Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 5 February 2001 (continued)
The Deputy First Minister:
There are two parts to the question. The first is what we can learn from the South African experience in terms of the publication by Dr Alex Boraine. It is too early to be definitive in relation to that, but most Members would agree that the opportunity is needed for the vast number of people who have suffered to be able to communicate that experience. That would be a first step.
Detailed proposals for expenditure are being finalised. It is important that the modest allocation of £320,000 - £200,000 from the October monitoring round and £120,000 from the December round - be used as efficiently and effectively as possible. Funding is most likely to be focused on project initiatives that can reach as many victims as possible. Potential areas include initiatives in the health field, capacity building, assisting the four trauma advisory panels, the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund and research on the needs of victims. Later this year, approximately £6·67 million will be available under a specific victims' measure in the European Peace II programme, and I trust that all groups will take the opportunity of trying to obtain funding from that source.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Does the Deputy First Minister believe that the programme to support genuine victims will be affected by the noises made by the First Minister when he seeks to inform his Colleagues that he may have to seek a fundamental review of the Assembly to a system in the Westminster election hopes?
The Deputy First Minister:
I think I thank the Member for that question. I am not sure of its import, but its general thrust, I think, was to make the First Minister appear as the victim while I am answering questions about victims. The issue of victims affects the entire community.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Would the support be affected?
The Deputy First Minister:
It is a very important issue. I have explained the thinking behind the reaction to the experience in South Africa and the funding arrangements. It is not an issue that should be used as a stick with which to beat anybody.
The time for questions to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is up.
The Deputy First Minister:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I wish, on behalf of the First Minister and myself, to refer to the debate on a children's commissioner for Northern Ireland, which took place last Tuesday. As Members will be aware, the First Minister and I were in Paris last Tuesday on official business. Owing to a breakdown in communications at official level in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, junior Ministers were not present to respond to Members at the conclusion of the debate.
We understand the concern expressed by a number of the Members who took part in that debate that Ministers from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were not available to respond to the informed and useful contributions. We apologise for that. The First Minister and I assure the House that steps have been taken to ensure that such a situation will not recur.
On behalf of the House, I acknowledge the initiative of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in declaring that this will not happen again.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am concerned that the Deputy First Minister can make a ministerial statement at Question Time. As it was a ministerial statement, notice should have been given. I do not accept that the Department, with its overloaded personnel, could not have been represented in the House to address an important matter about the children of Northern Ireland, and I do not think that you should be congratulating the Deputy First Minister and thanking him for doing something that should never have been necessary.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that I raised that issue during the debate on the children's commissioner. The Deputy First Minister has not explained why no junior Minister saw fit to come to the Chamber and at least listen to the comments of the Members, even though there were two within the precincts of the House. Mr Haughey came to the Assembly, and spoke for about a minute, excused himself and then left. He did not remain and listen to Members' comments on this vital issue.
Order. Would that everything could run smoothly, properly and in a seemly way. On this occasion, it is clear that something inappropriate happened. The Deputy First Minister, on behalf of himself, the First Minister and the junior Ministers, tendered an apology to the House and said that procedures would be put into place to ensure that it would not happen again. It is much better that that should have happened than not.
We now find ourselves substantially late for the next round of questions that Members have taken the trouble to put down, and therefore we should move on. The Minister has made an apology, and it would be churlish to refuse it. The Minister is aware of the feeling of the House, and if he wishes to make a further statement he will take the necessary action. We are now some 10 minutes late. I fully accept that that is not the fault of the House, but we should move on.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As the individual who raised this matter, I should point out that I asked the Business Committee to look at the situation where Executive Ministers had difficulty attending sittings of the Assembly at any time.
Order. What the Member wishes the Business Committee to look at is a matter for the Business Committee, not for the Floor of the House, and a matter for him to commune with his Whips about. However, if he speaks with them he is likely to find that they do raise these matters with their Colleagues on the Business Committee. It is not appropriate for us to continue on this matter. It has been raised, it is being dealt with, and we must now proceed.
Mrs E Bell:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Is it a point of order or merely a continuation of the discussion that is beginning to develop?
Mrs E Bell:
It is a point of order. As the proposer of the motion last week, I accept the apology and hope that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will read Hansard and take on board the comments reported therein.
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the start date for the final stage of the Omagh throughpass.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
Following the publication of the notice of intention to make a direction order and the environmental statement for the proposed Omagh throughpass scheme in June 2000, the Roads Service has received a number of objections to and comments on these statutory processes. It will therefore be necessary to hold public inquiries to address the issues that have been raised. If there had been no objections and no need for a public inquiry the scheme could have commenced in 2001. The start date will now be dependent on the progression of the statutory processes and, as in all cases, funding.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
I must express my disappointment, and the disappointment of many in the Omagh area, at the delay, particularly given the importance of this ingredient of the overall A5 provision. Can the Minister assure me that when the objections have been dealt with, funding will still be in place to complete the Omagh throughpass? What other schemes currently in the major works preparation pool may not proceed?
I appreciate Mr Hussey's concerns about road schemes in his constituency of West Tyrone and in the west of the Province as a whole. The House will be aware that I am continuing to press for additional funds so that each of the schemes in the major works preparation pool can be started, or will be constructed, in the next five years or thereabouts.
At this stage I cannot give a guarantee on the availability of funds. It was for precisely that reason that I raised the issue in Omagh - when I think that the hon Member was present - at a meeting of the Regional Development Committee. That was the first time I was informed about the possibility of a shortfall for major works preparation schemes in years two and three. I am continuing to press for funding so that the Omagh throughpass and the other schemes in the pool can be progressed as quickly as possible.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
I understand the disappointment of the Omagh people, and of the elected representatives for the Omagh area, concerning the Omagh throughpass. Can the Minister tell us when work on the Toome bypass will commence?
I congratulate the Member on raising the issue yet again - he has done it on innumerable occasions in the past few weeks, both privately and publicly. I am committed to maintaining sufficient pressure to try to ensure that sufficient funds will be available to progress all the schemes, including the Toome bypass. The hon Member, and the House, will be aware that over the past few weeks we have made further progress in the statutory processes in relation to the Toome bypass. We will make further steady progress along the line, but at the end of the day sufficient funding is required to provide the Toome bypass, the Omagh throughpass and all the other schemes. Without funding we cannot build roads.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Given the fact that phase three of the Omagh throughpass is one of the four schemes that were put in jeopardy some months ago, can he enlighten the House about how discussions are progressing in trying to get some of the Executive programme funds for these schemes? Can he inform the House when the second phase of the Strabane bypass will start and when the Newtownstewart bypass will start? Are the design teams in the Department fully up to speed with these schemes?
I congratulate the Member on his inventiveness, as I do each of the other Members in campaigning for roads in their constituencies. I think that the hon Member will be aware that a number of the schemes he mentioned are being considered at the moment. In the fullness of time, I will make an application for Executive programme funding to try to progress some of the schemes. In relation to the individual schemes that the Member mentioned, I will be investigating the possibilities of their start dates. I hope that he will accept that - for the same reasons as apply to the Toome bypass and the Omagh throughpass - I cannot today give a definitive start date for either the Leckpatrick or Newtownstewart schemes. I will write to the Member when I get a date, and I will update him on the progress being made on both schemes.
Port of Belfast
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail when he expects to announce a decision on the future of the port of Belfast.
I am currently consulting the Regional Development Committee on the findings of an economic appraisal of the various options for the future of the port of Belfast. Once I have the Committee's views and have had the opportunity to consider these and to consult, as necessary, with other interested parties, I should be in a better position to indicate when the announcement is likely to be made. I remain keen that this should happen as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept that these substantial delays in reaching a decision on the future of the port of Belfast are creating a great deal of uncertainty about investment in that area? Does he also accept that these delays are in danger of bringing this institution and his Department into disrepute among certain sections of Northern Ireland business?
I refute any allegations that the Department has been brought into disrepute although I fully accept the frustration that exists not only in businesses but also among other port users. This is because we have been unable to draw all the strands together to make a definitive statement on the future of the Port of Belfast.
I remain committed to ending that uncertainty. The Department is closer now to that goal than when I responded to the Member on the same issue in the autumn, and I hope to take account of his views, as well as those that other port users have expressed to me. It is paramount that we settle the future of the port of Belfast, and I am committed to doing that as soon as possible.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister agree that during this period of uncertainty, many port assets, especially the land at Harland & Wolff, are not being used to the advantage of the people of Belfast? More and more of this land is being released from shipbuilding without any systematic plan for the area. Can he assure the House that, whatever decision is made, lands at Belfast harbour will be put under the control of a more publicly accountable body than that which is responsible at present?
Some of the issues that the hon Member has raised are central to the future of the port of Belfast. The Regional Development Committee and I are determined to protect the assets and land of the port insofar as it is possible and practical. This will be done in a way that is fair and equitable and delivers a positive future for all the people of Northern Ireland. These are some of the reasons for its having taken longer than we originally envisaged. But the Department is determined to protect the land and assets in line with previous commitments made in the Chamber.
asked the Minister for Regional Development to undertake improvements to footpaths beside roads where there has been a significant build-up in traffic in recent years.
Schemes to provide new and improved footways are considered by my Department's Road Service for inclusion in minor road works programmes. Footways and other minor works proposals have to compete for the limited funding available. In assessing the priority of footway schemes, consideration is given to a number of factors. These include pedestrian counts; traffic volume; the potential for pedestrian and traffic growth; accident histories; environmental factors such as the presence of schools or churches; the practicality of constructing the schemes; and the cost of schemes and the availablity of funds.
Can the Minister confirm that his Department already possesses the relevant information or has available to him the necessary resources to enable him to make use of pathways that have not been used to their full potential for a long time?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not clear which footways the hon Member is referring to. He seems to be talking rather generally.
Minister, I am speaking of the footpath - [Interruption]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
We cannot have this sort of tennis match going on. If the Member writes to the Minister, he may be able to clarify things.
On the issue of providing footways, will the Minister also consider the possibility of street lighting in areas where there have been accidents? Between Islandmagee and Whitehead, in my constituency, there has been a significant build-up of traffic and, indeed, fatalities. Sometimes footways themselves are not the answer. Street lighting is needed as well as or, in some cases, instead of footways.
I appreciate the Member's concern. This matter has previously been raised with me in correspondence and in the House. The Department is reviewing the provision of street lighting in rural areas. The issues raised by the Member will be looked at in considering areas - particularly rural areas - for street lighting. I will ensure that his comments are passed on.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Will the Minister consider assessing the stretch of footpath between Ballymena and the village of Cullybackey against the criteria that he outlined during the course of his first answer? Furthermore, will he undertake to compare that footway with the standards that he has outlined and inform me as to whether it meets those criteria and whether or not that substandard footpath can be upgraded so that pedestrians can be protected in that rural area?
I thank the Member for his repeated representations in respect of this footpath. I will write to him outlining how that footpath stacks up in relation to those criteria.
Senior Citizens: Free Travel
asked the Minister for Regional Development to include a companion free travel pass facility in his pending free travel for senior citizens scheme, for the benefit of senior citizens who, for confirmed health reasons, require the assistance of another person when travelling.
I am sympathetic to the needs of people with impaired mobilty, but the resources made available in the Budget do not permit an extension of the concessionary fares scheme beyond the current proposals, which are to introduce free travel for older people, with part funding by district councils. "Companion pass" arrangements similar to those being proposed currently operate in the Republic of Ireland, although the package of benefits for carers in the Republic is different from that available in the United Kingdom. However, in both jurisdictions the benefits are available under social security arrangements and not from Departments responsible for public transport.
I am disappointed, but it is early days for this aspect of the scheme. The Minister referred to other Departments. I have already written to them, asking them to come on board with the scheme, but they absolutely refused. Can the Minister advise of any alternative plans that he has in place to assure our senior citizens that they will get a free travel service if the required 25% input is not forthcoming from district councils?
That question has exercised both myself and my predecessor. We are determined and committed to proceed with the free travel scheme. I have written to councils to establish whether or not they are prepared to involve themselves in this scheme. I hope that there will not be a negative response, given the number of councils that responded positively to the initial consultation. Eleven district councils expressed interest in the scheme, which, at that stage, involved 50% of the funding. Now that that has been reduced to 25%, I hope that a number of councils will respond positively and that we will be able to implement the scheme as quickly as possible.
If they respond negatively we will have to look again at the scheme. I am absolutely committed to having a free travel scheme on public transport for elderly people in Northern Ireland.
I think the Minister said that 11 councils responded. Can he confirm that number? Will he go ahead with the scheme if only a certain number of councils indicate a wish to proceed? If so, can he give us a timescale for implementation of the scheme?
As a result of the approaches and the publicity surrounding this scheme, some district councils have informed me that they are anxious not only to have the scheme but also to bring forward the date on which it will come into operation. I am in consultation with the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister of the Environment about interim arrangements involving part funding by district councils from April 2001, which is only two months away. I will write to councils giving details of that scheme.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On the question of someone accompanying a person who is unwell and perhaps not fit to travel too far without company, will the Minister take up the plan that has recently had great success, when a direct negotiation was made between Air France and the people concerned? In such a case Air France would give the ticket at half price to the person - taking the matter out of government but giving a good concession of 50%. Could the Minister not develop that a little when he considers free transport?
I thank the Member for the information in relation to Air France. I have instructed my officials to try to establish other free and concessionary travel arrangements throughout Europe, including the one with Air France. We are currently accumulating a significant amount of information on the schemes available. All the information will help us to develop a better understanding and, we hope, to arrive at a free travel scheme that is not only a good scheme in Northern Ireland but is among the best in Europe.
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the steps he is taking to address the underfunding of the road infrastructure and increase standards to an acceptable level.
I am very conscious that I have inherited a significant road maintenance backlog and that existing levels of funding to maintain and improve the road network fall short of what is required. Substantial bids for the roads infrastructure were made last year in the 2000 spending review. While some additional funds were confirmed as a result of that review, the indicative funding baselines for 2002-03 and 2003-04 continue to be significantly under-provided. In this context, therefore, I will shortly submit a bid for additional funding from the Executive programme funds and will continue to bid for the very necessary additional resources in subsequent spending reviews and at every other opportunity. In the meantime I assure the Member that my Department will continue to seek to make the best use of the resources currently available to develop and maintain the roads infrastructure.
I congratulate the Minister on his knowledge of the geography of West Tyrone. It is one thing to mention the Leckpatrick scheme, the Newtownstewart bypass, the Omagh throughpass, the Strabane bypass, the Ballygawley -
If the funding is not forthcoming, is that an indication that the Executive have a policy of helping the rural community's rurality, of removing remoteness, of removing peripherality, or of denying the cohesion funds of the Peace II programme? If the funding is not forthcoming, then the Executive will truly have let the Minister down.
I thank the Member for his comments. Obviously, West Tyrone will be mentioned in this context, and there will be campaigns for road schemes right across the constituency. I assure the Member that those road schemes, in common with schemes in other areas, will be progressed by my Department as quickly as possible. We will be applying pressure to ensure that we have sufficient funding to allow each scheme in the major works preparation pool to be advanced as quickly as possible and to allow people across Northern Ireland to benefit from the work carried out.
Will the Minister undertake to provide more resources to Roads Service engineers in Newry and Armagh to address the unacceptable condition of roads, especially minor roads, in my constituency?
The issue of rural roads is one that exercises both me and my Department because of the underfunding that has been prevalent for almost 30 years. Even though the Member asks me to single out Newry and Armagh, I do not think that he would expect me to apply a separate set of criteria to any one constituency, no matter how deserving he argues it is. I will, however, undertake to consider the matter of rural roads, and, obviously, I am going to press for additional funding. I will also explore, within the budget, measures that it may be possible to take to alleviate problems on rural roads.
I welcome the Minister's reply. The Minister knows that the majority of road users, who pay road tax, expect a half-decent roads network on which to travel. Strangford constituents and Ards Borough Council residents rightly complain that they continue to be neglected. In view of the thousands - [Interruption]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr McCarthy, please sit down. When discussing issues such as roads provision, Members should not take the opportunity to highlight specific cases in their constituencies. If they do, we will not be able to get through all the questions. It is an abuse of Question Time to focus on one's constituency.
Traffic Congestion (Downpatrick)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his plans to alleviate traffic congestion in Downpatrick.
The Roads Service is working with local people, through the Downpatrick Transport Forum, to address traffic congestion and other issues in the town. Particular consideration is being given to a one-way gyratory system, which is being assessed using a computer-based traffic model. It is envisaged that the Roads Service will be in a position to commence a wider public consultation exercise on this proposal in the autumn of this year.
Downpatrick people welcome the fact that the matter is being considered and that the Minister is to visit Downpatrick and Ballynahinch within the next few weeks to look at the problem. Will the Minister accept the urgency of the situation, which is strangling the economic life of Downpatrick and its hinterland?
I can confirm that I hope to be visiting the Downpatrick area within the next few weeks. In relation to the bypass for Downpatrick, referred to by the Member, the Roads Service is currently reassessing all potential major work schemes. This is being carried out with a view to compiling a schedule of schemes that could realistically be started in the next 10 years, taking account of the resources likely to be available. I hope to be able to publish the schedule later this year, and a bypass for Downpatrick will be considered for inclusion in that. However, as all Members will appreciate, the number of places in the schedule is limited, so there will be stiff competition among the many possible worthwhile schemes throughout Northern Ireland.
Traffic Signs: Irish Language
Mr C Murphy
asked the Minister for Regional Development to give his assessment of the use of Irish on traffic signs.
The use of Irish on traffic signs in Northern Ireland applies to a small number of tourism signs for attractions that are known and promoted solely by their Irish names.
Mr C Murphy:
The Minister may be aware of the issue that prompts the question, namely the case where funding should have been provided to erect bilingual signs in the Ring of Gullion - clearly an area where there is appropriate demand. That was scuppered by Roads Service's refusal to allow Irish on the road signs. Can the Minister inform us, in line with his Pledge of Office - particularly section (c) - what steps he has taken, or plans to take, to promote the use of the Irish language or to seek to remove, where possible, any restrictions that discourage the development of the Irish language?
I have consulted my Department in relation to multilingual signage and asked for some information on the likely cost of changing existing signs. I am informed that the cost of changing signs throughout Northern Ireland would be several million pounds. Because of that, I have no intention at present of proceeding along that route.
Will the Minister consider introducing road signs similar to those in the Republic of Ireland? These incorporate Irish and English and show the distance in kilometres, in line with European legislation.
As I said, I have asked officials in my Department to consider the possibility of multilingual signage. I have already set out the indications that I am getting. Given the finite nature of resources, of which the hon Member and every other hon Member in this House must be only too well aware, I have no intention, at this stage, of spending very scarce resources on multilingual signage. That money could be much better used in improving the roads infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister agree that it is a greater priority to refurbish existing road signs throughout the Province that have been damaged by the Department of the Environment's grass-cutting activities, particularly those that have become part of the hedgerows? Can he assure me that, in light of the terrible casualty figures for 2000, maximum effort is being put into the erection of sufficient signage and identification of accident black spots throughout the Province?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am not sure that that is relevant to the question.
Mr Armstrong was allowed two supplementary questions, yet Michelle Gildernew was denied even one supplementary to the question put by Conor Murphy.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
As you know, Mr Maskey, it is not normal to take supplementary questions from Members of the same party.
I draw your attention to the fact that Mr Billy Armstrong asked a supplementary a moment ago even though he had asked a question previously. I think that you should be checking all the conventions.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
We are coming very close to the end of the time available, and there are several people who wish to put questions to the Minister.
Road Safety (West Belfast Schools)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail any plans to survey schools in the West Belfast constituency in relation to road safety in the vicinity of the schools.
My Department's Roads Service surveys traffic conditions at schools as and when necessary. Where appropriate, it arranges for suitable measures to be put in place to improve road safety. As part of this ongoing work, and in response to representations received about road safety issues, officials carry out regular site visits and arrange meetings with schools, local elected representatives and members of the public to discuss problems and liaise on possible solutions.
I acknowledge that officials from the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development have been involved in a series of meetings in West Belfast. These officials have said that they would like to follow through the school-by-school survey in which they have been involved. Can the Minister confirm that his Department will continue to carry out this survey and assess the other schools in West Belfast which have not yet been covered?
I am aware of a recent meeting in the West Belfast area where the issue highlighted in the question was discussed. Roads Service officials who were at the meeting pointed out that a multi-agency approach is often needed when considering road safety matters. This is illustrated by "the three Es" - education, which is given by road safety education officers of the Department of the Environment; enforcement, which is the responsibility of the RUC; and engineering, which is the responsibility of the Roads Service. Of course, my Department remains keen to investigate promptly any specific problems or issues which may be raised with it by assessing what contributions safety engineering might make. This approach is exemplified by the forthcoming meeting between Roads Service officials and the principal of the Holy Child Primary School in West Belfast to discuss traffic management and road safety engineering issues.