Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 15 January 2001 (continued)

12.30 pm

In summarising, I would like to take a couple of moments to put this Bill in context. The electronic age has been upon us for some time and businesses and the public are rapidly realising the benefits, in speed and convenience, which the new technologies make possible. The Government have to take full account of these developments to ensure that citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland are afforded the best possible services, on a par with those in any other part of these islands or, indeed, in any other part of the world. Our colleagues in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have already taken similar powers to those we propose today that the Assembly should give to the Executive. We in Northern Ireland must align ourselves so that we can stay abreast of the progress made possible by new information and communication technology.

It has already been stated that the powers proposed in this Bill will not directly affect individual citizens or businesses. They will simply permit Northern Ireland Departments to amend legislation, where necessary, in order to legalise the use of electronic signatures and the storage of data by electronic means. The consequential subordinate legislation made under these powers will have a direct impact on citizens and businesses in that they will give them the option of conducting transactions electronically.

Much work is already in hand across Departments to capitalise on the new technologies. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, through the information age initiative, is encouraging the development of an innovative, knowledge-based economy in Northern Ireland. Corporate frameworks, technical strategies and e-business strategies are being developed to ensure that we have the capability to offer more efficient and more effective public services in the information age.

An Internet portal for the Northern Ireland Administration is being constructed and will form one of the main electronic interfaces between the Administration and the public. Information will be readily available in a format that will relate to people's needs and not to how the Government providers are organised. The information will be available in a format that is user-friendly to an individual citizen rather than in a format convenient for bureaucracy.

The technology and capability are already available to enable the Government to conduct their business electronically. However, we need to amend our laws to accommodate these developments, and this Bill will provide us with the necessary powers. We will try to deal with any questions that arise in the course of debate. My Colleague Mr Nesbitt will respond to questions that are raised when he winds up.

I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Poots):

I thank Junior Minister Haughey for bringing this Bill before the House on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The House will generally welcome the main principles of the Bill. In November the Committee of the Centre considered the Bill's policy issues and agreed with the need for this legislation to be brought forward. It will bring us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland should play its full part in the UK's overall drive towards the modernisation of Government services. The adoption of this Bill is an essential part of that.

I noted what Mr Haughey had to say in his concluding remarks. It is important that the Government recognise the benefit of electronic communication for delivering government efficiently. This will take more than legislation and words; it will take adequate resources for e-Government actually to be delivered. Of course, we have the service modernisation fund. In the last spending round, some £14·9 million was applied for but nothing was achieved.

We cannot deal with this issue realistically without resourcing it adequately. I know that the Ministers will take that point on board.

Clause 2 subsection 3 makes provisions for regulations made under clause 1 to be subject to negative resolution of the Assembly and that, in certain circumstances under clause 2 subsection 4, regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution of the Assembly. It is important that these regulations are subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly. I hope, and I am fairly confident, that the regulations will allow the involvement of technology in this particular field. It will improve safeguards and will help to reassure Assembly Members and the public.

I am pleased that clause 3 prohibits the imposition of a requirement to deposit a key for data with an intended recipient, except when that person is the intended recipient. This is an important human rights safeguard. Mr Haughey indicated that a bank could be a trusted third party. I wonder if everybody would be as trusting in such a third party as he would be.

I support the general principles of the Bill and look forward to further debate and discussion at Committee stage.

Mr Neeson:

I enthusiastically welcome this legislation and I hope that its provisions can substantially enhance the potential growth of e-commerce and e-government in Northern Ireland.

There are essentially four types of electronic communication: business-to-business e-commerce, business- to-consumer e-commerce, citizen-to-government e-government, and individual-to-individual transactions.

In 1998 it was estimated that there was $43 billion in global business to business e-commerce. By 2002, it is estimated, this figure will increase to $300 billion. In 1998, business to consumer e-commerce was worth $7 billion worldwide. It should be worth $80 billion in the year 2002. E-commerce is the way of the future. It creates price-transparency, competition, and consequently economic growth. E-commerce is part of the emerging global economy. As Members know, it is an issue the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee has been dealing with. Northern Ireland companies have to compete in this global economy.

Economic growth will be concentrated in those countries and regions that are most tuned in to the information and communication technology revolution. Governments have a duty to facilitate these opportunities rather than cramping growth through over-regulation. It is incumbent upon Government to provide for security, integrity and confidentiality of transactions and to guarantee standards to enhance business confidence that the rule of law applies to cyberspace.

I hope that the Minister will work with UK Ministers and our European and international partners to create common European and international standards. I strongly believe that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment should move swiftly to establish an e-commerce taskforce for Northern Ireland, in order to promote the use of information technology in business and to help identify specific opportunities.

We have only got to look at the success of the recent LEDU television advertisements in promoting e-commerce. E-government can provide a more efficient, transparent and accountable service. First, it improves Government services and connections with its services. It allows greater economies of scale in procurement. It is a more effective means of delivering services. It is a more consumer-friendly way of delivering services, providing 24-hour access, seven days a week, and often avoiding the need for queues. Finally, it is a much more comprehensive system.

The problems with e-government are related to matters of trust and access. They include a competitive communications market, universal access, digital signatures, on-line privacy and consumer protection, all of which I hope will be addressed. It is hoped that this draft legislation will go some way towards addressing these concerns.

However, there are broader issues that must be addressed by the Assembly and the Executive. Targets have been set in Westminster for the delivery of e-government - it should be possible to deliver 25% of Government services electronically by 2002. In my opinion, the Executive have a duty to place increasing numbers of its services on-line. It is also important that Government services be effectively linked together to provide the joined-up government that so many of us desire. In addition, care must be taken to improve access. There is a danger that a divide will open up between the wired and the non-wired. Alliance is keen to provide portals in as many public places as possible, and there is a potential role for post offices, in particular, in this respect.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you may recall the recent visit by the Committee of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to Nortel Networks in Monkstown. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of this new field of technology, which will be of universal benefit to citizens and, more importantly, of major benefit to the people of Northern Ireland. I welcome the opportunity to address the issue, and I look forward to the Bill's progress through the Assembly.

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

I thank the two Members who asked questions. Although I say that with a smile, I genuinely appreciate the Chairman of the Committee of the Centre's warm words of support. He stated that he welcomed the general principles behind the Bill. I also thank Mr Neeson, who enthusiastically welcomed the Bill in his opening comments.

I wish to address the specific points of funding and resourcing, which were raised by Mr Poots. Such questions are helpful, because we are all concerned about funding. No specific funds were allocated to e-government in the Budget for next year. However, Departments will be able to bid for Executive funding for service modernisation, new directions and infrastructure capital renewal. Departments will also need to look to their existing budgets, which already include significant resources for information technology and ensure that they are used to best effect to move the e-government agenda forward. Some key steps in the e-government agenda, as outlined in the draft Programme for Government - such as the production of a corporate, strategic framework and a corporate information technology strategy - are not particularly resource intensive. Therefore, while we need and are looking for resources, certain activities are not entirely resource-orientated.

Mr Neeson referred to e-commerce and e-government as the way forward. I do not want to intrude on the domain of other Ministers by outlining their departmental plans, but, from an e-government point of view, we are working on an interdepartmental basis on a number of fronts. A corporate strategic framework for e-government is being developed and will form a basis upon which "citizen- centred" services will be delivered in the future. The intention is that services will be integrated across organisational boundaries to meet our customers' requirements. A corporate information technology strategy is also being developed to ensure that the diverse range of technologies that exist in Departments are comparable and operate to a common standard.

12.45 pm

A public service network is under construction, which, over time, will provide a wide range of value-added services for all Departments and, eventually, all parts of the public service. Targets for electronic service delivery for Northern Ireland Departments are currently under consideration along the lines of those announced by the Prime Minister for Great Britain - and I will say more about that in a moment.

Finally, I would just like to add that from the point of view of Government and e-government and the importance that Government puts on e-government, we now have the "UKOnline" web site. The local version "Online NI" went on-line on 4 December. That will become the electronic interface between Government, businesses and the public.

I also referred to e-commerce and the importance of that as well - never mind the importance of e-government. Figures published by a commercial enterprise in September 2000 showed that 21% of the population here have had some regular use of the Internet. My Colleague has already highlighted the fact that the next generation coming through the schools will be much more computer- literate and more competant users than we are - those of us in my generation at least.

Sir John Gorman:

Hear, hear.

Mr Nesbitt:

"Hear, hear." to whoever said that. Oh, it was my Colleague.

That compares with 45% in Great Britain and 21% in the Republic of Ireland. The 21% figure for Northern Ireland is up from just 3% in 1998. That shows a significant growth, but it also shows that we have much further to go.

On 11 September 2000 the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey, announced the results of an international benchmarking study conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry. The Minister said

"The survey reveals that 75% of businesses in Northern Ireland are now using at least one of three key connectivity technologies - e-mail, web site or electronic data exchange - a 32% increase, compared with 43% last year. This represents the fastest growth of any UK region."

So we are taking a leap forward in e-commerce.

I said that I would refer to targets in more detail. It is right to refer to targets; they give us something to aim for and a means of knowing whether we have achieved all that we committed to deliver.

As far back as October 1997 the Prime Minister set targets for electronic service delivery. They were that within five years - therefore by 2002 - a quarter of all dealings with Government would be able to be done electronically, with 100% capability by 2008. Early assessments in Northern Ireland Departments show that they were well placed to meet the 25% target. The Prime Minister revised the targets in March 2000, and 25% of all services are now to be delivered electronically by 2002, with 100% capability by 2005.

The devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales have indicated that they will adopt similar targets, albeit within the control of their own Administrations. It is important that we should respond no less speedily. I take note of Mr Poots's comments about welcoming the aspect of comparability within the United Kingdom - this ties in with that as well. I emphasise that it is important that we should respond no less speedily than the rest of the UK - indeed, than the rest of these islands - in developing our electronic delivery of the key services.

In the draft Programme for Government the Executive Committee has given an undertaking to set local targets for electronic service delivery and to monitor progress. It is planned to put a paper on targets for electronic Government services in Northern Ireland to the Executive in the future.

I think that that should answer the questions which were asked. If I see from the transcript that I have overlooked any matters, I will address them in written form.

I thank Members for their forbearance and for being present. I particularly thank the two Members who asked the questions. The Electronic Communications Bill is a vital component for our transition to the electronic age. It paves the way for Departments to offer a speedier and more comprehensive service to our citizens, on a par with our colleagues in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. I commend the Bill to the House, and I urge that the Second Stage be agreed.

Question put and agreed to.


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


Planning (Compensation, etc) Bill: Consideration Stage

Madam Deputy Speaker:

As no amendments have been tabled, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the seven clauses of the Bill, followed by the three schedules and the long title.

Clauses 1 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.


Electronic Communications Bill: Referral


Referral to Committee of the Centre


That, in pursuance of Standing Order 31(1), this Assembly orders that the Electronic Communications Bill shall stand referred to the Committee of the Centre and, for that purpose, paragraphs (2) to (5) of that Standing Order and Standing Order 33 shall apply in relation to the Committee of the Centre as they apply in relation to a Statutory Committee. - [Junior Minister (Office of First and Deputy First Ministers) (Mr Haughey)]

The sitting was suspended at 12.55 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) -


Oral Answers



St Patrick's Grammar School (Downpatrick)

2.30 pm


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Education to outline his plans to allocate capital funding for a refurbishment and extension programme at St Patrick's Grammar School, Downpatrick; and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 534/00)

The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

The Department of Education accepts fully the need to extend and refurbish the accommodation at St Patrick's Grammar School in Downpatrick. The planning is at an advanced stage and the school is being considered, alongside other priorities, for a place in this year's capital programme in light of the resources available. However, I can give no commitments at this stage.

Mr McGrady:

I understand that the Minister has many competing demands on the funds available in the capital programme. However, the programme has been in place for 18 years. In fact, many of the mobile classrooms at St Patrick's Grammar have been in use for over 30 years. In addition, the roll now includes girls as well as boys and there is only one very small changing facility for sports activities. A new technology suite is also needed, and the ambit of health and safety considerations also need to be brought into account. So, while I am aware of the very great demands from many quarters, I would like to think that this school would be very high on his schedule for the granting of capital funding.

Mr M McGuinness:

I accept the case made by Mr McGrady absolutely. I want to reassure him that very serious consideration will be given to all the competing priorities, and St Patrick's Grammar School is one of them.

Mr Shannon:

Will the Minister clarify that any funding allocated for the refurbishment and extension of St Patrick's Grammar School, Downpatrick, will not impact on funding proposed for Down High School? Would he also confirm that the programme of improvement for Down High School has been agreed?

Mr M McGuinness:

These are completely separate situations. The situation at St Patrick's Grammar School has been described by Mr McGrady very eloquently, and I accept fully all of the points made. With regard to Down High School, people will have to wait until we make the announcement on the school capital building programme. I expect to make that announcement some time next month. All of the schemes that are ready and have been processed will be given very serious consideration, including Down High School.

Integrated Colleges


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister of Education if he will reduce the number of students per year required for new integrated colleges from 80-plus to the pre-1992 level of 60-plus.

(AQO 550/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

I announced on Monday 18 December 2000, on completion of the viability criteria review, the reduced viability criteria for new integrated and Irish-medium primary schools. While the secondary level viability criteria have not been reduced at this stage, I am committed to looking strategically at the development of second level provision in consultation with appropriate education partners.

Mrs E Bell:

I was pleased with the viability criteria set out in the paper the Minister talked about earlier. Does he agree that the numbers are excessive given that they are for the start-up year and are not carried over a number of years? Will the Minister look at that issue in the review?

Mr M McGuinness:

I hope that discussions between officials in my Department and groups interested in making a contribution to the consultation will continue with a view to resolving whatever difficulties people may have. At present, it is important to point out that there are no proposals from the Irish-medium sector or the integrated sector with regard to new build or new proposals for secondary schools.

We are going to discuss all of these issues with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and obviously with Comairle na Gaelscolaíochta, because we undoubtedly need to be prepared for up the road.

Mr Hussey:

In his answer, the Minister referred to the new viability criteria, where Irish medium is related to primary schools, and, indeed, I have a written answer regarding the definition of urban and rural. Does the Minister agree that, given the difficulties which exist in rural primary schools in particular, both in the maintained and the controlled sector, there should be no specific criteria, and that the same criteria should be applied to all primary schools?

Mr M McGuinness:

In dealing with this issue we must bear in mind the responsibility that we have regarding the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. My Department has been charged with the duty of encouraging and facilitating people involved in the integrated education movement and in Irish-medium education. The fact that we have now dealt with some of the concerns expressed by both groups over the course of many years allows us to move forward to ensure that the reduced criteria enables them to facilitate the needs of people within both sectors. It is very important to point out that the criteria are a benchmark for all schools. We are dealing with this issue on an ongoing basis, and we are dealing with it in such a way as to not disadvantage any school. Our approach to this is one of equality to ensure that everybody is treated fairly.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Education Committee (Mr S Wilson):

Can the Minister tell the House how he continues to justify the unequal treatment that he metes out to different sectors of the education system? It is not sufficient for him to say that the Good Friday Agreement allows him to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium schools or integrated schools, while at the same time applying a different standard to controlled, maintained or other schools when it comes to the viability criterion? Can he tell us how that reduced viability criterion is going to impact on the budget at present, and which sector of education he intends to take the additional funds from, in order to pursue his one-sided educational policy?

Mr M McGuinness:

Again, I stress that the arrangements are designed to operate within the context of the commitments of the Belfast Agreement. The Department's statutory duties are to encourage and facilitate integrated and Irish-medium education and to ensure that parental choice will provide effective education, and will not involve unreasonable expenditure. It is important that I point out that I have reviewed only one group of the criteria for the establishment of the new integrated and Irish-medium schools. That is the intake criteria. A whole range of other criteria are also applied to such proposals, such as the availability of alternative provision, the impact on other schools, school premises, objections, affordability and educational standards, and these criteria will still apply.

The use of robust criteria for the establishment of new schools facilitates parental choice and provides equality of educational opportunity within the context of a pluralist society, reflected in a pluralist education system. The intake criteria for new Irish-medium and integrated schools will represent the benchmark for the assessment of proposals for any new type of school. Some 390 schools already exist that would not meet the reduced intake criteria. It is important to clarify that the proposals are for intake criteria and not for total enrolments at the relevant schools.

In relation to justifying the reduced criteria regarding pressures that they will create on an already stretched education budget, I recognise that the addition of new schools to the education system will inevitably give rise to financial pressures, particularly regarding capital costs. However, in reducing the primary school criteria, at this stage, I aim to strike the appropriate balance between facilitating parental choice and taking forward the Department's statutory duties. We wish to avoid unreasonable public expenditure and any unacceptable adverse impact on existing schools and ensure effective education. That approach is reinforced by the proposals for medium-term target intakes of 15 and 20 that schools must achieve before they can attract capital funding.

There is no question of our dealing unfairly with any sector of the education system. We rigorously ensure that we abide by all our commitments under the Good Friday Agreement. As well as promoting, supporting and facilitating integrated education and Irish-medium education, we have responsibilities to ensure equal treatment for every school sector; we intend to abide by those.

Free School Meals


Mr McHugh

asked the Minister of Education to confirm that the free school meals entitlement will continue to be the basis for the allocation of additional funding schools in all areas.

(AQO 536/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

Additional funding for schools will be allocated using methodologies that best meet the intended purpose. Where the aim is to counter the effects of social disadvantage, free school meals entitlement will continue to be an important factor.

Mr McHugh:

How do schools receive additional funding on the basis of free school meals entitlement?

Mr M McGuinness:

There are three current examples. First, in line with Government policy on targeting social need, there is an additional 5% of Chancellor's funding, over and above formula-funded budgets, for distribution directly to schools, on the basis of free school meals entitlement. Secondly, the school support programme provides professional support and modest additional resources to support agreed action plans. Free school meals entitlement is one of the factors that are taken into account in decisions about which schools should join the programme. Thirdly, there is the group 1 schools initiative, which provides additional funds to support agreed action plans for schools for which the support offered through the special education support programme (SESP) is insufficient, due to the scale of socio- economic and educational disadvantage.

Ms Hanna:

Has the Minister taken any additional steps to target resources at the areas of highest social need?

Mr M McGuinness:

My answer to Mr McHugh's question set out our approach. We will listen carefully to any ideas or suggestions relating to the local management of schools, a topic that may well be raised again towards the end of this Question Time. We are moving forward with the common formula to ensure that we distribute educational resources more sensibly and justly. I have outlined today the indicators that we are working with at the moment, but we are prepared to consider any better suggestions or ideas that are put to us.

School Performance Tables


Mr McElduff

asked the Minister of Education to include socio-economic status (SES) information in school performance tables.

(AQO 537/00)

Mr M McGuinness

This question has been overtaken by events. I recently carried out a review on the subject of school performance tables. The consultation exercise showed that the vast majority of respondents were opposed to the publication of the tables and favoured allowing schools to provide the information directly to parents and others. I have therefore decided to introduce that system, with immediate effect, and discontinue the publication of the tables. In that way, schools will be able to give parents and others a more rounded picture of the school and put examination performance in context. In coming to that decision, I took full account of all the responses and the views put to me by the Education Committee. Therefore, the question of the inclusion of SES information in the tables no longer arises.

2.45 pm

Mr McElduff:

Cuirim fáilte roimh an freagra on Aire.

I welcome the Minister's response, and I would like him to explain why he favoured option two as opposed to option three. Can he assure us that information provided by schools will be both accurate and provided in a common format?

Mr M McGuinness:

I chose option two for three main reasons. First, it is the option that the majority of respondents favoured. Secondly, it will provide the most up-to-date information on examination performances. Thirdly, it means that parents will receive the fullest information about any given school from a single source. We need to be concerned about ensuring that the information is in a common and accurate format. Schools are already required to publish a range of information, including information on examination performance, in their prospectuses. My Department will carry out a review of the information required to ensure a consistent and standard approach by schools. It is my intention that schools will be fully consulted in this review.

The Chairperson of the Education Committee (Mr Kennedy):

Will the Minister give a commitment - as requested in the Education Committee's response to the review of school performance tables - to identify, as a matter of urgency, performance indicators which will reflect the value added by a school to those pupils who attend it, so that accurate, comparative information can be provided? Will he give a commitment that the information can be made widely available?

Mr M McGuinness:

There has been research carried out for a number of years on the "value added" issue. As yet no satisfactory means has been found of including such information in a way that would recognise progression made through a broad range of qualifications and which at the same time would be readily understood by parents. I do not think that there are any special factors relating to our schools which would justify commissioning further research, but the Department will continue to monitor developments.

We are now adopting an approach that effectively asks schools to provide as much information as possible to parents. Although the announcement has been widely welcomed across the community, I know that some people may have concerns about whether the prospectuses will include the fullest possible information for parents. I have every faith in the schools, the boards of governors and the school principals. They will be as keen as the rest of us to ensure that the fullest possible information is provided. It is important that we understand that academic achievements are vitally important, and we are keen to ensure that progress continues to be made in relation to such achievements.

However, we also need to understand and appreciate the tremendous work that goes on in many of our schools, and the extra-curricular activities and pastoral work which the teachers participate in. I was very privileged to be at Holy Trinity College's school concert in Cookstown before Christmas. It was one of the finest concerts that I have ever attended. During the performance a person sitting beside me leaned over and asked me if I was enjoying it. I said that it was absolutely tremendous. He then asked what I thought was a very telling question: "How do you put that in a performance table?" I think that he hit the nail on the head.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the Minister's decision on the school performance league tables. However, given that it is an important policy decision, did the Minister consult his Colleagues in the Executive before he made it?

Mr M McGuinness:

There were no discussions at the Executive about this decision. My responsibility was to ensure that there was full discussion and consultation with the Education Committee. That consultation took place.

We made a decision, based on the discussions and the analysis of the respondents' contributions, which has been welcomed throughout our community. We must now press on to ensure that we further encourage our schools, our boards of governers, principals, teachers, parents and pupils to see the type of approach that we have adopted in terms of education.

Some people may say that our situation is different to that in England, Scotland and Wales. However, the Welsh Education Secretary is also considering a review of the publication of the performance tables. We have made a progressive move and we have provided essential encouragement to our educators so as to ensure that we press on and advance our education system in a more enlightened way.


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