Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 13 February 2001 (continued)
This is the first occasion that this Assembly will hear from Mr Hamilton when he will be making what can be described as a maiden speech. As Members know, it is the convention in another place that such a speech is made without interruption.
As this is my maiden speech, I promise to keep it short and to the point.
Mr S Wilson referred at the beginning of his speech to the need to evaluate how effectively money is spent on education. I do not believe that anyone in this House would disagree with that. Certainly Mr Wilson and I, who have both served in the teaching profession, would not disagree on that matter. I have no problem with the idea of schools publishing examination results. However, the information currently used and the format in which it is presented do not go far enough, because it in no way gives parents full or precise information as to exactly how a school performs. The tables, as used, were great if you taught in one of those schools that the top 30% of our pupils attend. The tables, as used, suited you as a teacher, because they reflected the high results that those types of pupils produced in examinations.
It is all very well for Mr S Wilson to refer to the damage that he claims is being done to teacher morale by not producing the league tables. I take issue with him on that point. He does not seem to have considered the undervaluation many teachers felt when they took a pupil, possibly with severe learning difficulties - as I did on several occasions - and managed to improve him or her sufficiently to achieve a GCSE grade F. The amount of work and effort that the teacher and the pupil put in - for what was a major achievement by the pupil - was not reflected at all in the published league tables.
Parents do not always just look at a school's academic performance. They do not always look at how many grade As or Bs were achieved. The reason is that in the real world many parents have children with learning difficulties, and they do not look at the number of grade As and Bs when trying to find a school. They want to know what special classes and teaching methods will be used to help their children. They know that their children will probably never be able to aspire to grade As and Bs so when they look for schools to send their children to the published league tables provide them with no help and no guidance - nothing in that respect.
Ms Lewsley's amendment has much to recommend it, but for the reasons outlined by my Colleague Mr Kennedy we are unable to support it. I do not have to reiterate those reasons, because Mr Kennedy outlined them adequately. In conclusion, my only regret is that Ms Lewsley did not approach us with the idea of devising a joint amendment, because she would have found much common ground for her proposals with many in the House.
This motion is timely and essential. I am reacting to an outburst made by the Deputy First Minister, Mr Mallon, when he spoke at a formal occasion - the opening of a commercial event in east Belfast. On that occasion, he indicated that the education system was somehow failing the people of Northern Ireland.
My private reaction was, first, that he might be correct. Secondly, I noted that the second-largest budget had been devoted to education - and quite rightly so - because the most prized asset that any community can have is its own educated people. That is the basic building block of society and all human activity. Therefore that is why it was essential that the so-called league tables were published. First, they did raise standards, and that is acknowledged in all the publications. The long tail of underperformance has been virtually eliminated by some of those schools, and children who did not feel that they should strive and struggle to achieve.
There was encouragement; there was praise, and there was success. That removed the greater part of the long tail of underachievement. Therefore raising school standards embodies much more than the statement of facts. It is something that must be supported. Further evidence of this was put to us strongly just before the Minister made his statement. The Confederation of British Industry, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry interests told us "League tables are not complete in themselves." Everyone in this Chamber would agree that league tables never provided an adequate amount of information. I think that we would all be agreed on that.
There is currently a pilot scheme running in England that is devising a method for adding on the value-added element. We are told that that will not be available until the 2003-04 academic year. Rather than stopping the publication of the league tables, we should have kept on with them. We should have used our best endeavours to ensure that value-added measures will be appended to any future tables. When we met the Minister I made it very clear to him that we in Northern Ireland, at the periphery of Europe, cannot, in any way be seen to be an underperforming group of people. In a comparison between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on educational attainments it was said
"Attainments in Northern Ireland are better by most measures. The area with the biggest difference is lifelong learning. The proportion of Northern Ireland adults who are taking Higher Education courses on a part-time basis is a remarkable five times greater than the proportion in the Republic of Ireland."
That proves the point that I made in my opening remarks that personal achievement and betterment through education that is freely available to all is a prized asset. Why should we not praise success? What have we against praising that which is praiseworthy? Sometimes we take a negative view and adopt a negative attitude. In a clamour about transparency, equality of opportunity and justice we say that it is just that we should point out where good performance is taking place. However, it is equally just to point out where underperformance is taking place. We are unfair if we do not indicate places of underachievement and publicly encourage achievement. We should enhance our systems to achieve proper standards.
As a people, we cannot survive in the European or global economy, or economically perform in the field of information technology, unless we raise our standards. The method for doing that is to have openness, to publish, and to ensure that we are proud of what we do publish. We have enjoyed good standards, but there was an outburst when the Deputy First Minister - quite rightly - reacted on one occasion to tell us that he feared that our educational standards were dropping. Today we in the Education Committee are aware of that. Already we are putting in place the benchmarks and agreed targets to be achieved. We have discovered that at various key stages, instead of performance levels having risen, they have dropped from 85% to 77%. In another case they have fallen from 80% to 75%. People do not put in more money to move backwards.
As a society, we have a great belief in education. The fact that this debate is taking place is proof that we want to raise our standards and be proud of our educated society. I support the motion, and I thank Mr S Wilson for tabling it. I urge the Assembly to strive for success: the old expression was "Publish and be damned"; today I say "Publish and be proud of it".
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have some sympathy with the wording of Mr S Wilson's motion, but Members will not be surprised to hear that I have a greater sympathy with the amendment that was put down by Ms Lewsley.
With regard to Sammy Wilson's motion, it would be great if information could be published that would enable the good work that goes on in schools to be adequately measured and compared. The key word in the motion is "adequately", because that is where the school performance tables fall down - they do not do all schools justice. Over the last year, head teachers and teachers have often told me how unfairly the tables portrayed their schools. They said that no account had been taken of the ability of their pupils on entry, or of the circumstances in which they worked. All of the teachers' hard work was portrayed instead as poor performance, because their schools were ranked against more affluent schools. The feedback from the teaching profession was that the tables were divisive and demoralising. Therefore I decided to launch a review and a consultation process to see if the objectives for the performance tables could be met in other ways. I was also conscious that the value of the tables had decreased because of the significant developments that have been taking place in education since they were first published in 1993.
Last October, the Department of Education issued a consultation paper containing three options to post-primary schools and to a wide range of other educational organisations. Option one was to keep the tables but do everything possible to improve them; option two was to ask schools to publish their results in their prospectuses; and option three was to ask the five education and library boards to publish the information in their annual transfer booklets. I was particularly interested in the views of parents, and for this purpose a leaflet was sent to all parents of year-eight pupils, the most recent group to have received a copy of the tables when choosing schools for their children. I also consulted with the Education Committee from an early stage, and it made a valuable contribution to the consultation process.
The consultation carried out by the Department of Education was comprehensive. There were over 1,000 responses, mostly from parents and schools. Of those, 75% were opposed to the continued publication of tables. That applied not only to the responses from teachers, it also applied to those from parents and others. Many who responded condemned the tables for being divisive and unfair. They said that they failed to offer schools the opportunity to give parents a rounded picture of the school.
Those who favoured the retention of the tables were unable to suggest how the criticisms of them could be addressed. A number of those who responded proposed the inclusion of value-added data, but no satisfactory way of doing this has been found, despite a continuing programme of research. I could not therefore see how such a proposal provided the basis for a realistic way forward.
Some commented that the tables challenged schools to drive up standards. I am not persuaded by that argument - all schools want to do their best for the pupils in their care, and they are continually striving to improve their performance. Schools are legally required to set targets for improving their performance, and that is supported by the supply of benchmarking data which enables them to compare their performances with those of schools of similar size and with similar circumstances. In addition, the Department of Education is funding a range of initiatives that has a direct impact on improving standards.
I decided to introduce option two, with immediate effect, after careful consideration of all of the responses to the consultation and the views expressed by the Education Committee. I did so for three main reasons: first, this option was favoured by the majority of respondents; secondly, it will provide up-to-date information on examination performance, and thirdly, it will give parents the most complete set of information about any school from a single source.
Schools are already required to publish information about examination performance in their prospectuses. I am concerned, however, that the information provided is consistent and accurate. With this in mind the Department of Education has started a review of the information required to ensure a standard approach. It is my intention that schools and parents will be fully consulted in this review and that all the points made in Patricia Lewsley's amendment will be considered in its course. A consultation paper will be issued to allow those with an interest in this matter, especially parents, to make their views known.
I want to give the Education Committee every opportunity to contribute to the process. The Committee has already made some suggestions on what information should be in the prospectuses, and these will form part of the review. I will look carefully at the responses I receive before coming to a decision on the way forward. Schools' requirements on the content of their prospectuses are contained in the education regulations. Those regulations will have to be amended to give effect to any proposed changes. I will take this opportunity to update the regulations in areas that are not directly related to the issue we are discussing today. These regulations will be placed before the Assembly for approval in the normal way.
Let me make it quite clear that there should still be means whereby schools can compare their performances with those of other schools and set targets for improvement. The Department of Education will continue to issue annual benchmarking information to schools, boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). This will allow schools and other bodies to compare performances in the key stage assessments for post-primary schools in public examinations and attendance rates with other schools of similar size or with similar catchments, as expressed in terms of the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals. As a basis for schools to set proper targets, this benchmarking information is just as effective as the performance tables, if not more so. If any Member would like to see a copy of the benchmarking information, I would be happy to have it sent to him or her.
My decision to end the publication of school performance tables is the right one for schools and parents. I have been heartened by the very positive response in recent weeks right across the spectrum. The decision has been welcomed by both grammar and non-grammar sectors and by parents and teachers. We have also shown the way for others to follow. Wales is currently conducting a review of its performance tables. It is a progressive move that will send the signal to parents that we want them to have the correct information when they come to choose a school for their children and to teachers that we value their hard work and dedication on behalf of our young people.
I want to reiterate the point that the decision has been widely welcomed. I am open to correction, but I know that the Member who tabled this motion, Sammy Wilson, was, and possibly still is, a member of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). The union wholeheartedly supported my decision. Sammy Wilson also made the point that I ignored the Executive. I did not ignore anybody. I consulted fully with the Education Committee, and as a Minister in my own right, I took a decision that was within my area of authority.
It is a bit rich and very hypocritical of Mr Wilson to launch that accusation against me, particularly as the DUP Ministers have boycotted all meetings of the Executive since it was established. That does not hold water at all. It is also important that we refute the suggestion that the only way to resolve the situation in schools that are not performing well is to publish these tables. That is nonsense, because information on the programmes which the Department of Education is involved in is available to the CCMS, the education and library boards and the Department through the work of our inspectors. Many measures are in place to ensure that there is support and encouragement for schools to help them to continue to do better.
Patricia Lewsley and Danny Kennedy raised a number of important points on value-added information. It is pertinent to state that research on this topic has been carried out for some years. No satisfactory means has yet been found of including such information in a way that would recognise progression made through a broad range of qualifications and be readily understood by parents. I do not think that there are any special factors relating to our schools which would justify the commissioning of further research, but my Department is prepared to continue monitoring developments.
People may know that the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) has been examining the scope for introducing value-added measures. Late last year, DfEE published the results of a pilot project aimed at measuring added value based on the comparison between students' achievements at GCSE and GCE A Level. That pilot is continuing this year. DfEE are due to publish a consultation document in March to take views on the methodology to be used for introducing value-added measures in a series of further pilot studies, which I am told are being proposed. The consultation will cover how value-added measures might be shown between key stages 2 and 3, between key stage 2 and public examinations at age 16, and between public examinations at age 16 and age 18. It is likely to be several years before a serviceable system is introduced; however, we will continue to monitor developments closely.
I congratulate Mr Tom Hamilton on his fine maiden speech. He effectively hit the nail on the head, and it amplified adequately a point I made when, prior to Christmas, I went to a concert in the Holy Trinity Secondary School in Cookstown performed by the teachers and pupils. It was one of the most amazing concerts I have attended in my life. During the evening, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was enjoying the concert. I said that I was, and then he said "How do you put that in a performance table?" He is absolutely right.
Ian Paisley Jnr made a number of points about denying people information and made allegations of censorship. I am all for giving people the fullest possible information, and we will be able to do that adequately with the information that schools will provide about the holistic work they are involved in. As regards the review, we will have a very important role in ensuring that accurate and complete information is available to all parents. I deny absolutely the allegations of censorship that have been made.
I appreciate the supportive and realistic comments of Mr McHugh and Mrs E Bell.
Mr S Wilson:
May I say at the very outset that - [Interruption]
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that the mover of the amendment should have an opportunity for a winding-up speech?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You are absolutely right, Mr Kennedy. I call Ms Lewsley.
I will be very brief. I was not surprised at some of the words used this afternoon, words such as "denied power", "competition", "the best", "elite" and all those things that are automatically assumed when you talk about a league table. Mr Gibson mentioned the word "praiseworthy", and I would like to know what his definition of that is, because to me he was only praising those that were the best. What about the praiseworthiness of those who do not feature in the league tables? Mr Sammy Wilson talked about value for money and about how that needs to be output-related. How can we put a price on the value of learning?
Mr Tom Hamilton asked how one measures the fact that it has taken two or three years to stimulate and improve the ability of a child who has severe learning difficulties. Can this be quantified in monetary terms and compared to the money spent on somebody who got five As in GCSEs? Both Mr Sammy Wilson and Mr Tom Hamilton mentioned the morale of teachers who are in the league and feel that they are the elite. But what about teachers who have worked twice as hard, who deserve more praise but have been totally demoralised because of the league tables?
I ask Members to support the amendment.
Mr S Wilson:
May I make it quite clear from the outset that this motion is about ensuring that whatever information is provided gives an adequate means of measuring and comparing schools. The submission by the Education Committee suggested - and a number of people supporting the motion have said this - that performanceup tables are not the be-all and end-all, but a guide for comparing and measuring what a school does. Many of us have considered what other information might be required to make the information adequate to enable measurement and comparison to take place. So let me make this clear from the start: this is not a defence of the performance tables as published by the Department. Nevertheless, I believe that they provided some useful information.
Ms Patricia Lewsley and the parents she spoke to believe that it is for schools to deliver the information. If she had read the Education Committee's document which she supported, it would have been clear to her that the Committee had concerns about schools doing this, first, on grounds of consistency and, secondly, with regard to gathering information for comparison. It appears that a number of Committee members do not read what goes out in their name or they would not have made some of the comments they have made today.
Ms Lewsley went on to say that schools ought to be about perpetual teaching rather than perpetual testing. That is a great line, but I must say that for a teacher it is a nonsense. Every teacher in every lesson seeks to test what he has done, whether by asking questions or giving homework by setting tests at the end of the week or examinations at the end of the year. Teaching is about testing. You must test what you have done; otherwise you do not know if you have achieved anything. There are various means of doing that testing, but it is absolute nonsense to talk about teaching outside the context of testing.
Indeed, Ms Lewsley sat through a Committee meeting today in which the Department told us that one of the ways in which it was going to measure -
On a point of information, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not at the Education Committee meeting today.
Mr S Wilson:
I am sorry; I made a mistake. I hope that the Member does not take this the wrong way, but I was mixing her up with Eileen Bell. She can take that as a compliment. I will come to that point in a moment.
For the benefit of the Assembly, to my recollection the only Member wearing a dress at the Education Committee earlier this afternoon was Eileen Bell.
Mr S Wilson:
I am sorry; I apologise for that confusion. I will come to that point later. Stay and listen to it, Eileen.
I will move on to Mr McHugh's speech - made in his usual muddled way - in which he said that this decision should have been made by the Committee. The Committee made a three-page response, which, as far as I know, was endorsed by Sinn Féin. I will not read the response for the record again, but it indicated that information for comparison ought to be published. It proposed that information supplied by schools alone was inadequate and would cause difficulties with comparison and consistency.
Mr McHugh told of his difficulty, which he later denied, in having this information publicised because the media could follow their own agenda. He later said that he did not object to this information's being made available to everybody, so I am not sure whether he wants it publicised or not. If individual schools publish the information in their brochures, the papers will pick up on the information. On the one hand, he wants schools to supply the information, but he does not want it published. Once the information appears in a school brochure and is available to parents, it is in the public domain. This is typical of the position of Sinn Féin members with the press. On one hand they love it, and on the other they want to censor it if it does not suit them.
Mr McHugh also spoke about how information did not take things such as social disadvantage into consideration. The motion that I have moved seeks to have included information that will give an adequate means of measuring and comparing. The Education Committee's submission, which I am supporting, says exactly that. The Minister ought to make available benchmarking information as well as information on school performance, that will show all the matters that Mr McHugh spoke about. Perhaps that is why he supported it when it came from the Committee. However, now that it is on the Floor of the Assembly, he does not want to support it. It was a fairly muddled performance. Mr McHugh went on to say that he thought the abolishment of league tables was popular with parents, teachers and pupils. Option 2 was supported by only 40% of parents and pupils. A 54% majority of parents and pupils actually opposed option 2, the option that the Minister has gone for. The other figures were fairly evenly balanced: 44% to 55%, or 48% to 51%. There is no clear figure.
Eileen Bell - whom I mistook for Patricia Lewsley earlier on - said that we should get a total picture of what goes on in schools. This is odd coming from a party that recently published its own performance tables on this Assembly, and did it look -
Mrs E Bell:
They were not performance tables, but attendance tables, which are completely different. We did not say anything about performance, but may I take the opportunity -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is this a point of order?
Mrs E Bell:
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Perhaps you could -
Mrs E Bell:
The Minister - I keep calling him the Minister - (Laughter)
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Let us have some order. Mrs Bell, I am standing so would you be kind enough to sit down.
Mrs E Bell:
The Minister - (Laughter)
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Will you please all settle down. This has all the air of a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy. We are dealing with a rather serious matter here. I do not think the public, the teachers - or the Minister - can be too elevated by the activities and hilarity with which this matter is being dealt. As to the question of what clothes people are wearing, we will draw a veil over that too. I ask you, Mr Wilson, to finish your winding-up speech.
Mr S Wilson:
I assure Mrs Bell that, whether she seeks to elevate me artificially or not, I will not go easy on her. I will still make the points that I wish to make.
The first point is that it does seem a bit odd that this party should talk about taking into account the whole picture of what goes on in a school, when it has published inadequate information about the performance of Members here - with no value-added information, nothing about the contribution they made in Committee and nothing about the length of time they stayed on a Committee. I will leave that matter aside for the moment.
Secondly, she said that the publication of information about school performance and test results puts pressure on pupils and teachers. That was where I made a mistake earlier - we sat through an Education Committee meeting this afternoon, in which the Department outlined how it intends to measure targets. Those targets were all about the percentage of people who got GCSEs -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You are coming to the last minute of your allocated time.
Mr S Wilson:
I am coming to it. The targets were also about the percentage of people who got Key Stage 2 examinations. I think - although, again, I could be wrong - that not one bleat of opposition was raised. Does testing put pressure on schools? If so, should we not have these standards? Should the Minister be condemned for it?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You have about five seconds.
Mr S Wilson:
I will not do justice to Mr Hamilton's maiden speech in just five seconds. In deference to the fact that this was the Member's maiden speech, you ought to give me a minute or two more. Mr Hamilton did make a number of very important points. He said that parents' choice of a school is not based on academic results alone, and that is quite right. I am not saying that school performance tables are meant to be the sole basis of choice for parents, because there is a plethora of other information.
Mr Hamilton also talked about the morale of teachers. I agree. I have taught people -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You must bring your remarks to a close.
Mr S Wilson:
I am doing that now.
In closing, I believe that this motion ought to be supported by the House, because it seeks to ensure that the measurement of schools is presented more effectively than in the past and it deals with the deficit of information which we would have if we go ahead with the Minister's plan.
Question put That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 25; Noes 36.
Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Bairbre de Brún, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Joe Hendron, Patricia Lewsley, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Martin McGuinness, Gerry McHugh, Pat McNamee, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dara O'Hagan, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Oliver Gibson, Tom Hamilton, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to publish information which enables the performance of schools in Northern Ireland to be adequately measured and compared.
Mr C Murphy:
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the report by the Law Centre, 'Sanctuary in a Cell', on the detention of asylum seekers and calls upon the Government to develop an alternative to detaining asylum seekers and to devise methods of expediting the application process.
I commend the Law Centre for publishing its report 'Sanctuary in a Cell'. Many of us are aware of the issue surrounding asylum seekers and the treatment they are receiving from the authorities here, in the South and in Britain. The report does an excellent job of documenting that - it highlights some of the terrible abuses those people have had to put up with and the lack of welcome that many have experienced on this island. It makes some key and sound recommendations for improvements to the system.
Central to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement is the vindication and protection of the human rights of all. That must include the rights of asylum seekers, and not just the rights of the people native to this island. The detention in prison of asylum seekers waiting for their applications to be processed - along with convicted criminals in many cases - for up to eight months without charge is nothing less than internment. Many people in the House, not just on these Benches but on some of the other Benches, know only too well the impact that has on individuals and their families. Such detention only serves to increase the uncertainty and hardship that asylum seekers face. It does nothing to alleviate their difficulties.
People left this country, and this island, in their millions as a result of political persecution and economic deprivation - be it Presbyterians from this part of the island a couple of centuries ago, people in general as a result of the famine or those persecuted for their Republican politics in the early part of the last century. It is common for anybody born on this island to have relatives, or people they know, who have left for other countries as a result of political persecution or economic necessity. The Irish diaspora is testament to that. Only in recent years has immigration from Ireland to Britain and the United States, particularly for economic reasons, ended.
Such experiences give people on this island a special insight into the plight of immigrants and exiles. We need that insight more than ever as we see, for the first time, a reversal of emigration and people coming to this island, and this country, and creating a more diverse Irish society. I call on the Assembly to back the recommendations of the Law Centre in its report 'Sanctuary in a Cell', which include the ending of the unneccessary detention of asylum seekers, the creation of non-custodial alternatives, the designation of the British Home Office a public body under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and full access to free legal advice and welfare and community services for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers are entitled to have their application for asylum processed and to be accommodated while they await adjudication. They are not to blame for the current housing crisis - successive Governments are. They are also not responsible for the low levels of social welfare - successive Governments are. Finally, they are not responsible for the long delay in the processing of their applications; again successive Governments are.
In the first page of the executive summary of the report 'Sanctuary in a Cell', one can read that the British Government, in its 1999 White Paper on immigration and asylum, began its statement of policy principles by saying
"Any strategy for immigration control must, as well as reflecting operational requirements, satisfy fundamental policy principles. Chief among these are respect for human rights and for race equality."
This has clearly not been the case considering the experience of asylum seekers in this part of Ireland, the rest of Ireland and in Britain generally.
Here is one of the primary recommendations of the report:
"asylum seekers should be detained in cases of necessity, in accordance with the guidelines issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These permit detention in four narrow sets of circumstances only."
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I will struggle on against the background noise. You might not be able to hear it. The report also concludes that
"in no circumstances should asylum seekers be held with convicted prisoners."
However, that has been the case in Magilligan and in Maghaberry, where women asylum seekers have been held. No one who heard the report this morning on the radio could fail to be moved by the Algerian who was detained in Magilligan prison for almost a year. He ended up being seriously assaulted.
Mr M Murphy:
On a point of order. I cannot hear the Member because of disruption from the other side of the Chamber. Will you do something about it?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Would you repeat that please?
Mr M Murphy:
I cannot hear the Member because of the noise coming from across the Chamber. I would appreciate if you did something about it.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I understand your problem. Will Members please keep quiet while people are speaking?
Mr C Murphy:
A LeasCheann Comhairle, bad manners coming from that corner of the Chamber are nothing new. They are something that the rest of us have learned to live with over the last while.
No one could have failed to be moved by the experience related by the Algerian asylum seeker this morning. He was detained for almost a year in Magilligan prison. He was seriously assaulted there and was severely traumatised. This was a man who had left very dangerous and difficult political circumstances to try and find some comfort in this part of the world.
One of the key recommendations is that this use of detention - which, it appears, the Government here, and certainly in other areas, has used almost as a first measure - is clearly meant to be used as the very last resort. In many cases, it is the very first measure that authorities resort to. Another key recommendation from the report is that "a dedicated accommodation facility" should be developed in Belfast. Some concern has been expressed to me recently that the Government may be considering providing a dedicated accommodation facility in Britain. Many Republicans and Nationalists - in many cases very innocent Nationalists - know the difficulty one has in trying to sustain any sort of relationship while someone is detained across the water. Visiting is difficult, as is trying to maintain family relations in such circumstances. Given the number of asylum seekers who have landed in this part of Ireland, there is merit and justification in creating a dedicated accommodation facility in Belfast - not simply removing the problem by shipping people over to Britain, therefore creating an even worse problem for those seeking asylum here. There are many other key recommendations in the report, but I will not go into them, because the Law Centre has sent a summary to most Members. I urge the Assembly to fully endorse very publicly the recommendations made in the report.
The British and Irish Governments have adopted an antagonistic approach to the issue. It is the responsibility of those in this Chamber to give leadership on the issue of asylum seekers and on the racism, which is quite often involved. The situation in the South is not good either and asylum seekers are being stigmatised there also. We need to see the development of legislation with regard to asylum seekers - preferably by the Irish and British Governments, so that we have the highest international standards in the protection and vindication of the human rights of asylum seekers across the island of Ireland.
In many instances, those who come here from other countries are not aware of the difficulties, the differences and the different jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. Indeed, a case was reported to me of an eastern European who was living in the Dundalk area with his young son. He was selling the 'Big Issue' magazine in order to raise some money for his son and himself, and when he moved to Newry to sell the publication, he was unaware that he had crossed a border. He was arrested and detained for a couple of months. If other immigrants in the Dundalk area had not cared for his son, he would have been taken into state care. It was hugely traumatising for both the father and the son.
There must be a common approach to asylum seekers on this island, from both the Irish and the British Governments, to ensure that there are no additional difficulties for asylum seekers if they stray from North to South or vice versa. We have found that Governments, particularly the British Government, are more anxious to deport asylum seekers rather than proceed with a proper system of assessment. A fair hearing and fair living and working conditions for those seeking asylum should be quickly put in place.
A Cheann Comhairle, a huge richness can be gained from multiculturalism. Through information, education and political leadership, fear and misunderstanding can be replaced by the embracing of the growing diversity in Irish society, North and South. I hope that the motion will secure support from across the House. As Members know, this is not a devolved responsibility. As has been the case when other reserved matters have been brought before the Assembly, this is an opportunity for us to speak on the issue with one clear voice and say that the system of dealing with asylum seekers is wrong and in need of change. It is an opportunity to urge the British Government and, indeed, the Dublin Government - who, I hope, are listening to the debate - to take note of our concerns on this issue and act accordingly. Go raibh maith agat.