Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 12 December 2000 (continued)
That is my question - the Member should listen. Is there a Budget allocation for targeting social need and the equality provisions required by the agreement? Secondly, what impact will the increase in the regional rate have, particularly on the retail sector? As other Members have said, that issue raises some concerns. The Minister may not be able to answer today, but I would appreciate an answer before next week.
To be honest, Mr Speaker, I thought the Member was making good progress without asking questions.
Departments were asked to consider the implications of the new targeting social need programme and the requirements of section 75 for their budgets. That occurred at the bidding stage. I am sure that the Member is aware that all bids that the Department of Finance and Personnel received were copied to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Equality Unit and the Economic Policy Unit.
As part of its draft targeting social need action plan and proposed equality scheme, the Department of Finance and Personnel is determined to assist all Departments in measuring and focusing their equality and targeting social need actions. The Executive are committed to those actions, and all Departments have responsibility for them. I hope that the departmental Committees will take an active interest in those matters.
As I said, there have been two consultation conferences since the announcement of the draft Budget, and community and voluntary sector groups were invited to participate in the consideration of the equality and targeting social needs aspects of the Budget. Our considerations benefited from the queries from that sector, and we want to build on that in the future.
The Executive's commitment to equality and targeting social need cannot be measured simply by a particular budget line. It is not a matter of each Department's having a mere budget line for equality; it is a matter of ensuring that we have an overall Budget for equality.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Birnie):
I would like to ask the Minister about paragraphs 26, 27 and 28 of his statement, which relate to student support. I welcome his statement, as, I am sure, does the Committee - as far as it can, ahead of further clarification from the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
In fiscal terms, these paragraphs are the opposite of the dance of the seven veils - layers are to be progressively added, rather than the reverse. The Minister states in paragraph 26 that
"there will be scope to go further, when the time is ripe for more specific decisions."
What is the timescale, given that we are moving closer to the start of the next academic year in autumn 2001? Will the further provisions for student support be in place by autumn 2001?
My statement made clear that the Executive have already made an initial commitment in response to proposals brought forward by the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. That initial response is in the departmental budget figures and amounts to £5 million next year, £7 million in the second year and £8 million in the third.
As I said in the statement, we have also earmarked £15 million and £20 million respectively from the Executive programme funds for the second and third years. Those resources are there so that the proposals that finally come forward on student financial support will have first call on that money. The Minister, like all Ministers, is obviously free to bring forward other bids and proposals in the course of future Budgets and monitoring rounds. The Executive are making these provisions now on the basis of the three-year planning that we are trying to bring forward for the Assembly's consideration.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr A Maginness):
There are many good aspects to the statement today but, with particular reference to regional development, I welcome the Executive's commitment to introduce free travel for the elderly and their important initiative to cover three quarters of the estimated costs, as opposed to the half previously suggested. I congratulate the Minister and the Executive on that.
Did the decision to provide three quarters of the funding come from the Executive? Will the Minister and the Executive encourage the Department for Regional Development to get on with the vital task of tidying up details and discussing with local councils - which are important - the need to introduce this important change as soon as possible, to meet the deadline of April 2002?
That is a significant commitment on the part of the Executive Committee. The Executive offered the commitment to introduce a free travel scheme for the elderly in the Programme for Government. There were already proposals under way, and papers had previously come to the Executive in this regard.
A scheme such as this would not be funded from a single source, since, as a result of the squeeze on resources, we do not have the money available at this time to fund it fully at regional government level. Since it involves several councils, as well as the transport providers, it will take time to work through. I have recently spoken to the Minister for Regional Development about this, and I am aware that he has been working with a number of councils to bring forward the scheme as previously planned.
The allocation that we have been able to make in the draft Budget should assist the Minister in doing that and should help in those areas where people are reluctant to become, or resist becoming, involved in supporting and contributing to a comprehensive scheme across the region. I hope that the additional resources now made available in the Budget will encourage that. There were already commitments in the draft Budget to an assisted fares scheme, but this takes them further. I hope it will assist the Minister and the Department in bringing forward the scheme that the Executive Committee want to see.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Mr Carrick):
Further to Dr Birnie's question, I want to press the Minister on student support.
I note in the Minister's statement that provision is made for some aspects of the student support review and, in the case of further education, for some key aspects. Will the Minister tell us when funding will be made available to both higher and further education sectors to address in full the student neglect acknowledged in the Minister's statement?
I indicated in the statement that the Executive Committee have now made provision - some directly into the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment departmental budget line, particularly for some items for further education students, and some in the new directions of the Executive programme funds.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment brought proposals to the Executive, which they agreed last week. He will make the details of those proposals public and available to the Assembly Committee later this week. Of course, as well as the Committee and others wanting to consider those proposals for their purposes, the Executive have to subject proposals to further evaluation and appraisal. There will also be the all-important equality consultation. That is why the Executive have made the provision through earmarked allocation into the Executive programme funds.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I note that four paragraphs have been devoted to the question of student finance, which might be, and probably is, gratifying to the students. However, one might ask, where is the meat?
The extra £5 million will not go anywhere near to meeting the current question of student hardship and debt. What did the Executive receive from Dr Farren in relation to student finance? Also, can the Minister confirm that the increased allocation in the revised budget for higher and further education is the result of representations from Dr Farren?
Finally, in last night's 'Belfast Telegraph' we read about the £300 million shortfall in the health budget. Is that just speculation, or can we do something about it?
First, I have already indicated, both in the statement and in an earlier answer, that proposals brought forward by Dr Farren to the Executive last week were agreed by the Executive Committee. It was on that basis that, subsequently, the Executive Committee agreed the Budget and the Budget allocations. That is how the Executive work, in case people do not understand.
The proposals that came forward as a result of the review were the subject of work and contact between officials in the Departments of Finance and Personnel and Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. There were also bilateral discussions between Dr Farren and myself, just as there are between other Ministers and myself when significant new items come forward. This was a significant new item that was not in the draft Budget, simply because the review of student finance had not concluded and been brought to the stage of proposals. That is why those provisions are there.
I cannot go into detail about the exact number of meetings we had or about the amounts bid for. As most Ministers do, and will recognise, the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment came in with proposals at a higher spending level than the Executive have been able to meet.
If we get into the details of bids then I might have to say which Ministers were objecting to those concerning further and higher education. I am not sure that would be fair to one Minister or another, because of the possible implications it might have for their Departments. If we are to open up the debate on the basis of what each Minister said, there might be red faces in several corners of the Chamber.
I appreciate the initial set of costs of restructuring government in Northern Ireland. However, what happened to the commitments to savings promised by making administration more effective and efficient? Indeed, in Annexe C we see increases of 10% in total departmental running costs. Future increases in running costs are also listed in the main statement.
Furthermore, I, like other Members, would voice my extreme concern at proposals for the ongoing rise in the regional rate. We are finishing off the third part of the devolved Government's commitment to the 8% rise, running to - over the three year-period - 26% or so. Can the Minister explain how, in the public expenditure plans table, the increase in "Regional Rate and other items" is 23% from 2001-02 and in the following year it will be 29%? How do these figures relate to the 8%? I realise that the Minister has addressed the correction of previous anomalies, but what other items bring up these percentages? We are really concerned that the Executive are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that small and medium-size enterprises in Northern Ireland will suffer.
Finally, I want to welcome the commitment to press for further funding. Major infrastructural improvement -
Order. I plead with Members to be more concise and to limit themselves to one question. We have already had two questions, expanded upon by the Member, who is now making a statement.
I will ask a final question. The Minister has said that there is a certain amount of additional European funding - the transitional Objective 1 programme and the community initiatives. He stressed that they were additional. However, paragraph 13 of his statement says
"Unlike Peace II, these do not provide additional spending power to the region over and above our Barnett based public spending allocation".
Will the Minister explain that?
The two points made by the Member form the explanation. The only additional money will be from the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. When we are referring to additional money, we are talking about the Peace II programme.
The transitional Objective 1 programme and the various EU initiatives are not additional. The Member might have been thinking of the point I made in the statement with regard to the further match funding that will come forward in relation to some of those measures.
As regards the review of public administration, we must look carefully at the needs that arise. That includes the additional work that has been generated by devolution - the Assembly, the work of the Committees, the questions that are asked by Members, and the higher rate of public contact and interaction with the Departments. Additional costs come in at those levels.
In terms of the overall provision for departmental running costs, the rise from £628·4 million to £691·4 million is not totally accounted for by the type of running cost pressures I have described. A large part of that increase relates back to the change in the treatment of the welfare-to-work programme, which has been transferred into the main departmental expenditure limit. The running costs associated with that are now counted as part of the departmental running costs in the overall departmental expenditure limit. That partly explains the bump in the figures. We must also make realistic provision for departmental running costs at this stage. It is not good enough for us to limp along, and continually make provision for departmental running costs in monitoring rounds, if the best way to deal with the issue is to take account of the fact that departmental running costs were originally underestimated. That is what we have tried to do.
In relation to the regional rate, I do not like a regional rate increase of that level, or to project it over a number of years. It has clearly not made me any friends in this Chamber, but the Executive have to do this if additional money is needed. The Member's point about the Barnett formula seems to suggest that he recognises that additional money is needed. We will not be in a strong position to tell the Treasury that we need an improvement on the Barnett formula if the Treasury can in turn say "Yes, you are looking for more money from English taxpayers, but you are not prepared to ask for more money from the people of Northern Ireland." Members should remember that although the rate increase of 8% is significant, it does not compare adversely with projections across the water. Northern Ireland's average rate levels are considerably lower. They are a fraction of what households across the water pay.
I will be both precise and concise. Can the Minister indicate what measures and consultations were undertaken on the Budget in respect of equality issues?
(MrDeputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
As I indicated in an earlier reply, Departments provided equality assessments of their bids when they were submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel. These were then copied to the Equality Unit. The assessments were taken into account during consideration of the Budget proposals. The draft Budget was also, of course, the subject of equality consultation under my Department's draft equality scheme. The draft Budget was circulated to all of the 120 groups that my Department's equality scheme recognises, and copies were also made available in alternative formats. In addition to the opportunity to respond in writing with their views, all the groups were invited to attend two consultation conferences, which I addressed, in Derry and Belfast on 22 and 23 November. I also received a report on the views expressed by delegates, which helped to guide our final recommendations and future thinking.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Minister of Finance and Personnel came to the House today in an attempt to create the perception that his pockets are stuffed full of cash for Christmas. He is a bit like Bruce Forsythe, saying to the Executive Ministers "Come on down. The price is right". Can he explain to the House whether this is an economic miracle or a mirage? In examining the figures, does he agree that today's statement - which follows fast on the heels of his statement of 20 November on the reallocation of funds to Departments - will cause the community to note that Nationalist-controlled Departments are receiving considerably more money than Unionist- controlled Departments in an allocation being made by a Nationalist Finance Minister? How will he address that issue and the perceptions created by it?
In particular, I note that today he is allocating an additional £400,000 to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That results in a budget that is some £8 million less than it takes to run the entire Assembly. How does he justify that amount of money going to that Department, given that we never see its two invisible men - the junior Ministers, Mr Haughey and the other one?
Will the Minister tell the House whether the additional £2 million for agriculture will make a difference? Can he explain why he has not made any further allocation to the £10 million deficit in funding for the vision group? He knows that it is seeking £10 million, and it is not getting it.
It appears that the Minister's allocation today is giving money to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but, yet again, the farmers' pockets remain empty. Does the Minister agree that, if you were to do a quick tally of the sums, the Unionist Ministers outside of the Executive appear, once again, to have done considerably better than their Unionist Colleagues who wish to attend the Executive? Does he also agree that those Unionists should leave the Executive and that they are, perhaps, failing to fight their corner in the Executive?
I thank the Member for a question that, once again, reveals his obsessive sectarianism. The fact is that Departments here are served and headed by Ministers from several parties. I do not treat Departments according to the party label of their Ministers. I think that Ministers would bear me out on the fact that I have equal and proper dealings with all of them and their Departments. If Mr Paisley were insinuating that there is any discrimination on my part, I would ask him to take the appropriate course of a proper legal challenge on that basis. There is no discrimination on my part or on the part of the Executive Committee.
His final bit of point-scoring to try to get at the Ulster Unionist Ministers actually undermined his initial point. He tried to say that I was discriminating against people on party political grounds, but then he ended up talking about how well - as he would put it - the DUP Ministers appeared to be doing. Either we are treating people fairly and properly, or we are not.
As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I am treating people fairly, and so are the Executive. We do not look at Departments according to the party political attachments of their Ministers. We look at them on the basis of the services they run and according to their customers' needs. Their customers are the Northern Ireland public - Unionist and Nationalist alike.
As a Minister, I have taken a Pledge of Office, as have all other Ministers, to serve equally all the people of Northern Ireland. I am alarmed at the suggestion by a Member of this House that Ministers might be, should be or could be working on the basis of motives depending on the person who is coming along with the request. It does not matter to me what Department or what area applications come from, for I, my Department and the Executive Committee at large are treating people according to our public service needs and priorities. We treat all members of the Northern Ireland public equally.
Mr B Bell:
I am glad that the Minister has highlighted the under-investment in infrastructure that has been inherited from the direct rule regime. I am sure, however, that he is aware that in England, Scotland and Wales this is being addressed by private finance initiatives of various kinds, as well as public sector ones. Why is there is no commitment in the Budget to ratchet up the investment levels in infrastructure here by partnership with the private sector?
The Executive recognise, as did I in my statement, that there has been historical underfunding in relation to infrastructure. We are trying to address that in a couple of ways - by the allocations that are going to the Departments which have key responsibility for infrastructure and by the further creation of Executive programme funds.
The details, management and criteria of those funds have yet to be fully agreed by the Executive, but using them to generate a higher and more productive participation in private finance initiatives and public and private partnerships is one important consideration that we have in mind. Obviously, our interest in private finance initiatives and public and private partnerships is not confined to infrastructure, but this is a very obvious area in which we can try to improve our rate of investment.
We will be working with the relevant Departments to see that they are able to do that with the funds available to them. We will also be working with them in relation to what funds might be made available from the Executive programme funds in relation to whatever bids might come in.
I welcome the revised Budget and the increases for all Departments. Will the Minister comment on the importance of public service agreements (PSA) in the pursuit of good government? What relation do the PSAs have to the allocations in the Budget statement?
Public service agreements link the resources allocated in the Budget to the objectives of the Northern Ireland Departments, regardless of who heads those Departments. They aim to deliver modern and accountable public services. Quantifiable targets are set for specific improvements in services or for the results that those services will achieve. PSAs show what the public can expect from the resources allocated in the Budget.
Public service agreements should be a key instrument for the Executive and the Assembly. When the Assembly votes money for a Budget, Members will want to know what the money is for. The Assembly will want to ensure that it can monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of that spend. PSAs will help the Assembly to discharge that requirement satisfactorily.
The Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Poots):
I would like the Minister to clarify an item in the table entitled "Increases to Allocations to Departments and EPFs from Draft Budget" on page 9. It shows that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will receive an additional allocation of £2 million and an extra £4.5 million for EU programmes. The total shown is £1 million. I note that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is missing, although I am not suggesting that he has made off with the other £5·5 million. Can the Minister explain the anomaly?
Will the Minister also tell us what bid he received from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for e-government? The initial request was for £14·9 million, but that was not met in the initial round. E-government must be taken seriously if we want to have a modern, serviceable Government.
An initial request for £500,000 for victims' groups was not met in the first round. Subsequently, an offer of £200,000 was made. Can the Minister not allocate more money to victims, rather than allocating £400,000 to departmental spending?
As the Member said, an allocation was made to victims' groups in the October monitoring round. The Department of Finance and Personnel is unable to meet every bid, even if it comes from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Earlier, Mr Poots's Colleague appeared to suggest that the Department of Finance and Personnel was being unduly soft and generous to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, because of the allocation of an additional £400,000. Members should be consistent in their approach to such issues.
We all attach huge importance to e-government. The bid from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister was not a bid for its own work, but for work throughout Government. All Departments must continue to develop that work from their baseline. In the future, Departments may make a bid to the service modernisation fund for work relating to e-government.
The additional allocation to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that is shown in the table on page 9 is over and above what was in the draft Budget, namely £2 million. The correct figure is £6·5 million; what appears in the table is a simple typo.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
I wel- come the Minister's comments, but with a degree of caution. The Minister said that there was a backlog of under- investment in many Departments, but he left out the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. How much money will be available for LEADER+ and the rural development programme? Rural development committees in councils are quite concerned and do not know where they stand.
I thank the Member for his question. There was a significant increase in the draft Budget, and that increase is sustained here. The increase in the draft Budget recognises that many Department of Agriculture and Rural Development programmes have been underfunded. It also tried to take account of some of the new work coming forward, such as the vision group. We gave an advance for the beef quality scheme, and that is a clear indication that other proposals from the vision group can also draw on Executive programme funds.
With regard to community initiatives, LEADER+ focuses on rural development, and that will be additional to the figures that are provided in the budget table for rural development. The INTERREG programme will have a rural development aspect as well. Proposals relating to INTERREG and LEADER+ have now been given to the Commission and will be the subject of negotiation over some five months. The amounts that we are reckoning on for LEADER + are included in the tables in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's budget line.
Will the Minister explain the significant increase of about £6·2 million in the 2000-01 capital allocation for roads in this year's Budget? Next year, compared to the October budget expenditure and to today's announcement, there is a further £9·6 million.
Furthermore, will the Minister confirm that the increase for transport in this year's allocation of £72 million, next year's £93 million, and the subsequent year's £130 million, is largely as a result of increased expenditure on railways?
I thank the Member for his question. He mentioned several points from the Budget. The Executive are trying to respond to the needs in key areas of infrastructure such as roads. People need to take account of the Chancellor's initiative money in the Department for Regional Development's budget line, which is essentially for roads. That is where the total figure for spend on roads comes from, and we have been trying to make a commitment in that area.
The fact that there will be a fall-off in the Chancellor's initiative represents a problem that happens when one-off, time-limited benefits come to an end. We have made a commitment to rail transport, as we did in the draft Budget, that we believe will assist the Department and other relevant interests in taking forward the consolidation option. Clearly, railways and roads are key areas of infrastructure that are eligible to bid for the Executive programme funds.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the first report of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee on residential and secure accommodation for children in Northern Ireland and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to implement the Committee's recommendations at the earliest opportunity.
As Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, I am very pleased to bring the Committee's first report before the Assembly. The report examines children's residential and secure accommodation in Northern Ireland. I am particularly grateful that the report enjoys the unanimous support of the Committee, and I wish to thank each and every Committee member for their very hard work and positive support. I also wish to thank the Clerk to the Committee and the Committee's support staff for their outstanding help and co-operation at all times.
The Committee wishes to place on record its gratitude to over 60 individuals and organisations for their excellent written submissions and oral evidence. The introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 was welcomed as an enlightened piece of legislation. It placed the best interests of the child at the heart of the services for children by imposing a raft of new duties on statutory authorities.
However, its implementation has been severely emasculated by a lack of accompanying resources. Indeed, some witnesses to the inquiry attested to instances where resources had been diverted out of children's services into other "priority" areas.
Given the moral, as well as legal, obligation on statutory authorities to provide proper support and guidance to children in a safe environment, this is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs, and must cease immediately. There has been mounting concern in recent years about the quality of provision of children's residential services in Northern Ireland.
The former Department of Health and Social Services recognised the problem in 1997. It commissioned a review of residential care, and that resulted in the report 'Children Matter', which was published in 1998. That report recognised the deepening crisis in the children's residential care sector, but also emphasised that it formed only part of a complex set of interrelationships in children's services. Consequently, the report emphasised the importance of taking into account the level and nature of unmet specialist need, staffing, training and complements, fostering, educational needs, preventive measures, leaving-care needs and commissioning arrangements.
It is therefore deeply regrettable that the crisis in children's residential care has, if anything, deepened since the publication of 'Children Matter'. While the setting up of a ministerial task force to drive forward the model of expanded, differentiated provision envisaged in 'Children Matter' is clearly a welcome development, it is nonetheless a sad reflection of the lack of progress on the report's recommendations since its publication over two years ago.
Secondly, there was a historical over-reliance on the voluntary sector, which unsurprisingly led to a succumbing to intolerable pressures, and a dramatic reduction in its provisions. Regrettably, this year saw the closure of St. Joseph's in Middletown, which had provided 24 residential places in the voluntary sector and which had been renowned for its excellent educational input.
Thirdly, the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 has had the effect of diverting even more children into the care system. Fourthly, and critically, there has been an unwillingness, or an inability, by the Department to commit sufficient resources to the residential sector and preventive family-support measures.
The Committee does, however, acknowledge recent efforts by the Department to inject much needed resources into this area, but much more needs to be done. The continued retraction of children's residential places has meant higher thresholds for admission, resulting in the inappropriate placement of children with conflicting and complex needs and behavioural difficulties, as well as increased demands for secure accommodation. The Committee was appalled to learn, from various witnesses, of a myriad of problems resulting from the lack of adequate provision. It heard of widespread instances of overcrowding, placement instability, violence, absconding, alcohol and drug abuse, and inappropriate sexual behaviour, including prostitution.
We are faced with the stark reality that the system, the very raison d'être of which is to provide the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in society with a safe and secure home environment, is exposing children to further risk and to inappropriate placements.
The central theme running through the evidence provided to the Committee was deep concern about the historical underfunding of the residential sector for children and young people in Northern Ireland and the leaching away, on occasion, of the limited resources to other so-called priority commitments. No public service can operate or plan effectively under such circumstances. The tag of "Cinderella service" must go. The Committee fully agrees with those witnesses who argue passionately for sufficient ring-fenced resources to be made available for facilities and staff for the additional children's homes needed.
It also believes that the use of these resources should be closely scrutinised through audit trails to ensure that they are used efficiently to achieve the desired outcomes. The word "earmarked" is often used in presentations by Government Departments. While I appreciate the massive financial constraints on all Departments, I welcome what the Minister said earlier about the £7 million addition to the health budget over and above what was allocated in October.
I am also aware of what Mr John Kelly said about the statement regarding the four boards, the representatives and the fact that hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent in Scotland above what is being spent here. The commitment of such funds will facilitate the specialised and greatly expanded model of residential care provision described in 'Children Matter', which will properly serve the differentiated and complex needs of children and young people in appropriate care settings.
The 'Children Matter' model is pyramid based, with a range of general and locally based children's homes at the bottom, a middle tier of more intensive support units for those with more complex needs, and, at the top, a small number of secure care places for those who pose a risk to themselves or to others. This model of provision represents a realistic way forward. However, it must be emphasised that to facilitate choice, surplus places must be available.
It is recommended that homes should not operate at more than 80% occupancy. At present, not only is the sector operating at almost full capacity, but some homes are also exceeding full capacity. The impact of the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 is an additional consideration which needs to be addressed alongside the 'Children Matter' proposals. This has heaped further pressure on the children's residential care sector by diverting young offenders there who would previously have been kept in a custodial setting.
Witnesses recorded that these young people pose serious management difficulties and disrupt the routine of other children. The Committee notes that the voluntary sector has already drawn up development plans to meet the distinctive residential needs of this very specific group of children. It recommends that the Department's strategic regional plans provide for suitable facilities for looking after offenders. It also urges the Department to award the voluntary sector longer term contracts of at least five years to facilitate the strategic development of its services in the residential sector.
The guidance in the 1998 Order states that a home should treat each child as an individual and promote and safeguard his or her welfare. However, a culture of "get them in anywhere you can" has developed owing to the sheer lack of places. This inevitably leads to children with conflicting needs being accommodated in the same home, jeopardising their safety and well-being. Some children are being exposed to problems that could exacerbate their own problems.
The registration and inspection report of the Northern Health and Social Services Board 1999-2000 confirms
"The lack of placement options continues to be the most pressing concern arising from inspections. Many of the problems and stresses for children, and for staff, arise from the inappropriate mix of residents in four of the general purpose homes."
Situations such as that in Harberton House in the Foyle Health and Social Services Trust area - where, at times, up to 33 children have been accommodated in a 27-bed unit that is funded for only 20 children - are unacceptable and must become a thing of the past.
Given the grave concerns for the safety of children in residential care, it is vital that a placement risk analysis be completed for each child prior to admission, or as soon as possible thereafter. In addition, the care plan for each child should include a protection strategy approved by the registration and inspection unit.
Critical to the success of an expanded children's residential sector will be the ability to attract and train the estimated 150 to 200 extra social workers needed. The difficulties here have as much to do with the retention of staff as with recruitment. The recent closure of St Joseph's in Middletown resulted in the devastating loss of 30 highly qualified staff from the sector. Only four remain within the children's residential sector. Staff are working under extreme pressures in overcrowded homes where there tends to be a high concentration of children with challenging behaviour, who can be difficult and disruptive. The low ratio of staff to children makes it difficult to do any real constructive work with children, or even to supervise them properly.
The Committee learned of the high proportion of casual staff who supplement staff rotas due to chronic absenteeism rates - up to 30% in some trusts. Staff have to work unsocial hours, including frequent weekends, with little time to share with their families. Radical steps, therefore, are needed to entice new social workers into this sector as well as maintaining the current staff. These should include a review of pay and conditions, the establishment of a sophisticated staff complementing unit, and a training and support facility for social workers specialising in children's care.
The fact that there are only eight secure places for children in Northern Ireland has meant that a queuing system has developed, with young people being inappropriately placed or remaining at risk in the community. There can be as many as 15 young people waiting for a placement at any one time. The Committee was shocked to learn that young girls are being held in the women's section of Maghaberry Prison because there is no appropriate secure care accommodation. The Northern Ireland Court Service said
"We remain astonished that one of these children has not killed, or been killed, in the past four years."
It is a most appalling indictment and serves as the starkest warning of the need to rectify the situation immediately. The Committee understands that the Department has commissioned six extra places at the Lakewood facility, and urges that this provision be expedited. It also recommends that consideration be given to changing the subordinate legislation to allow the voluntary sector to provide additional places that are clearly needed in the short term. St Patrick's in west Belfast, which is closing, is one place that could considered in that regard.
While the Committee is loath for any child to be deprived of his or her liberty, it also recognises that secure care accommodation is required for a small number of children and young people who pose a risk to themselves or others. However, based on the positive outcomes from an experiment in Scotland, it believes that the Department should invest some resources in pilot studies to test the effectiveness of alternatives to secure accommodation. That is a very important point.
Lack of specialist provision for children with disabilities and mental health problems has been highlighted as giving particular cause for concern. The Committee was deeply concerned about the treatment of children in adult psychiatric wards - a practice that should cease immediately. The current provision of six inpatient adolescent beds in the Young People's Centre is clearly insufficient and should be urgently complemented by an additional eight-bed mental health unit.
Dr Ewan McEwan of the Young People's Centre gave evidence to the Committee, and we were most impressed by what he told us. Members will be aware that the adolescent psychiatry services have only half a dozen places. That also needs to be remedied.