Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 12 February 2001 (continued)

11.15 am

With regard to the 30-month rule, the Food Standards Agency advises that it should stay. Therefore that will guide us. The priority is to ensure that we can stand over the safety of our beef. If the Food Standards Agency's view is that beef under 30 months is the standard for safety, we will continue with that policy; it is what Europe requires.

If there was another question I will reply to it in writing.

Mr Armstrong:

Does the Minister agree that this is another example of Northern Ireland leading in health and safety and doing everything in its power to achieve that, as shown by the vision group's findings with regard to England which came out at the end of last year?

Does the Minister also agree that the information we have on dead animals is not recorded by any other state? Northern Ireland is leading the way again. There are no figures for comparison with other countries. Therefore will the Minister agree that we need to examine the export of animals from other states which do not meet the same standards? Indeed, some states are not even thinking about the same criteria that we have introduced. Everybody appears to be trailing behind Northern Ireland. The same thing happened with pigs on the matter of stalls and tethers, when we took action before anyone else. Our farmers paid the price -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Again, Mr Armstrong, I think that there is a question in there.

Ms Rodgers:

At the risk of repeating myself, our controls are, and have been, the strictest in Europe since 1996. I think that the question was about animals and meat coming here from other European countries. We must follow European rules. I repeat that it is illegal for meat from animals over two and a half years of age to be sold anywhere in Northern Ireland. Our controls are very strict in that regard. The inspection of, and controls on, meat going to slaughter in Northern Ireland are strict. Indeed, the strictness of those controls has been demonstrated recently by the effectiveness of our inspections.

It is difficult for me to know what the questions were. However, I believe that most of them have already been dealt with. The rest of Europe now has to abide by the same strict controls that we have had since 1996. From now on, the other European states will have to apply the controls that we have on meat and bonemeal and all of those things in animals under 30 months. However, the Member is right to say that we were ahead of the posse.

Mr McMenamin:

The Minister said that this is not the end of her campaign to achieve low incidence. How does she propose to proceed?

Ms Rodgers:

First, I will wait until the full picture emerges in the rest of Europe. In the meantime, I will continue the dialogue with the Commission, Nick Brown and other EU Agriculture Ministers. I will also continue to improve the quality of beef in Northern Ireland through the beef quality initiative. Indeed, I will continue to take decisions on the same basis as I did with the beef national envelope funds, which will provide as much assistance as possible to the farming community, particularly targeting those most in need.

Mr Gibson:

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the agriculture industry demands confidence, and that that is demanded equally by consumers. What programmes has the Minister considered to ensure that there is mass screening of all our livestock, or is she confident that BSE cannot be transferred at the incubation stage in animals under 30 months?

Is there scientific evidence to support the belief that incubation of BSE pre-30 months cannot be transferred into the human chain? If not, there will be doubts in the mind of every consumer.

Ms Rodgers:

I have already answered the question in relation to the programmes with which we will be proceeding. I refer the Member to my previous answer about the tests that will be carried out during the rest of the year on fallen and casualty animals and, particularly, on over-30-months animals born between 1 August 1996 and 1 August 1997.

With regard to the incubation of BSE or the threat to public health of animals in the under-30-months scheme, I understand that the reason for the Member's question is to reassure people who may have doubts in their minds. I want to make it very clear that all the independent scientific advice available to me from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which is an independent scientific committee, the Food Standards Agency and the Commission indicates that animals under 30 months old with specified risk material, such as the brain and dorsal material, removed do not constitute a threat to public health. That has been reviewed and confirmed recently. I will continue to be guided by the scientists.

Maternal transmission is one way of transmitting disease, but that is covered by the offspring cull. However, I repeat that even in the case of maternal transmission, the fact remains that animals under 30 months old are considered by the independent scientific advisers not to be a threat to human health.

Mrs I Robinson:

Does the Minister agree that the last thing that our hard-pressed farmers need is a lack of confidence in beef by the consumer, and will she indicate what action she will take to ensure that consumer confidence remains?

Ms Rodgers:

Everything that I have done in the last week and, indeed, since the beginning of the year in relation to the tests that have been carried out should be a reassurance to the consumer that in Northern Ireland we are being open and transparent. We are taking all possible measures to eradicate the disease, and we are being guided strictly by our first priority - the protection of the public health. I will continue to be guided by the scientific advice and ensure that the strict controls that have always been present in Northern Ireland will continue to be in place. The first priority of my Department - and of the industry itself - is the protection of public health.

Mr Shannon:

Why has the Minister's Department carried out the tests 10 months ahead of the rest of Europe? Does she agree that the announcement should have been made in tandem with the other European member states?

Secondly, can she give us a timescale as to when the statistics for the rest of Europe will be published? We want to see those. Thirdly, in the light of the announcement, will the Minister confirm what action her Department will take to be more proactive in promoting Northern Ireland beef as a top quality product that meets exceptional standards and is above that of all our competitors in the rest of Europe?

Ms Rodgers:

I think that Mr Shannon is under a misapprehension; I have already explained that we are not 10 months ahead of the rest of Europe. I have explained why we went ahead, and I do not want to reiterate that. We started these tests a few weeks ago, and Great Britain has to start them on 1 April - which is not very far away. The rest of Europe has to start them on 1 July. Therefore we are not 10 months ahead.

Mr Shannon:

Ten months will have lapsed when the results are announced.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

This is not an opportunity to cross-examine the Minister.

Ms Rodgers:

I am responding to the suggestion that we started 10 months ahead of the rest of Europe. We did not. The rest of Europe will start testing on 1 July. We started testing on 1 January and announced the results on 9 February. The results from the rest of Europe will emerge shortly after they begin testing.

I cannot speak for the rest of Europe; I can only speak for my Department, and I have already outlined the action that I will be taking. I am looking forward to the report of the vision group, which should be hoped, will be available in early March. I expect it will contain advice about proactive marketing and various initiatives that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development needs to take. The Department is already taking some of those initiatives with regard to beef quality to ensure that we are in a position to exploit the quality of our beef.

Mr Maskey:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am a wee bit reluctant to raise this matter, but I will do so, considering the issues I had to raise last week. I am concerned that the Deputy Speaker was unable to follow Gerry McHugh's contribution and had to ask if it contained a question. The Minister knew immediately that there were at least two questions. I am concerned that the Deputy Speaker was unable to follow the conduct of business.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. I noted earlier that there was some difficulty in recognising questions. I said that Members should not make statements, which lead on to questions, when the Minister is making her statement. I have to listen very closely to what Members are saying to ensure that a question is being asked. There were two occasions from each side of the House when it was difficult to discern if there was a question. I hope that that resolves the problem.


Public Expenditure: December Monitoring


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I will confirm some further decisions by the Executive as a result of the December public expenditure monitoring round for the financial year 2000-01. I have emphasised in previous statements on the monitoring of public expenditure that its primary purpose is to address emerging issues as a result of improved information on the estimates of requirements for expenditure and receipts by Departments.

The Executive are determined to look carefully at such issues and adjust bands where necessary. We need to look at what is in the public interest and how we can best pursue the priorities set out in the Programme for Government in what is usually a context of limited options in each monitoring exercise.

It is important that the points I will announce be set in a routine context, because the Executive want to deal with, and agree, those issues as a matter of routine procedure. That the Executive can deal in that way with important economic and social issues is as clear a statement as we could make of the significance of having these institutions and of the fact that we have an Executive that take account of evolving local issues and the concerns and aspirations expressed in the Chamber and in the wider community.

When I announced the outcome of the December monitoring round on 22 January, I explained that the Executive were giving further consideration to the deficits that have emerged in the Health Service trusts. Although I must ensure that procedures for financial control are being observed, it is also important to recognise that the problem of deficits in the Health Service is a symptom of much deeper problems in relation to funding, which we need to address.

11.30 am

The Executive will wish to examine issues in the resourcing of the Health Service to ensure that money is being used as effectively as possible. We need to examine our priorities in the light of the Programme for Government. We also want to carefully examine the relative levels of provision for health funding and other key services between here and England, Scotland and Wales, as we increasingly feel that the Barnett formula has worked against the interests of health and other programmes here.

With the agreement of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Economic Policy Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I am today confirming that we are launching a joint review of the causes and consequences of the Health Service trust deficits. This will not be a punitive or hostile study. The Executive are determined to work constructively with Health Service management in the interests of all those in need of care and the wider community. We want to find ways to ensure that the financial management arrangements and the roles and responsibilities help everyone in this purpose and give them the kind of management information that will be of real help in this vital service.

We need to ensure that the problem of trust deficits does not recur. We need to match funding to need as far as we possibly can, but we also have to match spending to funding in order to respect the authority of the funder, which is now the Assembly. The steps that we are taking aim to fulfil both these objectives. Under the resource budgeting arrangements, which are due to take effect from 1 April, trust deficits will no longer be at one remove from the Department's financial control totals as set by the Executive and the Assembly in the annual Budget exercises. The principle must remain that spending proposals are brought together by the Executive and presented to the Assembly but then reflected in Assembly votes of approval. This is a fundamental part of the democratic process, and we need to reinforce the arrangements in the Health Service in that important context.

The Executive have decided to inject £18 million of additional spending into the Health Service to address these deficits. At one stage the estimated requirement to address the deficits was £38 million. Since then the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have analysed the technical issues in more detail and reassessed the implications of aspects of the funding arrangements. Taking account of this work and the allocations agreed in the December monitoring round, it has been confirmed that the amount needed is now £18 million. By the nature of the issue this does not mean any new activity in that it is paying bills for activities and services that have already been carried out. However, it is important to avoid the constraints on services that would be necessary next year if the trusts had to deal with the deficits in the allocations provided in the Budget. We want the improvements planned in the Programme for Government to proceed, and this requires a resolution of the deficits.

However, the Executive are concerned to ensure that this injection of funding is distributed fairly and does not lead to any distortion in the distribution of resources or the way resources are planned and managed in the future. We welcome the full co-operation of the Health Service management in the forthcoming consultancy study. The results of the study and the action that we will take on foot of it will affect the view we take on future allocations to the Health Service as 2001-02 progresses and for the longer term.

The approach that we are taking represents a responsible and considered response to a difficult issue, but it is fundamentally one which will be of significant benefit, both in the short term and the long term, to the Health Service and hence to our people. In any society appropriate spending on health has to be a considerable priority. These allocations demonstrate clearly the Executive's commitment in this context. The study that we are introducing will help management in the Health Service as well as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to work together to ensure that whatever future levels of funding are available are used to best effect to promote the best interests of the health of the region.

Allocating £18 million that remained unallocated in the December monitoring round still leaves a further balance of £10 million. The Executive have carefully considered how best to use the remaining resources, which allow us to address three important issues. It was not possible to come to these before now, given the considerable uncertainty over the Health Service deficit figure, which has only now been resolved through the analytical work that I mentioned earlier.

In the draft Programme for Government the Executive committed themselves to bringing forward proposals to introduce free travel on public transport for older people. In December I said that the indicative allocations for 2002-03 included substantial funding towards the cost of introducing a free travel scheme for older people from April 2002. We estimate that the total cost of the scheme will be about £10 million a year.

The plans announced in December included £4 million in 2001-02 and £8 million in each of the following two years. Since then, there have been helpful discussions in a working group of officials, which has been exploring options and considering the best way forward. I am pleased to be able to confirm today, on behalf of the Executive, that it has been decided that an additional £3 million will be allocated to this in 2001-02 by carrying forward part of our room-to-manoeuvre funds. An additional £2 million a year will be provided in the following years. That will allow full funding of a scheme for free travel for older people, taking effect from 1 October 2001.

There is no requirement for funding or assistance from district councils. That fulfils an important pledge in the Programme for Government and shows that the Executive can work together to find resources to implement key policy initiatives. That marks a distinct difference from the approach taken under direct rule. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be discussing the details of the scheme with Department for Regional Development officials as soon as possible to take that forward.

The question of the gap between the old and new rounds of EU structural funds has caused considerable concern to many people in the community. It has been put strongly to us that the uncertainty over the timing of the new round of funding is leading to job losses and a break in the progress of the Peace programme that could have been avoided. As some resources remained unallocated, I put proposals to the Executive to address this issue. Those have been agreed. So far in this financial year, the Executive have provided £9 million of additional spending for gap funding, including £4·5 million for projects which were part of the Peace I programme. Those amounts have gone some way to dealing with the problem in the financial year ending on 31 March. However, we have recognised the problems that remain, given that it will be some time into 2001-02 before the allocations from Peace II and other programmes become fully available. Further action is needed.

At its meeting on 8 February, the Executive agreed a new approach to this that should allow for both continuity and change. It is important to recognise that the new round of funding includes some material differences from the first round. It would not be appropriate to simply roll forward every group and project that received assistance under the old round into the new round.

The Executive have agreed that Departments should be authorised to make advance payments to projects where they judge that there is a strong likelihood that the project will be eligible for funding and successful in an application under the new round. That would be subject to the procedures of the monitoring committees and funding mechanisms, when they are in place. It is important that this anticipated drawing down of the new round of funding is managed carefully. However, it should provide the continuity and certainty that everyone needs.

Much work has gone into developing clear criteria for the Peace programme, including detailed discussion with the European Commission. The criteria must be applied carefully. They are available to all Departments and can be used to help to secure the best use of available funding.

We also need to bear in mind that existing projects should not be funded without regard to the need to hold resources for new projects, which will meet the Peace II criteria. We need continuity and change as we adapt to the new programme.

This approach involves Departments making considered judgements about what applications will, and will not, succeed in the new round of funding. The criteria will help in this regard. Additionally, some new money is being set aside to insure, by providing a safety net, against the risk that a Department may assist a project, which may not, in the end, prove eligible for funding under the new peace programme. We propose to allocate £2 million of the room-to-manoeuvre fund - which is available now - and carry that into 2001-02 within the Executive's programme fund for social inclusion and community regeneration. The first call on this £2 million should happen when Departments make gap funding available in good faith, and on criteria which are as close as possible to those adopted in the new programmes, and where, ultimately, the project aided does not succeed under the new Peace programme.

There remain substantial resources to be drawn under the Peace I programme. My Department will be actively working with relevant Departments and the Special EU Programmes Body to ensure the best use of these resources and to help with the problems of continuity from Peace I to the new programme. Meetings have been arranged with the main Departments concerned to reinforce the importance of this task and to help to take it forward. We need to maximise the benefit of Peace I money and ensure that it fulfils the key objectives set for the programme in order to pave the way for Peace II as well as possible.

This approach should serve to resolve the problem of gap funding, which has been a difficult issue for the voluntary and community sectors over the past months, and it should leave no remaining cause for uncertainty. The Departments concerned will be able to fund projects that are likely to succeed under Peace II. The Executive are also setting aside £2 million to provide a safety net so that if Departments need additional spending power, for the purposes of the new programmes, it will be available. This will be carried forward from 2000-01 to 2001-02 in the Executive's social inclusion fund.

In some cases, it will be necessary to adopt an exit strategy for funding because some projects are not likely to come forward under the Peace II programme. This is an important aspect of the shift of emphasis which the Executive have agreed with the European Commission and the two Governments in relation to the Peace II programme, and it is part of adopting what is a different context from that of the original Peace programme.

During questions on the draft Budget statement in October 2000 I made it clear that we would continue to keep the forecast level of rate revenue under review. As was the case for the current year, I undertook that I would make use of any emerging additional revenue to help to keep down the increases in the rate requirements as far as possible. I am pleased to announce that because of the strong continued growth in valuations of domestic property there is some scope to adjust the domestic regional rate increase. The latest revenue forecast is £2 million higher than we assumed in December. The Executive have, therefore, decided to accept my proposal to reduce the increase from 8% to 7%. Because of the growth in the revenue base it does not mean foregoing revenue, but it will be of some benefit to the ratepayers.

The Executive's approach to the domestic rate continues to take account of the realities that we have to face, namely that the levels of local revenue per household raised here are markedly below those raised in England, Scotland and Wales. Foregoing revenue would risk foregoing some of our key arguments in the case that we must put to the Treasury on the Barnett formula.

11.45 am

Turning to the non-domestic regional rate, the position is somewhat different. Given the effects of the proposed uplift of 6·6% in the non-domestic regional rate for 2001-02, I asked for more detailed work to be done on comparisons with England on the non-domestic rate. This has confirmed that the non-domestic regional rate here is not out of line with that in England. This strongly suggests that if we had a lower uplift in the non-domestic regional rate than was planned in December, this would not undermine the case that we need to put to the Treasury regarding the Barnett issue.

Now that the figures for the Health Service have been confirmed, we have some additional spending power in 2000-01 which could be carried forward into 2001-02 to replace an element of regional rate revenue. This would make it possible to reduce the uplift in the non-domestic regional rate from 6·6% to 3·3%.

On the evidence available, it seems fair that for 2001-02, the non-domestic sector should face a rates uplift that is broadly in line with the rate of inflation, especially now that we have found a way to do this without detriment to our overall spending levels, which would have been the case had we rushed into this issue in either December or January. The amount required is £5 million.

This is good news for the business sector and will not undermine the case that we need to make to the Treasury on the Barnett issue. We must look carefully at the impact of the rating system system, on business as well as on individuals and households, as part of the review of rating policy, which I will be referring shortly to the Finance and Personnel Committee. The Executive are determined to find solutions through the review that can make the best use of whatever resources are available and which are in the widest possible interest.

The proposals for the now reduced uplifts in the domestic and non-domestic regional rates will be introduced to the Assembly in the form of the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001, which is due for consideration in March.

The four measures that I have announced on behalf of the Executive represent clear and decisive action on the part of the Executive in key areas. This has been made possible through routine, straightforward financial management and by facing up to the difficult issues with proper regard for prudence, sensible planning and the needs and aspirations of the community.

We have acted to ensure that the health deficit issue is fully addressed through immediate funding and a study to ensure that the circumstances are properly understood and that the health trusts and boards can make changes in management arrangements, which will ensure a better planning process and avoid deficits in the future.

We have acted to introduce free travel for older people more quickly and in a more straightforward way than was possible in the context of the December Budget.

We have found a way through the problem of gap funding, which means that eligible voluntary and community groups will be able to make appropriate plans to secure the way ahead, in conjunction with Departments, by making progress towards Peace II on a workable basis.

We have acted to contain the increase in the regional rates without compromising the key issues that we all face in seeking additional resources from the Treasury. We can reduce the domestic increase from 8% to 7% without a loss in revenue because valuations have increased slightly faster than we were expecting. For that reason we have acted to bring down the increase for the non-domestic sector from 6·6% to 3·3%, which will be of significant benefit to local businesses.

These measures show the Executive at work. They show our determination to work in the interests of all in our community and across the full range of functions for which we are responsible. I hope the Assembly will join with me in supporting these four proposals, particularly in the political context which has made them possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. Members, before we proceed may I remind you that several people have indicated that they want to ask questions. For that reason, I ask you, and the Minister, to be as brief as possible.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this important statement from the Minister. It shows that changes can be brought about by negotiation and by shifting the people power in the street. The Minister's quick response is very welcome.

I welcome the idea of paying off the trusts' debts, but I want to voice my concern to the Minister that I hope that this is not an open-ended situation. The trusts should not feel that if there is a crisis in the future, someone will pay off the debts. Will the Minister state whether this will arise again with the extension of the one-year GP fundholding? Is that likely to lead to debts in the future?

It is good news for the older traveller that we now have a stand-alone measure and will not be depending on council funding. This is important, because it is more manageable.

In relation to gap funding, there are concerns in the community that the gap between Peace I and Peace II is extending. Some people believe that there is a policy to create a gap between the two funds, rather than to provide continuity. In that way valuable resources, personnel and experience could be lost. Can the Minister confirm when the Peace II programme will be on the ground?

The rates rise is an important measure. Although I welcome the reduction in the increase for the non-domestic rate in line with inflation, again I am concerned that the level of domestic rates will be maintained. Can the Minister confirm -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. It is very difficult to hear.

Mr Molloy:

Will the Minister confirm - particularly to Committee members - that domestic rates will still cost the ratepayer the same amount of money? The new money is being brought in by the rise in valuation. It will not, therefore, save people any money. Like for like, it is not possible to compare district councils here with those in England, Scotland and Wales, because the services provided locally are different to those across the water.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his questions. Under the stricture of brevity, I shall not be able to cover all of them.

With regard to deficits, it is not intended that action taken now to deal with the current serious deficit problem should, in any way, create a precedent or an incentive for further deficit spending in future. That is one reason for undertaking the joint consultancy study, together with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Economic Policy Unit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. This matter is not being taken lightly in relation to any concerns raised by the deficits - either issues of service pressures or the question of unmet need which must occur to people, not least in respect of those trusts which have not been showing deficits, and concerning questions of financial management. I am glad that the Committee Chairperson welcomes our starting the free travel scheme earlier, and on a fully funded basis, so that it is more straightforward. We did not have the resources available to allow us to commit to that previously, but we do now.

With regard to gap funding, I want to refute any suggestion that there is a policy to try to open up or to deepen any gap between Peace I and Peace II. There is certainly no such policy, and our announcement today goes beyond gap funding and moves us on to bringing forward Peace II. Again I emphasise to Members that in relation to the Peace I money, there are outstanding questions which must be addressed. We will be taking measures in that regard - again, proof that we are not treating the issue lightly.

I accept that the reduction in the domestic regional rate is not as much as people would have liked, but I refer Members to my point in relation to the case that we will have to make to the Treasury on the question of the Barnett formula. Comparing the functions of councils in England with those in Northern Ireland is not material to the issue of the regional rate. The previous rate increase of 8% would have seen an average household paying £16 a year extra. Now an average household will pay £14 a year extra.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Leslie):

The Minister's statement contained several interesting points, but I shall confine myself to one.

Can the Minister confirm that as a result of his additional £3 million allocation, the free travel scheme will be introduced seven months earlier than would otherwise have been the case? Will he also comment on his statement that an additional £2 million a year will be provided in forward years? That seems to go beyond the scope of a monitoring announcement and into the realm of a matter pertaining to future budgets. Can the Minister explain how he manages to contain the allocation of £2 million in future years within his statement on monitoring?

Mr Durkan:

The £3 million allocated to bringing forward the commencement of the free travel scheme for the elderly to 1 October 2001 rather than 1 April 2002 requires a consequent provision in future years. In making the decision to bring forward the scheme and to fully fund it, the Executive had necessarily to take a decision consciously in relation to provision for future years. The Executive have done that and have been fully open and transparent about it.

Mr Byrne:

The Minister's statement was a good example of how the Executive are beginning to function in a meaningful way for the public, who will be appreciative of the forthcoming reduction in the regional rate, which has been one of the most contentious issues this year.

Can the Minister give details of the total amounts made available to date for gap funding? When will the money announced today be available to the community groups on the ground, who are anxious about the continuity of the Peace programme?

Mr Durkan:

It is good to have a welcome for the direction in which we are moving in relation to the rates. We have only been able to do that on the basis of the money available to us, either through the improvement of the valuation base or because we do have this money available after dealing with other pressing spending items. I stress that we only have the money available after we have dealt with those other items, and it would have been wrong to make the money available before addressing our priorities.

In this financial year we made £9 million available for gap funding - £4·5 million of that went to the Peace programme. We now wish to see Departments making the sort of considered judgement that we think they are capable of, and that many community groups would like them to make, on whether or not people are eligible for the next round of funding, and making some advance allocations on that basis. We have provided the additional £2 million for the Executive's social inclusion programme fund as a safety net, so that if Departments, in good faith, make allocations to groups that turn out not to qualify for the next round, that is covered and it is not an expense to the Department's other programmes or to the wider Peace programme.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):

I welcome the Minister's finding the necessary finance for free travel for the elderly. In keeping with your request to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a very concise question.

Last week, the Deputy First Minister said:

"At no stage, and I repeat this, at no stage was a bid made to the Department of Finance and Personnel for funding for this by Mr Campbell prior to today."

Will the Minister confirm that my predecessor, Peter Robinson, made a bid for full central funding in July 2000? I renewed the bid in bilateral meetings with the Minister in September 2000 and again in December 2000. Rather than my having to release the documents, which would demonstrate the extent to which the Deputy First Minister misled the public, perhaps the Minister would be good enough to confirm that the July, September and December bids were all made to him.


Mr Durkan:

I acknowledge the question. There are several issues. There was a bid in July in the context of the Budget discussions. That bid was for full funding of this scheme and is a matter of record. It came prior to Mr Campbell's term in that Department. The point was referred to in one of the bilateral meetings that I had with all Ministers in September. However, it would be misleading to imply that those were the only terms on which free travel for the elderly, and questions on how to deliver it, were discussed. Although the point was referred to, I do not recollect the discussion as being about a straightforward bid for full funding with no other options.

Mr Campbell also said that a bid was made to me in December. In fact, Mr Campbell sent a memo to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 7 December 2000, which was the day that the Executive were meeting to discuss my proposals for the revised Budget. Those proposals included one to have the scheme begin on 1 April 2002, with three quarters of the funding coming from us, and one quarter from councils. Mr Campbell's memo acknowledged that the proposals he had been pursuing with councils were for part-funding by them, and it reflected on some of the difficulties of that. His memo was to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the day of an Executive meeting and was in response to the recommendations from the Department of Finance and Personnel. I can confirm that communication in December, if that is what Mr Campbell was referring to.

I can also confirm that, subsequent to that, I had a further communication from Mr Campbell dated 23 January 2001 - the day after I made the statement on December monitoring. That communication put forward the proposal that he would like to be able to allow councils that were willing to participate to go ahead and contribute to a part-funding scheme this year, beginning in April 2001.

The Deputy First Minister's point, I believe, was with reference to Mr Campbell's comments last Thursday morning on Radio Ulster. Clearly referring to the opportunity that he said existed - and it was obviously in terms of the December monitoring round - he said that he had instructed his officials to make a bid to the Department of Finance and Personnel. We did not receive that bid, and I pointed that out in a note to Mr Campbell.


<< Prev / Next >>