Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 15 January 2001 (continued)

Mr Campbell:

I thank the Member for his question, or series of questions. First of all, I accept, with regard to the salting of 80% of the network, that the remaining 20% is untreated. Mr Hussey, who is a member of the Regional Development Committee, will be aware that I will be in front of the Committee on Wednesday, and I have no doubt that we will look at the possibility of extending the salted network.

I reiterate that if we were to increase the 80% coverage of traffic in normal conditions to 90% -bridging the gap by only half - the bill would double from the existing £5 million to £10 million. That figure does not include the £18 million of additional cost for capital equipment.

If we were to do the entire road network the running costs would quadruple and the one-off initial capital investment of plant would increase to £36 million. Of course, we will consider these issues and discuss them in Committee session, but, as I have said, I have to be cognisant of the cost factor.

The Member mentioned the 8% increase in the regional rate. I understand that Members may learn later today whether people are accepting this increase, and Mr Hussey may then find them less accepting than he appears to think that they may be. However, that is a separate issue.

I will be in front of the Committee on Wednesday, and I will consider these complicated issues and their resource implications. We will discuss them, and I have no doubt that the Member and the rest of the Committee will give their views on Wednesday.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I welcome the Minister's statement and ask him to accept my appreciation of the Roads Service staff's work during recent exceptional circumstances. However, does the Minister accept that there is a danger in the uneven level of salting, or gritting, across the Province? Quite often there is a differential between district councils, and one can actually see where one ends and another begins. Each council seems to have a different policy, which is dangerous. Can we have more co-ordinated arrangements between district councils to make road travel safer? Does he understand that there is a concern about the safety of the public and school children? We thank God that recently an accident was spared involving children on a bus. Can something be done about salting school routes on small country roads to ensure safe travelling?

Mr Campbell:

I am conscious that in various divisions section engineers use their own judgement about whether there will be salting, when it will occur and to what intensity it will be undertaken. I am conscious of the Member's comments, particularly about people travelling across Northern Ireland. I have heard, historically, of palpable differences between one division and another. I have taken note of the Member's comments, and I will investigate them to ensure that there is a standard degree of implementation across Northern Ireland.

11.45 am

The Member mentioned school bus runs, particularly the one that was in the news recently. As the second point in the internal review, I am considering the establishment of priority routes for treatment to ensure that there is access to key public services in snow conditions. In conjunction with the Regional Development Committee, I will be examining how to include access to schools as part of that review.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister clarify whether there has been a change in the working conditions of those employed in gritting roads in the South Armagh and South Down areas? It appears that their working conditions were changed in December 2000. Can he also explain why the salt boxes in many housing estates were not seen to, considering the forecast of bad weather conditions? Those boxes ought to have been filled with sand and salt prior to the arrival of the heavy weather in December. In my area, there were incidences where people could not get out of some housing estates. Things would have been much easier for them had there been some sand and grit available.

Mr Campbell:

I am not aware of any change in working conditions during December, although I will undertake to investigate the issue. I will be revising the criteria for the establishment of salt boxes. It is difficult to indicate whether criteria will be applied for the establishment of these boxes. If no criteria are applied, tens of thousands could be supplied. The Road Service can and will respond to requests for salt boxes. We are currently reviewing the provision of such boxes.

Mr Byrne:

The Minister's statement is very comprehensive given the circumstances we have just been through. Given that the primary criterion used is "the one thousand vehicles per day" criterion, does the Minister accept that most rural car owners travel, on average, 10,000 miles more per year and, as a result, they pay £750 extra on fuel duties and VAT duties? Does he accept that car owners in the more provincial rural areas need and aspire to having roads treated equally to those living in the Belfast metropolitan area?

Mr Campbell:

As the Member is also on the Regional Development Committee, this point, among others, will come to the surface at the meeting on Wednesday, where they will be looked at and analysed. I am very concerned about the numbers of people in the rural community who feel that urban centres receive a higher concentration of resources than they do. However, we must have criteria. The current criteria were developed in 1996, and we are reviewing them now in conjunction with the Regional Development Committee. The Member and I are conscious of the higher concentration of vehicular traffic existing on main roads, as well as the necessity to try to ensure that a concentration of resources is present there. I fully accept, however, that we cannot do that to the exclusion of the rural dweller, and I look forward to the discussion that we will undoubtedly have on Wednesday.

Mr Armstrong:

We have to be very thankful that there were no weather-related deaths on the roads over this period. That is one thing that some of us perhaps forgot.

In the event of further sudden adverse weather conditions, what contingency plans does the Minister have to deal with disruption and gridlock on roads throughout the Province, particularly rural roads? The M2 was closed for a short time, and since that is the main road between Coleraine, Londonderry and Belfast, it is very important that it should be kept open.

I agree that urban areas have an advantage over rural areas, and that people in rural areas are more vulnerable than those in towns. That has to be considered. It was good that the frost and snow did not last any longer, and since we have government now in our own hands and in the control of local people, we hope that the situation will not arise again. Will the Minister consider using local contractors or farmers under the direction of the relevant area engineer? That might be more cost-effective.

I have written to the Minister, and hope that I will be having a meeting with him at a later date.

Mr Campbell:

The Member raises a number of issues, some of which I hope I have dealt with. As I have said, I undertake to establish the circumstances with regard to the M2 on the afternoon of 27 December. I appreciate and accept the central nature of the M2 corridor. Given that I use it almost every day, the member would expect me to say that.

I accept the issue of rural dwellers from the Member, as I do from others. We will have to examine that, given the circumstances that prevail, but I will not go over the concentration on the other areas. However, I will not go over the issue of the exclusion of rural dwellers again.

The issue of using farmers and small contractors has emerged in the past and we will examine that as part of the review.

Mr Speaker:

I encourage Members to listen to the questions that other Members are asking and not simply repeat them. That takes up time, and we may not be able to get through all the questions that Members wish to ask. Of course, the Chair accepts that sometimes a Minister does not give a full enough answer to a question. Then it is perhaps best to ask a different question, or to couch the question in another way - in a probing fashion - to elicit a different response, rather than simply reiterate questions to which the Minister's response is "I have already answered the question." I encourage Members to think in that way.

Mr R Hutchinson:

I welcome the Minister's statement. As a member of the Regional Development Committee, I look forward to meeting him on Wednesday in relation to some of the country roads in my area, at Glenarm, Carnalbanagh and Feystown. Some of the comments from the people living in the town areas were interesting. We sometimes forget that folk in country areas experience this weather quite often throughout the year.

Under normal circumstances, when an adverse weather forecast is received from the Met Office, at what time do the gritters and salters get out on the roads? How does that compare with what happened over the Christmas period?

Mr Campbell:

The Member referred to the issue that is central to my statement - the extremity of the conditions. Normally - for example, on recent nights, when temperatures have been anything between minus one and minus three - Roads Service might salt in the evening, but certainly in advance of the early-morning rush hour. It might complete the salting of the road network by, for example, 6.30 am. Of course, it depends on the overnight weather conditions.

That compares starkly with the conditions we faced between 27 December and 31 December. The surface snow temperature was minus 18 degrees Celsius and very heavy snow throughout most of that period meant that the gritters were working almost continuously. That is why I wanted to go to some considerable lengths to pay tribute to the staff of the Roads Service. I accept the many commendations from Members, including Mr R Hutchinson, to the staff who worked throughout the holiday period in severe climatic conditions and I will pass on those commendations.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the statement. I suppose it covers the basic questions that have been feeding in to the Department.

When looking at the rural versus the urban situation with regard to covering 80% of the road network, what percentage of Fermanagh and Tyrone roads would that figure cover? I imagine that the area would be very low in terms of the number of roads covered, given that we have a large network of minor roads and that people have to negotiate these to get to services. What impact was there on access to key services such as emergency, care, refuse collection for those in rural areas compared to those living in Belfast? I know that in some areas refuse collection did not take place until after the thaw. Farmers had to wait for milk to be collected - if they had enough tank capacity to last until then.

Mr Campbell:

We are concentrating on the rural provision, which I have already covered, but I am happy to respond again before the Regional Development Committee and on subsequent occasions in the Assembly.

Rural dwellers need to be catered for and there is a need to ensure that there is adequate provision in terms of the winter maintenance budget in their areas. It may be difficult, but I will endeavour to establish what proportion of the overall Northern Ireland 80% roads coverage relates to the Fermanagh/South Tyrone area.

We are debating the period 27 December to 31 December. Just nine days before the beginning of that difficult weather period, the Assembly voted on the Budget. In that Budget, the Roads Service received a nominal uplift in road maintenance. I do not wish to dwell at length on the matter, but I am constrained by the budget allocated to me. If we consider any amendment or enlargement of the salted road network, then the consequences for the allocation of resources may be considerable.

I would expect to receive the support of Members if we decided, as a result of this review, to enlarge or enhance the salted network.


Mr Bradley:

The greatest disappointment in my area during those terrible days was the situation on the main A1 route to the border, at Killeen. The route was completely impassable at times, and yet the roads from the border to Dublin were completely clear in spite of the fact that there was similar snowfall there.

We have heard about reappraisals and a review - and everyone agrees that these are very necessary - but reviews are for the future. I want to ask the Minister what the situation would be on routes such as the A1 if we had a repeat of the Christmas snowfall later today, tomorrow or next week.

Mr Campbell:

There has been some reference, both in the House and in the public domain, to the A1. The salting of the A1 from the border to Sprucefield is controlled by the southern division. The road is divided into four separate salting sections. All of these sections were salted at 20 grams per square metre. This started at 6.30 pm on Tuesday, on the A1, and recommenced at 4.30 am on Wednesday. Salting was done again at 2.30 pm, and continued thereafter until 31 December. Considerable effort was put into the salting of the A1. As I said in my statement, the eastern part of Northern Ireland was the most heavily affected by the snow, and that, of course, includes the A1. We will look at that route again, as we will look at others.

I take the Member's point about the Republic of Ireland, although I am not sure about the extent of the snowfall there. We will be able to establish that. I will respond to the Member in writing, as I will to the other Members who have made specific points.

Mr Beggs:

I thank the Minister for his statement and put on record my thanks to the Roads Service staff who worked through the exceptional weather conditions to try to keep the roads free.

I welcome the Minister's invitation to local councils to assist in clearing footpaths in town centres. Does the Minister accept that some local government vehicles could be easily adapted to have snowploughs added, thereby providing additional assistance during such exceptional weather conditions?

Will the Minister also undertake to advise of the specific cost of ensuring that all school bus routes are gritted? The general figures that he talked about today were given to me by Lord Dubs over two years ago. If devolution is going to mean anything, we should be getting more precise information and be aware of what those costs are. Does the Minister accept that gritting school bus routes would protect children's safety and also open up the main rural routes to emergency services, should they be required? Will he ensure that there is greater transparency in identifying what costs would be involved and the benefits to the rural community which would ensue?

Mr Campbell:

As I have said, I wish to invite district councils to work with us in clearing pedestrian areas and town centre footpaths. I am aware of very extreme conditions that prevailed in some pedestrian areas on the north coast over the period, and some measures were taken to try to alleviate the situation. I understand that several years ago the Roads Service did try to establish a working relationship with district councils. In fact, some small, localised arrangements do exist among a small number of councils.

However, I want to revisit that issue to see if it is possible to expand those arrangements across Northern Ireland. It would obviously help if, in doing so, we were able to utilise some of the local councils' vehicles, but we will have to examine the implications of that. I understand that, on previous occasions, the councils experienced difficulties in trying to establish this relationship, but further progress will be sought.

Mr Beggs also mentioned the cost of gritting the bus routes. The establishment of priority routes will be an issue, including the treatment of bus routes to schools, which has been mentioned on several occasions by Members.

Mr McCartney:

I welcome the Minister's statement and join in offering the thanks of my party to the staff of the Roads Service who worked in extreme and trying conditions to keep the traffic moving. This was the first serious snowfall since 1982 and there has been a general increase in the mildness of winters. Given these facts and the town and country argument about who is getting more of the cake, will the Minister indicate the cost of having on hand sufficient machinery and manpower to cope with an emergency that occurs perhaps once every 15 or 20 years and give parity of treatment to every road, rural and urban?

Mr Campbell:

During the period between 27 and 31 December temperatures were the most extreme - minus 18C - and snowfall was the highest across Northern Ireland since approximately 1982.

It would cost £36 million of capital investment to provide a winter maintenance schedule that would ensure that every road in Northern Ireland was salted, irrespective of the number of vehicles that normally use some roads, and to ensure that we had enough gritters and the snowploughs to do that. An extra £20 million would also be needed on an ongoing, annual basis to ensure that this could continue to be done.

In addition, trying to ensure that all the roads were salted in approximately three to three-and-a-half hours, as happens with many at the moment, would cost a substantial amount more. So, the short answer, I am afraid, is that this service would cost considerably more money than we have available to us at present.

Mr Gibson:

Will the Minister pass on my thanks to his 400 men? In the circumstances, they carried out personal tasks for many of us, such as accommodating funerals and helping with other emergencies - this was welcome.

The Minister has already mentioned the variations in the treatment of roads in different areas. Can he tell us why the M1, an arterial route, was less well salted than roads in the more remote areas of west Tyrone, and is he aware that the figure of £870,000 is twice that of the budget for minor works to roads throughout west Tyrone?

I am bearing in mind that this was a holiday season with a third less traffic on the roadway than normal and no school buses running. Would it have been a dire emergency in normal times, or would the cutting edge of the traffic have made better use of the salt?

Mr Campbell:

In relation to the Member's latter point, I think I made this point clear, and I know that Roads Service personnel did in media interviews at the time: it is a fact that traffic on a salted road enables the salt to take effect. The greater the flow of traffic on the road, the more effective the salt becomes. Conversely, the less traffic there is on the road, the more difficult it is for the salt to work effectively.

Mr Gibson raised the issue of the M1. Let us return to the issue of public perception, which I recognise to be a factor. When Members of the public get into their vehicles there is an expectation, even in times of extreme weather conditions, that a main route like the M1 or the M2 will be clear. Whether the motorway had been salted one, two, three or even four hours before, there is an expectation that it should be clear. That is not always the case, particularly in the very extreme circumstances that we were faced with in this four-day period. However, I undertake to have the degree of salting of the M1 on those days examined, and I will write to the Member concerning that.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. While I welcome the Minister's statement, it is unfortunate that it has obviated the need for a proper debate on the matter. This is a perennial debate - year in, year out, we have the same argument about the lack of gritting. The issue was worthy of a proper debate in the Assembly, and it is unfortunate that we are not having that.

I would like to commend all those workers who went out and did their best, especially in my council area.

Will the Minister quantify the cost to the Health Service and the community of the increase in fractures? Also, I was surprised to hear one of his officials saying that there is no statutory obligation on the Department of Regional Development to grit the roads. I want the Minister to bring that matter to the Executive and to ask the Executive to make gritting a statutory obligation.

Mr Speaker:

The time is up, so I have to ask the Minister to respond in writing to the Member's questions.

However, I wish to make some comments. First, if Members had not insisted on thanking and commending all of those who worked so hard during the emergency before asking their questions, all those who wanted to ask questions would have been able to do so.

Secondly, if Members had not asked questions that were merely repetitions of previous questions, forcing the Minister to repeat a previous answer, we would have had more than enough time for all Members.

Finally, Members should check their questions to be sure that they are being put to the proper Minister. For example, a question on the effect on the Health Service has to be a question for the Minister of Health and not for the Minister for Regional Development.

However, I accept that with the degree of cold and the freezing up of the thinking processes during the recess, Members are not quite into the full way of going. Perhaps Members will recall those points when we come to questions to the Ministers later today and at other times.


Electronic Communcations Bill: Second Stage

12.15 pm

The Junior Minister (Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister) (Mr Haughey):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Electronic Communications Bill (NI 9/00) be agreed.

I would like to begin by explaining the need for this Bill and its importance to the development of e-commerce and e-government in Northern Ireland. I will then deal with the detailed content of the Bill and its implications for the Government, for business and for the ordinary citizens in Northern Ireland.

The need for legislation stems from two European Union directives. First, the 1999 directive addresses a community framework for electronic signature. An electronic signature is a secure personal code which, combined with a device or a piece of specific information, uniquely identifies an individual. All Members of the House will be familiar with the automatic teller machines, or the holes in the wall, as they are commonly called. You insert your cash card, you key in your personal number and you take out cash, that is if you have any cash.

The combination of the card and the personal identification number (PIN) make up an electronic signature. There are other more sophisticated forms of electronic signature but in essence they all boil down to the same thing: a swipe card, or some other device, plus a piece of personal information that is known to you and is unlikely to be known by many people - for example, your PIN, your mother's maiden name or your date of birth. Some telephone services ask you to verify your identify by providing such information. The 1999 directive established a common legal framework for electronic signatures and the related arrangements for accreditation and certification across the member states of the European Union. This was done to ensure that different definitions did not constitute barriers to electronic commerce across the European Union, and all member states must comply with this directive by July 2001.

Secondly, there is the 2000 directive on electronic commerce, which creates a legal framework to ensure the free movement of information society services between member states. A key requirement of the directive is that each member state has to amend any legislation that contains requirements that are likely to curb the use of contracts by electronic means. Member states must comply with this directive by January 2002.

In response to these two directives, the United Kingdom Government brought forward the Electronic Communications Act 2000, which received Royal Assent in May 2000. The Act is a key element in the Westminster Government's vision of making this the best place in the world to conduct e-business. In particular, it provides for the removal of legislative barriers to e-commerce, as required by the EU directive.

The purpose of the Electronic Communications Bill that is before the House today is to ensure that Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive have the same powers as their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales to permit, and indeed to promote, electronic commerce. Specifically, the Bill will allow Northern Ireland Departments to modify existing Northern Ireland legislation for the purpose of authorising or facilitating the use of electronic communications.

These powers were conferred on Ministers of the Westminster Government and on Ministers of the devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales under the Electronic Communications Act 2000. During key stages of the passage of that Bill through Westminster, the Northern Ireland Assembly either had not achieved devolution or was in a state of suspension, and the Bill, therefore, did not bring us into line. The purpose of the Bill before the House today is to bring us into line now with England, Scotland and Wales.

A great deal still needs to be done by each of the devolved Administrations to identify and deliver the programmes of subordinate legislation necessary to remove barriers to e-commerce. Under the powers proposed in this Bill, legislation may be amended that will affect all Government Departments and enable a range of transactions to be carried out electronically. Those could range from vehicle registration and taxation to companies' registration and social security claims - a wide range of interfaces between citizens and the Administration. An interdepartmental group of officials is already working to identify the specific pieces of legislation in need of change. A consequential programme of amending legislation will be drawn up and prioritised to bring appropriate Northern Ireland legislation into line with the requirements of European Union directives.

This Bill in itself will not directly affect Northern Ireland's businesses and citizens; it will merely enable Northern Ireland Departments to amend their legislation. Subordinate legislation made under the powers conferred by the Bill will have a more direct impact on business and citizens than the Bill itself. Where a responsible Department considers it necessary, it will be subject to an affirmative procedure in the Assembly.

I have already said that the Electronic Communications Act 2000 is a key element in the UK Government's vision for e-commerce. However, it will also facilitate a quantum leap in the electronic delivery of Government services to the public. Legislation was made in July 2000 in the Republic of Ireland for the same purpose. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have agreed that Northern Ireland should be part of the revolution in electronic commerce and in the electronic delivery of Government services. It is important that we keep abreast of the developments currently taking place in both Great Britain and the Republic on both the East/West and North/South axes.

It might be helpful to give a brief summary of the Electronic Communications Act 2000. Its main purpose is to help build confidence in e-commerce and the technology underlined, and to remove any statutory barriers to using electronic signatures and data storage. The Act covers a number of separate aspects. First, it covers an approval scheme for businesses and other organisations, providing cryptography or secure encoding support services such as electronic signature services and related confidentiality services.

Secondly, it covers the legal recognition of electronic signatures and the process under which they are verified, generated or communicated. That effectively affords electronic signatures the same status and the same legal status as a written signature on a piece of paper. Finally, it removes obstacles to the use of electronic communication and storage in place of paper storage in other legislation.

Approval schemes for cryptography services are a reserved matter under section 4(1) and paragraph 29 of schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 - I hope Members are able to follow that - so the provisions of the Electronic Communications Act 2000 already apply in Northern Ireland. Cryptography involves the electronic encoding of a document so that its content can be accessed and read only by the sender and intended recipient. The recipient must have the necessary code or key to enable the message to be decoded. Suppliers of cryptography services will be permitted in the first instance to be self- regulating in setting and complying with industry standards. However, the UK Act provides for Government regulation in the future, should it be needed.

The legal recognition of electronic signatures is similarly dealt with in section 7 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000. The Bill before us relates primarily to the third and final issue - the removal of obstacles to the use of electronic signatures and data storage in other legislation.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

Clause 1 of the Bill contains powers designed to remove restrictions in existing legislation that prevent the use of electronic communications and storage, and to enable the use to be more clearly defined where it is already allowed. A large number of existing statutes make provision for a wide range of services requiring the use of written signatures. These include applications by businesses or members of the public to the Government for licenses or grants - for example, applications for driving or fishing licenses, claims for housing benefit, social security benefits and so forth. The powers afforded by clause 1 can be used to modify legislation to enable such transactions to be conducted electronically. That would make such transactions quicker, more efficient and more convenient, both for businesses and members of the public.

It is important to note that the Bill does not remove the option to use any of the traditional means of transacting business. Citizens will still be able to fill out the traditional paper form and send it in in the normal way. The Bill will provide for legislation to be amended so that the ordinary citizen can do these things electronically over the internet. Citizens and businesses will still be able to conduct business by letter, by telephone or by attending a Government office. This legislation simply adds the option of doing all of that electronically.

The uptake of this electronic option might be gradual, but Government should make the option available now and encourage people to use new technology to improve the quality and responsiveness of Government services to businesses and to individual citizens. The number of citizens with online capability is increasing, and as every parent in the Assembly knows, when the present generation of children leaves school that will increase dramatically. Each of us is aware of how much more sophisticated our children are in the use of electronic communications than our generation.

Clause 2 contains standard provisions commonly bestowed on the executive arm of Government to make subordinate legislation so that complementary and supplementary provision can be made if necessary.

Clause 3 is a complicated and technical-sounding provision. It is designed to prohibit the introduction in any subsequent legislation of what is called "key escrow". I shall briefly explain what that means, as I did not know myself until recently. It was explained earlier that the secure transmission of an electronic document requires the use of a secure private code or key. Key escrow would require such private keys to be deposited with a trusted third party, such as a bank. There are concerns that if banks or similar agencies stored codes or keys of this kind, other interested parties could possibly gain access to them without the knowledge or approval of those using those codes to send or receive documents.

Our parliamentary counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales rejected the imposition of a key escrow scheme. Clause 3 of our Bill similarly seeks to prohibit this requirement. If someone believes that they have a legitimate right to access an encrypted document, they will have to apply to a court, giving good reason why they should be able to see it. The situation is similar with paper documents today - if anyone seeks access to private documents, they have to get a court order. It will be the same for electronically stored data.

Clause 3 allows for arrangements to be made to ensure that an electronic transaction can be continued in the event of the key being either damaged or lost. In such cases there will be a back-up that will ensure that electronic transactions are not entirely nullified by the loss of, or damage to, a key or code.

Clauses 4 and 5 are formal and self-explanatory provisions.


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