Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 16 January 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the last sitting before Christmas, the hon Member for North Down, Mr McCartney, left his seat, came to this side of the Chamber and was involved in an altercation with my Colleague Mr Close and me. At the time, and on a point of order, I said that I had been assaulted, but I did not realise that a point of order could not be taken during a Division.
I wish to inform you and the Assembly, since there has been a degree of interest, that shortly after the incident Mr McCartney apologized to me for his behaviour. I have accepted the apology in the spirit in which it was offered, and I consider the issue closed. I realise that it would have been proper to raise this in Mr. McCartney’s presence, but he was only in the Chamber for a few minutes yesterday, and I did not want the matter to hang on any longer than this.
I am grateful to the Member for clarifying the matter. I did not see the altercation though I understand that there was something of the kind. I am glad that in the rosy glow of the Christmas period the matter has been so amicably resolved between the two Members.
Let us hope that if peace has broken out in that context, it is a presage of greater things to come.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to take immediate steps to address the problem of skill shortage in Northern Ireland, particularly in the field of health and social services.
I thank the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for being here. The purpose of the motion is to stimulate debate on the situation that exists. It is about looking forward to the future and developing a strategic plan to ensure that the public and private sectors will have their needs met by the training and employment that we provide so that we will be in a much better position to encourage inward investment and safeguard the jobs that already exist in Northern Ireland. I made particular reference to health and social services in the title of my motion, and I know that some of the skill areas that I want to touch upon are not directly the responsibility of the Minister. However, it is something into which the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has an input, along with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
I have been informed by my local health trust that there is a chronic shortage of speech and occupational therapists. People who have suffered strokes wait over a year to see an occupational therapist. We have been told that money is available to employ them, but there is a shortage of such staff due to the limited number of university places for occupational therapists. There is also a limited number of university places available for speech therapists, approximately 20 to 25 places each year. The waiting list arises because a large percentage of the people who are trained are women. They enter the profession, but when they have children they sometimes wish to job-share. According to the Homefirst Community Trust, they are statistically more likely to work part time when they have families. That should be facilitated in whatever way possible, but there must be a strategic approach to deal with the matter. In the Homefirst Community Trust area there are 100 health visitors, and only one is male. We could do more to promote these occupations as valuable and worthwhile to encourage more men to join them.
I want to move on to the needs of industry. On 15 December 2000, the Minister announced the introduction of access bursaries and the abolition of tuition fees in certain skilled areas such as the software, engineering, electronics, manufacturing and hospitality industries. That is an innovative approach, and it is only the beginning. In future, we would like to encourage people to become involved in areas in which we have identified shortages. I do not see the point of continually training the same number of people as in previous years. We need to focus that training in areas in which it is most needed. We need to identify where our industry wants to be in five, 10 and 15 years’ time and plan to produce the graduates and other qualified people whom we need. Academic qualifications are important, but vocational qualifications are equally so.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
We are talking about building new houses. Thousands of new homes are needed each year, and it is important that we have skilled craftsmen available to build them. We are talking about projects such as new railways, and, again, we must have the skilled craftsmen capable of carrying out those infrastructure improvements that we want in Northern Ireland.
To build a better and fairer society for everybody here, we must try to improve access for people who live in areas of social and economic need. We need to get more people coming forward from areas of high unemployment to ensure that the entire Northern Ireland economy becomes prosperous, rather than just areas such as east Antrim, west Tyrone, and south Down. To do that we need to focus on working with other Departments in the Administration. However, that will only happen if we have a workforce that is highly skilled academically, and, through the further education colleges, vocationally. I welcome the measures already taken by the Minister in that regard.
I am sure that Members will wish to touch on many other issues, and I will be glad to listen to them. I again thank the Minister for the measures that he introduced on 15 December. That was a first step, but it is not the end of the road. We need to adopt a more holistic approach to ensure that it is not just Government Departments and the public sector that have their needs met in future. Our industries must have their needs met too so that they can expand, employ and help Northern Ireland to become a more prosperous place for us all to live in.
The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):
First of all, there is the general issue of skills shortages, to which Mr O’Connor rightly referred. I will comment on that first because it lies entirely within the responsibility of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment.
The departmental Committee welcomes the efforts that are being made in that area, particularly by the Training and Employment Agency. These include the setting up of the skills task force in recent years and, more recently, the creation of the priority skills unit in the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre (NIERC). These are designed to pinpoint areas in the economy in which, as Mr O’Connor said, there may be a deficiency in skills.
Northern Ireland needs to be aware — and I think the Training and Employment Agency shows awareness of this — that there are various international models that show how we could work out what gaps exist between the types of labour skills being demanded and the types being supplied. One such model is associated with the Netherlands economy and another with the Belgian economy. Northern Ireland, as a small regional economy, should pay careful attention to international best practice. I am agnostic on which international model on the identification of skills gaps should be used in this case. We must continue to review the evidence.
The Committee has an ongoing inquiry relating to this area, which, in part, the motion refers to. It is our intention to bring a report to the Assembly in due course. We have already received over 90 written submissions from a range of private and public bodies on training for industry, which indicates the importance of the subject and the level of interest that there is. At the moment, the Committee is taking evidence from representatives from business organisations, private employers, the community education sector, further education, higher education and other relevant groups.
At this stage, it is not possible for me, as Chairperson, to report on the findings of the Committee. Much is being uncovered which is of interest, and we hope to report later this year. I suspect that the commentator John Simpson was correct when he argued in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ recently that if we define IT skills broadly, there is a shortage of skills in that area.
I would like to make three points on a related matter. First, there is clear evidence of an underprovision of basic skills. A reputable international survey suggests that about one in five adults in Northern Ireland —this is sadly a personal and economic tragedy and scandal — is found in the lowest category of literacy skills. The common test often used is the ability to read the instructions on a medicine bottle. Clearly, that could literally be a matter of life and death.
Sadly, because of past failings in education, around 20% of the Northern Ireland population have not been adequately schooled to read such relatively basic text. In that context — and the Committee has previously made this submission to the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and to the Minister of Finance and personnel — we were disappointed with the relatively small increase for basic adult education in the recent Budget. We would like to see further resources given there, perhaps through the medium of the Executive programme funds.
Secondly, there is the matter of skill shortages in general. The Northern Ireland economy increasingly demands high, specialist and sophisticated skills. This demand coexists with an increase in the level of so-called economic inactivity — persons who have completely withdrawn from the labour market for a variety of reasons. We also continue to have too many pockets of long-term unemployment, and all that is notwithstanding the undoubted achievement in the economy in lowering the average level of unemployment.
Thirdly, given changes in the labour market, family life and in the working and structure of the economy, the provision of training needs to be increasingly flexible — hence the emphasis on life-long learning, something which I am sure that the Committee entirely welcomes.
Many Members will agree that there is, perhaps, a problem with the way in which the motion has been worded. With the exception of a limited number of undergraduate courses at the University of Ulster that relate to some health service occupations, the provision of skills for the health sector is the responsibility of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Therefore, although I agree with the sentiments behind the motion, the wording should have reflected that fact.
There is evidence of insufficient labour supply in some parts of the health sector. Figures suggest a shortfall of up to 800 nurses and a need for more occupational therapists, GPs and senior specialists. I want to make two points about the provision of skilled health workers. First, for the UK as a whole, statistics suggest that the number of health personnel — be they doctors or nurses — per capita is low compared to the number in most other Western societies. Even if we were to fill the current gaps in the system, it could be argued that there would still be insufficient provision for health care, especially preventive care. That raises broader questions, which go beyond the scope of the debate and the remit of the Department and relate to the level of funding for health care and the methodologies used. Can we continue to rely simply on tax-based health care provision, or should we consider other models from Europe and the Western World? It is a controversial issue, which goes beyond the powers of the Assembly.
We talk about shortages of health personnel, but that may be only a convenient shorthand term to describe what is happening. The problem is not so much one of supplying trained medical staff from universities and colleges, but of retaining those graduates, particularly in hospitals in outlying parts of the Province. No doubt, other Members will give examples of particular hospitals.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Mr Carrick):
The Committee is grateful to Mr O’Connor for tabling the motion and focusing the House’s attention on the subject.
The underlying sentiment in the motion is that finding the correct approach to training for industry is of fundamental importance. On that depend our well-being and prosperity, and it is critical to a successful and healthy economy. It is vital that Northern Ireland be able to compete globally. A direct correlation between labour supply and demand is critical to the success of the economy.
The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee has considered how training and education can measure up to the needs of industry. The Committee has taken evidence from business, education, training and church interests, from community and voluntary groups and from commentators in that field. They have told us that we need skills urgently. The emphasis is on "urgent". Speed is of the essence.
We have received evidence of problems with basic skills, including transferable skills, and finding and retaining skilled workers. That evidence has already been placed before the Committee. That is not to deny either the obvious strengths of our education and training systems or the innate ability of our people. However, we do have a tradition of exporting skills, which means that almost everywhere you look throughout the world, in whatever sector, people from Northern Ireland are contributing at all levels and in the forefront of medical, technical and social advances. In the past, that outflow of people resulted, in part, from the troubles. We all hope that in the future more of our young people will prefer to remain in Northern Ireland to study, work and bring up their families.
The export of skills does not indicate an oversupply of skills here. Locally, there are both perceptions and well-documented evidence of skills shortages, including transferable and specialist skills.
With regard to basic skills, the Training and Employment Agency reported in 1997 that one fifth of the 9,000 or so young people who entered Jobskills — the main vocational training programme — required training in basic literacy and numeracy. That is astounding, if not appalling. The correlation between the lack of basic skills and unemployment is well documented, as is the linkage with people at risk of social exclusion or involved in antisocial behaviour. Such low levels of literacy and numeracy among our young people must be a cause for concern to us all.
How can we work towards ensuring that our young people do not get trapped in a spiral of low expectations, underachievement and exclusion? Is the quality of jobs on offer adequate to give people a decent standard of living, job satisfaction and self-pride, things to which everyone aspires?
We cannot be complacent because of the current record low levels of unemployment and the increases in the rate of productivity. Northern Ireland’s productivity continues to be lower than that in the rest of the United Kingdom, despite recent increases in the rate of growth. It is questionable whether skill deficiencies have any significant affect on our firms’ productivity.
However, skill shortages add to the pressures on business. In a recent CBI survey, almost one in three firms said that their current workers lacked advanced IT or software skills, and 17% reported a lack of necessary managerial skills. While these skills can often be provided through a combination of workplace training and education, most businesses will look to the established education and training providers to foster the skills that they need.
I was disappointed to learn that, compared to the rest of the UK, small businesses in Northern Ireland recorded higher than average levels of dissatisfaction with the availability of suitable labour and the relevance of available training courses. In a recent independent survey conducted for the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, only 17% were satisfied with the relevance of locally available training courses, while 50% were dissatisfied. While fewer than 30% of the respondents were satisfied with the levels of literacy and numeracy in the workforce, almost 40% were dissatisfied.
I set that against the strong evidence heard by the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee from the colleges of further and higher education about their desire to work with employers to provide the right skills at the right time. Clearly, something has gone amiss. The Committee also heard evidence from the skills task force, which has identified an agenda of urgent actions to address immediate skills shortages in priority areas. We are keen to support its determination to be proactive, to target resources more effectively and to pre-empt mismatch between skills supply and demand.
That requires a co-ordinated approach across Government. For example, it means that we need to be satisfied with the curricular approach to basic skills, including communication skills, teamworking and other transferable skills, which prepare people to make a contribution to the workplace. It also means that we need to target the areas of adult education already referred to by Dr Birnie — both basic education and progression — so that those who are not fulfilling their potential are supported and encouraged. Equally, it means looking at both individual and group incentives, so that a co-ordinated approach to full employment is adopted and followed.
Much more could be said, but I want to bring my remarks to a close. The Committee will report on this at a later stage. I reiterate the determination of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to report to the Assembly on the contribution of education and training to meeting the skills needs of industry. There is much important work in this area for the Assembly to pursue, and we welcome the opportunity given to us by Mr O’Connor to flag up these issues.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and thank Mr O’Connor for bringing it to the Assembly. It is an important matter that needs our attention and that of the Minister.
A recent small business survey found that there was 55% dissatisfaction with the availability of suitable labour, 39% with literacy, 38% with numeracy and 50% with the non-availability of relevant training courses. We need a strategic plan that takes account of the current labour force, looks at unemployment patterns and long-term unemployment and provides for future economic objectives.
The whole area is complex and not something that one would expect either the Minister of Health Social Services and Public Safety, or the Minister of Higher and Further Education Training and Employment, to address with immediacy, but it must be addressed in the longer term.
A recent CBI survey of May 2000 on human resources found that 23% of firms faced problems finding craft and skilled employees such as carpenters, mechanics and electricians. Higher electronics are the trendy skills — I think that the term is "sexy". However, carpenters, bricklayers, and electricians are also critical to the future development of the economy, and those skills require close attention. For example, a man in a small firm, working with perhaps two other employees, finds it difficult to take on an apprentice on a day-release basis. When a young fellow of 18 is taken on to serve his time as a carpenter, an electrician or a brickie, within 18 months he will be doing a tradesman’s job but not getting a tradesman’s wages. That is the economic situation. Therefore we need to look closely at the traditional skills of carpenters, bricklayers and electricians.
The survey also showed that 20% of firms find it difficult to recruit sales and marketing employees. That is another area that we need to address. Eighteen per cent reported problems with finding managers and senior administrative staff, with 16% unable to recruit IT staff. Those figures came from the CBI in 2000. It is fine to become fixated on information and communications technology (ICT), but we must pay attention to other areas of work as well.
Supermarkets employ young people who do not have any transferable skills or knowledge and are perhaps the lowest paid in the economy. We must address those problems too.
The situation in the Health Service is more complex. The commitment of staff in a massively underfunded health care system must be applauded, but auxiliaries and nurses are not paid enough. The lure of trendy jobs in the media or ICT is draining many further and higher education students away from medicine and nursing.
There is also the problem of the constant, negative reporting, fuelled by many Members. That does not make the Health Service an attractive workplace. It is kept functioning by the hard work and commitment of staff, and the simple truth is that the chronic underfunding and lack of clear planning and decisiveness by successive British Ministers have had a massive detrimental effect on it.
The latest figures show that between the trusts and the private sector there is a shortage of some 600 to 800 nurses. With regard to doctors, in 1998 Dr Brian Patterson reported that in 1993 there were 120 applicants to fill 45 vocational training posts, while in 1997 there were only 40 applicants for the same number of posts. That is an indication of the decline in the Health Service.
Mr O’Connor’s motion raised the problem of a skill shortage. We know that, with regard to nursing, it is critical. Nurses are being drafted in from the Far East to fill the vacancies in a country where nursing was once considered one of the prime vocations for young women and, increasingly, young men.
There is also the question of nursing degrees and the extra training required. Nursing has become more complex, and many health establishments are looking for young women and men with a nursing degree. Completing the four-year course can be difficult for young people, and the Minister should address that.
We have only one burns surgeon in this part of Ireland. Recently, we faced a crisis in that sector, because that man was about to leave. It is intolerable that we have only one person to look after a burns department, and that problem too must be addressed. We all know from our daily constituency work that there is a waiting time of up to six months for people wishing to see an occupational therapist. Old people are waiting for six months to get heating or treatment, because of the lack of occupational therapists. The shortage of medical laboratory staff and scientific officers, likewise due to the running down of the Health Service over the past 30 years, should also be addressed urgently.
There is evidence of massive skills shortages in the health sector. Perhaps it is unfair to lump it all on to the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, but I must raise the issue. The Minister should get together with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to address the issue of skills shortages. The Minister has attempted to address the issues, but I urge him to take more cognizance of the matters that have been raised this morning.
The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):
I congratulate Mr O’Connor on bringing the motion before us today. We have a massive skills shortage, particularly in the Health Service, and Members will not be surprised if I confine my remarks to that.
The Health Service faces two major problems. The first is the gross underfunding of recent years. Indeed, the Prime Minister last July accepted that the percentage of gross domestic product spent on the Health Service in the UK is lower than that spent in most developed European countries. The second point — and it has been made by many Members and recently forcefully by Ken Maginnis — is that the Assembly and the Executive should look at the organisation of the Health Service. Plans are afoot for that, and the sooner the better. The whole system, Department, trusts and boards, must be examined.
Figures from the Department show that, last year, there was a shortage of 300 to 400 nurses in the trusts and a similar shortage in the independent sector. I did think that the figures would be even higher than that. Newly qualified nurses are offered attractive pay and benefits packages abroad. Can we blame them for taking up those offers?
However, some initiative has been taken. Nurses have been recruited from Australia and the Philippines, some of whom have been placed in the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Ulster Hospital. Many of these nurses are skilled — and that is what this is all about — but in one case a young cardiac surgery nurse from the United States did not know how to take a patient’s blood pressure when she was asked by a surgical registrar do so. That is not a criticism of the nurse, but her training was very narrow and confined to a particular area — that task had not been part of that training. Obviously, there is a problem.
In September 2000, the Department commissioned an additional 300 student nurse training places for the following three years. That was commendable, but we will need many more nurses. A few years ago there were seven nurse training schools in Northern Ireland which operated not just in the Royal Victoria Hospital but in other hospitals, including Belfast City Hospital and the Mater Hospital. Most of these schools have been done away with. Sometimes I long for the return of matron, who looked after the whole hospital. Complaints are made today about dirt and dust in hospitals. But I am straying from the substance of the motion, so I will return to main issue.
The universities have developed two return-to-nursing courses with the aim of encouraging former nurses, who left the profession to rear their families, back to nursing. The Department is to launch a major initiative to co-ordinate workforce planning and development across the various disciplines.
Each nurse possesses particular skills. For example, a nurse caring for the elderly requires skills that are vastly different from those needed by a nurse in an intensive care unit or a cardiac surgery unit. They are all specialists in their fields. Elderly patients must be cared for in the most appropriate environment. Following, for example, an acute chest infection or a stroke, many elderly people need a stage of recovery away from the frantic pace of an acute hospital ward. They need a system of care tailored to their needs. As a result, skilled nurses and other skilled staff are needed to look after them. The elderly require a mix of services, ranging from short-stay or long-stay rehabilitation to respite care.
There is also the question of orthopaedic nurses. Some months ago, a group of orthopaedic surgeons spoke to the Health Committee following the death of a patient who had been transferred from Craigavon Area Hospital to the Royal Victoria Hospital. The orthopaedic surgeons said that although there was a shortage of orthopaedic surgeons and operating theatre space, the greatest problem was a shortage of appropriately trained nurses, a problem in almost every department in the Health Service.
I referred to cardiac surgery when talking about the case of the American nurse. However, the nurses who work in that department are highly specialised. Mr Coulter recently proposed a motion on community nursing. That type of nursing is a skill in itself, and there is a messy shortage of staff there. We had a major debate on community nursing, so I will not repeat the points that I made then.
There is also a massive shortage of skilled doctors. Mr John Kelly spoke about Khalid Khan. I was directly involved in that matter, and, on the matter of skilled jobs, his case is relevant.
Dr Khalid Khan resigned from the post of locum heading the burns unit in the Royal. He headed the burns unit yet was only an locum, and he had been a locum for about two years. He applied for a job in England and was about to go there. It was not he who went to the media to get something done. It was the people in Omagh who suffered from the terrible ravages of the bomb there. Donna Marie McGullion and her father Malachy Keyes led the campaign and involved politicians. My colleague Joe Byrne took a lead in that, and Oliver Gibson was very supportive as well.
Political pressure was applied. The people concerned came to Stormont and met some of us. They also met the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Discussions were held with the Royal Victoria Hospital, with the deputy chief executive, Dr Ian Carson, and eventually with Dr Khan himself. The job was not only re-advertised, but the job description was rewritten. Dr Khan told me that his job had been to deal with the huge waiting list for treatment for burns and scalds. There is no way in which one man could do that, and Mr Khan has a wife and two children. An appointment is being made to a complementary post, but that was achieved by political pressure.
Mr J Kelly:
I was not making a criticism of Dr Khan. My point was that we should not be dependent on one person to fill such a sensitive post. There really ought to be a number of people there. We cannot have a situation in which anaesthetists and heart surgeons can hold the rest of the Health Service to ransom. That is the fault of the training regime and the lack of skills rather than of an individual.
I totally accept what Mr Kelly has said. I was not being critical of that point at all. Without political pressure, Dr Khan would still be there, trying in a lonely way to give support to the people of Omagh and treat the ravages of the bomb. That skills shortage also affected women with breast cancer who needed breast reconstruction. They too looked to Khalid Khan for help and were here at Stormont as well.
I just want to make one point about job skills in cardiac surgery. People are being sent to Britain and elsewhere for by-pass surgery, and I appreciate that there is a review of that. I also appreciate that the Minister of Higher and Further Education is not responsible at all for these matters. I want to put one question to him on that, however. It was well known for some months beforehand that a brilliant cardiac surgeon, Mr Hugh O’Kane, was retiring, yet a review of cardiac surgery was being set up. As everybody knew that he was retiring long before, why was his job not advertised well in advance?
There is a big shortage in primary care and of general practitioners. However, as there is a paper on primary care in the pipeline, I will not go into that now. I have already made reference to the orthopaedic nurses, and there is of course a shortage of orthopaedic surgeons. Apparently some years ago one orthopaedic surgeon did the lot — every joint, bone, et cetera. Nowadays, however, it is argued that if you are an expert on the knee joint, for example, you are not an expert on the ankle joint.
I move on to occupational therapists — the young ladies who do a fantastic job across the North of Ireland. There is a massive shortage there as well, though there has been a slight increase in numbers in the last two years. Nevertheless, there is something very wrong when a woman or man of 75 or 80 years of age has to wait a year for somebody to make an assessment when maybe all that is needed is an extra banister on the stairs. I do not want to belittle occupational therapists, but there is something wrong with the system. However, that issue is being examined.
There has been a wide-ranging review of pathology, and some medical laboratory scientific officers have been at Stormont in the past 12 months — young men and women who are highly qualified. Some Members, including myself, were recently invited to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where we met laboratory personnel from haematology and pathology. These people have honours degrees and tremendous expertise, yet they are being paid peanuts. There is something very wrong there.
Health visitors have special skills, but there is also a massive shortage in this area. The same goes for midwives and social workers — if we were to go into the question of social workers and the shortage there, where would we finish?
My final point is in connection with human resources management. I have already stated that the Executive and the Assembly will have to look at the Department, the boards and the trusts. In making an assessment of skills shortages, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety currently receives a central download from the human resources management system each trust and board headquarters and agency of health and personal social services.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Dr Hendron, I ask you to bring your remarks to a close.
Quarterly, the director of information systems extracts data from each site, which is then amalgamated and sent electronically to the Department. Although the human resources management system has been developed, there has been little or no guidance from the Department about standardisation of codes, so an accurate assessment of shortages cannot be made.
I thank Danny O’Connor for moving the motion. I know that Members will give every support they can to the young men and women working in the Health Service.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
A substantial number of people wish to speak. We need to leave time for Mr O’Connor and the Minister to wind up, and I do not want to limit the debate. I ask Members to bear that in mind.
I understand the position, and I will be brief.
There is a terrible irony in the skills shortages here. It is a matter of concern that they extend to many different sectors. Many efforts over many years have gone into securing jobs and inward investment — bums on seats, if you like. However, that is of no value at all if young people and the unemployed do not have the skills to enable them to do those jobs.
It is commendable that we have managed to cut unemployment by half in 15 years. When I started work in the BBC business unit in 1987, unemployment was running at about 14% or 15%. Now it is down to 6%. That is excellent, but there is no doubt that there are skills shortages of considerable proportions, which can only get worse before they get better unless we move very fast. The reason we find ourselves in this situation is simple — a lack of strategic planning, a lack of vision. When we simply create jobs, the focus is on short-termism. Creating jobs is grand, but of little value if we do not have the skills to enable the posts to be filled.
I appreciate the point made by Mr Carrick about the need to create jobs that are relevant to the workforce, and a workforce that is relevant to the jobs. Such a correlation between labour supply and labour demand is important to our economic future.
I am grateful to Members for raising the matter of education. That is hugely important — the 20% figure that we have been given of working adults who are unable to read the instructions on a medicine bottle is totally unacceptable and must be addressed. However, that is a responsibility of Departments other than the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
Focusing now on the Health Service, we are aware of the publicity surrounding the recruitment of Filipino nurses. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is probably best placed to talk about a lack of skills. It said in its submission to the draft Programme for Government
"Despite 100 new training places for nurses created this year, and for the next three years, the RCN believes that this is still not sufficient to address the real and severe nurse shortages gripping the Northern Ireland Health Service."
It went on to say that 250 more training places for nurses need to be created each year to address those shortages, which the RCN said were caused by a reduction in such places throughout the 1990s.
I wish to draw Members’ attention, and possibly that of Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, to the fact that only 39 nurses — and Dr Hendron referred to this — completed the return to professional practice course last year. Is that because they received no remuneration, in spite of working around 100 hours per week? This is about the value we place on Health Service staff.
Attracting young women and, taking Mr O’Connor’s point, young men to the nursing profession is not just about training. It is about ensuring that we value, through pay and respect, the work they do. It is about giving nurses equity with other health professionals and, as the RCN rightly suggested, placing them at the core of improving the health of our people. It is important that that be the way forward.
The Khalid Khan case, which I mentioned, as did Mr J Kelly and Dr Hendron, exposes the skills shortage, the unavailability of highly skilled people like Dr Khan and the lack of equipment. This also concerns the burns unit — I am sure we are all glad that Dr Khan was able to stay.
Other professions have been mentioned — occupational therapists, medical laboratory staff, et cetera. I am disappointed that I have not heard of proper research in those areas. Dr Birnie mentioned the priority skills unit that is being set up. We welcome that important news, but it is vital that research begins soon so that we can know exactly what skills are missing to enable us to fill the gaps.
In conclusion, if we want to achieve greatness in the new Northern Ireland, we badly need to prove that we are worthy of it.