Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 12 December 2000 (continued)

Ms Lewsley:

The report of the inquiry into residential and secure accommodation for children only served to underpin the existing knowledge that children's services in Northern Ireland are chaotic and totally inadequate to meet the needs of young people at risk and in need.

There are many aspects to these care services. Inadequate resources and inappropriate placements over the years have meant that children's needs have not been assessed or catered for properly in residential care. Increasing pressures on staff are also a problem. One such pressure stems from insecurity of tenure, which has already been mentioned today; others result from the use of short-term and casual contracts, which has resulted in low morale and huge inconsistency in the care provided to children and the support given to staff.

It is important that we act now to redress years of underfunding and neglect and, as other Members have already said, to provide ring-fenced funding on an ongoing basis. Priority must also be given to family support measures to try to reduce the number of children who are being placed in care.

I want to refer to young people suffering from mental illness. It is absolutely appalling. The system of service provision for young people is patchy, disjointed, poorly co-ordinated and overloaded. The few services we have are under severe pressure and struggling to cope. The pattern of children's and adolescents' mental health services is varied, with differences in expenditure by local trusts and boards. Where specialist services exist, waiting lists continue to increase and we find children inappropriately placed on adult wards. This is surely more than inappropriate. It is harmful, dangerous and an infringement of the basic human rights of any child.

Allow me to put this in context. Young people whose illnesses may often be tied in with abuse have found themselves in wards with perpetrators of abuse, and they have also been witness to the behaviour of some very disturbed adults. This is nothing short of a disgrace, and the Minister must assure us that under no circumstances will such a situation ever occur again.

While I welcome the additional beds for which money has been allocated in the Budget, I wonder where these beds are to be placed, how they are to be staffed and whether additional funds have been secured to train and retain staff to cope with the new places. Allocating extra acute beds on its own is not enough. They must form part of a co-ordinated approach throughout the Health Service to deal with the problems of young people who suffer from mental illness.

We must ensure that appropriate residential places are available, especially for young people who have problems with drug and alcohol abuse and have mental health problems. Services for children with conduct disorders and challenging behaviour should fall within the child and adolescent mental health remit. The evidence suggests that there is a growing and unmet need in this area. Such units should be open seven days a week and must cover the geographical spread of our services. Currently, there is only one specialist service for young people - the Young People's Centre in the South and East Belfast Trust area. This centre has a six-month waiting list.

Eating disorders are also on the increase, particularly in female adolescents. Again, only one specialist service for these conditions exists to cover the whole of the North of Ireland. Once more, this unit is in the South and East Belfast Trust area, and the waiting list for it is four months long.

We have heard many issues raised here today. I do not need to tell every Member that mental health services are in a crisis. The services for young people and adolescents are stretched to breaking point. It is time to develop a proper regional strategy. First, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must carry out a proper assessment of need. How, for instance, was the figure of 10 beds arrived at when we do not know how many young people suffer from psychosis, eating disorders or challenging behaviour? How many of the young people in residential accommodation suffer from mental illness? We have let our young people down, and it is time to own up.

Civil servants must stop hiding behind procedure and bureaucracy, assess what is needed and develop a regional strategy to deal with the broken minds of the young.

The humanitarian and financial reasons for investing in youth mental health services are irrefutable. It would be shameful for us to ignore the situation, implement piecemeal measures first to treat the symptoms and not take preventative measures to tackle what is a growing problem. Children are our investment in the future. I believe that it is the responsibility of every Member in the Chamber to act now to improve dramatically the situation that has been outlined today in this report.

Ms Armitage:

Much has been said today, so I will say little, as I am sure that it has all been said better than I could say it anyway. There is a chronic problem with the provisions for children in relation to services, care, protection and secure accommodation. This has been well documented since 1997, and yet the problem remains as we approach 2001. The number of residential places currently available is about 30% short of the estimated need. Due to a lack of suitable accommodation, children of varying ages and conflicting needs are being placed together in general provision homes. The result of mixing and misplacing these very vulnerable children is intolerable.

Pressure on staff and the consequent effects of low morale and a high incidence of sick leave are leading to a drift of qualified social carers into less demanding occupations. The pressures on staff include the need to deal with a level of violence in the homes, and regular incidents of absconding, drug abuse and even prostitution. There is an undeniable lack of adequate provision to meet the needs of children with mental health problems and a lack of secure accommodation for children and young people who pose a risk to themselves and others. Basically, the choice of proper care and placement does not exist for these children and their individual needs.

If children's homes were immediately available there would still be a problem in attracting suitably trained staff to care for the children. Bricks and mortar can produce a building, but that in itself is not a home. These children need and deserve a loving, comfortable and caring environment of the same standard that we would provide for our own children.

Recruitment of staff for children's homes should be stepped up. Last year, approximately 15% of residential social workers left the profession due to unsocial hours, violent incidents and, in general, the long working day. Social workers do not shut the homes on bank holidays; they do not leave early to avoid the rush-hour traffic; and they do not just put the job off until tomorrow. That is not how a social worker operates.

There should be greater incentives to attract the right type of people to this work - people who will accept the unsocial hours and the degree of commitment that is required. A body should be established to determine proper staffing ratios for existing and proposed units specialising in child residential care, and adequate training and support facilities. It should also review the pay and conditions of service to reflect the demands and stresses of the job. I am not aware of a mechanism whereby social workers can award themselves a massive payment for work performance. I doubt if they would want to.

The situation has become worse in recent years due to a lack of willingness in the community to consider fostering. This might reflect our social lives and the changing pattern of childminding. A registered childminder earns approximately £100 per week. That week lasts five days, usually from 8·30am to 5·30pm. There are no wake-up calls in the middle of the night and no weekend commitments. Although childminding and fostering are two very separate issues, I believe that if we do not encourage, support and train prospective foster carers, their talents may well be channelled into childminding.

2.45 pm

That may already be happening: almost 70% of foster carers are aged between 40 and 60, and, in the past year, insufficient numbers of foster carers were recruited to compensate for those who had retired. There should be a review of boarding-out rates to reflect the skill and commitment needed for such a valuable community service.

Educational performance among children in residential care in Northern Ireland is poor; 50% leave with no qualifications at all.

My time is up, Mr Deputy Speaker; I assume that you want me to sit down.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I do not want you to, but the system requires it. Thank you.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the report. Having listened to the Members who have spoken and read some of the reports, I concur with the conclusion that the overall picture is one of long-term neglect by direct rule Ministers - minimal strategic planning, little policy development, a narrow focus on children's needs, poor co-ordination and, worst of all, the historic underfunding of services. In effect, public expenditure on family and childcare services fell from 17·6% in 1995-96 to 16·7% in 1997-98. Is it any wonder that vulnerable children in the North of Ireland have been way down the political agenda and way behind those in England, Scotland, Wales and the South of Ireland?

The Minister has inherited a situation in which children in need are excluded. Those children and young people are among the most vulnerable groups in society. They live on the margins of our health, education and training systems, and they often fall into the gaps between departmental responsibilities. The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which we welcomed at the time, gave core legal responsibility for care and safety to the Department of Health and Social Services, and responsibility has passed to this Minister. However, the needs of children and young people are often too complex to be met by a single agency. That complexity is even recognised by the current Government, and their policy places increasing emphasis on multi-agency collaboration in both the delivery and planning of services. Such collaboration might be facilitated by a children's commission.

The underfunding of the measures contained in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 has already been recognised as a major problem. The old Department of Health and Social Services did not release sufficient moneys for that important legislation to be effective. That resulted in untold suffering and the death of a child who walked out of a so-called secure unit in Belfast, stole a car, crashed it and died. He was 12 years old. In fact, the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 coincided with a major downsizing of the voluntary residential childcare sector. Those of us who voiced strong objections at the time can now see the inevitable outcome of such downsizing. The report bears out all our concerns.

The 'Children Matter' report, compiled two years ago by the social services inspectorate, emphasised the extent of the difficulties and made several recommendations. Its main finding was that there was an urgent need to create smaller specialist units of accommodation, with adequate staffing and resources, which would require considerable capital and revenue expenditure. As Members have said, we cannot accommodate children with severe emotional needs or disabilities.

The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has done what the Department under direct rule failed to do: it has asked questions about children and been informed fully of their needs. I believe that the Minister will endeavour to address those needs.

I share Ms Ramsey's disappointment that there was no recommendation for the appointment of a Minister for Children. If it is suggested that a children's commissioner be appointed, it is important that he or she be given as much seniority and authority as possible. Only then will the low priority given to children in need be properly addressed. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mrs Carson:

I welcome the report on the serious issue of residential and secure accommodation for children in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the Committee and its support staff on producing the report. It is hoped that all Members will fully support the recommendations in it.

At this festive time, there are heart-rending stories in newspapers and other media, and appeals for finance. Northern Ireland people are known throughout the world to be the most generous when faced with pictures of children in need. Who would have thought that Northern Ireland would be faced with such problems in the twenty- first century? There is an urgent need for secure accommodation for children.

Children's services are important, and any funding designated for residential homes and services should be used for that purpose and not channelled into other Departments to be lost, perhaps, through poor financial management. Can the cost of implementing the report's recommendations be met fully by the Department? This excellent report must not be left to gather dust.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Chuir mé suim mhór, agus mé ag éisteacht, sna pointí a luaigh Teachtaí le linn dhíospóireacht an lae inniu ar thuairisc an Choiste Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí ar chóiríocht chónaithe agus dhaingean do pháistí.

Ba mhaith liom an Dr Hendron agus baill uilig an Choiste a mholadh as tuairisc chomh cuimsitheach inléite sin a chur le chéile. Bhí faill agam i mí Dheireadh Fómhair fianaise a thabhairt don Choiste agus is feasach domh an tsuim agus an tiomantas atá ag baill an Choiste maidir le leas na bpáistí. Ag an phointe seo, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas pearsanta a ghabháil le gach eagraíocht agus le gach duine aonair a thug fianaise don Choiste as a gcion tairbhe luachmhar.

Tá an tuairisc féin fadréimseach cuimsitheach agus cuimsíonn sí 36 mholadh shainiúla. Ar ndóigh, beidh am de dhíth orm leis na moltaí seo agus na himpleachtaí a bhreathnú chomh maith le hiomlán na bpointí a luadh sa díospóireacht inniu a chur san áireamh. Beidh orm na himpleachtaí praiticiúla, reachtaíochta agus airgeadais a mheasúnú.

Níl rún agam trácht ar gach moladh, nó, mar a dúirt mé cheana, beidh am de dhíth orm lena mbreathnú. Ach is mian liom trácht ar chuid de na príomhábhair chúraim sa tuairisc agus sna moltaí a bhaineas léi. Cé gur ar chúram cónaithe agus cóiríocht dhaingean do pháistí atá an fócas, baineann sí le saincheisteanna níos leithne, mar an t-altramas, an t-uchtú agus an tacaíocht theaghlaigh. Aontaím leis nach féidir an cúram cónaithe a bhreathnú ar leithligh ó sheirbhísí eile.

Tagraíonn an chéad mholadh don riachtanas dóthain maoinithe a chur ar fáil do sholáthar áiteanna breise cúraim chónaithe do pháistí. Agus caithfidh mé a rá maidir leis an ábhar seo go bhfuil mé buartha go gcaithfidh mé - go gcaithfimidne uilg - feabhas a chur ar sheirbhísí páistí. Beidh mise ag déanamh mo sheacht ndícheall le cinntiú go mbeidh an maoiniú cuí ar fáil le déanamh deimhin go dtig linn an feabhas sin a chur i bhfeidhm.

Is ábhar buartha domh nach raibh an maoiniú agus an t-airgeadas a bhí de dhíth ar fáil le roinnt blianta. Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall a chinntiú go mbeidh tuilleadh airgid ar fáil uaidh seo amach. Cuireadh maoiniú breise ar fáil i mbliana do sheirbhísí do pháistí agus cuirfear maoiniú breise ar fáil sa bhliain seo chugainn. Dá n-ardófaí an líon áiteanna cúraim chónaithe go dtí an leibhéal a mholann an tuairisc, ghlacfadh sin roinnt blianta le baint amach. Ar ndóigh, beidh mé ag iarraidh maoiniú breise bliain i ndiaidh bliana, ach caithfimid uilig a aithint go bhfuil tosaíochtaí éagsúla san iomaíocht d'acmhainní agus tá seans nach n-éireoidh liom i mo thairiscintí. Caithfimid mar sin bheith réalaíoch faoi cad is féidir a bhaint amach.

Tá an Tascfhórsa Tábhacht le Páistí a bhunaigh mé ag tabhairt aghaidhe ar shaincheisteanna maidir le hairgeadas, foireann, pleanáil agus saincheisteanna lóistíochta eile. Beidh mé ar mo dhícheall na hacmhainní a bhaint amach a ligfidh do mhéadú teacht ar an líon áiteanna cúraim chónaithe sna blianta seo chugainn. Beidh mé ag brath ar an tascfhórsa le cinntiú go gcuirfear le feabhsuithe sa tseirbhís cibé acmhainní a chuirfear in áirithe do chúram cónaithe do pháistí.

Ní maith le duine ar bith, ar ndóigh, árais páistí a bheith ag feidhmiú thar a dtoilleadh, agus is ábhar buartha domhsa sin chomh maith. Caithfimid, mar a dúirt mé, cinntiú go mbeidh airgead ar fáil don réimse leathan seirbhísí atáimid ag iarraidh a chur ar fáil do pháistí sa tsochaí seo.

I have listened with considerable interest to the points raised by Members during today's debate on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee's report into residential and secure accommodation for children. I would like to congratulate Dr Hendron and all the members of the Committee for producing such a comprehensive and readable report. In October I had the opportunity to give evidence to the Committee, and I am aware of the considerable interest and dedication of its members to children's welfare. I would also like to add my personal thanks for the valuable contributions made by the organisations and individuals who gave evidence to the Committee.

The report is wide-ranging and comprehensive and contains some 36 specific recommendations. Obviously, I will need some time to consider them and their implications, as well as time to take account of all the points that have been raised in today's debate. I will need to assess the practical, legislative and financial implications. I do not propose to comment on each recommendation, because, as I have said, I will need time to study them. However, I do want to comment on some of the main areas of concern raised in the report and in the related main recommendations, as well as on the points raised by Members today. Although the focus is on children's residential care and secure accommodation, the report also touches on broader issues such as fostering, adoption and family support, and I agree that residential care cannot be viewed in isolation from other services.

The first recommendation refers to the need for sufficient funding to be made available for the provision of additional children's residential care places. This was raised by many Members today including Prof McWilliams, John Kelly, the Committee Chairperson, Dr Hendron, Rev Robert Coulter, Paul Berry, Mary Nelis and others. I am very concerned to see measurable improvements in children's services and will wish to ensure that the resources allocated are applied to ensure such improvements.

I am also concerned, and am aware of the concerns expressed by others, about the underfunding of children's services and the leeching off of resources. I will be making strenuous efforts to secure appropriate funding for these services in the future. Additional funding has been provided this year for children's services, and further funding will be provided next year. An expansion in the number of residential care places to the levels suggested in the report would take several years to achieve. I shall, of course, be seeking additional funds year on year, but we all recognise that there are competing priorities for resources, and I may not be successful in the bids that I make.

3.00 pm

We must be realistic about what can be achieved, and the Children Matter task force that I have established is already addressing the practical matters to do with finance, staffing, planning and other logistical issues.

Again, the question of ring-fencing was raised by several Members, including Mr Gallagher, Mr John Kelly and Ms McWilliams. I will be doing all that I can to secure the resources that will allow for an increase in the number of residential care places over the next few years.

People will know, as I have already stated, that there are some difficulties regarding the specific ring-fencing of money. I will look to the task force to ensure that resources earmarked for children's residential care are applied to ensure improvements to the services. It is undesirable and unacceptable, as people have said in the debate, for children's homes to operate beyond full capacity. I am aware that some trusts have taken innovative steps in using temporary accommodation to relieve short-term pressures. I reiterate that I will do everything in my power to ensure that we are given the resources to achieve the significant increase in the number of places that we are planning to have.

Recommendation 5 states that a regional group should be established and charged with producing precise staffing requirements for the existing homes and more specialised provision as the service develops, and a subgroup of the Children Matter task force has been set up to address this very issue.

I join several Members in praising the efforts of existing staff, and I would like to associate myself with those who have praised the professionalism, dedication, and enthusiasm of staff who work, often in very difficult circumstances, in children's homes. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

I fully agree that there is a need for training and support for residential care staff in the areas highlighted in recommendation 6 and highlighted by Members here today. The social care council is due to be set up in October 2001, subject to the legislative will of the Assembly. We need to consider whether this would be the appropriate mechanism and, in fact, whether it would be practical for the council to undertake this training and support work. However, the task force subgroup on staffing issues will consider this matter carefully.

It is clear that if we are to expand children's residential care, the work must be made more attractive to those involved. We share the concerns of those who have highlighted the difficulties that staff face. I agree that career structures, high levels of stress and the unsocial hours involved in this work are all issues to which further consideration will have to be given.

As regards the recommendation to lift the current restriction on the voluntary sector's providing secure accommodation - a matter raised by Dr Hendron, Rev Robert Coulter, Ms Armitage and Mr Berry - I should say that the current pressures on secure accommodation will be eased by the seven new secure places to come on stream at Lakewood within the next few weeks.

I will have to consider very, very carefully whether further expansion of secure accommodation would be advisable at this time. I will consider the points raised by Members. However, putting children into secure accommodation must be the last resort, and we wish to ensure that secure accommodation is used only when necessary, and then only as an interim measure. The aim must always be to facilitate the return of the child to the community.

I am also aware of the human rights concerns that people have in this area. The legal criteria for the use of secure accommodation are extremely tight, and its use for any significant period requires the authority of the courts.

Members have raised other queries regarding recommendation 13 about the liaison with the courts, and we need to look at that question. We will also look at the whole question of liaison with the NIO regarding the juvenile justice system, which I will come to later.

On the provision of an additional mental health unit, the Programme for Government gives priority to this issue and to a bid for additional resources to provide 10 adolescent mental health inpatient beds. Therefore, the question of the provision of those beds has been addressed in the Programme for Government, and my Department will also address the issue of providing residential facilities for disabled children.

Regarding Ms Lewsley's question about the inadequacy of general mental health services, each of the boards has undertaken a comprehensive needs assessment of children's and adolescents' mental health services. These clearly indicate that services are to be developed as resources become available. The draft strategy 'Minding our Health' sets out the key priorities for the development of action to promote mental and emotional health, and I hope that Members will join with me in pointing out the need for us to secure resources for the whole wide range of children's services so that these can be brought forward.

The residential and community support needs of children with psychological and psychiatric difficulties are ones which, I believe, the task force and the 'Minding our Health' strategy will address by trying to seek more responsive and accessible services for children.

Clearly the lack of residential and respite facilities, a matter raised by Rev Robert Coulter, is a matter of concern to me and is presently being looked at by the Children Matter task force. I note and accept the Committee's call for research in this area.

The education of young people in care, a matter raised by Mr Gallagher and Dr Hendron, straddles not only my responsibility but also that of those in the juvenile justice system. This is an issue which is very important, and Members will know that some preliminary work has already started in liaison with the Department of Education. We will certainly consider the involvement of the NIO. Specific facilities suitable for looking after offenders are a matter we will need to consider further.

Mr McFarland and Ms McWilliams raised a point about the need for an interdepartmental group to consider the position of young offenders and young people who are inappropriately placed in custody. I will certainly consider the issue of children in the justice system and will take this up with the NIO.

Ms McWilliams also asked about the absence of therapeutic services for children and the placement of children in services not designed for them. This is of significant concern to me. The issue of the use of adult prisons for girls is one I wish to consider more fully in collaboration with the NIO to ensure the appropriate protection and well-being of young women. I hope I have addressed the Member's point regarding the provision of money for 10 additional adolescent beds next year.

We also need to look at the fact that many children admitted into care have a range of very complex needs, and I certainly want to consider what further steps can be taken to improve the life chances and opportunities of these children and ensure that their rights are being taken care of and protected.

There are already statutory provisions encompassing risk analysis, and this duty rests with the trusts, which have parental responsibility for looked-after children. Registration and inspection units are concerned with quality standards, and to involve them in emergency placements for individual children might compromise their work. The planning for individual children is clearly the responsibility of the trust.

As I indicated to the Committee when I met with it on 4 October, I intend to produce a regional overview of the way forward for children's services. I will be bringing forward a range of proposals relating to children's services to address the same broad issues covered by the Quality Protects programme which was issued in England. We will also be looking at the National Children's Strategy in the South.

I intend to issue a consultation document in the new year relating to care leavers. It will set out detailed proposals for improving the life chances of young people moving from care to independent living. These proposals will, however, require legislation, and I intend to bring forward a Children Leaving Care Bill next year. I will also bring forward proposals to address the support needs, respite provision and training requirements of foster carers as soon as possible. I absolutely take on board the points raised by Members about the crucial place of foster carers in the whole continuum of care for our children. I accept what has been said about our need to express a particular debt of gratitude to those taking on this task and our need to look after them.

The Children Matter task force will shortly produce a regional plan which will set out a programme of specific developments over the next two and a half years to increase the number of places by about 90. The capacity to implement this programme will depend on the availability of financial resources and the ability to recruit and train the necessary additional staff. It is intended to involve the voluntary and private sectors in the implementation of the task force's work. However, in relation to the task force itself, there are several issues which I need to consider regarding any potential conflicts of interest.

To secure the expansion of children's residential care services - which we all want to see - it will be important to work with local communities. No doubt there will be a need for innovative approaches. I will be pleased to see how we, as public representatives, can work together to improve the perceptions of children's residential care and - I was happy to see this pointed out - to improve our chances of being able to open children's residential care places to ensure that those valued young members of our society receive proper care and that their needs are met in the most appropriate manner.

I would like to pay particular attention to the question of a children's commissioner, which was raised by Paul Berry, Dr Hendron, Prof McWilliams, Kieran McCarthy, Sue Ramsey and Mary Nelis. The Deputy First Minister said on 6 November

"The Executive Committee is determined to ensure that our arrangements for protecting children and upholding children's rights are based on best practice. We will carefully examine key developments through Europe, including the Waterhouse Report on child abuse in Wales, the appointments of a Children's Commissioner in Wales, a Children's Rights Director in England and an ombudsman for children in the Republic of Ireland. We will also look at the roles of commissioners for children in the Scandinavian countries."

A question was raised about the pilot scheme. I know that the Sycamore Project in Fife - run by a voluntary organisation, the Aberlour Child Care Trust - is providing a regional service for all of Scotland in this regard. It is sited in three units - in converted terraced houses, in a housing estate with close links to the local community and in six local schools. One unit cares for under-14s, another for over-16s, while the main unit copes with the core population of 14- to 16-year-olds. The children are those at risk of being admitted to secure accommodation or who have been discharged from secure provision. An intensive programme of work is undertaken with the children. The director of the project is acting as a consultant to Extern, which is to open a similar model of service in the Ballyduff area of the Northern Board during the spring of 2001.

Ba mhaith liom deireadh a chur le mo chuid cainte ag rá go gcuirim fáilte roimh thuairisc an Choiste Sláinte ar chóiríocht chónaithe agus dhaingean do pháistí. Cion tairbhe luachmhar í dár smaointeoireacht ar roinnt saincheisteanna deacra. D'fhéach mé le freagra a thabhairt ar chuid mhaith de na saincheisteanna a luadh agus scríobhfaidh mé chuig Teachtaí ar bith nár fhéad mé a gceisteanna a fhreagairt inniu. Luaigh mé na réimsí sin ina mbeidh tuilleadh machnaimh riachtanach má táimid le fuascailtí praiticiúla a fhorbairt ar na fadhbanna atá ag an chóras cúraim chónaithe do pháistí. Ba mhaith linn uilig na bearta atá riachtanach le cúram agus cosaint páistí inár gcomhphobal a fheiceáil á gcur i bhfeidhm chomh gasta agus is féidir. Caithfear saincheisteanna acmhainní agus ama agus an gá le reachtaíocht a d'fhéadfadh a bheith ann, caithfear iad sin a chur san áireamh. Ach, na coinníollacha sin san áireamh, glacaim leis an rún atá os comhair an Tí.

3.15 pm

In conclusion, I welcome the report of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety into residential and secure accommodation. It is a valuable contribution to our thinking in relation to a number of difficult areas and issues. I have endeavoured to respond to many of the issues raised in the report and the contributions made by Members today. I will write to any Members whose concerns I have been unable to address in this debate. Furthermore, I have indicated those areas where further consideration will be necessary if we are to develop practical solutions to the problems facing the residential care system for children. We all want those measures that are needed for the care and protection of children to be implemented as soon as possible. The issues of resources, of timing and of the possible need for legislation will need to be taken into account, but, subject to this, I accept the motion before the House.

Dr Hendron:

I would like to thank the Minister and all my Colleagues, both on the Health Committee and in this Chamber, for their participation in this most important debate. I thank the Minister for her presence here during the debate, for her contribution and for her answers to the questions. I also thank her for setting up the special task force. There are 36 recommendations to consider in this report, and as the Minister said, she cannot go over all of them. I agree with her that residential care cannot be viewed in isolation from other services. Despite the additional £9·5 million provided this year and the £3 million that is expected for next year, we do need additional funding. In relation to the Children Matter task force resources that have been earmarked for children's residential care, steps must be taken to ensure that this money is ring-fenced for that most vulnerable section of our community. Audit trails are important; accountants and financial experts should be able to follow audit trails from the Minister, the boards and the trusts the whole way through to the coalface. This will identify how funding for children's services is spent, and that will apply to other matters as well.

We welcome the subgroup set up by the task force that is involved in the staffing of social care and which will work in association with a social care council. The Minister referred to career structures for staff and to the fact that she agrees with the idea of secure accommodation - such as at Lakewood - only when it is necessary and only as an interim measure. We accept that. However, it is necessary to have sufficient places. I welcome her remarks on adolescent mental health. Many of my Colleagues spoke about that, as it is a major problem.

In respect of the education of young people, recommendation 20 of the report refers especially to those in the juvenile justice system, and the involvement of the Department of Education and the NIO is very important.

The Minister mentioned a regional overview of children's services, the very important Quality Protects programme, the whole question of care leavers, children going into care, and the 'Children Matter' task force. I hope that the regional plan will be announced by the Minister very soon.

Many of my Colleagues in the Assembly spoke in the debate. Bob Coulter mentioned historical underfunding, accountability, no redirection of funds and the staffing problems. I agree with him. It is so important that funding meant for children's services reaches its target. Mr Paul Berry mentioned family support, adoption, funding - everyone mentioned that - foster carers and their rates of pay. He supported, as did all my Colleagues, the idea of a commissioner for children.

John Kelly mentioned righting past wrongs in relation to children. He also mentioned resources, funding and foster carers. Kieran McCarthy used the words "diabolical" and "shameful". We all agree. The Minister inherited this problem, and there is no blame on her, but it is diabolical and shameful that society has failed. We in this Assembly must not fail in this regard.

Monica McWilliams talked about two years' work for the looked-after children, but we are talking about a population of over 2,000 people. She is quite right about containment rather than constructive intervention. She mentioned Maghaberry, so I will not repeat those points, and talked about adolescent mental health. That is a major problem for all of us, but especially for those concerned and their families.

Alan McFarland talked about the dedication of staff, ring-fencing, leadership, strategy, fostering and adoption. He and many Colleagues talked about education, which is very important. Tommy Gallagher also talked about the staff and resources, planning, ring-fencing the funding and about a multidisciplinary approach to education.

Sue Ramsey mentioned the five-minute limit. That is not something I want to go into now, but it should be looked at in the future. This was, and is, an extremely important debate, and five minutes was not enough. I agree with Ms Ramsey and with the others who said that. Sue Ramsey also thanked the staff, as did many others. I am very pleased to thank all my Colleagues, together with the Committee Clerk and his staff. Sue Ramsey went on to mention secure accommodation in the juvenile justice system and the cross-departmental policy. We all agree with that.

I very much welcome the fact that the Chairperson of the Education Committee, Danny Kennedy, said that his Committee wanted to include consideration of recommendation 20 of our report in its forthcoming work programme. That recommendation deals with the establishment of an agreed protocol involving the Department, the Northern Ireland Office, the trusts and the education and library boards regarding the education of children in residential care.

Patricia Lewsley talked about the chaos in children's services, and about inappropriate placement, as did many others. She also mentioned assessment of needs, and looking after staff, social workers and, again, the mental health of adolescents and their psychiatric problems. That is a massive problem. Pauline Armitage talked about the 30% shortage of places and inappropriate placing, staff, drug abuse, prostitution, mental health and how we can get more social workers. Like others, she talked about the whole education of these young people.

Mary Nelis talked about vulnerable children and how we must look after them. They are on the margins of our system. She also mentioned comparing funding with that in England and, especially, in Scotland, where much more funding goes towards this problem. Finally, Joan Carson talked about the cost of implementation. The Minister made reference to that.

I thank the Minister and all my Colleagues on the Health Committee and Members of this Assembly. I am honoured, as the Committee Chairperson, to have presented this most important report today and to have moved this motion. I know that the Assembly will give it its full support.

Question put and agreed to.


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.


Aggregates Tax


Mr Byrne:

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the serious economic and environmental implications the aggregates tax will have for the quarry and construction industry in Northern Ireland and calls upon the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make representations to the UK Treasury on behalf of the Quarry Products Association to prevent the introduction of this tax in this region.

Taxation, as Members are well aware, is a reserved matter. In recent weeks, representatives of Northern Ireland's quarry industry have brought a taxation issue to my attention and to the attention other Assembly Members, including Mr Hussey, whose name also appears on the motion.

This tax is known as the quarry or aggregates tax, and its imposition in Northern Ireland in April 2002 will have serious economic consequences on the quarry industry throughout the North, particularly along the border area.

Furthermore, the imposition of the tax will not produce any discernible or environmental benefits and will have a detrimental impact upon the spending power of the devolved Departments of this Administration, inhibiting the ability of the new political dispensation to deliver on the commitments given in the draft Programme for Government.

The introduction of the aggregates tax was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget speech in March 2000. Detailed provisions will be included in the 2001 Finance Bill, and the tax will come into effect in 2002. It will apply to all virgin sand, crushed rock and gravel and their products such as tarmac, bricks, blocks, concrete et cetera, which are subject to commercial exploitation in the UK. The tax will be collected by Customs and Excise, but unlike VAT, which is charged as a percentage of value, it will be charged on a weight basis at £1·60 per tonne. The tax will apply to exported products, but exported aggregates will not be taxed. Although imported aggregates will be taxed, imported products made from aggregates, such as concrete blocks, et cetera, will not be taxed.

This amounts to a tax which will make imported products cheaper and will put the industry in Northern Ireland at an unfair disadvantage. The Government's primary stated reason for introducing the tax is environmental. They want to encourage a shift away from virgin aggregate as part of their sustainable development strategy and to encourage the use of recycled aggregates.

The aim is to integrate fiscal strategy with environmental concerns and reduce environmental damage by shifting the taxation burden away from what the Government consider as "goods" to "bads". The Government intend to use the revenue raised from the tax to contribute towards a cut in employers' national insurance contributions and to set up a sustainability fund to produce "benefits to local communities affected by quarrying".

However, the Government's rationale for this tax on construction simply does not fulfil their own objectives. First, the research upon which the taxation is based is highly questionable. Secondly, we should consider the inevitable job losses, the costs to the construction industry and the fact that the aggregates tax might not even raise the necessary revenue to fund the intended reduction in national insurance contributions. When these factors are taken into account, it seems ill-advised for the Treasury to impose such a broad tax, expecially on this region.

The reasoning for the aggregates tax was first raised in Labour's 1997 Budget and was based upon a paper produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which promoted the idea of green taxation. The Government have since then justified the tax using research commissioned by external consultants - London Economics (LE) - which showed that quarrying had an external environmental cost of around £300 million.


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