Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 29 January 2001 (continued)

Mrs E Bell:

I welcome this statement. A number of parties have been lobbying the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I am very glad that we have been listened to. I applaud the sentiments expressed, particularly in seeking to ensure a joined-up approach to children's matters in Government and the Assembly and to give children and young people a strong voice.

Will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister assure us that the consultation exercise and the appointment of a commissioner for children will be based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995? Do the First and Deputy First Ministers agree that in order to be effective and credible to children and young people, the commissioner must be independent and non-partisan?

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Member for her question and for her personal interest in this matter, which has been obvious for a long time. The commissioner must be independent of Government and of the Assembly. In effect, the commissioner for children must be the independent voice and force who guides the protection of children in Northern Ireland. The most important point is that the process envisaged is a consultative one, inviting all to participate fully and completely. The first task of the group will be to develop proposals for consultation.

We welcome this opportunity to hear the first reaction of the Assembly, and I have no doubt that Members will contribute to the wider debate. An interdepartmental working group will quickly be established in the devolved Government; it will comprise senior officials from the relevant Northern Ireland Departments and will be chaired by Ministers Haughey and Nesbitt. The Northern Ireland Office, which is responsible for juvenile justice, will also be invited to participate.

We are also interested in hearing proposals on how to involve interest groups outside Government. As in so many other crucial areas, the working of the social partnership between Government and interests outside of Government is absolutely crucial. We want to ensure their input in the most potent way.

Ms McWilliams:

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their very thorough statement. It is good that we are entering a huge period of change throughout Northern Ireland. We are already aware of the enormous reviews of acute health care, primary and community care and of post-primary education. That is another element of change that Northern Ireland will be glad to hear about.

I welcome the proposals for legislation. Mr Speaker, you may be aware that later today we will be putting down a Private Members' Bill on the children's commissioner. Like Mr Poots and the Alliance Party, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has a major interest in this area and has gone as far as drafting, with the assistance of secretariat members. Will the consultation process include proposals for legislation? What is the time frame for the terms of reference? When will they be published? Is there a closing date for the consultation period? The First Minister said that the Children's Fund would have an indicative allocation of £2 million. Do they intend to draw down money from the Children's Fund to finance the establishment of a children's commissioner? Where will the finance come from for this post?


I note, in their statement, that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister said that the office would include development and scrutiny functions in relation to policies as well as having a research element. What powers of investigation would the commissioner have?

The First Minister:

I thank the Member for welcoming this legislation, and I acknowledge the interest that she and her colleagues have displayed in this area. It clearly has broad support in the Assembly and is very much in keeping with our present needs.

I am sorry that I cannot give further details of the consultation. We intend the consultation to be genuine, as broad as possible, and we hope to move forward as quickly as we reasonably can. We would like to be in a position to introduce legislation in the next session. Of course, the need to carry legislation through in the next session means that we would want to introduce the legislation early in the next session. Consultation will have to be completed with that target in mind.

An obvious area for the children's commissioner is that of investigation of complaints. The purpose of the consultation will be to look at the detail of that and see what other functions need to be added. Dealing with complaints and investigations is obviously a core area. One of the things that has prompted the creation of a commissioner, here and elsewhere, is the revelation of various scandals that have occurred in care. We are very anxious to ensure that when children are taken into care they are better off as a result and that they are protected and looked after. We are very concerned about the examples we have had from a variety of places. In Northern Ireland, we are not immune to this.

The examples show that children are being exposed to dangers when they are being brought into care and many have suffered as a result. Clearly, the commissioner will have a central role with respect to that. The Member may be interested to know that the Commissioner appointed in Wales, as a result of the legislation following the Waterhouse Report, has an estimated budget of £800,000 per annum. That gives you an indication of the general cost of an equivalent post in Northern Ireland. We hope that the position would not be financed from the Children's Fund, but, for obvious reasons, I do not want to give an absolute commitment on that or on any financial matter at the moment.

Rev Robert Coulter:

I apologise for being absent when the statement was made; I was involved in other business of the House. I welcome the statement and support the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in all their plans.

The Health Committee report identified a number of areas, including the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, on which agreed actions had not been taken. Pending the establishment of a commissioner for children, will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister undertake the responsibility to keep a close watch on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that children's rights are protected and not neglected?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member touched on a very valid point. In regard to departmental responsibility, this is a very substantial cross-cutting issue. It is a matter for a number of Departments in terms of ministerial responsibility, and, as pointed out earlier, the Northern Ireland Office is also involved as regards juvenile offences.

I can give an assurance that all Ministers within the Executive will be aware of the importance of this issue and its implications. The appointment of a commissioner and the community involvement in the widespread consultation will, of itself, highlight areas of childcare and responsibility for children that we must collectively - the Executive, the Assembly and the political process - protect at all costs and at all times.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the announcement. It is not just about appointing a commissioner for children but about the effect that that will have across this Administration. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister mentioned the national children's strategy in the Republic of Ireland. Do they have any details of that strategy, and can they give us a commitment that those details will be included in their consultation?

The Deputy First Minister:

We have looked at experiences in many countries: not just the Republic of Ireland but Wales, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, where Norway is far in advance of the rest of us on this. The Irish Government launched a national strategy for children in November 2000. The comprehensive package of reform establishes an ambitious series of objectives to guide children's policy over the next 10 years. It identifies a number of guiding principles and provides a more holistic way of thinking about children.

New structures are proposed in order to deliver better co-ordination between Government Departments and agencies providing services to children - for example, a national children's office within the Government, a Cabinet subcommittee, and a national children's advisory council. The Government have also approved the drafting of a Bill to establish an office of ombudsman for children. It is proposed that the office will be independent and that the ombudsman for children will be appointed by the President and accountable to the Oireachtas.

The principal functions of the ombudsman for children will be to promote the welfare and rights of children, to respond to individual complaints, to establish mechanisms through which there will be regular consultation with children, and to advise the Government. The annual budget for the ombudsman for children will be approximately IR£1·3 million. The annual costs of the other elements of the strategy are approximately IR£3 million.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Ms Gildernew):

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I welcome the statement. It would be useful to know who is likely to be on the interdepartmental working group? Can the Committee have a list of names as soon as possible? I want to stress the need for involvement from the voluntary and community sectors to ensure that there is a real and relevant decision-making role for those groups within our community. Go raibh maith agat.

The First Minister:

We are setting up an interdepartmental working group, which will be headed by the junior Ministers in our Department. It will include the Departments that have responsibility for children's matters: Health, Education, Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and other Departments. The Northern Ireland Office will also be represented. The intention is to have senior officials from all the Departments that are concerned with children's issues on the working party. The list I have mentioned is not exhaustive, and we will publish further details when appropriate.

Mr Dallat:

I welcome the announcement. The issue of sex offenders has been described by another Member as a North/South matter. What measures are being taken across the Administration to protect children from sex offenders?

The Deputy First Minister:

That is a crucial question. The protection of the public from offenders is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. However, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is represented on an inter-agency steering group on sex offenders which recently approved a guidance manual for the assessment and management of the risks posed by sex offenders.

The Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety are working with Government Departments in England, Wales and Scotland to introduce a reciprocal mechanism to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. This development is also being pursued by colleagues from the Department of Education and Sciences and the Department of Health in Dublin under the auspices of the North/South Ministerial Council's joint working group on child protection.

Mrs Courtney:

I welcome the statement. It is a welcome development, and one that I am particularly interested in, because I have worked in the Health Service. It is also my party's policy, which is now being implemented. How will the money be made available? While I appreciate that the budget is finite, this is an important post and one that we are all deeply interested in.

The First Minister:

The policy has been developed by several Assembly parties, and that accounts for the broad support it has received.

The children's commissioner for Wales is expected to cost up to £800,000 per annum. The Deputy First Minister has mentioned the cost for the Republic of Ireland, which is IR£1·3 million for the commissioner, and a further IR£2 million to IR£3 million for associated programmes.

Those figures give some indication of the range involved. It may be that it will cost a little less here. However, certain basic costs apply in all cases, such as the establishment of an office. I do not anticipate any difficulty in funding this, in terms of our overall budget. I hope we can find the money from the resources without having to have recourse to the Children's Fund.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the statement. Will the community and voluntary sector be involved in the working group?

The First Minister:

The community and voluntary sector will be involved in the consultation. At present, the working group is envisaged as comprising senior officials headed by Ministers. It would not therefore be appropriate, in that context, to involve a voluntary organisation as members of the group. However, they should be involved in the consultation, as indeed a wide range of interests will be. That will certainly happen.

Mr Byrne:

How will the office of the commissioner for children affect the workings and management of the Children's Fund as outlined in the Programme for Government? Furthermore, does the Minister recognise that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has a proud record in dealing with vulnerable children in Northern Ireland? It is currently dealing with an average of 800 children.

The Deputy First Minister:

Two issues have been raised. The amount of money to be derived from the Children's Fund in the Programme for Government will be a matter for judgement. The issue surrounding the commissioner for children is more widespread and fundamental to the protection of young people.

I pay tribute to all groups and organisations for their work throughout the years. I pay tribute to those voluntary organisations - some well known; others less so - that have made such an enormous contribution, both at regional and local level. Without such organisations, the type of consultation that we hope to make would be incomplete.

Mr B Hutchinson:

I give the statement a guarded welcome, because I want to see what statutory powers are given to the new body. Should we not be using those community groups and other organisations that have been referred to today, given their wealth of experience? Will this commissioner have investigatory powers in regard to juvenile detention centres?

12.15 pm

The First Minister:

I understand the caution expressed by the Member. We intend to draw on the expertise available, here and elsewhere, from both Government and voluntary bodies.

On the question of complaints, we hope that the obvious core role of the commissioner will be to look at complaints and conduct investigations, et cetera. We cannot say whether those will extend to the area of juvenile justice, because that is a reserved matter. However, that is the reason for the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Office in the interdepartmental working group, and we hope to be able to proceed in co-operation with it.

The sitting was suspended at 12.16 pm.

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



Oral Answers to Questions


Enterprise, Trade And Investment

Economic Council Report

2.30 pm


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the recent report from the Northern Ireland Economic Council entitled 'The Capabilities and Innovation Perspective: The Way Ahead in Northern Ireland' and to make a statement.

(AQO 600/00)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):

This is an excellent report which provides a valuable insight into how entreprenuerial firms compete successfully. It identifies strategic priorities for economic development that, together with the forthcoming Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee report on Strategy 2010, can help us refine our own thinking in finalising the Programme for Government and producing departmental corporate plans.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for his deep analysis of the complex document. Two aspects to the report were critical. One element considered the lack of innovation against a backcloth of a community with high levels of scientific and computerised graduate and college facilities. The business community does not seem to be availing itself of that. The second aspect of the report is the critical question of the level of productivity in Northern Ireland, which is only 2·5% of turnover, compared with over 12% in Wales and some 20% to 40% in the various countries of the European Union. Does the Minister not think that it is appropriate and necessary for Government to evolve a more positive strategy to create that innovation based on our skills and to enhance production to give an environment in which industry and business can achieve better results?

Sir Reg Empey:

As regards productivity, last year, when manufacturing output rose in Northern Ireland by 7·3% compared with 1·9% in the UK as a whole, productivity also increased significantly. The use of ICT, upmarket methods, and innovation are the key issues for any economy that wants to be knowledge-based. The Programme for Government sets out a series of targets for increased research and development spending. While that spending has increased over the past few years, as the triennial report produced last month indicated, it is clear that there is more to be done in some sectors.

In the last year there has been a much higher take-up in the use of ICT to the extent that we rate about middle-region in the UK. The next step is to use that technology. More and more people are acquiring the technology, and my Department is requiring people to have that capability before we offer them assistance.

The Member is right to focus on the need to make the next step. IRTU is focused on this. As he may have heard in my announcement before Christmas of the establishment of a new agency to deal with these matters, I want innovation to be the "golden thread" that runs throughout the new organisation. I assure the Member that the Department is well aware of the implications of this report.

Mr B Bell:

Will the Minister indicate how our traditional industries such as the textile and the Irish linen industries fit into this report and the way forward?

Sir Reg Empey:

As I have said many times before with regard to research and development, innovation, and the use of ICT technologies, the traditional industries are in more urgent need of these facilities than the new ones - if that does not sound like a contradiction. These new technologies are applicable to all industry. I assure the Member for Lagan Valley that, following the publication last week of the Kurt Salmon Report into the textile sector, it was clear that the focus which we will be working out in the next few weeks has to be on innovation, technical textiles and design issues. There is a real determination to ensure that these new skills, technologies and techniques are applied to our traditional industries.

Bakery Industry: Employment


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to quantify the number of jobs lost in the bakery industry in the last three years and to outline his proposals to protect the remaining jobs from unfair competition.

(AQO 657/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

There have been 509 redundancies in bakeries that are or were client companies of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment agencies within the past three years. I have been involved in discussions about the situation with the Northern Ireland Bakery Council, and I wrote recently to the chief executives of the multiple retailers on the question of margins paid to suppliers.

Mr Dallat:

The Minister's interest in this matter is widely recognised and appreciated. However, is he aware that a great deal of apprehension and fear remains, not only among bakery workers but in the wider community, that we may become totally dependent on imports? This is because those large retailers he refers to continue to demand bread at prices that are well below production costs. Can the Minister assure the House that he will continue to monitor the situation closely and consider legislation if it is deemed necessary?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am conscious of the concern in the industry and of the impact that these changes have had in his own constituency. I have had discussions with the General Consumer Council of Northern Ireland, which represents the interests of consumers, and it has expressed an understanding that cheapest is not necessarily best in the long term for the consumer. It realises that if one becomes dependent exclusively on imports, there is a very real risk to the supply and ultimately to the price of the product.

Everyone knows that if you get a few days of bad weather, the shelves in the supermarkets very quickly go empty. It would be a very serious situation if we were unable to produce sufficient bread for our own consumption. Of course, speciality products will always be coming and going, and we all accept that. However, it would be a very negative development if we did not have the ability to produce some basic products here to ensure continuity of supply. I assure the Member that I am watching this very closely.

I have had several discussions recently with IDB executives. We are willing to co-operate and to help the industry when specific proposals are made. I am taking the matter up directly with the supermarkets. The General Consumer Council is now completely of the view that price is not the only issue that has to be considered. I think the Member would agree that that is a very significant development.

Mr McClarty:

Does the Minister accept that although the consumer may actively look for meat and vegetable products sourced in Northern Ireland, bread tends to be overlooked? What is being done to encourage large retailers to buy locally?

Sir Reg Empey:

A significant amount of produce is supplied by local producers. The problem is that the margins that they are earning on the principal staple products are insufficient to provide the necessary levels of investment to sustain them and make them more efficient. However, there are notable exceptions. Before Christmas I was at one bakery when it made a major announcement that it has substantially increased its sales of speciality products to the major retailers in Great Britain. Two of our bakeries are very active in that area. That is perhaps one of the ways ahead.

I assure the Member that if the industry comes forward with proposals I will look at them very carefully and sympathetically. This can only be done if there is co-operation by the major retailers. They are the big customers, they give the volume sales, and without them it is impossible to support some of the other lines. Retailers are purchasing more goods locally. They have to understand that they have a responsibility. Ultimately, as consumers, we are their customers. The public are their customers. I do not want us to be in a situation where a whole sector is removed, thereby weakening the product base in Northern Ireland.

Inward Investment: New Jobs


Mr Clyde

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the number of new jobs created through inward investment as a result of direct action by his Department during 2000.

(AQO 634/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

During the calendar year 2000, the IDB secured 29 projects from externally owned companies, which promised the creation of 5,024 new jobs.

Mr Clyde:

How many jobs does the IDB expect to create in 2001?

Sir Reg Empey:

In my response I cited figures for the calendar year 2000, which overlaps the current financial year. According to the information I have, this will be the best financial year on record for the IDB in its securing projects to create jobs throughout the Province.

Members must understand, however, that the figures are indicative of the number of jobs secured. It takes up to four years for these figures to translate into jobs on the ground. Many jobs being created now relate to announcements that were made two or three years ago. There is an overlap, and we must be careful when referring to figures. However, as things stand, we appear to be on target for the best-ever year, and IDB's targets for the following year will take that into account. It is always better to be surprised by higher figures than were estimated, rather than being disappointed at a later stage.

Mr J Wilson:

I commend the Minister on his very successful efforts to bring new jobs to Northern Ireland. He will be aware that my constituency of South Antrim has much to offer potential investors, particularly with regard to modern technology. Will he assure me that his Department will work with the local business community and local councils to give South Antrim an opportunity to market itself?

Sir Reg Empey:

Four of the projects included in the figures cited were based in the South Antrim constituency, and a fifth was related to a South Antrim-based company that established jobs in another constituency. There is a significant base in South Antrim, and one of the significant potentials of the constituency lies in the development of the industrial park at Ballyhenry. A good deal of engineering work is currently taking place to facilitate the site and to build infrastructure. ProLogis, the preferred developer of the site, is very optimistic, and we are working in close co-operation with Newtownabbey Borough Council and Antrim Borough Council. Given the significant industrial base in that constituency, it is clear that there is much vitality in the industrial sector in South Antrim. We will continue to work in close co-operation with the district councils to achieve even greater success.

Small Firms: Financial Aid


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the steps he is taking to ensure that small firms are accessing all the grants and financial aid available to them.

(AQO 606/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

By providing information through its own web site and that of EDnet, LEDU enables greater numbers of people to access information to help them start up and grow their businesses. Each business that approaches LEDU for assistance is individually assessed, and the form of grant assistance is determined on the basis of need.

Mrs E Bell:

I am glad to hear that. Is the Minister aware of the SIGNAL Business Growth Centre in North Down, and does he believe that it is a useful model that could be encouraged and promoted by the Department? Further to that, what steps are being taken to get women into business generally?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am aware of the SIGNAL Business Growth Centre in North Down, which I had the pleasure of visiting three months ago. It is a very innovative centre that is not dependent on the Government. Local people have decided to carry out their own, different initiatives, and I was extremely impressed during my visit. I have since had contact with them, and members of the board are in regular contact with me to put forward ideas.

2.45 pm

With regard to the involvement of women in industry, there is no doubt that in North America the Small Business Administration has been the significant creator of new jobs. Of those new jobs, over half are in companies run by or controlled by women. While there has been improvement in Northern Ireland, it is perfectly clear that there is still a long way to go. We are well behind the North American model; we are also behind the UK profile as a whole. No doubt the Member for North Down will be aware that under the European Social Fund in particular, district councils and others have been running special schemes for women in industry and women in business. LEDU is no exception; it has been a partner in many of these schemes, and, indeed, district councils, through their economic development departments, may well have provided some of those schemes themselves.

Mr Beggs:

I welcome the fact that LEDU makes extensive use of the Internet to provide information to small firms; it has a very good site, which must be commended.

Given the diversity of need among small businesses, how does LEDU ensure that its assistance meets the needs of individual businesses?

Sir Reg Empey:

It is done by individual assessment. The client executive visits the company and establishes its specific needs. Yes, there is information on the web site, but, by definition, it is general information - not specific. Therefore we always follow that up with a visit, tailoring a model for a particular company, and those models vary greatly. Some companies need advice; some need marketing assistance; some may need capital assistance; others need revenue grants; still others will need training, and the Training and Employment Agency is one of our major partners in this exercise. I assure the Member, however, that the key driver in this is an individual assessment of individual applicants.

Dr McDonnell:

Some weeks ago the Minister announced a new development agency, which will have to be focused on and sensitive to the needs of small business. What work has already been done to ensure that? How will the Department ensure that those with the relevant operational experience, both inside and outside of the existing structure, are mobilised and brought to work on the needs of small businesses?

Sir Reg Empey:

About 99% of the people employed in businesses in Northern Ireland are employed in businesses which have fewer than 50 employees, therefore 99% of our companies fall into that category. If we were not to take that into account when formulating any proposals, that would amount to a dereliction of duty. I can assure the Member for South Belfast that teams have been established in the Department to plan various aspects of the establishment of the new agency, and all matters are being considered along the lines that the Member has laid out.

The fundamental rationale behind the proposal is to bring together all the sources of assistance and help and guidance that the state can apply to help industry. By definition, therefore, if we do not help small businesses, we fail, because growth comes from the small business sector. I assure the Member that the provisions of the legislation, the operational remit and corporate plans of the new agency will have to address the issues of small businesses, and plans will not proceed until all of these issues are addressed satisfactorily.

TSN Action Plan


Mrs I Robinson

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what changes are planned for the targeting social need action plan.

(AQO 650/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

Draft plans have been amended in the light of last year's consultation process, and all departmental action plans will be published shortly by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. When progress for 2000-01 is reported, there will be an opportunity to update and revise our plan.

Mrs I Robinson:

Can the Minister state what policy he is following with regard to wards that suffer from severe deprivation but are situated within regions not listed as TSN areas? Will the Minister assure us that such wards will not be ignored? Does he accept that this is the case in Strangford? Finally, will he assure the House that he will not follow the advice given by Gerry Adams on the deliberate skewing of resources on a preconceived political agenda but rather on a basis of fairness and proven need?

Sir Reg Empey:

I fully understand the issue of pockets of deprivation within areas of apparent affluence. The hon Member knows that my own council area contains a series of such pockets. A year ago I addressed Ards Borough Council and established a task force to deal with the concerns of people from the textile industry, and I know that there are pockets of serious deprivation within spitting distance of areas of affluence - Westwinds, for example.

The position regarding new TSN is that the Programme for Government contains an indication of a general policy and a determination to set targets to introduce and stimulate economic activity in areas that have traditionally suffered according to a range of indices.

That being said, the IDB has made it clear - and I repeat it now for the benefit of the hon Member - that that does not mean that no attempt will be made to deal with the specific concerns of areas such as those she has indicated. Many Members, noticeably those representing Belfast constituencies, have made exactly the same point. One measure of our success will be the extent to which we are able to deliver on those concerns.

Mrs Courtney:

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the creation of the new agency provides an opportunity to improve the level of service and the speed of response to business. It also provides an opportunity to decentralise meaningful Government jobs and activities to strategically important centres throughout Northern Ireland. In particular, I am thinking of Derry and the north-west. How can we ensure that we maximise the business potential of these opportunities by delivering substantial services from bases across Northern Ireland?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am sure that the Member knows that the matter to which she refers is a concern of my hon Friend, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who has responsibility for dealing with this aspect of decentralisation. It may be that she can influence him more than I can. There has been some relocation in Belfast, so we know that jobs can be provided in these areas.

However, physically moving offices does not necessarily bring in new jobs. Relocation may bring in new people, but they may be the same people who held the posts in the other location, so it may not necessarily benefit the local community. These matters have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis to see what real benefit actually accrues.

Mr Neeson:

Given that the Robson index and, to an extent, the 1991 census figures are still being used as indicators for designating TSN areas, does the Minister think that the current system is seriously flawed and ignores the pockets of high deprivation that exist throughout Northern Ireland?

Sir Reg Empey:

The Member has drawn attention to a matter of which we are acutely aware. At present, my Department uses the Robson index, together with local employment information, as one of its guides. As the Member may know, the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA) is currently undertaking a review to assess new criteria under the direction of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. Many Members and organisations have fed into that review the concerns expressed by Mr Neeson and the Member for Strangford - namely, how the question of pockets is dealt with.

I assure the Member that that information is due to be published by around May 2001. The Department and the Committee will have the opportunity to assess it, and we will then consider how to apply it to our circumstances.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Question 6 has been withdrawn.


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