Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 29 January 2001 (continued)
Housing Executive Waiting Lists
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of applicants on the Housing Executive's waiting lists in each region which have lost their priority status due to the introduction of the new housing selection scheme
Prior to the implementation of the new common selection scheme, there were 5,600 priority applicants on the waiting list. Of these, 2,289 applicants retained priority status, and those remaining were recategorised as pointed applicants under the new scheme, alongside all other applicants on the waiting list. Until the scheme has been evaluated it cannot be assessed whether these applicants will be rehoused less quickly than they would have been previously. The evaluation will probably be carried out in November 2001.
I welcome the fact that there is to be an evaluation and that it will be done quickly. However, it is shocking that thousands in urgent need of housing have been reassessed and are now much further down the waiting list than they may have been before. Will the Minister do everything in his power to ensure that the evaluation is comprehensive and that it is done speedily? Will he re-examine the needs of those with mental disabilities who would have previously received special consideration? There is nothing under the new scheme to take account of their particular needs.
I will look at this point again. I assure the Member that that matter will be given due and proper consideration, and I thank him for bringing it to my attention.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister share my cynicism at the mock horror expressed by Mr Fee at the change in the waiting lists as a result of the new housing selection scheme? Will he also confirm that there was widespread consultation about this scheme and that members of the party to which Mr Fee belongs had an input? We were all well aware of the fact that the purpose of the housing selection scheme was to ensure that those who were most in need of priority housing were placed on the list ahead of those in less need.
It is Question Time, and it is not for me to go into the intricacies of what happened in a particular party and whether it did or did not do certain things. In relation to how our assessments are carried out - and this is important in the context of what we are discussing here today - applicants on the waiting list, used by all participating landlords, are assessed on a points basis in descending order according to their housing need. There are four headings under which applicants may be awarded points: intimidation; insecurity of tenure; housing conditions; and health and social well-being assessment. This adequately covers the situation, although it will be kept under review.
Disability Living Allowance
Mr M Robinson
asked the Minister for Social Development to explain why it can take 12 months between a disability living allowance applicant appealing a decision and its resolution.
At present there are delays of 10 to 12 months in the resolution of disability living allowance appeals. Due to the introduction of new legislation in October 1999, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of disability living allowance appeals received by the Department, and a backlog developed. In response, the Department implemented a recovery plan and recruited additional staff to deal with the extra work. That is beginning to result in a reduction in the backlog, but it will be some time before the service returns to normal. I apologise to all customers who are affected by those problems.
Mr M Robinson:
Can the Minister assure the House that he will continue to monitor this situation? If the pitiful situation of many constituents who come to my office is anything to go by, this situation is continuing to deteriorate.
The situation is not continuing to deteriorate. We hope to see significant and marked improvements, and we have recruited additional staff to deal with the problem. We have increased the number of appeal writers from 15 to 35, but they have to be trained and that takes time. Where the Member sits, I once sat, and probably one day will be sitting so I have a direct interest in the matter. I too feel the impact of the problem on the ground, because my constituents come to me. It will be very closely monitored. I assure the Member and the Assembly that there should be a marked increase towards the middle of this year. I hope that we are getting over the worst of the situation.
Question 8 stands in my name, but I fear that in my enthusiasm, and assuming that the Minister would answer it along with earlier questions, I have already asked it, and he has given me a supplementary answer.
Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline how he will guarantee that the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES2) will result in at least the same spend in the Upper Bann constituency as under the previous scheme (DEES1).
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the allocation of funding to the East Belfast constituency under the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES 2).
asked the Minister for Social Development to ensure that the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES 2) will result in the same spend in the Lagan Valley constituency as under the previous scheme (DEES 1).
asked the Minister for Social Development to confirm that the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES 2) will result in at least the same spend in the Foyle constituency as under the previous scheme (DEES 1).
Mr J Kelly
asked the Minister for Social Development if he will guarantee that the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES 2) will result in at least the same spend in the Mid Ulster constituency as the previous scheme (DEES 1).
I propose to take questions 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 together. I am a wee bit surprised that there are so many similar - if not identical - questions. Perhaps it is a coincidence.
Funding for the domestic energy efficiency scheme is not allocated on a constituency basis. The existing DEES is very much demand-led. Members have heard this before. Funding is provided to the scheme manager, who responds to requests from individual clients for the installation of energy efficiency measures in their properties. In some respects the new scheme will be similar, but greater emphasis will be given to focusing on, and targeting, those in greatest need. This will be achieved through publicity and marketing and through the development of an effective referral network. In the circumstances, therefore, I cannot predict the future allocation of funding.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister confirm that only £200,000 per year has been spent under the DEES1 scheme in Upper Bann? How does he propose to increase that to a meaningful level? How does the Minister propose to tackle fuel poverty seriously - not only in Upper Bann, but throughout the North of Ireland - with a £6 million budget?
I cannot confirm that only £200,000 was spent. However, I will look at the matter and ascertain the exact figure. As for the future, I have already said that I cannot guarantee that a particular constituency will have a particular amount of money spent on it. The scheme is demand-led, which means that it applies right across the Province. Therefore it is difficult for me to give that assurance.
As regards the availability of adequate funds, I have already stated that in the event of there not being, or if we anticipate that there are not going to be, enough funds available we will make a robust bid for further funding.
I see this as an ongoing scheme. It is an excellent scheme - one of the better ones - and the spin-off from it will be considerable, not only for people's comfort but for their health. We have piloted two schemes, in Aughnacloy and Darkley, and we will learn a considerable deal from those schemes.
I welcome the extra £2 million to the Department for Social Development's energy efficiency budget this year, and the Minister's previous statements. Can he confirm that he needs to more than treble this budget to meet the target set across the UK to eliminate fuel poverty, and would he be able to bid for such an amount?
Perhaps I should give some background information on this subject, as there have been a considerable number of similar questions about it.
We know that 170,000 households in Northern Ireland experience fuel poverty, and there are approximately 600 excess winter deaths due to cold-related illness annually. We also know that fuel poverty is a contributory factor to social exclusion. I am certain that the amount of money in the kitty is adequate to kick-start the scheme. However, we are not 100% sure of the volume of response, but we are ready for it and, in the event of the response being higher than our expectations, we will make a robust bid for more money to continue this scheme.
I do not see the scheme as one that will peter out; I see it as an ongoing scheme to tackle a serious problem, which exists mostly in the private sector. Social housing has dealt with the problem reasonably well, but it has not eradicated it.
The question of the allocation of appropriate funding for the scheme has been dealt with. As the Minister has said, the Department does not know how many people are going to avail of the scheme. Surely, even if it takes 30 years, this is a good start and we may be able to prevent some of the 600 deaths already mentioned.
My worry is that the new scheme will still be discriminatory, particularly against some of the disabled whose cases slip through the net, because they are in receipt of a specific type of benefit, such as incapacity benefit. The scheme will discriminate against single people who do not have children, as they do not fall into the category. The Minister mentioned that many of the problems are in the private sector so if one takes the example of a young couple, just starting out in rented accommodation, who have no heating -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Will you move to your question, please.
I am asking the Minister if he considers the scheme to be discriminatory.
I do not believe that it will be discriminatory. I will make every effort to ensure that it is not so. Ms Lewsley said that some disabled people would miss out on the scheme, but a scheme is available to the disabled via the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to which they would have redress if they miss out on this scheme.
If there is a specific case which the Member would like me to examine, I would like to hear from her and will give the matter due consideration.
I welcome the Minister's responses and his intention to make sure that fuel poverty is eliminated. He said that he had sufficient funds to kick-start it, but whether he has sufficient to see it through is another story. In the draft Programme for Government the Minister was allocated a certain amount of money to address fuel poverty, and last Monday it was announced that he had got an extra £2 million from the Minister of Finance and Personnel. If the Minister finds that he will not have enough money and that he would need to double his budget, is he prepared to bid for the increase?
I can leave the Assembly today, confident in the knowledge that the Assembly has taken this matter very much to heart. That is clear from the volume of questions that I have received. I have no doubt that when I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel for the additional millions of pounds I will have the full backing of the Assembly. If I fail, I am certain that the Assembly will not fail. If I am not instrumental in getting the money from Mr Durkan, I know that I will have the full backing of the Assembly and that Mr Durkan will also have to answer to it. I can rest confident in that knowledge.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. My question has already been asked. I welcome the Minister's statement, except perhaps for the last part.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Question 14 - Mr Armstrong.
Question 15 - Mr Poots.
Question 17 - Mr Hay.
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail his plans to deal with the sub- standard social housing conditions at Legahory and Burnside in Craigavon.
An area-based survey has been carried out in the Legahory Court estate in Brownlow. The Housing Executive is currently developing a strategy to deal with sub-standard properties in the area. However, as these properties are predominantly privately owned, current housing legislation restricts the options available to the Housing Executive. The Department, in conjunction with the Housing Executive, is presently considering a number of possible ways through which these houses might be acquired and subsequently demolished, but this will be a slow process.
On the other hand, the Burnside estate, which is a Housing Executive estate containing some housing association properties, remains an integral part of the Housing Executive's stock in Brownlow. The properties are generally in good condition and the Housing Executive is committed to their upkeep. By way of consolidating the estate, 48 dwellings were demolished last year. The Housing Executive is constantly reviewing the supply and demand situation and will, if necessary, proceed with further demolition where stock becomes surplus or vulnerable. In the interim, the Housing Executive continues to liaise with the borough council, other agencies including the RUC, and the local community, to develop initiatives to improve conditions in the area.
I am taking a personal interest in this matter and am updated on progress on a regular basis. I have visited both estates and have seen the problems at first hand. I am very concerned about the situation there and am giving it as much attention as I feel it deserves.
I thank the Minister for his response and acknowledge the personal interest that he has taken in the problem, shown by his visit to the area concerned. I note his remarks about selected demolition. Does the Minister agree that the selected demolition of further identified unfit housing will contribute to the vital environmental upgrade of the area and will improve the social conditions for all those still living in the area?
I agree. I believe that further demolition would enhance the area. It is as bad a social housing situation as I have seen in a very long time. I assure the Member that it is being given very urgent and considerable attention by my Department. We will not be letting up on this problem or walking away from it until we see a satisfactory resolution.
Sectarian Attacks on Homes
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline what policies are in place to facilitate the needs of families whose homes have been the subject of sectarian attacks.
The needs of families who are being subjected to sectarian attack are addressed in a number of ways. Some owners can apply to the Housing Executive to have their homes bought under the special purchase of evacuated dwellings (SPED) scheme, which enables intimidated occupants to move out relatively quickly. Tenants in property owned by the Housing Executive or a housing association or those in private rented accommodation can apply to be re-housed by the Housing Executive on the basis of homelessness. A range of permanent and temporary housing is available for this purpose in the private and social housing sector. A small amount of grant aid is available through the Housing Executive.
The Minister will be aware that some families in Coleraine have been the subject of a sectarian attack over the last few months. Will those families have their needs attended to without further delay?
I have two words: categorically, yes.
Mr S Wilson:
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is my understanding that, as Deputy Speaker, you should treat each Member equally. At the end of today's Question Time, a number of Members, who were perhaps unaware that we would progress as quickly as we did, were not in the Chamber. Why, at this stage, did you read out the names of those Unionist Members who were not here to ask questions, while omitting to read out the names of those in the SDLP who were absent? You simply glossed over the fact that they were not here.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You are correct in stating that I did not read out Mr McGrady's name.
Mr S Wilson:
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Excuse me, Mr Wilson. I am on my feet, and you should not be on yours. Remain quiet, please.
Even for someone like me, it is not always possible to see who is in the Chamber and who is not. On this occasion, it was not obvious to me that Mr McGrady was absent.
On a point of order, in relation to Standing Order 19(1)(a). Last week I submitted to the Business Office a question for oral answer on rural proofing. I wanted the question to be addressed to the Office of the First and the Deputy First Ministers, but it was ruled inadmissible by an official. Rural proofing is dealt with in section five of the Programme for Government, and the Office of the First and the Deputy First Ministers is listed as one of the main Departments responsible for it.
In the light of these facts, will you reconsider the admissibility of my question, and if it is considered admissible, will the Business Office reconsider the ballots of questions for oral answer next week?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I will arrange for the Speaker's Office to examine the issue, and it will get back to you.
Out of fairness to Mr McGrady and to the Unionist Members whom you named, it should be said that Mr Byrne was also absent from Chamber, and you did not call his name. I presume that you would be happy for this matter to be raised at the Business Committee, so that we can get a consistent line on which Members should be named and which Members should not. It is unfair for one side of the House to be treated differently from the other.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
It would, of course, be unfair if one side of the House were treated differently from the other. You may raise the matter with the Business Committee.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the announcement on 12 January 2001 by the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, that the organs of deceased children have been stored without parental consent during the past 50 years; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to outline the measures she will take to alleviate the distress caused to the families of the children concerned and to confirm that this practice was not carried out at other facilities in Northern Ireland.
I am glad to move this motion. The removal of children's organs has concerned many people in the Province and in my constituency, primarily because they had children who died at the Royal Victoria Hospital. The issue encompasses the interests of all political parties in the Chamber, and I hope that it will find support. Every one of us sees this issue very clearly.
(Mr Deputy Speaker[Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
First, I want to express my concern, anger and dismay that children's organs were in the possession of the Royal Victoria Hospital from 1944 to 1994, without the consent or the knowledge of the parents who had lost their children. It is disgraceful that the Royal Victoria Hospital should have had the organs stored - allegedly for training purposes - for so many years, oblivious to the feelings and knowledge of the parents.
We have reached the end of January, and we have witnessed another revelation, this time from Londonderry's Altnagelvin Hospital. A statement from the hospital said that the organs of 15 babies had been retained without the consent of the parents. Altnagelvin has told one lady whose son lived for two weeks that his brain and heart had been retained. This lady had only consented to a post-mortem examination of her son, and now she is facing the harrowing prospect of having to dig up her son's grave to place his organs with him. Where is the dignity in that?
The disclosure has caused great embarrassment to Altnagelvin Hospital, because, when the news of the scandal at the Royal Victoria Hospital broke, hospital officials in Londonderry replied to media enquiries on 12 January about its policy on the retention of organs following post-mortem examinations. They said that one brain and spinal cord had been retained for pathological examination and that this had been done with the parents' consent. The facts indicate clearly illustrate that that was not the case.
We cannot allow this situation to spiral out of control, leaving every parent who has ever lost a baby to wonder if that child's organs were removed and retained without his or her knowledge. This is why we need to know urgently whether this practice has been carried out at other hospitals across the Province.
After the Royal Victoria Hospital made the announcement a family came to me in my constituency office in Newtownards. They were distraught, annoyed and very upset. The family lost a baby some 19 years ago and, having come to terms with this and having had three other children, this announcement brought the pain of their loss right back. The family felt that pain as if the 19 years had never passed. The parents were confused and did not know how to go about finding out if their child's organs had been kept without their knowledge or consent. They have been placed in an extremely unfair situation, and many questions need to be answered.
I want to pay particular attention to the announcement made by the Royal Victoria Hospital, to its content, and to the timing of the statement. It was truly heartless to make the announcement on a Friday afternoon, when many people would not be able to contact the Department until Monday. In my opinion it was a calculated move by the hospital to allow time to research the issue more thoroughly.
That weekend, thousands of distressed parents throughout the Province sat at home in a state of mental torment, anxiously waiting to find out if their baby's organs had been removed. This, I believe, illustrates that the RVH has had little or no thought for the feelings of the families concerned. We must not forget that these families had to find out about the situation through the media. We cannot begin to imagine the pain of having to find out in such a public way.
This announcement will have brought back all the painful memories and emotions which the parents have already endured once before. Many now feel it afresh. The phrase "Time heals everything" can have been of no comfort to these families, as the years spent coming to terms with the death of their child were wasted by one abrupt and insensitive announcement. These parents have effectively been catapulted back to square one in the healing process. I am sure that the light at the end of the tunnel has been totally switched off for many of the families involved.
Unfortunately, to this day many families are still waiting to find out if their children's organs were involved. It is ridiculous to leave people waiting for an answer for this length of time, and it further exacerbates an already terrible situation.
I want to know why the Royal Victoria Hospital made a statement to the media without first contacting the parents involved to warn them that the story was about to become public knowledge and to explain the situation to them. Did the Royal Victoria Hospital make this statement because it was faced with the threat of the news breaking without the hospital's knowledge, which would have reflected badly on its reputation? Did someone who knew of the practice of retaining babies' organs at the Royal Victoria Hospital threaten to blow the whistle by going to the media? We need to know whether the hospital released the statement willingly or was forced into it.
And why did the Royal Victoria Hospital leave it up to the parents to contact the hospital to find out if their babies' organs were involved? Could the situation not have been made somewhat easier by contacting the families involved and clarifying the situation for them? These families should have been offered counselling and some form of emotional assistance; instead, every family who lost a baby while in the care of the Royal was left wondering if its baby was involved. The handling of the entire situation, from start to finish, has been deplorable.
It is quite inconceivable that the Royal should have made the decision to remove a baby's organs without the consent of the families involved and that it was oblivious to the trauma felt by the parents at the time of their loss. The death of a baby, at any stage in pregnancy or around the time of birth, is a sad and traumatic event. What must not be forgotten is that, even though a baby has died, a woman has carried that child for nine months and has become a mother, if only for a very short time. This can never be taken away from such a lady, but, unfortunately, the Royal Victoria Hospital, given its practices, has not taken this into consideration. It is as if there were never a life. The few minutes or hours that the parents had with their child must have been the most precious time ever.
We need to know under what criteria the children's organs, some 361 in total, were removed. In a statement issued by the Royal Victoria Hospital, it said that the organs were looked after sensitively and securely, but this is of no comfort whatsoever because the parents' permission had not once been asked for. They were never consulted; they were never told; and they were never asked.
In its statement the Royal also said that many parents had finished their grieving and moved on. Surely this new disclosure will have brought all those very raw emotions of grief to the surface again and wiped out the years that it took to overcome the loss of their babies.
If we sit down and think about this situation, we see a horrific picture. Some people were able to block the event from their minds, but there are many more out there, thousands indeed, who were unable to do so and became involved unwillingly in this situation. How will they get back to normal and carry on with their lives? A counselling service could now be offered to these people, a service that was not offered when they lost their children many years ago.
The Royal Victoria Hospital has not once issued an apology to the families concerned. Instead, in a statement released since this shocking practice was revealed, the Royal has backed up its actions by saying that consent to retain organs was not sought because it was felt that the suffering of families would only be increased by detailed discussion of the autopsy and that what it was doing was with the best of intentions and in keeping with best practice. Many people disagree with this, and I also think it is in dispute.
The Royal has stressed that the retained organs were not used for research purposes. This will have been of little or no comfort to the parents involved. At the end of 1999 the Royal Group of Hospitals introduced procedures that required parents' written permission for organ retention. At least this gives the parents a say now in what happens to their babies. Parents who have lost babies are also now given detailed information about the autopsy procedure so that they can fully understand why an autopsy has been requested and what it involves. This enables the parents, armed with knowledge that was never offered before, to make informed decisions.
Many parents caught up in this deplorable situation will feel that they have not laid their children to rest properly, as certain organs remain in a hospital laboratory. The discovery will be heartbreaking for them. How will parents of babies who died up to 25 years ago cope with the revelations after coming to terms with the death of those children? That announcement has opened old wounds, and brought back the heartache and pain as if the events happened only yesterday. All those parents who have lost babies deserve an explanation as well as an assurance that no organs are being stored unknown to them.
Hard on the heels of the scandal at the Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, the shocking announcement in Northern Ireland chills our blood. We tend to think that this happens elsewhere. However, the reality hits home when it happens on your own doorstep. In the news last night there was a reference to Alder Hey's being involved in the "systematic harvesting of children's organs". That puts the matter into perspective. Will any other hospitals in the Province be making announcements, as yet more parents try to come to terms with this unspeakable news? We need an assurance that other hospitals are not retaining children's organs.
The Royal Victoria Hospital and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety cannot wash their hands of the situation. Their handling of the matter has been both insensitive and heartless, and they must be prepared to answer the many unanswered questions. The scandal cannot be brushed under the carpet. It must be brought out into the open, with no stone left unturned, so that all parents can come to terms with their grief and try to get over it. What other hospitals have yet to make an announcement? We need to know the answer. Have they taken decisions to remove children's organs without consulting with parents and without their consent?
We need an assurance that this will not happen again. The announcement was made on a Friday, in the knowledge that it was the weekend and that parents would not be able to contact the Department until Monday. Indeed, some of those who did contact the Department are still waiting on an answer. For that entire weekend, people were living in torment.
We suggest that the parents affected should have been notified, but in this case they were not. Their viewpoint was not considered. Are the Minister and her Department aware of the hurt and emotional distress caused?
On the radio today we have been assured that new legislation will be introduced across the water to ensure that in the future the retention of children's organs will be with parental consent only. We want assurances that that legislation can be brought in here quickly and, in the short term, that the policy of the past is at an end. We also need an assurance that counselling will be provided for those who have undergone trauma and emotional upset. I urge Members to support the motion. It has been moved for the right reasons. Let us have the answers.
I support the motion. We are all aware of the widespread concern over this issue. Public concern was heightened last week following the announcement by Altnagelvin Hospital that it had stored the organs of both children and adults for some years. That has caused deep distress for the many families involved. The trauma affects the parents, but it also affects brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts and the family circle.
Last week in County Fermanagh - part of the constituency that I represent - two families were informed that Altnagelvin Hospital had retained the organs of their deceased children without their permission. Given the importance of adequate support services at a time when that sort of distressing news has to be broken to families, the arrangements made by the hospital for dealing with those families could have been much better. For example, the information leaflet provided to the families about counselling services carried a Derry telephone number. Some family members told me that they felt that the particular service on offer was very far removed from them. They felt isolated from it and therefore felt that it was of little value. In those circumstances, I appealed to the local hospital in Enniskillen, which is under a different trust -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am stopping the Member for a moment to get the view of the House. Two Members have mentioned hospitals other than the Royal Victoria Hospital. I am perfectly willing to accept, with the approval of the House, that we should not limit the debate to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Does everybody agree with that? If not, I will have to stop any Member who mentions another hospital.
Am I to understand that the proposition is that we expand the scope of the debate?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Yes; the motion simply refers to the Royal Victoria Hospital. I am prepared to extend matters, if Members so wish.
I have no objection to the issue. However, I would be wary that it might be used as a precedent in the future. That would make it a difficult proposition to support.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is my difficulty.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I feel that there is substantial latitude within the motion for those Members taking part. Some will concentrate specifically on their own constituencies, and the motion does say that the Assembly
"calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to outline the measures she will take to alleviate the distress caused to the families of the children concerned and to confirm that this practice was not carried out at other facilities in Northern Ireland."
The mention of "other facilities" provides the opportunity for discussion of all such facilities.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Does everybody accept that?
Members indicated assent.