Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 13 February 2001 (continued)

Mr Speaker:

Order. If Members wish to have conversations, which is perfectly reasonable, I ask that they do so in the Lobby.

Ms de Brún:

When this matter first came to light last month, I asked for an investigation to be undertaken immediately to establish the scale of the problem here and the number of organs being retained. As part of this investigation, the chief medical officer wrote to all health and social services trusts seeking information on their practices relating to post mortems and organ retention.

I can now report that nearly 50,000 post mortems have been undertaken in hospitals since 1970, and the vast majority of these were carried out by state pathologists under the Coroners Act 1988. It is reported that 376 children's organs have been retained prior to the introduction of the current guidelines. They are held without informed parental consent. There are three hundred and sixty one in the Royal Victoria Hospital and 15 in Altnagelvin Hospital. One additional child's organ has been retained with full parental consent at Craigavon Area Hospital.

The investigation also covered the retention of adult organs following post mortem examinations. Apart from the Royal Victoria Hospital, 60 adult organs have been retained, mostly without informed consent: 45 in Altnagelvin Hospital; three in the Ulster Hospital; and 12 in Craigavon Area Hospital - nine of which are with relatives' full consent.

In the Royal Group of Hospitals, 677 brains and spinal cords have been retained. A detailed inventory of all adult tissue samples in the hospital is underway to check if they include other organs. This physical inspection is proceeding with all haste, and a definitive answer on the number and type of organs retained is expected by the end of February.

I understand that all the retained organs identified have been held following a hospital post mortem or a coroner's post mortem. It is also apparent that in many cases, organs have been held for a time as part of a post mortem investigation and subsequently cremated. Until recently, this was a common practice throughout these isles, but it is clearly not acceptable for that to happen without informed consent.

The investigation has confirmed that the number of organs retained here has not been on the same scale as in England. It has found no evidence of any systematic wholesale retention of organs, as was the case in Alder Hey Hospital. However, I am clear that no organs should be retained by the Health Service without the explicit and informed consent of the family of the deceased. This is absolutely essential.

I have listened carefully to the voice of parents and to the many helpful points raised by Members in the course of the recent debate on this subject. My conclusion is that there are still too many questions unanswered. Decisive action is needed to answer the questions put by many of the families affected, and to restore faith in our service and in future post mortem practice.

To achieve this, I am announcing a major initiative to investigate past actions, support those affected, and ensure that such practices can never recur. The initiative will include the following measures. First, there will be an inquiry established under article 54 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to review past and current practice in post mortem and organ removal, retention and disposal. The inquiry will report on past practice and make recommendations for future arrangements, and it will report to me within twelve months.

Secondly, a relatives' support group will be set up quickly to work with parents and hospitals in order to ensure that the families affected receive full and timely information and support. The group will bring together parents, health and social services councils, bereavement counsellors and other interests, to ensure that parents and relatives are given appropriate advice, information and effective support.

Thirdly, there will be a review of the Human Tissue Act (Northern Ireland) 1962, with the aim of strengthening its provisions in regard to consent and making it a criminal offence to retain organs without informed consent. The review will take appropriate account of parallel developments in Great Britain. I also wish to ensure that proposed amendments are broadly compatible with the views of the inquiry on what is required.

Fourthly, recognising that the new legislation will take time to be put on the statute book, I will prepare good practice guidelines for the health services. These will provide interim guidance to the service on acceptable practice, pending new legislation.

The inquiry will have the power to summon witnesses and require the presentation of information, should that prove necessary. I will be furnishing the inquiry with the information gathered in the course of my own investigation, which it will supersede. I hope to announce shortly further details of the inquiry and membership of the support group.

The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):

I welcome the Minister's statement on behalf of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee.

I would have preferred a full public inquiry into the matter. However, I am aware of the very great sensitivities of the families who have been bereaved over the years and where organs of their loved ones have been retained. The Minister mentioned that the Human Tissue Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 legislation would be looked at. I wonder if the Coroners Act 1959 should be looked at as well, because I understand that people in England are looking closely at the Coroners Act there.

Looking at the statement, I was aware that 376 children's organs had been retained but was not aware that 677 adult's brains and spinal cords had been retained at the Royal Group of Hospitals. Obviously, a lot of people will be asking questions about that and about the other organs that were subsequently cremated. However, that will be the purpose of the inquiry.

While I would prefer a full public inquiry into this matter, the Minister seems to be proceeding along these lines. My question concerns her last comment that she hopes to announce shortly further details of the inquiry and membership of the support group. Will she present the terms of reference concerning that inquiry and the support group membership to the Assembly?

Ms de Brún:

First, it will become very clear that this will be a full statutory inquiry, not only because of the statute under which it is being set up but also from its terms of reference. As such, it will have the power to engage with the public, to call for evidence from whomsoever it feels can best contribute to the inquiry and hold its meetings in public if it feels that that is necessary or desirable.

11.30 am

The inquiry's terms of reference will require it to take account of the views and reasonable expectations of parents and relatives. It will report to me, and its findings will be made public.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Mr Gallagher):

I also welcome the Minister's announcement about the inquiry and the setting up of a support group. People who have been affected by the organ retention scandal are asking what happened and why they were not told about it sooner. It is hoped that the inquiry and the support group will address and answer those questions.

Like other Members, I have been approached by members of the public who have been affected by organ retention. The Minister's statement contains an assumption that, in many cases, organs were held and subsequently cremated. Will the inquiry be able to give Members information on cremation records? Was cremation the only means of disposal used? If not, what other means were used?

Will the Minister also tell the House if the support group will have links with every trust group? The families affected by the organ scandal live in every part of Northern Ireland.

Ms de Brún:

Cremation and organ disposal will be part and parcel of the inquiry. The inquiry will be able to find out the relevant information on those issues and present its findings to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Dr Hendron previously asked a question about the review of the Coroners Act. As Dr Hendron said, that review is taking place in England, and the spin-off from that might well input in to legislation here, but that will not be within my power. However, I will be bringing forward legislation that will cover all aspects of ensuring that practice here is carried out to the highest possible standard in the future.

Mr Gallagher also asked if the support group will have links with trusts in every area. It is essential that the support group liaises with families and their representatives throughout the inquiry and that their needs and concerns are established. It is also essential that the support group works directly with the hospitals to ensure that the arrangements address the needs of families effectively and sensitively. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has already issued guidance to trusts about the required support for families, particularly those who live a long distance from the hospital at which their relatives' organs are being retained.

The Department needs to ensure that any subsequent support builds on that and that the highest standards and fullest efforts are made to meet the concerns and needs of parents. It is also important that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety receive the best possible advice with regard to setting standards for the future and bringing forward new legislation.

Rev Robert Coulter:

I also welcome the Minister's statement and commend the speed with which her inquiry has been commenced. According to a rough calculation from the information in the report, there are 1,113 organs retained in hospitals. How many organs have been returned to relatives? Will the new guidelines be announced to the Assembly? Can the Minister give any indication when legislation will be laid before the House?

Ms de Brún:

First, the process of discussions with parents as to what they wish to be done with the organs, how they wish this to be treated and where they are to be returned is ongoing. I cannot give you an exact figure for the number of organs returned to relatives. However, it is small compared to the number of organs that have been retained. The support committee is so important, because the relative social services, councils and others can give advice and work alongside those who can find their way through the system and ensure that parents have access to the absolute, total information and support that they require.

I will make the guidelines and the terms of reference known to the Assembly. I will also make the membership of the group and of the inquiry team known to the Assembly. We want the fullest possible information to be available to ensure that the way forward is built upon the experiences to date and the knowledge of what is needed for the future.

Mrs I Robinson:

Does the Minister accept that her initial inquiry was insufficient and that she ought to have had a full and proper inquiry from the start? Does she accept that the drip-feed process which we have all witnessed has further eroded public confidence and that it will be fully and properly restored only by a public inquiry? Finally, does the Minister accept that this whole matter has seriously damaged public confidence in the entire donor system and that that will be restored only after a full public inquiry with lay people's involvement?

Ms de Brún:

As soon as this issue arose I set out very clearly the steps that I would take. Those steps involved an immediate telephone enquiry to hospitals, followed by an investigation carried out by officials, who then sent for written information. At the time I made it clear that that information was necessary for me to establish the facts of what it was we were dealing with and what steps were necessary. I made it clear from the outset that nothing would be ruled out. People will see that the clear, precise and professional way of dealing with this led from the outset to where we are today - having a full picture of what we need.

Today I announced a package of measures to deal not only with the long-term changes - it will take time to put legislation in place - but also with an inquiry to establish the facts, which could take up to 12 months. In the interim, guidance has been issued so that practices here are informed of the best way forward, and a support group has been set up to ensure that relatives do not have to wait until the outcome of an inquiry, or for legislation, to see change. They can have their concerns addressed and have the availability of information and services immediately.

I hope that Members will not say that I have handled this in anything other than a very careful, precise and professional manner, dealing with the importance of the issue, recognising the trauma that parents have been through and recognising the need to ensure the highest possible standards.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat A Cheann Comhairle. I too welcome the Minister's timely statement. She could not have brought it any more speedily to the Assembly. It would be compounding an injustice and compounding pain if one were to make this into some sort of political football.

At the time, I congratulated Jim Shannon on bringing this motion to the Chamber. I also said that it would be tragic if this dreadful situation were allowed to influence the very worthy organ donation scheme.

This has already happened in England. I hope the Minster's statement will at least assuage and assure people who are waiting for organ donations that this fear can be put to one side. I believe that the terms of the inquiry will satisfy the publicly-stated requirements of the parents, and, to that extent, I hope that it will lessen the pain and not increase it. That ought to be its overriding thrust.

What exactly is being done to ensure that advice, information and appropriate support is available for parents? How long will legislation take, and, importantly, what will happen in the interim? Can the Minister give an assurance that parents will have a key role in dealing with this issue during the course of the inquiry, a Cheann Comhairle?

Ms de Brún:

I reiterate that the inquiry will be set up under statute with the necessary powers to establish the full facts. It will be full and exhaustive. Its terms of reference will require that the views and reasonable expectations of parents and relatives be taken into account. It will have the powers of any statutory inquiry - to engage with the public, to hold meetings in public, if it feels that that is necessary or desirable, and call whomsoever it feels can best contribute to give evidence.

I have answered some of Mr Kelly's questions in my answers to previous questions. For example, trusts have been asked to ensure that in cases where hospitals are retaining organs, or if they have information, that information is supplied to the relatives and that they look at their practices to ensure that this is being done in a manner which the relatives require. Trusts in every trust area have been told that they need to ensure that support, advice, help and counselling, if necessary, are available to parents. They specifically need to look at this where relatives are living at a distance from the hospital where organs are being retained. The establishment of a support group, which I announced today, will make very specific provision for liaising with parents, families and hospitals to ensure that the support available is there for the parents, that practice is as parents would wish and that advice is given to my Department in the drawing up of interim guidance and legislation.

I am committed to taking this matter forward as quickly as is practicable, given the legislative timetable of the Assembly. However, recognising that the legislation will take some time to bring on to the statute book, I hope, if we can find a window, that it will not take too long. In the interim I am taking steps to provide guidance to trusts to ensure that they adopt the spirit of proposed legislation prior to its coming into force.

Mr McCarthy:

We have all been dismayed and disgusted at what has happened, and we offer our sympathy to all that have suffered and are suffering. We welcome all the measures outlined by the Minister this morning. Can the Minister assure the House that her Department will encourage the continuation of the voluntary donation of organs? In order to save further lives, will her Department do what is necessary to restore confidence in this very important field? Will she assure the House that under no circumstances will she ever permit the sale, or disposal by any other means, of organs to cosmetic companies or research agencies? Financial reward should have no part to play in organ donations.

11.45 am

Ms de Brún:

I have said before that organ retention and disposal - and that covers disposal of any sort - will be part and parcel of the inquiry. This will be made clear in the way we move forward in the future. I certainly hope that the measures I announced today will restore public confidence in this area by setting standards; by making sure that the public is fully informed about what is happening; and finally, but most importantly, by ensuring that future practice is based firmly on the principal of explicit informed consent of the families.

The Department will be encouraging the voluntary donation of organs as part of its ongoing work. It is vital that people are still willing to donate their organs to save the lives of others. I understand that that is the case and that people are making a distinction. In fact, it has been said repeatedly by some of the families involved that if they had known that the organs of their loved ones could have helped others, they might well have been willing to donate them if they had been asked. The problem was that they were not.

Ms McWilliams:

I have not had the opportunity to check article 54 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, but can the Minister confirm the composition of the inquiry team? Will she consider parents or relatives' representatives, if not in an advisory capacity then as members of the inquiry team? Would that be possible under the statute?

If not, would it be possible to have a relatives' advisory group? That would be separate from a relatives' support group, because counselling and support are very different from advice that relatives who have been through this process could offer. It would also be different from acting as a witness to the inquiry. Parents have told me that they have asked for direct input into any ongoing inquiry that may be established. They feel that they should have a role.

When can we expect to have the interim guidance? I support Mr McCarthy's point, not just as regards advice to parents, but for the sake of those engaged in transplants. This is an enormous concern at the moment, and representations have been made to me. Is there any protocol as regards the questions that are asked when requesting voluntary donations?

I am also concerned that the inquiry will not report for 12 months. Has the Minister given any consideration to the inquiry's reporting sooner than that? Why was one year specified? It seems rather a lengthy inquiry, given that legislation will follow thereafter.

Ms de Brún:

In looking at how the inquiry would be set up as regards its terms of reference and the length of time it would take, I investigated what has happened in England, Scotland and the South of Ireland. I had thought of setting up an inquiry that would report to me in six months, but I understand that where that had happened elsewhere, that time frame was not sufficient. I was worried about setting up an inquiry and raising expectations and then being seen to dash those expectations by lengthening it. That is why I decided on 12 months.

The inquiry will be set up under statute. It will be an independent inquiry, but its terms of reference will require it to take account of the views and of the reasonable expectations of parents and relatives. Therefore it will be up to the team to ensure that that is done. We will make sure that there are proper ways in which the inquiry will carry out that part of its terms of reference.

I referred to a parents' support group. Perhaps when we come to consider the terms of reference of that group, I should call the group something that will clearly show that it has more than a supportive role. It will liaise with families and hospitals to ensure that arrangements address the needs of families effectively and sensitively, but it will also be directly involved in influencing the ways in which parents and families are advised and supported at this difficult time. It will also act as a resource in advising myself, and it will assist the Department in developing the necessary guidance and the new legislation. It will have a direct role and an integral role.

Mr Shannon:

The thrust of the Minister's statement has been about the principle of informed consent. That is where we should be coming from. Unfortunately, there are some issues that are still outstanding and which need to be answered. The statement says

"this physical inspection is proceeding with all haste, and a definitive answer on the number and type of any organs retained is expected by the end of February."

Will the families be consulted about this? Will the findings be made known to them?

Counselling is a very important issue. Measure 2 refers to "bereavement counsellors". Perhaps the Department should be more proactive in relation to counselling. It is an important issue for all those families that have been bereaved and, even yet, are still trying coming to terms with what has happened to them. Will all the families be directly contacted? Will it be left up to the families to contact the relatives' support group or the other organisation that was mentioned by a Member earlier? The Department should be proactive in this.

Can the Minister say how many phone calls or letters her Department has received in relation to this issue? It probably runs into thousands. I know that many people from my constituency have contacted the Department about the matter. We have had phone calls and letters. That correspondence has also been sent to the Minister. Also, will the Minister inform us of the people who contacted the Health Department and had to wait in long phone-call queues when news of the scandal first broke? Have all those people been contacted directly? Have they been made aware of whether any of the organs of their loved ones have been retained? If so, what steps have been taken to address that?

My Colleague Mrs Iris Robinson raised the issue of organ donation. That issue has perhaps been lost in the middle of this scandal. Can the Minister tell us what steps she will be taking to promote organ donation? Many of us carry the wee donor cards relating to our kidneys in case we are the unfortunate victims of an accident. Many people across the Province, and in this Chamber, do that. What we -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I urge the Member to come to his question.

Mr Shannon:

Those were all questions. What is the Minister doing about organ donation? Can the Minister assure us that the report will be transparent and readily available to all concerned? For instance, will there be lay people on the inquiry committee, not just doctors and consultants? Finally, the last time that the Minister spoke on this matter I think that she referred to the organs that are retained by the universities. That has not been mentioned in her statement today. Can she give us some indication of what has happened to organs retained in universities for research or other purposes?

Ms de Brún:

I thank the Member for his various questions. I never stated - to my recollection- that organs are retained in universities. It does not come within my remit, and therefore I would not be able to make such a definitive statement. As is the practice elsewhere, there are protocols between universities and hospitals. That is something that we need to look at. My officials will check the Hansard records, but I do not believe that I was ever in a position to say such a thing.

Concerning organ donation, I would refer the Member to the answer I gave Kieran McCarthy this morning.

As regards the number of people who contacted the Department, very few, to my knowledge, contacted the Department directly. To date, the Department has received three or four letters and very few calls. The Royal Group of Hospitals has had more than 1,000 calls, and Altnagelvin has had a couple of hundred. People went directly to the trusts involved rather than to the hospitals themselves.

With regard to counselling, the Member referred to the point I made about having a counsellor on the relatives' support group. That person would give advice and be able to make a contribution to the group in terms of overseeing what needs to be done. That is quite separate from the immediate action that my Department has already taken - which I outlined earlier - to ensure that trusts have been instructed to oversee that they put in place measures to take care of the needs of those relatives within their trust area, specifically the needs of those who live at any distance from the hospitals where the organs are retained.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her very detailed statement. I welcome the statutory inquiry and the Minister's intention to put in place interim guidance on acceptable practice. I think I speak for all Members when I say that our sympathy and concern goes out to all those who have been notified that their relatives' organs have been retained. I can think of nothing more distressing than for relatives to be told that parts of their loved ones' bodies have been retained by hospitals.

Given the Minister's statement that no organs should be retained without explicit and informed consent, does the legislation under which pathologists carried out their duties - the Coroners Act 1959 - need immediate updating, prior to the inquiry? Will the inquiry also address the Human Tissue Act 1962? How was that legislated for in the first place, and by whom?

Ms de Brún:

I agree that our sympathy for those parents left in a position in which they should never have been is uppermost in our minds. Underlying all of our actions is our utmost desire to do the best we can for them at this point, to ensure that the practice - which previously was standard and which we now say was unacceptable and must change - does change, and that future practice is based firmly on the principle of explicit and informed consent.

I have said that I wish to bring forward a review of legislation, with a view to amending the Human Tissue Act 1962. That comes within the remit of health and social services, and I wish to do that. Earlier, I spoke about that and the fact that it depends on the legislative will of the Assembly. The Coroner's Act is a different matter, as it does not lie directly within my remit.

Mrs Courtney:

I also welcome the Minister's statement. The debate was most emotive, because we were talking principally about the organs of young children.

The Minister has indicated that there will be a full statutory inquiry under article 54 of the Health and Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. The report is not due for 12 months, but in the interim, while the new legislation is being put on the statute book, there will be prepared new practice guidelines for the Health Service.


I would like to ask the Minister if there will be ongoing monitoring of trusts while this is happening and if someone will be appointed to ensure that the good practice guidelines are put into place?

We have considered the situation of the parents involved in these cases - and quite rightly so - but these circumstances have also had a devastating effect on hospital staff, and they have in some ways been ignored. Those working with young children and in the pathology departments have felt the effects. We cannot ignore their difficulties, and there has to be some reassurance for those caught up in the situation through no fault of their own.

I ask the Minister to ensure that her Department does all it can to bring trust back to the hospitals. The lack of confidence in organ transplants has already been referred to. There should be a separate programme, ongoing with the investigation, to reassure people, so that confidence in the Health Service is not completely destroyed. It should assure them that organ donation is entirely different and separate from what has happened in the past.

Ms de Brún:

In relation to the question about guidance, I previously said to the House that a copy of the new guidance drawn up last year was placed in the Assembly Library. I will ensure that the interim guidance is also placed in the Library so that Members will have access to it.

There is not only ongoing monitoring of trusts, with trust management monitoring its own performance in relation to the current guidance; there will also be interim guidance. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review of the legislation, but in the spirit of the proposed legislation we will be bringing forward, we will ensure that the interim guidance covers hospital practice. That will clearly signal to the public our intention to ensure that present hospital practice - and not just after the inquiry - will be of the highest possible standard.

I am mindful of the current position of staff who are performing a difficult job in trusts and who are trying to cope with a difficult situation. The inquiry will be open so that everyone can put their views forward, and that will include hospital staff. I will expect trusts to demonstrate that they are dealing with this matter fully and openly.

Mr Davis:

As regards the 376 people the Minister mentioned earlier, will she be in a position to indicate to the House, at some stage, the age groups of those people? Were they children, or were they stillborn? Can she give us a figure?

Ms de Brún:

I cannot give such a figure this morning. I will make information available as it comes to me, although I am not sure when such details will be established. Once the inquiry is set up, it will consider what information should be put into its report.

Mr Hay:

The matter we are discussing has been a tragedy for Northern Ireland. I agree with the Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee in that the only thing that would satisfy families would be a full, independent public inquiry into this situation. In my own area of Altnagelvin the situation became clear only following complaints from parents.

What role does the Minister see for the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee in the inquiry? Secondly, can she assure the House that it will not be the case of the medical profession investigating itself?

Ms de Brún:

I reiterate that this is a full statutory inquiry with the powers that any such inquiry has to call for evidence, to hold its meetings in public if it feels that this is necessary, and to engage with the public. It will be full, exhaustive and set up under statute. While I do not want to go into the details, I see its being overseen by a lay person rather than by someone from the medical profession. Once you set up an independent inquiry under statute, it is for the person who is named as the head of the inquiry to work on the terms of reference. It will therefore be for the inquiry to establish how it deals with various groups and representatives and how it fulfils its terms of reference, which I will be announcing shortly.


(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Inland Waterways:
North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council waterways meeting held on 29 January 2001 in Scarriff.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):

The second meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in inland waterways sectoral format took place in Scarriff, County Clare, on Monday, 29 January 2001. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Denis Haughey and I represented the Northern Ireland Administration. The Irish Government were represented by Síle de Valera TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Mr Haughey who has approved the report.

The meeting opened with a progress report from the interim chief executive of Waterways Ireland, Mr John Mahony. The council noted that significant progress has been made both in terms of the development of the organisation and in progressing works on the ground. On Lough Erne a number of public moorings have been completely refurbished. A new floating jetty has been placed at Toome on the Lower Bann river, and new navigation signs are being erected along the river to improve public safety. In the Republic of Ireland the Limerick navigation scheme, which is an extension to the Shannon navigation, is nearing completion, and this will allow mooring in the heart of the city for the first time. The council gave its consent to plans from Waterways Ireland for compulsory purchase of certain lands necessary for improvement of the Shannon navigation. Work is also proceeding on restoration of the remaining 34 kilometres of the Royal Canal.

The council noted that Waterways Ireland had received the draft final report on the feasibility of re-opening the Ulster Canal prepared by ESB International and Ferguson & McIlveen Consultants, and this will be forwarded to the sponsoring Departments shortly. The council also noted that Waterways Ireland has had useful consultations with Bord Fáilte and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and that boating/cruising on inland navigations is to be promoted as a separate niche market. Waterways Ireland will develop a promotional strategy to complement this initiative. Waterways Ireland has also had meetings with various user groups, including the Lough Erne and Lower Bann advisory committees, and it facilitated the Erne boat rally and the Youth Cruise 2000 from Killaloe to Enniskillen.

On the organisational front, good progress has been made in getting the headquarters at Enniskillen and the regional offices at Dublin, Carrick-on-Shannon and Scarriff up and running. There are now 22 non-industrial staff based at Enniskillen, while Rivers Agency continues to undertake the operational work in Northern Ireland under a service level agreement. Two premises at Darling Street and Belmore Street in Enniskillen town centre have been leased to meet the body's interim accommodation requirements. The council agreed that Waterways Ireland should pursue negotiations on five possible site options for the permanent headquarters, which will be a waterfront development of around 25,000 square feet. The council also approved the options for permanent premises for the three regional offices.

An open competition for the post of permanent chief executive was completed, and the council confirmed the appointment of Mr John Martin as the new chief executive of Waterways Ireland. The council also approved proposed sterling pay scales for Waterways Ireland, which will enable direct recruitment of staff to proceed.

The council noted that the provisional expenditure out-turn for the 2000 calendar year was estimated at approximately £8·5 million, compared to the original budget of £10·5 million. This difference is largely due to the impact of the suspension of the devolved arrangements, which caused a delay in the recruitment of staff to the body. The council also considered and agreed Waterways Ireland's draft action plan for 2001, which included the programme of work and budgetary requirements. The proposed budget for 2001 is £18·8 million, and Northern Ireland's contribution will be approximately £2·6 million.

Waterways Ireland's main objectives for the coming year are the effective management and operation of the inland navigations for which it is responsible, the development of the organisation, the implementation of a capital development programme and meeting equality objectives and new targeting social need (TSN) goals.

Waterways Ireland plans to have 75% of all posts within the body filled by December 2001, and it will introduce new financial management and human resource systems to support the development of an effective corporate organisation. The council was pleased to note that Waterways Ireland will be involved in hosting the World Canals Conference in May 2001, with venues in Dublin, Belfast and Lisburn. This will provide an excellent opportunity to promote Ireland's inland waterways to overseas visitors. The council also approved Waterways Ireland's plans to undertake a review of health and safety standards on all navigations and to complete a preliminary assessment of the by-laws for all navigations.

The North/South Ministerial Council approved Waterways Ireland's draft equality scheme, which includes a five-year programme for screening all policies and procedures, conducting and consulting on equality impact assessments and monitoring. The scheme will now be submitted to the Equality Commission. The council also gave its approval for Waterways Ireland to proceed to public consultation on its new draft TSN action plan.

The council agreed to meet again in sectoral format before summer 2001.

The Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mr ONeill):

I welcome the Minister's statement. There has been considerable progress on practical matters, not least on consultation between the two tourist boards. I am, however, interested in the Minister's comments on the report by Ferguson & McIlveen on the Ulster Canal. Can he forecast the commitment that he and his Department will make to the Ulster Canal project? I am aware that that might be difficult for him at this stage, but we will soon be in a position in which, if we are to move forward with this project, he can discuss commitment.

I congratulate Mr John Martin on his appointment as chief executive of Waterways Ireland. Can the Minister give us a date by which the whole project will be fully operational, with staffing and permanent sites in place, both in the regions and at headquarters? He has indicated the date by which 75% of operational staff will be in place.

Mr McGimpsey:

As I said in my report, the updated feasibility study report by ESB International and Ferguson & McIlveen has been completed in draft form. I have not yet received it in the Department, but I expect that to happen within the next week or two. We will then assess what the report says and look at the implications. I have previously said in the House that the Ulster Canal is one of the key capital projects of the future for Waterways Ireland. Half of the canal lies in the Irish Republic, and half lies in Northern Ireland; so, when it is completed, it will connect Lough Neagh to the Erne/Shannon waterways, which will link with the Royal Canal, when it is finally completed, and, thus, right through to Dublin. The Lagan navigation will be the last remaining scheme to be completed before a complete system, running right through the island, is created.

The canal is a huge resource in terms of its tourist potential. That is now properly recognised by the tourist board.

12.15 pm

So the Member is right: I cannot give a commitment. The original costs specified in 1998 were around £70 million, and I suspect that if we were to go forward with this, we would probably be talking about roughly £100 million. There is a major problem with how we address resources, so Members should not expect me to give a commitment now. I will say that the Department, Waterways Ireland and I have a commitment to proceed with the Ulster Canal project as best we can; it is a key capital project.

I have already said that the operation of the body was delayed because of suspension. We anticipate that it will be up to full staff - a total of 381 - by 2002. It is building rapidly now, and we are progressing very well, although this involves moving staff in from other Departments, which takes time.

Sites have been identified for the offices outside headquarters. The headquarters office will take slightly longer. The developer's brief is out at the minute, and a number of sites have been identified. The decision will be made by way of a bidding process, but that is being handled by the property services branch of the Department of the Environment, and that is out of my control. It will come forward with its preferred options in due course, and then we will proceed. However, I suspect that it would not be unreasonable to expect to see headquarters fully up and functional within two to three years.


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