Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 18 December 2000 (continued)

1.15 pm

Expenditure can only be discussed in relation to income - how much money comes in and how much goes out. It has been difficult to follow the debates between October and December on the extra incoming funds and on how much will be spent in different quarters. The Executive programme funds have increased considerably. I would like to have seen a breakdown of where the increase came from. I have tried to follow that in the Budget to establish who got what money and from where. However, that has been a difficult road to follow.

Are the four parties in Government in favour of private finance initiatives (PFIs)? Is that how the Executive will seek finance in future? There is only one reference in the Budget to PFIs. On page 40, the paragraph entitled 'Infrastructure Renewal' states

"where appropriate related to the use of PFI/PP."

That is one tiny sub-clause on what has become an income generation mechanism for the public sector. I have enormous concerns about that. If it is not clearly spelt out, either in the Programme for Government or in the Budget, we shall be left to the devices of private developers.

There is at present a major contradiction. This is not joined-up government. The Department of Education sold a substantial piece of land in south Belfast to a private developer. It is currently the subject of a planning appeal, and the Department of the Environment has said that the Department of Education did not fulfil its function of carrying out a community impact study before selling the land. One section of the Department of Education was not talking to the other and decided that that land was surplus to its needs.

When did public land and open space that was a community facility become surplus to needs without the community's being consulted? It has put a great deal of money into the hands of private developers and not into the hands of the public sector. That means short-term gain for long-term pain. Major areas of infrastructure are being mortgaged, and they will always have first call on the Budget because they will require money for maintenance or leasing before those parts of the education sector that have not adopted PFIs.

I want to hear a cohesive, co-ordinated response on the future decision on the finance of the public sector. Will a slice of it come from PFI, and what percentage will that be? If that is not the case - and there are still doubts - let us see what is. However, five words in the Budget on PFIs is not sufficient - especially when England and the devolved regions, Scotland and Wales, are raising concerns about them.

It is difficult to have an accountability mechanism addressed in the large funds of the Executive programme. The Budget states that the Assembly will be told in January who has had a call on them. However, as this is a Budget debate, I should like to know now where those funds are destined.

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment announced his own proposals. However, he told the Assembly that he will not know how many of those proposals will be implemented until the findings of the new direction fund have been agreed by his Executive Colleagues. The Minister has made public his proposals, yet we shall not know until January whether the Minister has been successful in bidding for some of them. We should debate whether the proposals would see the light of day.

I welcome the £6 million for the community regeneration fund this year - an increase of £3 million. The Minister knows of my concern about what is happening in the community sector. Peace I has run out, and it will be some time before Peace II is available. Can some of this "community regeneration" money be used to help the groups that must lay off workers?

I am glad that the children's fund will be substantial. However, there is no commitment to the appointment of a children's commissioner, which was part of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee's recommendations on secure and residential accommodation. I welcome the thematic approach of the Programme for Government. The Committee felt that appointing a children's commissioner, as other devolved regions have done, was an important part of joined-up government. It does not cost a great deal of money.

Unfortunately, a response from the Minister for Social Development informed us that we do not know how many children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. The Republic of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England know, but not Northern Ireland. They will simply take a proportion of low-income groups and of those on benefits from the family expenditure survey. As that does not give us a figure, how can we have social integration or an anti-poverty strategy? It is not called that, but the thematic approach of the Programme for Government is probably focusing on an anti-poverty strategy, and I look forward to its liaising with the Civic Forum.

It will be difficult to set aside the resources if we do not have the information in the first place - information is powerful. If we know how many people are living in poverty we shall know how much money is needed. It is not the Minister's responsibility to produce such information, but he will find it hard to develop an anti-poverty strategy without the necessary information.

I note that the capital budget is decreasing rather than increasing in some Departments, particularly in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is shocking that the budget for hospitals and the building of hospitals will decrease over the next three years. It is not possible to have the determination of the acute hospitals review now, but we should be sufficiently flexible to know that we need these hospitals and that we need some new build.

I am particularly concerned about the judicial review on the Royal Victoria Hospital and Belfast City Hospital last week. We were promised a purpose-built women's hospital for maternity services in the City Hospital. I visited the Royal Victoria Hospital last week and was shocked to see 17 women in a very small ward. I gave birth in that ward 15 years ago. There are now beds up the middle of the ward, and there is one bathroom for 17 women. We would probably see something similar if we visited other hospitals for new mothers. Maternity hospitals are closing down. Mr McGrady said that Downpatrick Maternity Hospital is also facing a crisis. What will happen if it closes? Are we sending more mothers to the Belfast hinterland?

We know that hospitals are closing. Belfast City Hospital accommodated 3,000 patients and there are now 6,000 patients on one site. We urgently need a new purpose-built hospital. There are no plans for one, and I cannot see where the money will come from. We have done a disservice and told people an untruth. They were promised a new hospital, but it is not in the Budget. I shall judge deeds not words. If the money has not been set aside, the hospital will not be built. That is a poor message after the court's decision that the manner of the hospitals' closure led to many questions being asked.

Ministers may bid for large sums of money. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety bid for £21 million for mental health and learning disability. She got £3 million - £1·5 million for mental health and £1·5 million for learning disability.

Our new Government and our new Assembly are sending out the message that the mental health needs of the entire country are worth £1·5 million over the next year. That falls far short of £21 million. We are not getting the medium-secure units so we continue to violate human rights legislation by sending those with mental illness to Scotland. They should be diverted from the criminal justice system. These are people with serious psychiatric needs, yet no medium-secure hospital will be built in Northern Ireland. Of course, we could sell the land at Knockbracken, which is owned by the Knockbracken Trust, and go down the private-finance road once again. We have already lost some of our public space and some beautiful land, which is now a rare commodity in Belfast. Again, the Budget does not provide for what is needed.

Mental health carers are enormously concerned that they must continue to pick up the pieces. CAUSE, a major carers' group, recently sent a petition, which had been signed by all its members, desperately pleading for the money to empower them and those for whom they care and to free them from the stigma attached to mental illness. They are weary of living in isolation and urge that they be allowed a share of the support that is so openly given to other groups. They plead from their heart, as they cannot walk away from the responsibilities with which they must live every day. If those suffering from mental illness are to be moved out of long-stay hospitals, carers will increasingly have to look after them.

There was a debate in the Assembly last week on the protection of children. I am putting down a marker: we are not meeting our statutory responsibility, and the Assembly - and its Members - will be taken to court, as the Department was last week. Judicial review after judicial review will be carried out as we send our children to places that are inappropriate for their needs. There is a shortage of 115 places in residential care, and that is creating a crisis. Children are absconding from residential care. They come in the front door and go out the back. Over 69 of them were missing for over 24 hours in one board area alone. One child was missing for 69 days.

This cannot go on. After all, The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 is supposed to be progressive legislation. I have no doubt that in future the Minister may spend more time in court than in her Department if we do not set the necessary Budget resources aside for these places. If we do not meet our statutory responsibility we leave it to the courts and not to our Ministers to decide their governmental responsibilities.

I find myself, for a change, agreeing with the former Minister for Regional Development. I too believe that road developments should be based on criteria. When shall we see the draft regional development strategy? I hope that it comes before the Assembly by summer. We are, after all, spending £40 million on the M2 Westlink and the Dunmurry slip roads. Is this money being spent well? Why did we have a hugely expensive planning inquiry when there was supposed to be a draft strategy?

I would have assumed that the Government made decisions by deciding on a strategy, by making plans and putting them into action and budgeting accordingly. Instead, they are setting aside a large slice of the Budget to build a questionable infrastructure. Otherwise why hold a major planning inquiry before they have produced their development strategy?

1.30 pm

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has one line in its Budget statement to cover all its responsibilities. If I ask my students to analyse a question I must give them information. We cannot analyse this Budget line. The word "victims" is not mentioned in the responsibilities. That is a very poor message on a day when we should be commending the Minister for completing what was no doubt an arduous task and for producing the Budget so quickly. This should be the last Budget to contain one line from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

I support this Budget and I shall not be supporting either amendment. The regional rate concerns me. However, I believe that the Budget aims at promoting energy efficiency, improving housing conditions and helping small businesses. We must make a balanced judgement, and that judgement has come down in favour of the way forward with regard to all those matters.

Debate suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.31 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -

Oral Answers to Questions



2.30 pm

Mr Speaker:

Members will find that several questions to the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of the Environment have been transferred to other Departments. This may, of course, be expected to happen from time to time, but it happens so regularly that I have made enquiries at the Business Office.

I understand that there are at least two reasons for this. First, many Members table questions very close to the deadline when it is not possible for matters to be checked. What is perhaps even more troublesome is that some Members do not accept the Business Office's advice on who the question should be asked of. These Members insist that the Business Office table their question only to find that the Department shares the view of the Business Office and not that of the Member. I advise Members that it is in their own interests to accept the Business Office's advice, which is given in good faith. It may not be perfect advice, and it may not always be correct, but it is correct at least as often as Members are.

Mr Fee:

On point of order, Mr Speaker. I had a question on the Order Paper today but I have just been advised that it has been transferred to another Department. If a question is the responsibility of several Departments, how does one find out what each Department does about its responsibilities?

Mr Speaker:

The Departments determine which of them will take the lead. I cannot speak to this particular question - that is for another Minister - but I suggest that you take the advice of the Business Office, for it is more often correct than not. I shall not get involved in the specifics of this question, if you do not mind, Mr Fee.

Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister

Review of Public Administration


Mr ONeill

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what steps are being taken to ensure the independence of the proposed review of public administration referred to in the draft Programme for Government.

(AQO 501/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

The Executive recently discussed how best to take this important review forward. The review will have to examine all elements of public administration since the establishment of the Assembly and the Executive, and we must ensure that it is carried forward effectively. Officials have been asked to prepare for further discussions in the new year, after which we hope to decide how to proceed.

I can, however, report that the Executive do believe that an independent element would be appropriate, and officials have been asked to bring forward a range of options for the conduct of the review that reflects this. This is necessary to ensure public confidence. In addition, widespread consultation will be needed to enable everyone to contribute to the review. The Executive will consider these matters carefully to ensure that the review is inclusive, objective and has credibility.

Mr ONeill:

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is a good thing that the review's emphasis should be on public administration and that it should not be a review of local government only, as is sometimes mooted? Does he also agree that this is important, as local councils account for only 2·8% of expenditure, while bodies, boards and quangos are responsible for 56% of public expenditure? Is the Minister aware of the Irish Civil Service's strategy, prepared in 1996 and entitled 'Delivering Better Government', and will he consider this and reviews in other member states when preparing the terms of reference for a new review in public administration?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Assemblyman is right to put this matter in perspective. Much of the thought and many of the utterances on this issue have centred inexplicably on the question of local government. It is clear from the expenditure that it is, although crucial, only a part of it. The general administration is crucially important.

We must learn the lessons gained elsewhere and we must incorporate international best practice where possible. We must recognise the value of engaging independent external experts where necessary who can bring a different dimension to the case. There is a widespread change in attitudes to the quality and efficiency of public administration across the European Union. The Republic of Ireland is delivering better government. Another example can be seen in the UK's modernising government initiative, which has been far-reaching. At present, the European Commission is undergoing a major programme of reform, which may yield valuable lessons as well.

Examining these initiatives, and others, in EU countries will be an important task for the review team. Such research can help us in many ways, although it may not all be pertinent to our situation.

Mr B Bell:

I am glad that the Deputy First Minister agrees that local government is an important part of any review. Having established the need for a review of public administration, does he accept that unnecessary delay in completing it will lead to uncertainty and will undermine the goal of improved accountable democracy? Can he assure the House that the review will be carried out as urgently and as efficiently as possible?

The Deputy First Minister:

I have spent 16 years in local government and regard it as a very important part of our administration. Once the Executive have agreed the way forward, it will be in the best interests of everyone to undertake the review as quickly and as efficiently as possible. It will be a very complex task, perhaps one of the most complex tasks that the Assembly will undertake in this session. It is essential that we proceed quickly to end all political uncertainty and to end uncertainty in councils and among the staff of the sections of administration that are to be reviewed.

It is essential that the review be carried out efficiently, systematically and thoroughly. The key principles of how we want to administer government must be fully explored. Proposals for change must be considered carefully, and all relevant people must be consulted. We cannot afford to cut any corners and we shall not have any undue delay.

Mr P Robinson:

May I ask the Deputy First Minister about the timetable. Once the remit has been prepared, the review could take up to 18 months to be completed. After that, there will be a period of consideration by the Executive, followed by legislation. The review is likely to change the number of district councils, so there may have to be a boundary revision. It may take up to two years after its public phase.

If that is the case, it may take three or four years for real change to take place in local government. Is there an advantage in postponing local government elections?

The Deputy First Minister:

I awaited the ultimate sentence with great anticipation. I thank the Member for confirming my statement that we must be absolutely thorough in this matter. To put it colloquially, we shall get only one bite at this cherry. We cannot afford to get it wrong. Therefore the Assemblyman is quite right. It must be thorough, and its research and thinking must stand us in good stead - not just for the next five years but for the next 25, 30, and 40 years. I regard it as a matter of the utmost seriousness, as do the Executive, and I shall not fall for any red herrings at the end of a highly pregnant and relevant question.



Mr Dodds

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give details of any further reports on the decommissioning of illegal terrorist weaponry received from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

(AQO 492/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

The most recent report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to the British and Irish Governments was dated 26 October 2000. The commission reported that the international inspectors had carried out a second inspection of some IRA arms dumps and confirmed that the dumps had not been tampered with and remained secure. The commission also gave a detailed report on its work from February to October 2000.

Mr Dodds:

Once again the First Minister must report no progress on the handover of illegal terrorist weaponry. The House and the people of Northern Ireland were told that the deadline was the 22 May. The First Minister has told us that there would be no government unless such illegal weaponry was decommissioned. His phrase was "no guns, no government". He told us that government would not continue unless guns were handed in.

Does the First Minister not accept that the recent murders on all sides, and particularly the atrocious murder today in north Belfast, emphasise the need to decommission all illegal terrorist weaponry? Is the First Minister not in the least embarrassed at lecturing people in Palermo on combating organised crime when he signed an agreement that let all the criminal organisers in Northern Ireland out of prison? Is he not embarrassed at signing an agreement that let them keep their weaponry, which is destroying the legal police force designed to combat them and which keeps their political representatives in Government?

The First Minister:

We have heard another typical DUP rant. That is all it is. I sometimes wonder, listening to Members in that corner, what they would do if there were further progress. They do not recognise that, although not enough progress has been made, some progress has been made. Furthermore, they do not recognise that the only progress that has been made has been as a result of pressure that we have exerted. The truth is that the DUP does nothing at all on decommissioning, and further progress would only disappoint it.

Mr McFarland:

Does the First Minister share my frustration that seven months after the restoration of devolution the Republican movement and Loyalist paramilitaries have yet to decommission? Does he agree that sustaining the Belfast Agreement depends entirely on terrorists carrying out their promises?

The First Minister:

I agree entirely. The devolved institutions were restored following a promise by the Republican movement that it would initiate the process of putting its weapons beyond use; and that it would do so verifiably and credibly. That is the basis on which we have proceeded. We wait to see when that promise will be fulfilled.

Human Rights Abuses
(Paramilitary Organisations)


Mr Beggs

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline its awareness of the criticisms of the Government that have been made by Professor Colin Knox of the University of Ulster in his report, and what actions are proposed to highlight and to tackle the abuse of individuals' human rights through paramilitary attacks.

(AQO 525/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

The detailed and extensively researched report produced by Professor Knox and his colleagues is being studied with great interest. It shows clearly that the scourge of so-called punishment attacks is all too prevalent, at a terrible cost to individuals, families and communities. It highlights the need for an accountable police service and an accountable criminal justice service that enjoy the support and confidence of everyone that they serve. Although criminal justice and policing are reserved matters, this Administration will do all that it can to tackle the underlying social problems that can contribute to crime and to ensure that the needs of victims of violence are met with high-quality, effective services. Many organisations are trying to deal with these issues, and the Executive's commitment to victims is outlined in the draft Programme for Government. Criticisms of devolved areas of responsibility in Professor Knox's report will be examined, and I shall ensure that the report is brought to the attention of the Minister whose Department is directly involved.

2.45 pm

Mr Beggs:

The first sentence of paragraph four of the report states

"There is a reliance on Sinn Féin, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party to do something about 'punishment' beatings and shootings."

Does the Deputy First Minister agree with that statement? Are you satisfied with the actions of those parties to date? Furthermore, the Department for Social Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety incur costs as a result of punishment beatings and shootings. Do you agree that if the Executive were to collate and publish the levels of such human rights abuses in conjunction with the RUC, increased community pressure would force paramilitary organisations to end such activity?

Mr Speaker:

I remind the Member and other Members to address their questions through the Speaker.

The Deputy First Minister:

Those who carry out such attacks should get no sympathy or understanding from me or from anyone else in this Chamber. I say that without equivocation. However, all must play their part in bringing pressure to bear on organisations that perpetrate these so-called punishment attacks. This is a political matter rather than an accountancy one. Lives are ruined and society is damaged by these attacks; more is involved than the financial implications for individual Government Departments. I wish it were as easy as tabulating the cost. This matter is not quantifiable. Neither should we believe that we can quantify human suffering in financial reports.

Mr Attwood:

I concur with the Deputy First Minister when he says that there can be no sympathy or understanding for those who carry out the sort of attacks that happened to the people of north and west Belfast at the weekend.

When the Knox report has been reviewed, will the Executive bear in mind their recommendation for a co-ordinated strategy between Departments to tackle the causes of crime?

The Deputy First Minister:

The question is pertinent, as the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have already established an interdepartmental working group on victims under the chairmanship of the junior Ministers, Mr Haughey and Mr Nesbitt. The group aims at developing a strategic approach to the issues that victims face, and it is one of the action points in the draft Programme for Government, which states that it is planned to have a cross- departmental strategy in place by April 2001.

In addition, a programme of capacity building for policy makers will begin with a major conference at the end of January 2001. That will be followed by a series of four one-day seminars with the aim of increasing the knowledge and awareness of senior policy makers on victims' issues.

Mr Boyd:

In view of the recent paramilitary attacks, including today's murder, do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree with the findings of Professor Knox's report that the Government are turning a blind eye?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Government are not turning a blind eye. It is not fair to heap blame on anyone, least of all on those who are not here to answer. I take it upon myself to state that I do not agree with that assessment. This is not a problem that can be solved by Governments; it is problem that can be solved by people operating as a single community, collectively deciding that this barbarity has no place in their lives. It is then that it will finally be defeated.

Visit of President Clinton


Mr Byrne

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the visit of President Clinton.

(AQO 497/00)

The First Minister:

The Executive were delighted to welcome the President of the United States on his recent visit to Northern Ireland. During his visit the President met Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and held discussions with representatives of political parties. The Deputy First Minister and I welcomed the President's personal interest in and commitment to Northern Ireland. We fully recognise the role undertaken by the President and his Administration in contributing to the efforts to secure a durable peace settlement here.

Mr Byrne:

Does the First Minister accept that a visit to Northern Ireland by the President of the United States is always welcome, particularly since we are always grateful for American investment? Does the First Minister also accept that the less than enthusiastic welcome for the President by Belfast City Council, through the pronouncements of the Lord Mayor, may benefit Omagh or Strabane, or indeed Lurgan, Newry or Armagh? In these places there would always be a warm welcome for any president, Republican or Democrat.

The First Minister:

I am happy to tell the Member that I too am pleased not to be responsible for the statements made by the mayor of Belfast. I shall not say anything further. Economic matters cover trade and investment. Trade is as important to businesses as inward investment, welcome though that is. There is very substantial US investment in Northern Ireland; very substantial trade is being undertaken. We welcome that, as it is very much to Northern Ireland's advantage. I am sorry that there are those in the opposite corner who are curmudgeonly on this issue.

Mr S Wilson:

Does the First Minister extend his welcome to the President of the United States in light of his hugging Gerry Adams and his bending immigration laws to allow RUC killers to stay in his country? Will the First Minister tell us how enthralled he was with the President's speech when he had to walk out halfway through?

The First Minister:

On the last point the Member is quite wrong. As he knows, I had a plane to catch, which, unfortunately -

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The Prime Minister offered the First Minister a seat on his plane.

The First Minister:

Mr Speaker, I know that it is not normal practice to pay attention to sedentary remarks, but the person who made that remark is misleading the House. The offer that he refers to would not have enabled me to make my connection.

I welcome the support that the President has given to the agreement and to the implementation of all of the agreement. I welcome his making it clear that the whole agreement, including its provisions on decommissioning, must be implemented.

Rev Robert Coulter:

Does the First Minister agree that the most telling of all the President's comments were those delivered during his first visit here in 1995 when he told the terrorists that their day was over? Does the First Minister regret, as I do, that five years later the same President must call on terrorists to accept that reality?

The First Minister:

It is of course a matter of considerable disappointment to us that the process has moved so slowly, particularly on those issues. This process is nothing if it is not designed to produce peace and democracy.

There is a responsibility on various people, some of whom are in the Chamber, to deliver the peace and democracy that we are striving to achieve. We shall continue to make every effort to reach those goals and we shall not, unlike others, merely pour scorn on a noble undertaking.

Ethnic Minority Voluntary Groups


Ms Lewsley

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what proposals are in place for targeted support for ethnic minority voluntary groups.

(AQO 493/00)


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