Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 19 February 2001 (continued)

Cultural Traditions: Museum Exhibitions


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the role of museums when mounting major exhibitions with respect to the depiction of cultural traditions.

(AQO 825/00)

Mr McGimpsey:

One of my key strategic objectives is to promote greater understanding and respect for cultural diversity. That includes promoting a greater understanding of and respect for the different cultural traditions in Northern Ireland. Both the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland (MAGNI) and local museums have an important part to play in the process. MAGNI is required by statute to promote awareness, appreciation and understanding of people's culture and way of life with particular regard to the heritage of Northern Ireland. That approach is reflected, for example, in its current Icons of Identity exhibitions and its work to commemorate the Act of Union. It also plans, as it said in its vision statement, to tell the history of the people of Ireland with particular emphasis on the history and heritage of Northern Ireland.

Mr Armstrong:

Is the Minister satisfied that museums show due regard for the culture of most people in Northern Ireland, which is Ulster culture? Can he say whether any plans have been developed to commemorate the Act of Union with a suitable display or exhibition in one of our principal museums, such as the Ulster Museum?

Mr McGimpsey:

To answer the first question, if any of us were satisfied, none of us would be in public life. There is always room for improvement, no matter what you look at. We will continue to do what we can to strengthen and to improve.

On the question of the Act of Union, an exhibition is currently under way. It will be displayed in the Ulster Museum at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast for a period of three months beginning in June.

Mr ONeill:

I am quite sure that the question was referring to the Act of Union of 1801 between all of Ireland and Britain. However, perhaps I might refer to the actual question relating to museums and their role. Has the Minister got a date yet for the publication of the report into regional museums? Does he agree that the report has been long awaited and that it will have considerable significance in promoting cultural identity in Northern Ireland? Has he begun preparations for a funding stream to implement what we hope will be the enlightened recommendations of that report?

Mr McGimpsey:

I assume that I missed or lost the first part of the question. Is the Member referring to the local museums and heritage review? The review steering group intends to present the report jointly to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of the Environment by the end of February. I have not seen it, but that will mark the end of the review, and the Departments will then consult and respond to the steering group's recommendations, which will fall under several headings. The resource implications will be a part of that, and I have no doubt that Mr ONeill and the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will have suggestions. I look forward to sharing the review with the Committee and to hearing its suggestions and considerations in due course.



Mr McElduff

asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to give his assessment of the benefits of the wider availability of TG4 in Northern Ireland.

(AQO 845/00)

Mr McGimpsey:

Policy in respect of broadcasting is a reserved matter and is the responsibility of the UK Government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

In the recently published communications White Paper 'A New Future For Communications' the UK Government said that it aimed to give effect to the commitments in the Belfast Agreement relating to the broadcasting of Irish-language programmes and to the support of film and television production in Northern Ireland.

3.30 pm

The wider availability of TG4 in Northern Ireland allows more of the Irish-language community in Northern Ireland to watch Irish-medium programmes. It also increases awareness of the language generally and affords viewers the opportunity to learn the Irish language through the medium of television.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat. I appreciate that the complete provision of TG4 throughout Ireland, and other matters pertaining to broadcasting are, indeed, reserved matters. None the less, I seek a commitment from the Minister to lobby the Irish and British broadcasting authorities to ensure the complete availability of TG4. Yesterday they had excellent coverage of the game between Bellaghy and Crossmolina, but too few people who wanted to see it got to do so. I also ask the Minister to lobby the BBC to commission new programmes in Irish. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Minister, the time is up. Will you answer Mr McElduff's question in writing?

Mr McGimpsey:

I will.


Agriculture and Rural Development

Fishing Industry


Mr Shannon

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail if additional European Union funding will be available for the fishing industry; and to make a statement.

(AQO 810/00)


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the date when the bid for Fishing Industry Finance and Grants (Fisheries Guidance) Programme funding will be approved by the European Commission; and to make a statement.

(AQO 817/00)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

Under the Community Support Framework, the European Commission has approved 29 million euros for assistance to the Northern Irish fishing industry. However, details of how such funding is to be allocated between the different fisheries measures have still to be agreed by the Commission, as they are contained in the overall Northern Ireland Transitional I programme.

I am, therefore, not in a position to outline how the funding will be allocated. As the Member will appreciate, I cannot tell him exactly when the European Commission will approve the operational programme, but I am reasonably confident that approval should be forthcoming before the end of March.

Mr Shannon:

There is much talk in the fishing industry about the assistance that could be offered, and the Minister mentioned the sum of 29 million euros. I understand from the fishing industry that there could be £20 million available. Will the Minister give us a breakdown of how the funding will be allocated? For instance, how much will go on decommissioning and how much on the promotion of the finished product? More importantly, will the Minister tell us the start date for the scheme? The fishermen and the fishing industry need the finance now. Will there be sufficient financial assistance to take on the task of maintaining the fishing industry?

Ms Rodgers:

I cannot give details of the scheme, for it has not yet been approved. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt what will, or will not, be approved. Similarly, I cannot give a start date until the approval is through. I hope to receive it by the end of March 2001 at the latest.

As to what can be done for the industry, I am obviously considering a decommissioning scheme. My officials are consulting with the industry about the possibility. I cannot give a breakdown as yet, for the reasons that I have mentioned, but we are having consultations about it, so that when we do - as I hope - get the go-ahead, we will be ready to move on it as soon as possible. Apart from that, I am taking all other possible measures. In relation to the specific questions that the Member has asked, those are the only answers I am able to give.

Mr ONeill:

We all realise the difficulty that the Minister and her Department are in while they await definitive guidance from Europe. However, the Minister will have plans for the decommissioning of fishing vessels. Will she detail for us what sort of decommissioning she would like to see? What plans does she have for such a scheme?

Ms Rodgers:

The decommissioning scheme will be aimed at reducing capacity to help fishermen with the difficulty of balancing the conservation of stocks with the preservation of their livelihood. The scheme is with the European Commission for approval.

In anticipation of the programme being approved in the next few weeks, I am developing the details of the decommissioning scheme and consulting with the fishing industry. However, I am not yet able to provide those details.

Mr Taylor:

Since funding for the fishing industry comes from the common fisheries policy, which has failed the fishermen of County Down and is now under review, will the Minister say whether the Department has made any representations in relation to the review of the common fisheries policy?

Secondly, does she support the idea of regionalisation? Thirdly, as funding from the common fisheries policy is partly expended by the Northern Ireland Harbour Fisheries Authority, is the Minister aware of the growing concern among Portavogie fishermen about delays and decisions made by the board of that organisation, and will she make representations to ensure more speedy and efficient decision-making processes for that board?

Ms Rodgers:

In relation to the common fisheries policy, I expect to see a Green Paper in March, and we will be making our contribution to that through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I have already had informal discussions with European officials, and I am aware that a review of the common fisheries policy is being prepared. The Northern Ireland Harbour Fishery Authority is no longer in deficit because of the hard work of board members.

The board is considering several issues, and the Member may be referring to the improvements to Kilkeel harbour. The board is examining the situation and is considering the wider implications of an integrated plan for the entire Kilkeel area. To date, they have not requested any funding from me, but they have been working well within their difficult remit.

Grant Applications: Appeals


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline progress towards the establishment of an appeals mechanism in respect of grant applications to her Department.

(AQO 864/00)

Ms Rodgers:

My Department will shortly issue a consultation paper to the industry as the first step towards establishing an independent appeals mechanism for decisions concerning livestock and area-based payments. I hope that, following consultation, we will be able to proceed with setting up the structures required to have the new appeals procedure operational before the end of the year.

Mrs E Bell:

I am glad that the new procedure should be in place by the end of the year because on 5 December 2000, in response to the question from David Ford, the Minister said:

"We have a draft in preparation".

Scotland already has an ombudsman, and Wales will commence consultation in the autumn. When will we see progress here? May we have a timetable for that?

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware that the Scots have already got their appeals mechanism in place and that England and Wales have begun the consultation process. We hope to start consulting in the next few weeks, and that is a statutory obligation. Following consultation, we will assess the results and go through the Nolan procedures to establish the independent mechanism.

It is difficult to put a timetable on that work. I will be moving as quickly as possible because I recognise the importance - especially under the Human Rights Act 1998 - of having an independent mechanism so that people can feel that they have the option to bring an appeal for independent assessment outside the authority that made the decision.

Importation of Condemned
Specified Risk Material


Mr Kane

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she is aware of the import of condemned specified risk material (SRM) from the rendering plant in County Cavan.

(AQO 870/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I was aware that imports of SRM were taking place. However, it was derived from animals slaughtered for human consumption, and none was derived from condemned animals. Processed SRM from Monery By-Products - now called Monery 2000 Ltd - in County Cavan was exported from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland for landfill at the Tullyvar site at Aughnacloy. The imports were under licence from my Department and took place from July 1999 until December 2000.

New European Union rules on SRM were introduced by the European Commission on 29 June 2000 through Commission decision 2000/418. That decision, which came into force on 1 October 2000, made it illegal to export SRM to another member state, except for the purposes of incineration. As the Republic of Ireland authorities lacked the necessary landfill facilities to deal with the material, they requested that the trade continue beyond 1 October 2000 while they sought a derogation from the Commission. That approach was unsuccessful, and the Republic of Ireland authorities immediately stopped the trade in December 2000. No further trade has occurred since.

Mr Kane:

Did the import practice stop in accordance with EU regulations that prohibit the transfer of such material? In complying with the regulation, has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development admitted that the material was SRM? Can the Minister confirm that Monery 2000 Ltd is a designated plant for SRM? Was one day's notice given to allow a veterinary inspection to be carried out every time consignments for Aughnacloy were dispatched? Can the Minister be satisfied with the integrity of licences for such material, given that Mr Fox from the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development found himself in prison for falsifying licences?

Ms Rodgers:

There are six or seven questions, and I may not have heard them all correctly, but I will do my best to answer. If I miss one, I will respond in writing.

First, the imported material is buried at Tullyvar, and it will remained buried. It was processed to the required EU standard before burial. The processing reduced any risk from BSE to negligible proportions. Prior to import, the SRM was processed to standards laid down by the Commission - decision 96/449/EC, which requires the material to be heated to a core temperature of 133°C for 20 minutes at a pressure of 3 bar. The particle size of the raw material prior to processing must be reduced to at most 50 mm by means of a pre-breaker or grinder.

I further reassure the Member that imports were subject to strict veterinary controls laid down in the licence granted by my Department. Those controls required processing before import to the required EU standard; advance notice of the import; veterinary certification by the Republic of Ireland authorities that the material had been processed to the required EU standard; transportation in sealed, leak-proof containers to arrive during working hours; and containers and vehicles to be cleansed and disinfected before leaving the Tullyvar landfill site. There were also veterinary checks of the consignments on their arrival at Tullyvar to ensure that those conditions had been met.

Mr Douglas:

Specified risk material is being put into the landfill site at Greenhill Road in County Antrim, and as much as 100,000 tonnes of meat and bonemeal - some of which may be contaminated - is being stored throughout Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, with hindsight, SRM should never have been accepted from the South?

Ms Rodgers:

As regards SRM coming in from the South, we were not able, under the EU free-trade regulations, to refuse such material. That was the case until the EU changed the regulation and stipulated that such material should not be transported from one country to another. At that time the Republic of Ireland sought a derogation, and while that was taking place the practice was allowed to continue. However, as soon as the derogation was refused, the practice was stopped.

3.45 pm

I cannot comment on the Member's other question because I do not have the specific details here. I will answer him in writing.

Mrs Carson:

It is difficult to get answers about what actually happened at the Tullyvar site. I welcome the interest shown by the DUP in trying to get an answer to questions that I have been raising for some considerable time.

The Minister mentioned that the material arrived in sealed containers. I would like an assurance that they were really sealed. Can we be assured that they were permanently sealed and that there is no risk of material from the dump at Tullyvar getting into the watercourse or being siphoned off into it as part of the procedures?

Can the Minister assure me that she will work with the Department of the Environment to ensure that no more dangerous materials are imported into Northern Ireland? Will she put pressure on the Republic of Ireland authorities to abide by their responsibilities in respect of trans-frontier transport of waste?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I remind the Member that the convention is to ask one question rather than a series.

Mrs Carson:

There are so many issues. I will raise them in a written question.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am sure the Minister will be quite happy to answer in writing.

Ms Rodgers:

I know that the Member has already raised those matters with me in writing.

As regards the risk to human health and SRM getting into the watercourse, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) - an independent scientific advisory committee - has made it clear that the risk of BSE from buried SRM is negligible. That is the advice which we have received. Of course, any risk to human health would be a matter for the Food Standards Agency, not for my Department.

As regards whether the containers were sealed, the answer is yes. They were inspected on arrival. Veterinary checks were carried out, and everything was found to be in order.



Mr Bradley

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to say when she expects the European Commission to bring forward proposals for the review of the sheepmeat regime.

(AQO 829/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I understand that the Commission aims to bring forward proposals for the reform of the sheepmeat regime for discussion at the next Agriculture Council meeting in March. Knowing this, we have been pressing the case from a UK and Northern Ireland point of view. Indeed, my officials attended a meeting with the Commission on 10 January to discuss the matter.

That proved useful, and the Commission was advised of the importance of the sheep premium to sheepmeat producers, and in particular of the less favoured areas supplement to hill farmers, who suffer from a lack of alternative agricultural activities. The Commission officials were also told that, while we were keen to see the regime simplified - and can see advantage in a move to a flat rate premium because it would introduce a degree of certainty into the regime for producers - any flat rate must be fair. We will be following developments closely.

Mr Bradley:

The recent announcement regarding the regime seems to indicate that Brussels wants to replace variable premiums with fixed headage premiums. I do not know how we will be able to deal with that. However, does the Minister agree on the importance of a much higher flat rate than has been the case recently?

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware of the falling value of the sheep annual premium in recent years. That has been due partly to the strength of sterling, but also to the differential between the market values in the rest of Europe and the UK - and Northern Ireland in particular - which means that our subsidy is less. In fact, a flat rate has been suggested by the Scottish college that carried out a study on behalf of the Commission. The farmers and I would be happy to see a flat rate introduced, and it is a possibility. It would need to be set at a much higher rate, because recently the annual sheep premium has gradually decreased every year, and that is clearly unacceptable from our point of view.

Farm Incomes


Mr Fee

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to give her assessment of farm incomes in Northern Ireland; and to make a statement.

(AQO 827/00)

Ms Rodgers:

Income figures for Northern Ireland, which were published on 31 January 2001, show that, at the aggregate level, the total income from farming and the return to farmers and all their family members working on farms rose by 6% to £98 million - 3% in real terms - in 2000.

At the individual farm level, it is forecast that the average net farm income will have increased by approximately £3,000 per farm in 2000-01, with improvements in all farm types other than cereals. In the cases of general cropping, in less favoured areas, cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry and mixed farms' average incomes are expected to return to profit from loss. However, the average income from lowland cattle and sheep farms is expected to have remained negative, despite some improvement.

Although I welcome this improvement, however slight, incomes remain low by historical standards. The figures reflect the serious problems experienced by the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland in recent years. The weak euro has been the primary cause of the industry's difficulties. The payment of agrimonetary compensation, worth almost £14 million to Northern Ireland in 2000, has been an important element in bolstering incomes. While the increase in agriculture income is small, it represents a hopeful sign that the worst of the income difficulties may be over.

Mr Fee:

I thank the Minister for a detailed answer. I know that she understands better than most that there has been a serious decline in recent years across every agriculture sector, be it sheep, beef, dairy, poultry, cereals, or whatever. The news that the Minister gave is extremely welcome, but is it her Department's assessment that the recession in agriculture has finally bottomed out, and what are its predictions for farm incomes over the next few years?

Ms Rodgers:

I agree with Mr Fee about the difficult times that the farming community has been through from an income point of view. I would like to think that they have bottomed out. However, much will depend on future movements in the sterling/euro exchange rate. There are now some grounds for mild optimism in the short to medium term. They include the recent strengthening of the euro and the generally improved prices currently prevailing for several commodities compared to those in the early part of last year. However, there has been another slight decrease in some prices in recent days.

Against that, the BSE problem in other EU countries has the potential to have a negative impact on beef prices in the British Isles. It will clearly have an effect on our market, and that is why I will argue for the payment of all agrimoney compensation while it is still available.

Mr Armstrong:

Does the Minister accept that, although there may have been a tiny increase in the total agriculture income last year, it has fallen by a massive 73% since 1995 - more than in England, Wales or Scotland? How much importance does the Minister attach to reversing the decline, and does she have any plans to achieve that?

Ms Rodgers:

I recognise that the rise comes against the backdrop of a steep fall in recent years. I also note that although our income level is slightly up, that is not the case in Great Britain. Indeed, Wales had a negative return in that it had a fall of 105%.

However, in relation to what I can do to address it, as I have already said, I will lobby for the full agrimonetary compensation to be paid. I am looking at every measure that we can take to improve marketing, skills and the quality of beef. There are issues beyond my control, such as the effect that the present BSE situation is having on the markets in continental Europe with the consequent domino effect in Northern Ireland. In that situation, I can only appeal to the good sense of consumers to exercise choice when buying and for retailers also to play their part.

Organic Farming


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to give her assessment of the differential rates of grant paid to organic farmers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

(AQO 866/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I am seeking to encourage the development of a vibrant organic sector in Northern Ireland. Under the Northern Ireland Rural Development Plan 2000-06, £9 million has been made available for a new organic farming scheme, which will be open to applicants from 1 March 2001. Those resources will enable the scheme to grow from its present level of 20 producers farming just over 1,000 hectares to 1,000 farmers with 30,000 hectares under agreement by 2006.

Payments to producers under the organic farming scheme will total, over a period of five years, £450 a hectare for land eligible for the arable area payment scheme (AAPS) and for land in permanent crops. Payments of £350 a hectare will be made for improved land not eligible for that scheme, with £50 a hectare for unimproved grassland or rough grazing land. Most of the payments will be made in the first two years, and producers will also receive lump sums of £300 in the first year, £200 in the second and £100 in the third year towards the initial costs of advice and training.

In the Republic of Ireland, under the rural environment protection scheme (REPS), organic farmers receive annual payments of 181 euros (approximately £110) a hectare for land in conversion and 91 euros (approximately £55) a hectare for land fully converted, up to a maximum of 40 hectares. The REPS agreement is for five years, but it can be renewed with payments for fully converted land continuing at the lower rate.

The need for ongoing payments to organic farmers is likely to emerge in the report on the strategic study of the organic sector, which is being completed. I will study any such recommendations carefully, though there is no financial provision for any such payments.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for detailing what is currently paid, but she did not refer to the fact that the UK is the only country in the EU that does not make provision for ongoing payments under the organic aid scheme, or something similar. Does she accept that Northern Ireland producers have particular problems, given the land border with a member state that pays such an ongoing grant? Does she also accept that there is a real danger that farmers in Northern Ireland could convert to organic production because of the current level of grant and subsequently be undercut by producers elsewhere in Europe unless there is ongoing support?

Ms Rodgers:

A study of the organic farming scheme is currently taking place. I am willing consider the report that I will get from those consultants following their strategic study of the Northern Ireland organic sector. I am open-minded on the issue, and I await that study's recommendations. I also have to bear in mind - and I remind Mr Ford of this - that resources will always be a problem, but I will do what I can to deal with the issue.

Mr Hussey:

The Minister will now be aware of the seven-point plan brought forward by Mr Fischler for dealing with beef prices. It includes an exemption to use set-aside land for organic farming. Has she assessed the impact of that proposal with regard to her previous answers?

4.00 pm

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

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware of the seven proposals that have come from the Commission, and at present I am discussing those proposals with the industry. This morning I had a meeting with the Ulster Farmers' Union. I will consider all the implications, but I have not assessed any one in particular. I am going to the agriculture meeting in Brussels next Monday, and it is to be hoped that I will be in a better position then to give a fuller answer to the question.

Quality Beef Scheme: Non-Genetically-Modified Feed


Mr McHugh

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to confirm that the difficulty in sourcing non-genetically-modified feed for farm animals may affect the implementation of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development quality beef scheme.

(AQO 840/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I assume that the Member is referring to the farm quality assurance scheme, which is managed by the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland on behalf of the industry. I understand that industry representatives are considering the potential under the scheme to provide some assurance that animals have not been fed genetically modified foods for some period prior to slaughter. This is a commercial matter for industry interests to consider and decide how they wish to proceed. I am advised by the Northern Ireland grain trade that it is possible to supply genetically-modified-free feed, but at an additional cost.


Supply:Spring Supplementary Estimates (2000-01)
and Vote on Account (2001-02)

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Assembly approves that a further sum not exceeding £195,599,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31 March 2001 for expenditure by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas. - [Mr Durkan]

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Assembly approves that a sum not exceeding £3,806,414,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002 and that resources not exceeding £4,305,870,000 be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002. - [Mr Durkan]

Mr Durkan:

I listened with great interest to the points that have been raised by Members. Members' participation has fully reflected the opening comments of the Speaker this morning about the debate providing an opportunity to raise matters of interest or concern to them. Twenty-one Members took that opportunity, and that reflects the high number of Members who contributed in earlier Budget debates.

The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, Mr Molloy, mentioned his concern about the process for Assembly consideration of the financial cycle. That same theme was picked up by other Members, including Alex Maskey, Seamus Close, Monica McWilliams, William Hay, Gardiner Kane and George Savage. Their criticisms and concerns are noted and will form an important part of considering how improvements can be made. I assure Members that the issue will be carefully considered.

There are practical and timing issues, but it is the aim of the Department of Finance and Personnel to ensure that Committees have a greater role and involvement in scrutinising the financial proposals and performance of their Departments and that the Finance and Personnel Committee is as fully involved as possible at an early stage.

I understand Members' concerns, and I will not attempt to argue that the processes that have been followed so far have been adequate, much less perfect. As I have emphasised repeatedly to the Finance and Personnel Committee, the timetable for each monitoring round is constrained, but there is room for more discussion with the Committees before a result is achieved. I will explore further how that best can be facilitated.

However, I have told Committee members on several occasions that they are free to ask questions at the various stages of the processes that are now culminating in the Estimates. That applies for discussions about the annual Budget as well as for each monitoring round. Committee members need not await a procedural starting gun from me to begin scrutiny and questioning. The Department of Finance and Personnel has not turned down any requests for information or elaboration, and I would be surprised if any Department had done so.

Concerns have been raised today that people have not had enough time to consider the Estimates. The Estimates cover allocations previously announced in monitoring rounds and in the second set of Estimates in the Budget. Committees have had information available to them that they could pursue with relevant Departments or question the Department of Finance and Personnel about. Committees have been quite free to pursue the sort of questions that were raised today through the channels available to them, based on the information that they had from the previous monitoring decisions and the previous Budget proposals.

I am aware of the views that were specifically articulated by Mr Close about the adequacy of the role of the Assembly and its Committees in contributing to thinking on the allocation of resources and the scrutiny of detailed Estimates. I cannot be unconditional in responding to those arguments. The Executive have a clear responsibility in the process. However, given Mr Close's views and the views of others, I am willing to consider how we can close the gap he described. I will take the views of the Finance and Personnel Committee on the matter. We need dialogue to enable a better all-round understanding of the constraints and the opportunities to refine and improve what happens. That is not just in the interests of the Assembly and the Executive, but in the interests of the public.

In response to the Finance and Personnel Committee's report, the Executive plan to bring forward the draft Budget as early as possible after the summer recess. That was underlined again today by Mr Molloy.

I welcome the comments of several Members, including Mr Leslie and Ms McWilliams, on the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting and the related work on the development of public service agreements, which Mr Maskey welcomed. Those are important steps forward for improving financial and operational management in Departments. They will further enhance the accountability of Departments to the Assembly and address many of the concerns raised by Members in that regard.

For example, better information should be available on the true costs of services, the position of the Department against budget and, more importantly, progress against the delivery of departmental objectives that the Assembly wants to see. Those developments provide further opportunities to enhance the scope of the Assembly and its Committees in playing a major role in the development of the spending plans.


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