken over 5,000 calls about learning opportunities since it was established early in the summer. The University for Industry has so far endorsed 16 learning centres, four of which have already been operating as test centres, which will be operational by April of next year. Further additions are likely after April.
I welcome what the Minister has said. Can he go further and assure us that the learndirect service will be available in all parts of Northern Ireland and, in particular, in the rural areas?
Yes, I will give that general assurance. Members who closely follow adult education issues, in particular, will know that consortia are frequently being established in different areas across Northern Ireland, with the lead being taken by local further education colleges. These colleges are identifying, in their turn, various community organisations that might work in association with them to provide the services of learndirect centres, the establishment of which is an unfolding process. I trust that they will become available, as is necessary, across Northern Ireland.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what is the percentage of New Deal participants on the staff of his Department compared with that for the United Kingdom Department for Education and Employment; and if he will make a statement.
The Department currently employs 0·5% of its total staff through New Deal. In the Department for Education and Employment, 2·2% of staff are employed through New Deal. The latter employs New Deal staff in two grades while my Department recruits to the administrative assistant grade only.
The Northern Ireland figure is considerably lower than that in London. Does the Minister not agree that we should attempt to get closer to that standard of 2·2%, which does not seem to be a very demanding target?
Comparisons are not always easy to make. The Member is comparing my Department with the Department of Education and Employment in London, which is very different in terms of scale and scope. The Training and Employment Agency has held recruitment competitions in Belfast, Derry and North Down, specifically for New Deal participants. The vacancies were circulated to New Deal personal advisers throughout Northern Ireland, who preselected and encouraged their clients to apply for the posts.
No upper limit was placed on the number of posts available for New Deal participants, who also retained the right to apply for posts in the Civil Service through open competition. We have certainly been making progress in trying to encourage a greater level of application with at least two posts filled by New Deal participants.
Further and Higher Education:
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what progress he has made in implementing the recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force report on further and higher education.
I am indeed committed to passing legislation to give effect to those Disability Rights Task Force recommendations on education which fall within the remit of my Department. The nature and timing of such legislation is under consideration.
What would the main impact of any new legislation be?
The recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force report cover areas such as consultation, statutory code of practice, rights of redress in cases of complaint, continuance of non-legislative measures, and the extension of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Overall, the main impact would be to extend comprehensive and enforceable rights to education for disabled people in Northern Ireland on the same basis as in the rest of the UK.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Time is up. We must move on.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister responded to the original question posed by Mr Ford, the Member for South Antrim, leading to a series of additional points including one raised by Mr McElduff in Irish, to which the Minister responded in Irish without any translation. Will you investigate whether that is in accordance with the procedures of the House? It is particularly important in the light of the fact that it meant that Members lacking the questionable benefit of an ability to speak Irish were unable to ask a further supplementary question.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
As you know, Standing Order 73 permits Members to speak in the language of their choice. That is clear. However, I have sympathy for those Members who are restricted in their contributions, especially during Question Time. Nonetheless, Standing Order 19(7) shows that there has been no breach of order, for the question was put in Irish and was answered in Irish. The answer to the supplementary question was therefore understood by the Member who asked it.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Do you consider that the Minister fulfilled his responsibility to the Assembly by answering in Irish when Members were not able to understand the response?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The Speaker has ruled that according to Standing Orders the Member is entitled to speak in the language of his choice. As you are aware, the Minister has offered to provide Members with a written translation, and that is acceptable.
Mr S Wilson:
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is one thing for the Minister to offer a translation after the event, but how were Members supposed to ask supplementary questions on the basis of an answer they could not understand?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I refer the Member to Standing Order 19(7). The answer to the original question was given in English. The supplementary question was responded to in Irish. Standing Order 19(7) says that questions should be answered as clearly and as fully as possible and that they are not debatable. A supplementary question may be asked to elucidate an answer. Such supplementary questions shall be answered individually as they arise, and further supplementary questions may be asked only at the discretion of the Speaker.
I want clarification. For some years now, a Member who speaks in a language other than English has followed with an English translation so that Members who do not speak the language of delivery may understand. Are you, Madam Deputy Speaker, saying that we are moving away from that understanding or tradition? I want to establish that this is a departure from the way in which the Assembly has been run for some years.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
There is no requirement in Standing Orders for a Member to provide a translation. The issue can be raised with the Business Committee, whose members, I am sure, have listened to today's debate and will examine the matter.
Purchase of Housing Executive Dwellings
asked the Minister for Social Development to explain current legislation which denies persons aged 60 or over the opportunity to purchase their own homes from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive; and if he will make a statement.
Mr C Murphy
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail any plans he has to review the criteria for purchasing Housing Executive dwellings.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
I propose to take questions 1 and 4 together.
The design of the Housing Executive house sales scheme, rather than legislation, defines house sales policy. Under the scheme the over-60s can purchase general housing. Dwellings that are suitable for elderly people, such as single-storey or ground-floor accommodation, are not for sale if a tenant is over 60 years of age when the tenancy is first awarded. The purpose of this exclusion is to ensure that enough properties are available to meet the increasing demand for accommodation to meet the needs of elderly people. The Housing Executive has confirmed that a review of the scheme is planned and that it hopes to hold consultations with groups representing elderly people in the new year.
I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome the review.
Can the Minister confirm that he has had representations from many local authorities on this issue? Does he not agree that persons of the age stated in the question have probably been in public housing for a considerable time, have probably paid the purchase value, and more, of their dwellings and, because of longer life expectancy, are likely to live in their homes for much longer than was originally anticipated? Should these people not have the right to own their houses?
I have some sympathy with the Member on this matter and assure him that the Housing Executive is currently in the process of conducting a lengthy review. In my opinion, there is some ambiguity, and we will look into the matter very closely.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the news that a review is under way into this aspect of Housing Executive policy. Most Members will agree that the current practice is fairly arbitrary and discriminatory. Has this policy been tested against equality legislation requirements and human rights provisions? If not, will that happen during the review that he proposes to undertake?
I can confirm that it has been equality- tested. I am not prepared to accept that the practice is discriminatory, but I am prepared to state that it needs to be reviewed and that it will be reviewed.
I was glad to hear the Minister's reply. He has already answered part of my supplementary question. In the past, supply and demand were often used as an excuse for abuse in this sector. Can the Minister assure the House that during this review good, clear policies will be proposed to counter arguments of abuse and that there are people in the Department and in the Executive who are well able to devise such policies to enable house sales to be made available to the over-60s?
The Member has stated that there is a degree of potential abuse. I agree, and for that reason we have a degree of ambiguity. However, there is enough expertise and knowledge to ensure that we can get the problem sorted out reasonably well and to most people's satisfaction.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister agree that there appears to be an inconsistency in the current policy? If someone under the age of 60 moves into a house that is deemed to be specifically for elderly people, he can purchase it. However, someone over the age of 60 who moves into the same house cannot. Can the Minister assure us that that aspect will be dealt with in the review? And when will the review be published?
The Member confirms the points we are trying to make. He shares my concern regarding the ambiguity. The review will take place early in the new year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that indication. Will the review look at the anomalies in inherited tenancies and in the ability to purchase houses? If legislation is required, will the Minister make a bid for legislative time in the House?
May I remind the Member that we have a new Housing Bill in the legislative timetable? It is a considerable Bill, with 200-plus clauses, but I can assure the Member that the matter will be addressed. We hope that by the time the review has taken place and the new Housing Bill has been debated, we will have come up with most of the answers.
asked the Minister for Social Development why there is no mention of mixed housing in the draft Programme for Government.
People are entitled to choose where they wish to live. While there are many examples of areas in the private sector where people from different communities live side by side in harmony, the circumstances are such that the majority of applicants for social housing still choose to live where people from their particular community predominate. While the Programme for Government makes no mention of mixed housing, I hope that over time the "growing as a community" aspect of it will create an environment in which community background is not a factor in housing choice.
I thank the Minister for his response. The Programme for Government contains plenty of rhetoric about promoting community relations but little that is specific. Given that housing in urban areas - which include middle-class as well as working-class areas - is now more segregated than at any time for 30 years, and given that many people who may wish to live in mixed areas find themselves forced into particular areas because of the present lack of mixed areas, is it not incumbent on the Minister to do something to promote mixed housing?
That is being looked at. I reassure the Member that the Housing Executive is currently considering a report from Queen's University that deals with the potential for mixed housing in new social housing developments.
Town Centre Management
asked the Minister for Social Development what progress has been made towards a White Paper on town centre management.
The former Department of the Environment commissioned consultants to report on town centres to ensure that those outside Belfast and Londonderry were thriving and healthy. The consultants have now reported, and my Department has taken the lead on the report in consultation with other relevant Departments. Following widespread consultation earlier this year, a conference was held in Armagh on 26 October 2000 at which a wide range of interests focusing on key issues in the report was discussed. The report's 27 recommendations, if accepted, would affect the policies of several Departments. An interdepartmental steering group is overseeing the work of co-ordinating a response to the recommendations. It is anticipated that relevant Ministers will receive the recommendations by March 2001, when I will decide whether the Assembly or other interests need to be consulted and, if so, when and in what way.
I thank the Minister for his answer and for the fact that he recognises interdepartmental responsibilities in this matter. What plans does he have to work with his colleague the Minister of the Environment to impose a moratorium on out-of-town retail developments in order to protect the fabric of town centres in Northern Ireland?
It was recognised from the outset that recommendations in the town centre reinvigoration report might need to be reflected in the regional strategic framework and other government policies. For that reason, an interdepartmental steering group, comprising officials responsible for planning and transport, was established to take these matters forward in an integrated manner.
What provision has been made in the draft budget to promote the reinvigoration of town centres?
That is a difficult question, as we have not yet had the final submission. Once we have been made aware of that, we will examine budgetary figures. I will write to the Member with a more detailed answer.
Availability of Good-Quality,
Sir John Gorman
asked the Minister for Social Development what steps he is taking to ensure that good-quality, affordable housing is available to all in Northern Ireland.
I am taking a number of steps in that regard in this financial year. My Department has allocated approximately £60 million in grants to housing associations. Along with the private finance that they lever in, that money will enable them to provide approximately 1,400 good-quality houses for rent. In addition, over £5 million has been allocated to the Northern Ireland Co-Ownership Housing Association. That will enable around 560 participants on low incomes to become homeowners.
Sir John Gorman:
Has the Minister taken into account the large amount of affordable social housing that is going to be required, along with the 8,500 private homes which are calculated as being required in the regional plan? Will he consider taking steps in the forthcoming Housing Bill to emulate the situation in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland? In those places, when planning permission for a sizeable development of land for housing purposes is asked for, part of the land is allocated for social or affordable housing. That is the rule enforced in the Republic of Ireland. It might assist people in the Province - particularly young people who cannot afford a mortgage - to be able to have such housing. If the Minister would like further information on the Republic's actions, I would be happy to give it to him.
I do not want to sound unconcerned, but I cannot answer for the Republic of Ireland. There are times, perhaps, when they have difficulty answering for themselves. I am lost as to what the Member's real question is. Is he asking me to consider a mixture of social and private housing, or is he asking me to consider prices in relation to socal and private housing? I would like clarification.
Sir John Gorman:
I am happy to clarify. In planning matters, there is discordance between the Department for Social Development and the Department of the Environment. That should be attended to, because otherwise developers will build large estates for private purposes on some of the best sites in Northern Ireland. If this were a requirement before planning permission was given, affordable housing might be made available.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
As I understand it, the question is: should a developer be required to set aside a parcel of land for social housing?
I am unable to answer that question on the hoof. I will look at it and come back to the Member and anyone else who is interested in the answer. That is the best I can offer at this stage.
Is the Minister telling the House that he is unaware of the issue of social housing, which has been under discussion for at least two years? Many elected representatives believed that Government plans to deal with social housing would be developed. [Interruption]
I am speaking to the Minister, not to Mr Peter Robinson.
I might digress a little to inform Mr Dallat that I have been interested in housing for 30 years - long before I entered the Assembly. As a district councillor, I have represented Housing Executive tenants for 27 years, and I have worked as an estate agent for 29 years. I am quite aware of the housing situation in Northern Ireland. I do not claim to know it all, by any means, and perhaps not even half as much as the Member knows. However, I certainly claim to have some knowledge of housing in Northern Ireland. I have great concern for social housing and even greater concern for house prices.
As the Minister responsible for housing, I am most anxious to ensure that everyone in every Northern Ireland family has a good roof over his head. I am already on record as having stated my belief that a good home is not a privilege but a fundamental right. I am working hard towards achieving low-priced housing - if that is how one chooses to term it - which is within everyone's grasp. I hope that that reassures the Member.
Local Advice Services
asked the Minister for Social Development what steps he is taking to enhance the provision of advice services at local level.
Arrangements for the support of local advice services were introduced in April 1995, when lead responsibility for advice services provision in Northern Ireland was allocated to district councils as part of their wider responsibilities under the community services programme. I shall shortly be considering proposals for the future of the community services programme, including local advice services, as a result of the recently completed major review of the programme.
I should like to direct the Minister's attention to the serious underfunding of citizens advice bureaux in almost all district council areas, with his Department now contributing an average of only £15,000 per year to each. Is he aware that for the last 10 years there has been a moratorium on increases by the former Department of Education - something that presents enormous difficulties to advice centres and district councils? In view of the fact that the Social Security Agency has received a budget increase of 7%, will he consider unfreezing this moratorium on the rate support grant directly distributed by district councils to advice centres? After all, the advice centres and the councils are now supporting citizens advice bureaux to a greater extent than the Department itself.
I could answer this question in four parts. The Social Security Agency has implemented an information, advice and assistance policy aimed at providing a more comprehensive advice service to its customers. This was communicated to customers through the new customer charter, which I launched on 11 October. The charter was widely publicised in the media and gives a clear commitment to customers that staff will provide information and advice about all benefits, as well as assisting with form completion.
The advice centres?
I shall come to them in a second.
This service is available in all front offices. As a result, I sincerely hope and believe that the CAB's workload will be reduced. If information and advice are to be given through SSA offices, it must follow that fewer people will be going to the Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB). Having said that, I also wish to express my appreciation of the CAB's work. It does an excellent job across the Province. I recognise that, along with other groups, the CAB has had a moratorium on funds, but that is the position. We hope that after the announcement of 11 October its workload will be reduced.
Town Centre Management
asked the Minister for Social Development what plans he has to provide central funding for town centre management partnerships.
The consultants' report on town centre reinvigoration recommends that town centre management, as an approach, should be promoted as an essential pre- requisite to funding being provided for town centre schemes.
My Department believes that town centre management can play an important part in improving town centres throughout Northern Ireland and is supportive of this recommendation. My Department is therefore exploring the possibility of bidding for funding for town centre management in the next tranche of European Union funding. I will let the Member know the outcome.
Does the Minister agree that it would be unfair if his Department, on one hand, were to encourage town centre management partnerships and, on the other, were to refuse to fund these, leaving them, as his Colleagues have done, to be funded entirely by local councils?
I take the point that the Member is trying to make. There would not be much point in our initiating town centre management strategies and then walking away after bringing them to a certain stage. Once we have the report we will be looking at all aspects, and I will report to the Assembly on the particular matter. It is a valid point - there would not be much point if there were nothing available to the towns to get on with the schemes.
Like others, I welcome the concept of town centre management and all that it can do, such as co-operation with local business, local authorities, and so on. Can the Minister state briefly when a town is a town or a large village or a small town? What is the definition of "town"?
I do not know whether the Member is asking me whether Castlederg is a town, village or city, and I will not attempt to answer that question at this stage. If the Member can be patient, we will bring forward this report, which he will find enlightening. It will be clearly defined in that report exactly what is a town and what size of population will deem it to be such. I will ensure that Mr Hussey gets a copy of the report, and he will clearly see whether Castlederg and similar towns are included in that definition.
Community and Voluntary Sector:
Mr B Hutchinson
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the progress made on the compact between Government and the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.
The compact was published in December 1998, and the Assembly endorsed it in February 2000. It gave a number of commitments to actions that would support and lend substance to the values and principles outlined in it, including the preparation of a supporting document, namely the strategy. This sets out how the Government will put the principles and commitments in the compact into practice and keep it under review. The strategy will be the yardstick against which performance on the implementation impact of the compact will be measured. The strategy is now well advanced, and a draft should be ready for public consultation by the summer.
Mr B Hutchinson:
Will the Minister detail what he means by the term "the public"? I am concerned, for I am aware that a number of area partnerships and others are asking questions, saying that they have not had many details. I ask the Minister to ensure that any consultation is wide.
The compact applies to the relationship between the voluntary and community sector and government, both central and local. That includes Departments, departmental public bodies, statutory agencies and district councils. I hope that the Member will agree that the net has been thrown fairly wide.
Housing Executive Tenants: Debt
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the debt of Housing Executive tenants for each of the last three years.
Existing tenant debt in the last three years is as follows: for 1997-98, £10·8 million; for 1998-99, £11·5 million; for 1999-2000, £12·3 million.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am not surprised that it indicates an upward trend. Will the Minister take that into account when determining the new rent and rates rise that will be levied on those who rent Housing Executive properties? It is evident that as more and more people are now in low-paid employment, they have more difficulties in paying their Housing Executive debt.
I have listened carefully to the advice given to me. I can assure the Member that it will be so. I also want to reassure the Assembly in relation to rent arrears. This is not something that the Housing Executive takes lightly. It has a very robust policy for gathering in rent arrears. It is something that I do not take lightly either. There should be a determined effort to ensure that all tenants pay their rents; it is a tragedy when only some are actually doing so. One half pays, and the other half lets it. I do not think it is as bad as that, but I am concerned about the level of rent arrears. It is a matter that we will be considering seriously. I can assure the Member that it will not be lightly treated by any means.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Will he provide the Assembly with a detailed analysis of the debt that is outstanding on a regional basis and, indeed, on a local district office basis so that Members of this House and the general public can see where the debt is?
I do not have a problem with doing that if is possible to do so. If it is possible, the Department will provide that information, for it is not trying to hide away from this issue. It is a good question, and I will certainly address it. I will write to the Member with all the details that he has asked for.
Housing Executive: North Belfast Strategy
Mr A Maginness
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail what priority he has given in the Department's draft budget 2001-02 for a start to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's Strategy for North Belfast.
I have already publicly stated my support for the housing strategy for north Belfast, which is a programme designed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to meet a particular need in that part of the city. The Housing Executive has a duty to tackle north Belfast's chronic housing need aggressively, to stamp out bad housing and cut down on urgent housing need. I am determined that that will be done with energy and creativity. This is an operational matter, however, and, that being the case, the timing and allocation of funding will be the responsibility of the Housing Executive.
Mr A Maginness:
I want to express disappointment with the Minister's reply. He has indicated that he supports the Housing Executive's north Belfast strategy. However, he fails to produce the means whereby this strategy can be fully implemented. As he knows well, north Belfast has the worst housing in all of Belfast - indeed, throughout Northern Ireland. The Minister's reply is therefore somewhat laissez-faire in its thrust and lacking in the commitment that one would expect from a Minister.
I share the Member's concern and his disappointment, but I want to re-emphasise that a bid of £4·1 million was submitted. Unfortunately, the Executive does not share the concerns of Mr Maginness and myself. Its members do not give this the same priority as we do. I regret that, and I have no doubt that he regrets it.
It would be better, however, if he were to ride in behind my efforts rather than trying to throw roadblocks in the way. I do not want to misrepresent him - normally he is a very genuine individual - but Mr Maginness should accept that the best effort was made. Unfortunately, the Executive did not interpret it as such.
I will value the Member's support in the future in making any representations that he can. If he wants to come and speak to me on this issue, I am quite ready and willing to listen.
Mr B Hutchinson:
Does the Minister think it would be useful for the six North Belfast MLAs to meet with him and then approach the Executive on that basis?
Mr Hutchinson is a member of the Committee for Social Development. He knows the number of times I have attended Committee meetings, and he is aware that I have discussed this matter with him and his Colleagues. He can gauge whether I am sincere. I cannot force him to make up his mind on that. However, I remind him that there are a number of Members on that Committee and that they have ample opportunity to make representations to me through the Committee. I can assure him, his Colleagues and the House that I want to see the north Belfast strategy go forth, irrespective of what Members may think of my political views.
Mr S Wilson:
Can the Minister remind us how many SDLP Ministers are on the Executive, which refused the bid for money for north Belfast?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Time is up.
The answer is three.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Perhaps the Minister will provide a written response to that question.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)