Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 29 January 2001 (continued)

Textile Industry: Employment


Mr Davis

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the steps he is taking to safeguard employment in the textile industry; and to make a statement.

(AQO 612/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

In June 2000 Kurt Salmon Associates were appointed to work with the IDB and an industry steering group to develop an action plan for sustainable growth in the textile and clothing industry. That review has been completed. Recommendations have been put to the industry and are ready to be implemented.

Mr Davis:

I am sure that the Minister would agree that while reports may serve a purpose, what we really need for our textile industry is action. What does he intend to do with the report's recommendations?

Sir Reg Empey:

The Member is correct, although this was a report with a difference - not simply a consultant's report. It was drawn up in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Textiles and Apparel Association (NITA). They were partners in what was an interactive exercise. The report was formally launched and presented to the industry last Friday afternoon. As a result, I have endorsed the report and indicated to the industry that, in future, we will base our assessment of the need for help on the extent to which the applications are in line with the report.

An implementation team has been established to set up a company, and I hope that this will be dealt with in the next few weeks. The company will be owned by the industry and facilitated by my Department. It will be charged with implementing the strategy and bringing the industry together - one of the Kurt Salmon report's main recommendations. At a later stage, I hope to propose how we can assist with the huge investment of nearly £119 million which has been recommended for the industry over the next five years. I assure the Member, knowing his constituency interest in Lagan Valley, and other Members who have raised the issue - not least Members from the north-west - that I am acutely aware of their concerns. However, I am convinced that a significant base exists. There are many profitable companies, so we should not be prophets of doom. Other countries have fought their way out of this position. We have a good basis for doing the same. My Department is determined to respond rapidly to proposals from the industry, but the industry must take the lead.

Inward Investment (Mid Ulster)


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of inward investment in the Mid Ulster constituency.

(AQO 648/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

In the last five years there have been three inward investments in the Mid Ulster constituency. Copeland Corporation announced a £34 million new inward investment in a compressor manufacturing plant in Cookstown, creating some 330 new jobs. There were two expansion investments from externally owned companies offering 28 new jobs. The area continues to be marketed for more inward investment.

Mr Armstrong:

While I welcome the success we have had in securing inward investment in Mid Ulster, examples tend to be few and far between. I am aware of inward investment in Creagh Meadows, near Toome, which is in the east of my constituency but near enough to South Antrim.

Will the Minister tell us exactly what the IDB is doing to encourage inward investment? Is it working with local representatives to find ways to improve our attractiveness to potential investors? Moreover, will the Minister comment on the recent takeover of Lafargue - that is the Blue Circle Industries - outside Cookstown and the effect that that may have on other inward investment and the Mid Ulster economy.

Sir Reg Empey:

The IDB announced today the acquisition of 54 acres of land at Craig Meadows to provide new opportunities for investment in the Magherafelt District Council area. The IDB acquired the land on 15 January. It will advertise soon for expressions of interest from civil engineering contractors wishing to tender for the site development contract. I hope that it will be possible to have this site available for occupation by the autumn of this year. Magherafelt District Council has warmly welcomed today's decision.

3.00 pm

Regarding the constituency as a whole, on the LEDU small business front Mid Ulster continues to be one of the most successful areas in attracting new jobs, and new letters of offer have been issued. It is certainly one of the best in the Province.

The Blue Circle matter still has to cross some competition hurdles. Lafarge already has interests in Northern Ireland through Redland Tile and Brick, and the amalgamation with Blue Circle would make a very powerful industrial group. The company has been in contact with me, and it will be some months before the full implications of the takeover are clear. I assure the Member that I am keeping in close contact with the company throughout this time of change.


Higher and Further Education, training and Employment

"Back to Your Future":
Expatriate Professionals


Mr Byrne

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline the number of information and communication technologies expatriate professionals who have indicated an interest in the "Back to Your Future" campaign; and to make a statement.

(AQO 636/00)

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):

The "Back to Your Future" campaign has attracted a positive response from expatriates, at whom it was targeted. Of 2,437 unique visitors to the web site established for the campaign, 124 professionals have registered on the system. Those registered have made 169 job applications to 17 companies. Members will appreciate that it is too early to establish whether those people have been successful in obtaining jobs. However, I can report that companies involved in the campaign have expressed satisfaction with the scheme to date.

Mr Byrne:

I welcome the emphasis on developing more ICT jobs in Northern Ireland. I draw the Minister's attention to a LEDU initiative in the western region called "Into the West". This tries to encourage expatriates from Tyrone and Fermanagh who are in business in Australia, New Zealand and Canada to return and help business development here. What other initiatives does the Minister hope to undertake to assist ICT companies to attract high-calibre employees in that sector?

Dr Farren:

The Member will appreciate that we need to evaluate the "Back to Your Future" campaign in conjunction with the companies involved. I am aware of initiatives undertaken in the industry itself without public support; these too are making an important contribution to trying to attract expatriates, from whatever part of Northern Ireland, to become aware of the tremendous expansion taking place in the ICT sector and the opportunities that exist in related sectors. I trust that we will be successful in this campaign and that others will supplement it. I will be maintaining contact with my Colleague, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, whose Department was associated with us in the "Back to Your Future" campaign, to see what more is necessary in this regard.

Literacy And Numeracy (Adults)


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline how he intends to address deficiencies in literacy and numeracy amongst adults.

(AQO 651/00)

Dr Farren:

Work is being done to tackle low levels of adult literacy and numeracy, which have given rise to considerable concern, not just in the education world but across the community. A basic skills unit has been established to provide advice on strategy to my Department. Basic skills provision is a priority area for the learndirect service and initiatives are already underway in the further education sector and the New Deal programme.

Many adults with literacy and numeracy needs are already receiving assistance through these initiatives. However, I intend to develop additional initiatives, in conjunction with the Department of Education and all sectors of adult and continuing education, to meet the needs of those people as quickly as possible. This is in response to the strategy framework, which the basic skills committee within the Department has recently published.

Mr Dallat:

I welcome the Minister's statement. Is he aware that recent figures released by the Department of Education indicate that performance targets in literacy and numeracy are not being achieved? This serious problem is likely to continue for some time. Can the Minister assure us that he will attract adequate resources to address the serious problem in the future?

Dr Farren:

All Members will be aware that I have expressed several times my concern about this issue. It is a concern, as I indicated in my first response, shared by my Colleague, the Minister of Education and, more widely, with those in the education world.

We are developing a concerted approach. I assure the Member that, since this issue has been highlighted in the Programme for Government, the Executive will provide the necessary resources to address the problems associated with literacy and numeracy levels in our community.

Mr Beggs:

Can the Minister assure me that measures to address deficiencies in adult literacy and numeracy will be implemented in all constituencies? What actions is he taking to encourage such projects in areas that have been in obvious need, but which have been missed in the past - in particular, parts of East Antrim where there have been very few such projects?

Dr Farren:

I want to give a clear assurance that our strategy and the initiatives within it to deal with adult literacy and numeracy problems will be focused on all areas where there is a need. Insofar as we can, it will be directed at individuals using the resources and facilities which will be available to us under learndirect. We will so target those initiatives. I assure the Member that no constituency will be neglected in this context.

It is important that the House appreciates that a considerable amount of valuable and effective work is being undertaken within existing course provisions at further education and community levels. However, we are not complacent, and we will be developing new approaches to meet the needs of all who have numeracy and literacy problems, so that we will never again be faced with the evidence of recent reports. Approximately 25% of adults experience varying degrees of literacy and numeracy difficulties.

Mr S Wilson:

I welcome the Minister's assurances that resources are being directed towards this very difficult and important problem that needs to be addressed under the Programme for Government. However, what targets has his Department set to ensure that resources are devoted towards basic adult literacy and numeracy courses?

Secondly, does the Department have any figures on drop-out rates in the further education sector, as compared to those for courses delivered through the community- based sector? Thirdly, will the Minister assure the Assembly that resources will continue to be directed towards further education colleges, so that they can imaginatively expand literacy and numeracy courses?

Dr Farren:

The first question was related to targets. It is important to stress what I said a few moments ago. Provision already exists in community and further education sector initiatives, and it has done for some time. I also mentioned the fact that the basic skills committee published a strategic framework document just before Christmas. It sets out for the Department the approaches that must be undertaken with regard to the number of tutors and the forms of co-operation for delivery between the community and further education sectors. Future targets have yet to be detailed, but I assure the Member that we are working hard to produce them.

The second question referred to the further education sector. As I did not have notice of the question, I am not in a position to provide an immediate answer on the numbers that fail to complete courses. However, I will provide an answer in due course.

I assure the Member that every effort will be made through the combination of the community and further education sectors' resources to ensure an effective range of provision. We cannot just consider a single, discrete approach; we need one that encompasses a range of provisions for those who need assistance with their literacy and numeracy problems. The Programme for Government is firmly committed to achieving rapid progress in this area.

Mitchell Scholarship Programme


Mr A Maginness

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the Mitchell scholarship programme and give an update on progress with the 2000-01 programme.

(AQO 652/00)

Dr Farren:

The Mitchell scholarship programme was established by the United States-Ireland Alliance to honour the contribution that Senator George Mitchell made to the shaping of Northern Ireland's future. The programme provides scholarships for outstanding American students, which enables them to study in Ireland - North and South - and is partly supported by my Department.

The first 12 scholars commenced their courses in universities throughout Ireland last autumn. Three of the 12 are studying in Northern Ireland - two at Queen's University, Belfast, and one at the University of Ulster. I was privileged to meet all 12 students in Belfast shortly after they arrived in the country.

I want to place on record my recognition, and the gratitude and recognition of my Department and our educational institutions - particularly the Northern Ireland universities - of the contribution that individuals and organisations in the United States, Northern Ireland and throughout Ireland have made to the establishment of this scholarship scheme. As time goes by, I believe, it will make a significant contribution to understanding between our two countries, especially in the academic and professional worlds.

3.15 pm

Mr A Maginness:

It is fitting that a man who has made such a great contribution to the Good Friday Agreement and the setting up of the Assembly should have a scholarship programme named after him. What financial support will the programme receive from the Department? For how long will that support be provided? For how long will the programme last?

Dr Farren:

The Department has agreed to provide an annual sum of $33,000, to be increased at the annual rate of inflation, to cover administrative costs and expenses for two students to come to study in Northern Ireland. Support for the scholarship programme will last for an initial period of five years and will be subject to review at the end of that period.

Members may have spotted a disparity in the student numbers that I have given in my responses. The third student has been supported by a private, anonymous donor who wished to make a significant contribution to the scholarship programme. We are grateful to the donor for that additional support; it has enabled us to have three students in Northern Ireland - one more than the number originally intended.

Student Support


Mr McMenamin

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail when he expects to bring forward details of the proposals outlined following the student support review.

(AQO 654/00)


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the cost to his Department of abolishing tuition fees for university students from Northern Ireland.

(AQO 610/00)

Dr Farren:

I shall answer questions 4 and 11 together. My officials are finalising the details of my proposals on student support with the Department of Finance and Personnel. I hope that the process will be completed soon, so that I can set out my proposals in detail for consultation, as part of the Department's equality scheme. The additional public cost of abolishing tuition fees for full-time students studying in Northern Ireland is estimated at £22·5 million.

Mr McMenamin:

We would all like to see the abolition of fees. How many students will be exempt from fees, as a result of the Minister's proposals?

Dr Farren:

As I said, work is still being done on the detail of the proposals, so I am not yet able to provide the detail that the Member seeks. I hope that I shall be able to do so when the appraisal is complete.

Certainly, the Department should be able to state the number of people likely to be able to avail themselves of the various forms of new support. The level of support will always be demand-driven, and we will not be able to predict precise numbers from one year to the next. However, we will have a general indication of the likely level of demand. It will be a welcome additional form of support for students in higher and further education.

Further and Higher Education:
Cookstown Students


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment how many students from the Cookstown area are currently enrolled at (a) the East Tyrone College of Further Education and (b) the North East Institute of Further and Higher Education in Magherafelt.

(AQO 647/00)

Dr Farren:

The home postcodes of all enrolling further education students are collected. A significant percentage of postcodes are incorrect, incomplete or missing. The Department is working to improve the quality of the data. At present, our data are collected not by campus but by institution.

That makes it difficult to answer the question. However, as the data becomes available and is collated I will be happy to provide the Member with the details that he requests.

Mr Armstrong:

Are there any long-term plans for the upgrading and development of Cookstown College of Further Education? If this area is going to be successful and secure jobs in the future, it needs to be identified as an area of higher and further education, training and employment.

Dr Farren:

Members will be aware that the East Tyrone College of Further Education has joined with Omagh College of Further Education in a major private finance initiative (PFI) project which in a few years' time will provide significant new facilities for colleges in both parts of County Tyrone. The East Tyrone College of Further Education includes the Cookstown campus, and it is hoped that the facilities at Cookstown will be enhanced along with the other developments that will be taking place.

Mr McGrady:

Does the Minister agree that all colleges of further education and the communities which are served by them - east Tyrone, the north-east, east Down or wherever - are restricted by the quota that is applied to the provision of higher education courses? Will the Minister consider either improving those quotas or abolishing them so that the necessary skills can be provided for a greater number of people in the areas where inward investment requires the highest level of skills? The quota system is unfair and unjust to those regions.

Dr Farren:

I am sure that Members will acknowledge the very clear commitment on my part and that of my Department to developing the further education sector. That sector has a significant contribution to make to higher education and to the economic, social and cultural development of our society.

From time to time I have highlighted the additional places available in some key areas where courses are provided which are directly related to job opportunities and economic development. Those include software development, electronic engineering, construction, hospitality and catering - areas in further education for which the Department has been keen to see courses developed. There has been a significant increase in the number of students admitted to those courses as a result of the additional places provided. The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Department's investment has been welcomed by the sections of industry to which it is directly related.

Student Debt


The Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Birnie)

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline his plans to carry out detailed surveys similar to the Callender Report (Department for Education and Employment RR 213) on student debt.

(AQO 611/00)

Dr Farren:

The Callender and Kemp survey was commissioned by all four United Kingdom education Departments and was based on a representative sample of higher education students throughout the United Kingdom. At present I have no plans to carry out a separate survey for Northern Ireland.

Dr Birnie:

Is the Minister aware of the evidence presented to the House of Commons Select Committee in December? It suggested that actual or perceived debt was leading to a significant problem of students dropping out of higher education institutions in Great Britain. Does he agree that we need to know, as a matter of urgency, the extent of that problem in Northern Ireland?

Dr Farren:

I am aware of the evidence and the interpretation placed on it. It is important that we do not make simple comparisons between Northern Ireland and other regions. Our situation has its own characteristics. Notwithstanding the changes that have been made to student funding in recent years, there have been significant increases in the numbers of students enrolling in higher education courses and completing higher education courses. I stress that such figures have not led to any complacency on my part, given my firm commitment to improving the situation on student support, as evidenced in the review and in the proposals that have emerged from that review.

Further and Higher Education Institutes:
Access for the Disabled


Ms Lewsley

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline the steps he is taking to ensure adequate access for people with disabilities, not only to buildings but to all services and facilities in institutes of further and higher education.

(AQO 639/00)

Dr Farren:

Significant steps have been taken to improve disabled access to colleges including the requirement to publish a disability statement, a support fund to assist with the costs of technical or carer support, a higher financial weighting in the funding formula and capital allocations to improve physical access.

In this building last Thursday I launched a register of support workers for students with specific learning difficulties. It will assist such students to access appropriate support during their studies. The register is currently available at the University of Ulster, Queen's University and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. There are plans to extend its availability and accessibility to students in all higher and further education institutions.

Ms Lewsley:

In the United Kingdom the Disability Rights Task Force made recommendations to improve access to colleges and higher and further education institutions for people with disabilities. What is the Minister's commitment to those recommendations? Will the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment put measures in place to implement some of those recommendations?

Dr Farren:

The Department has an additional support fund of around £310,000 per annum to provide technical or carer support to students. A £1·2 million access fund is available to colleges for students over the age of 19 whose access might be inhibited by financial considerations or who, for whatever reason, including physical or other disabilities, face financial difficulties. Priority is given to students who have been in care and to those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. I assure Members that the Executive have been taking their responsibilities in this regard very seriously. That seriousness is reflected in the commitments contained in the Programme for Government to enhance facilities and support, not just in education, for those with disabilities or difficulties of the kind referred to.

Textile Workers (Craigavon)


The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Mr Carrick)

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline his plans to retrain and reskill textile workers in Craigavon following the latest factory closure at Carn, Portadown.

(AQO 630/00)

3.30 pm

Dr Farren:

Training and Employment Agency officials are providing a full range of services, including a job clinic on 23 January, to workers made redundant from the textile industry. I mention that date because the question refers specifically to the recent factory closure at Carn in Portadown. A range of job vacancies and information about training opportunities have been made available to assist people to re-enter employment at the earliest opportunity.


Social Development

Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme


Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister for Social Development to outline how he proposes to extend the domestic energy efficiency scheme to cover central heating and other measures within a £5 million budget.

(AQO 617/00)

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

The funding for the first year of the domestic energy efficiency scheme has been set at £4 million. If additional funding is required because of a higher level of uptake, then, if the work can be undertaken by installers, a bid for extra funds will be made during the financial year.

Mr McCarthy:

Are the allocated funds substantial enough to make a serious impact on fuel poverty? As I understand it, a promise has been made in Great Britain to eliminate fuel poverty inside 10 years. It will take us 30 years, even with the extra funding. How does the Minister react to the Scottish decision to give free central heating to all pensioners?

Mr Morrow:

It is extremely difficult to estimate the uptake in regard to this scheme. It is well known that a considerable need exists. However, we have made an adequate bid to cover demand, but in the event of more being required we will make additional bids. I do not accept for one moment that Scotland, or anywhere else, is ahead of us as far as this matter is concerned. I certainly take the Member's point, and I ask him to bear in mind the amount of work that is envisaged. It is difficult to put a precise figure on what is needed. Nevertheless, I believe that the sum of money that we have available is adequate to kick-start the whole scheme. If we do not have adequate funds we will go back, in a determined way, to seek additional funding for the scheme.

Mr McMenamin:

I welcome any measures that will assist householders to have oil-fired central heating installed. Does the Minister realise that in my constituency of West Tyrone some Housing Executive tenants have nothing other than a coal fire to heat their entire house? They are living in virtual fridges. Can the Minister address this wanton neglect sooner rather than later? Will he give an assurance that the extra £2 million announced by the Minister of Finance will be built into his budget for future years?

Mr Morrow:

I concur entirely with what the Member has said, as I have constituents who find themselves in the very same position. Indeed, only last week, I wrote a letter on their behalf. We know that the greatest level of fuel poverty exists in the private sector and not in the social sector - although it has not been eliminated in the social sector. However, I want to emphasise that all the figures and all the information that we have at our disposal clearly point to the fact that the biggest problem exists in the private sector and not in the social sector.

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

Go raibh maith agat. Can the Minister confirm the health benefits of insulation to both the customer and the housing stock? Will he meet with other Ministers to contribute to real joined-up government in this area?

Mr Morrow:

There are substantial health benefits. The scheme will target groups such as the over 60s on benefit, families on benefit with young children and families on low income. In addition, disabled facilities grant will assist those under 60 who fall outside the new scheme. We are satisfied that the spin-off from this scheme will be beneficial and have a marked impact.


Mr R Hutchinson

asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of households in East Antrim that have received insulation measures under the new domestic energy efficiency scheme in each of the last three financial years, and how this compares with other constituencies.

(AQO 596/00)

Mr Morrow:

I refer the Member to the table contained in my reply to AQW 1,205 on 24 January 2001, which provides the information requested. I do have this information at my disposal, but it would take a considerable amount of time to read through all the 18 constituencies, dealing with the years 1998-99 and 1999-2000 up until 31 December 2000. However, I am ready - at your direction, Mr Deputy Speaker - to take up the rest of Question Time if that is necessary.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Hutchinson has indicated that he would be happy with a written answer.


Mr Maskey

asked the Minister for Social Development to confirm that over £250,000 has been spent under the domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES 1) in West Belfast, representing the highest need in the 18 parliamentary constituencies; and to make a statement.

(AQO 618/00)

Mr Morrow:

Based on information provided by the manager for the domestic energy efficiency scheme, more than £250,000 has been spent in West Belfast. However, my Department does not fund DEES on a constituency basis, as the scheme is demand-led. It would be wrong to assume that West Belfast has a higher need for energy efficiency measures compared to other constituencies.

I wish to make it clear that the level of expenditure under the domestic energy efficiency scheme is not a barometer of fuel poverty. DEES provides basic energy efficiency measures and is not targeted specifically at the fuel poor. The new scheme to be introduced later this year will, on the other hand, provide a more comprehensive range of energy efficiency measures and will target the most vulnerable groups in our society.

Mr Maskey:

I thank the Minster for his response, but, given the slight increase in the budget for scheme two, will the demand in a constituency such as West Belfast be assured of the same level of support?

Mr Morrow:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I refer you to my earlier answer that this is not done on a constituency basis; it applies throughout the Province and is demand- led. However, based on the information that is readily available, £795,077 has been spent in the constituency of West Belfast to date.

Mr Ford:

While welcoming the Minister's assurance that money is being spent on a demand-led basis does he agree that it has the potential for problems if the information is not being distributed across the whole region adequately? What efforts is his Department making to ensure that knowledge of DEES is spread as widely as possible, so that this year's additional funding is spent properly and he can justify seeking future funding?

Mr Morrow:

I assure the Member that I am concerned that the money should be spent in the most efficient manner across the Province. I also assure him that every effort will be made to make the public aware of this scheme so that everyone in Northern Ireland - across the 18 constituencies - will be equally aware of its existence. I believe that that is the best way forward to avoid criticisms and accusations that we are labouring for any particular constituency. We are trying to avoid that, and I believe that that will be possible, given the way in which the scheme is made up.

Mr Hussey:

I welcome the realism contained in the Minister's answer. So far, expenditure has been demand- led, or on an application basis - that is not to deny that need would exist elsewhere. The Minister will be aware of the independent nature of many living in rural communities.

Can the Minister assure me that the Department will adopt a strong, proactive stance in the social sector, and in the private sector particularly, where the Minister has identified a real problem in respect of rural communities?

Mr Morrow:

I assure the Member that that will be the case. I hoped that I had made that clear. We will not be dealing with this as a purely urban or rural scenario. Strenuous steps will be taken to ensure that the very type of person in the rural communities that the Member refers to is targeted and is made fully aware of this. I hope that that will happen; indeed, I am confident that it will.


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