Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 19 February 2001 (continued)
I will attempt to answer as many of the Members' points as possible. However, it would not be appropriate for me to make definitive responses on some issues that are currently subject to other processes, such as consideration by the Public Accounts Committee.
I want to stress that the spending plans of 11 Departments, which cover a very wide range of public services, change materially as each year progresses. At each point, whether setting the original Budget or in each monitoring round, we make the best estimates possible at the time and judge what can be committed.
Thus, while the pattern has been that we have needed Supplementary Estimates of 2% to 2·5% of the Main Estimates provision, that arises through a different combination of factors in each year that cannot be predicted at the start of the year. However, it would be wrong to assume that that implies that there is always money available and that we can afford to do more than we have announced.
The Executive have faced hard choices, and that will continue to be the case as we go forward. Mr Molloy acknowledged our role in reallocating resources and welcomed the reduction in the regional rate from that originally proposed. Other Members, including Mr Poots, also touched on that point. He asked us to keep under review our scope to raise income through other means. We will do that, although Mr Molloy will be aware that the opportunities to add to resources from local revenues are very limited.
However, the review of the regional rate will be thorough and wide-ranging. That is the place to explore the concerns that Mr Molloy, Mr Poots, Mr Close and others have raised about various aspects of the regional rate.
I want to emphasise that, as I explained last week, we acted on the rates increases as soon as action was possible, as had been promised all along. Given the many requests for additional funding that we have heard today in the course of the debate, I have to repeat that we need the revenue from the rates. We need not damage the case we need to make to the Treasury on the Barnett formula. Now is not the time to address the Barnett issue in full, but I note and welcome the comments that several Members made on it. I take Mr Molloy's point, also referred to by Mr Maskey, about the product of the Barnett formula in relation to our needs. That will be addressed with determination.
It is worth saying that the interests of Scotland and Wales may not coincide with our own, and we cannot presume that there can be a united approach on the subject just because we desire one.
Mr Leslie's cautious observations about the nature of the challenge on Barnett should be well taken. However, the 2000 spending review highlighted the inadequacies of the Barnett mechanism in funding the devolved regions. I have made representations to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, as have the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, on the issue. It is imperative that the problem be resolved before the next spending review. The full introduction of resource accounting and budgeting means that it is imperative that the Treasury recognises the level of need in Northern Ireland and the structural differences between Northern Ireland's and Great Britain's public sectors.
Mr Molloy raised the question of whether our approach to determining Votes on Account in future will be based on a percentage of estimated spend rather than the previous year's expenditure. That will be determined in the light of experience, but obviously, and most importantly, we do not wish to seek approval for an inadequate resource for the period to be covered.
Dr Birnie referred to the management development programme, as did Ms McWilliams. Reduced requirements have been declared on that programme, because some schemes were insufficiently developed to allow them to run in the current year. However, schemes that are in operation are running at almost full capacity.
The Department expects all planned schemes to run at or near full capacity next year. Dr Birnie also mentioned recruitment to the work track programme - another point taken up by Ms McWilliams. Recruitment to that programme has been slower than expected. When the programme started in August 1999, the Department estimated that capacity would build up to 1,050 places early in 2000-01. At present 850 people are in the programme, and recruitment is continuing.
Mr Poots raised points on several areas, including wastage and fraud in the Health Service, victims, urban regeneration, Department of the Environment funding, road maintenance and the Antrim to Knockmore railway line.
I attach a high priority to ensuring that wastage and fraud, in any service, are rigorously addressed. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is also determined to prevent, detect and pursue fraud anywhere in the health and personal social services. To that end, it has implemented a broad-based action plan to counter both patient-based and practitioner-based fraud and plans to extend counter-fraud measures to the wider Health Service.
On Mr Poots's comments on victims, and in reply to concerns from Ms Bell, I can say that the Executive attach a high priority to their needs. Detailed proposals for the expenditure are still to be finalised, but it will be important to ensure that the £320,000 allocated to the Victims Unit will be used as efficiently and effectively as possible. We should also bear in mind that funding will be complementary to a further allocation of £6·7 million available from Peace II later this year.
The Executive are committed to the pursuit of policies that directly address divisions in the community. We are following policies and supporting practical measures that will, over time, help to ease community divisions and thereby reinforce new political institutions commanding widespread public support.
I also note the comments about urban regeneration. That is primarily for the Minister for Social Development. While welcoming the in-year increases for historic buildings, road safety officers, planners, and so on in the Department of the Environment, Edwin Poots pressed the need for further resources for the Environment and Heritage Service to implement European environment Directives. The Executive and the Assembly have recognised that need by providing an extra £9 million in next year's Budget.
Mr Poots, William Hay, Kieran McCarthy and Gerry McHugh all stressed the need for further investment in roads maintenance. The additional allocations made in the December monitoring indicate that the Executive are aware of the need, in the context of available resources and competing priorities. Mr Hay's points on the slippage in roads capital expenditure are a matter for the Minister for Regional Development.
Mr Poots, Mr Close and Mr Hay raised the question of the Antrim to Knockmore railway after the Bleach Green line reopens. That is initially a matter for the Minister for Regional Development, but I must point out that the appraisal that underpinned the reopening of the Bleach Green line was based on the Knockmore line closing.
Delays in the provision of a new library for Lisburn occurred because of the lack of a suitable site. The favoured site had difficulties attached to it in the form of rights of way, but those have now been resolved, and the South Eastern Education and Library Board will complete its purchase. Provision of a library for Lisburn by conventional means would cost approximately £3 million. Adoption of such a route would have an adverse impact on the Department's library development programme. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is finalising the outline business case for the project, and it expects to allow the board to proceed with the PFI solution in the near future.
Mr Poots also raised the issue of the gas industry. The Executive are keen that the natural gas industry be extended outside the greater Belfast area. However, the development of a natural gas industry in the south east - Craigavon, Newry and Banbridge - depends on the private sector constructing a gas pipeline between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Proposals by British Gas Keyspan to construct a North/South pipeline from Belfast to Dublin have become less attractive due to the possible introduction of a public service levy on all new gas pipelines in the South and their failure to sign firm long-term contracts with major gas users - the power stations.
Mr Dallat raised the matter of Audit Office funding. In that connection, most of the additional powers arising from the Government Resources and Accounts Bill are discretionary or permissive and are not expected to have immediate spending consequences. Funding for the Northern Ireland Audit Office will be kept under review but will not be impeded by my Department.
I was pleased to note the welcome given by many Members to the Assembly's increasing role in making its own decisions about financial allocations. The decisions taken following monitoring rounds reflect our judgement of such matters based on available information and views that have been expressed. I note the support for increased allocations for social purposes in the health, education and disability areas, as expressed by Patricia Lewsley, and the general support of Esmond Birnie for the Supplementary Estimates, linked to the proper view that money must be spent efficiently.
The question was raised as to why we should further invest in temporary school accommodation when the need is for longer-term provision of adequate facilities. That is a valid point. Inevitably we must secure an acceptable level of accommodation while the longer-term issues, which will require substantive funding, are addressed. Although we cannot resolve all of the shortcomings in capital provision in the short term, they will have a full place in our collective deliberations about priorities and needs as we progress through the next financial year.
Seamus Close typically covered a considerable amount of ground in his contribution to the debate. I have answered some of those points already, although I am certain that I will not be able to respond to his satisfaction on every point. I compliment him on the close scrutiny that he has given to the spring Supplementary Estimates booklet. All the time constraints about which he complained did not diminish his capacity in that regard.
Mr Close also referred to the need for extra expenditure to bring forward the preparation of area plans and to implement the proposed Knockmore-to-Sprucefield road link. The spring Supplementary Estimates provide additional resources in this year for the preparation of area plans, as does the Budget for next year. The Knockmore-Sprucefield road link is a matter for the Minister for Regional Development to prioritise in his overall road capital budget.
On the matter of superannuation, a total of £97,951,000 is required to meet redundancy and early retirement costs, of which £91,426,000 is in respect of Prison Service redundancy schemes. The Prison Service costs have been fully offset by the Northern Ireland Office from moneys provided by the Treasury. The remaining £6·5 million costs relate to a few minor schemes, the most notable covering Government training centre instructors.
Resources for Irish-medium education were referred to by some Members, namely Mr Poots and Mr McHugh. Some were in favour while others were in some doubt. There are clear commitments in the Belfast Agreement to supporting the Irish language and integrated education as measures to embed parity of esteem and reconciliation. Pluralism and real choice should mean that parents do not have to bear unnecessary financial burdens. It should also mean that the smaller sectors have a realistic chance to develop, not only in large population centres, such as Belfast and Derry, but across rural areas.
The matter of clinical negligence was mentioned by Ms McWilliams. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is required to meet agreed settlements for clinical negligence in full. Total provision of £7·9 million has been made in 2000-01. Of this, £4·9 million has been provided by health boards from their Main Estimate provision and £3 million by the Executive in December monitoring. £5 million is earmarked to meet anticipated claims in 2001-02, but that figure will need to be kept under review.
Prof McWilliams also referred to the Springvale project and PFI. I note her comments about the latter. However, the institutions are taking steps to set up a private finance initiative project board and to engage consultants to complete the outline business case. Building work has commenced on the community outreach centre, and an official European Community notice will be issued shortly, inviting tenders for the building of the applied research centre.
The main Springvale campus had been to open in September 2003. Following some legal and technical issues, which have taken time to resolve, the opening of the main campus has been deferred by one year, until September 2004. The in-year easement results from that delay.
Roads Service winter gritting was mentioned by Gerry McHugh and - I suppose from a slightly different angle - by Kieran McCarthy, as was Health Service expenditure. The detailed allocation of roads maintenance funding is a matter for the Minister for Regional Development, but I understand that gritting is undertaken in accordance with a programme based on the volume of traffic using a road, rather than its location.
As regards health, the Executive are concerned to ensure that Health Service expenditure is managed as effectively and efficiently as possible. Following the Executive's agreement to my proposals to resolve the Health Service deficits through an injection of £18 million of additional funding, it was also agreed that the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should oversee a joint consultancy exercise. The origins - and the consequences - of the recent growth of deficits in the health and personal social services boards and trusts would be examined, as would the effectiveness of new arrangements recently put in place by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure improved transparency and accountability.
Several Members, including Francie Molloy, Alex Maskey, William Hay, Michelle Gildernew and Patricia Lewsley, raised the matter of gap funding between Peace I and Peace II. Most welcomed the provision. I am fully aware of the difficulties faced by the community and voluntary sector in sustaining activities during the gap between Peace I and Peace II funding. In the current financial year the Executive have made gap funding available to address the problem. However, it is also widely recognised that gap funding is no substitute for having Peace II funding in place.
On 12 February, I announced to the Assembly that Departments would be authorised to make advance payments for projects that they judge will be eligible for funding and successful in an application under Peace II. In reply to Michelle Gildernew, I emphasise that the criteria used will be those that will apply to Peace II funding. They have been developed after detailed discussion involving all Departments.
Some judgement will be required as Departments apply the criteria. The safety net I mentioned on 12 February will help deal with the risk that there might be some cases where Departments assist a project in the short term, which does not in the end prove eligible for funding under Peace II. Two million pounds have been set aside under the Executive programme fund for social inclusion and community regeneration, with the aim of ensuring that the issue is fully dealt with.
Gerry McHugh mentioned libraries in rural areas. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure plans to carry out a review of the public library service that, among other things, will examine the extent to which it meets the needs of its clients, both as individuals and as communities. Individual allocations to education and library boards are made on the basis of an assessment of relative needs. That takes account of the home population in each board area. It is a matter for each education and library board to decide whether the public is better served by a static or mobile library. At present, there are 25 mobile libraries providing public services, and eight providing a service specifically for the housebound.
While welcoming the additional resources for roads and transport programmes in the Budget for 2001-02, Alban Maginness asked that more funding be provided for roads maintenance. As I said, the Executive are very aware of the need to maintain the roads infrastructure. We must look to the forthcoming regional transportation strategy to consider how our transport investment needs can be afforded in the context of the limited resources available.
Mr Maginness also raised a question on water and sewerage funding. He asked me to increase investment in water and sewerage services in particular. As Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee, he recognised that an additional £14·5 million was included in the 2001-02 Budget, approved by the Assembly in December. Beyond that, water bids on the Executive programme funds will of course be considered. In the future, it will be for the Assembly to consider the level of investment necessary in water and sewerage services and how best they can be funded, given the limited resources.
Ms Gildernew drew attention to housing unfitness and fuel poverty. She highlighted the need for increased spending to reduce the level of housing unfitness, to shorten waiting lists and to address the problem of fuel poverty. In 2000-01, the Housing Executive has been provided with additional funding of £16 million, of which £2 million will be used to combat fuel poverty and a further £3·5 million to provide disabled adaptations. As Ms Gildernew pointed out, that does not feature in the Supplementary Estimates. This is because, as I explained in my opening remarks this morning, some aspects of spending, such as the capital spending of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, are outside the vote system. In next year's Budget, the Assembly has approved further additional expenditure in those areas in recognition of the importance that the Executive and the Assembly attach to the need for affordable investment in social housing.
Several Members raised issues about the increases in the costs of departmental administration. Mr Kane commented on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and similar points were made by Mr Savage. It is important to point out that the Department has direct and unavoidable responsibilities for providing essential services to the farming community.
Mr Poots and Ms McWilliams made points about the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It is important to point out that some of the new responsibilities, which are central to the implementation and operation of the agreement, fall to that Department, with particular demands on senior staff. It is necessary that such important work be funded.
Mr McHugh spoke about the Department of Education. The central administration costs are a relatively small proportion of the overall provision.
I will try to cover a few further points that were raised in the course of debate. Both Mr Leslie and Mr Kennedy referred to skills in the Northern Ireland economy. The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has been taking steps to put in place a range of measures to identify current and emerging skills shortages and to implement training and education programmes to fill them. The programmes are open to both the unemployed and those in employment who wish to improve their skills and employability.
Mr Poots spoke about the moratorium on grants for hotel development. Following an independent review of hotel supply and demand in Northern Ireland, the Tourist Board introduced a policy in January 1997, which suspended financial support to hotel development projects within a 10-mile radius of Belfast city centre. Given that hotel developments have taken place without selective financial assistance in the area, it is likely that the moratorium will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Ms McWilliams spoke about increased administration costs for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The departmental running costs allocation for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment includes an additional £0·9 million to meet the cost of the private finance initiative contract with ICL for the provision of information technology services.
The increase is necessary because the baseline provision for phases one and two did not meet existing needs, and those facilities are vital to the proper functioning of the Department and its job centre network. The balance of £0·6 million was required to meet the increased workloads needed to support the Minister and to respond to the Assembly's requests for information. Increased expenditure on administration in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure stems from the need to put in place the structures necessary to support the Minister and to respond to enquiries from the Assembly. Because it is a new Department, expenditure is also required to research and develop strategies to meet the needs of its diverse portfolio.
This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate, and I have responded to as many points as possible, while trying to ensure that I do not spend too much time on my winding-up speech. I thank Members for their valuable contributions, not just in this debate but through the Committees, correspondence and questions posed here on other occasions. If I have not responded to any substantive point, I will be glad to reply in writing myself or ask the relevant Minister to do so.
I want to underline a point that I made at the beginning of this winding-up speech. I recognise the frustrations of Members if they feel that information important to a debate on a motion subject to resolution is not available to them as early as they would like.
The Estimates bring together, in a procedural form, the effects of announcements that have already been made and trailed in the Chamber and in the Committees. I note the concerns and the interests expressed by individual Members and by people speaking on behalf of their Committees. I would not discourage people from pursuing those questions in future on the Floor of the Chamber or through their Committees.
Many of the issues that have been discussed give rise to questions about the adequacy of information and whether priorities are sufficiently robust or policy principles sufficiently transparent to determine how effectively or equitably the Departments are allocating money across the region. Those questions should not just be saved for plenary debates, but neither should they be directed to the Minister of Finance and Personnel exclusively. Members and Committees should pursue the issues through the means available to them.
The Assembly offers Members a great opportunity not just to influence allocations but to hold Departments accountable for them. For that reason, the Assembly was designed to allow the public interest to be reflected in spending plans. It is also meant to ensure public accountability with regard to how well we manage that expenditure and how we deliver the outcomes that we promise as part of those programmes.
Inadequate as our procedures have been to date, they will improve. Resource accounting and budgeting will help, but I know that all the improvements will not come just from the change in the financial management system. I accept that there is a need for change in the procedures: information must be available to Committees, and the feedback from them must be taken into account.
Although Committees have had the information from monitoring rounds and from the Budget, I am not aware of any further requests for information or elaboration on any points that have gone unmet, either by my Department or by any other. I hope that people will reflect positively on that as they go about their business through the other channels available to them as Members of the Assembly.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. During the debate, a number of us were unable to speak because of the inadequate allocation of time. Some Members were able to contribute rather gloriously and eloquently, but others lost out. In the Minister's Estimates, there was no indication of thinking for the future on rates, which is a vexed question for every party here. The current system is a hangover from the window tax of many centuries ago.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is there a question?
It is a question. Would it be possible, in the review of local government, to examine how we raise local taxes?
The Deputy Speaker:
You started with a point of order, but you are now asking a question. Ministers do not have to answer questions.
I stand admonished.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
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.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
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]
That Mr Ivan Davis should serve on the Committee on Procedures. - [Mr J Wilson]
That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús ba mhaith liom a rá gur maith a thuigim gur mór an gnóthas é soláthar uisce agus séarachais, agus go bhfuil ardcháilíocht seirbhísí éifeachtacha ag an chuid is mó de na daoine.
Mar sin féin, is fíorthábhachtach aird a tharraingt ar an tearcmhaoiniú dona atá ann le roinnt deicheanna de bhlianta anuas agus ar an phráinn atá leis an bhonneagar a athnuachan.
I acknowledge that the provision of water and sewerage services is a major undertaking. Most people enjoy a high-quality and efficient service. However, it is important to draw attention to the serious underfunding over several decades and the urgent need to renew the infrastructure and improve drinking water quality and effluent treatment to comply with EU Directives.
I appreciate that funding pressures have increased with the growth in demand and that even more rigorous environmental standards are expected nowadays. The level of investment required for water and sewerage services will be substantial if we are to maintain and improve existing amenities. If we are to ensure proper provision of such essential public health services, then the debate at the macro level must focus on structural, funding and regulatory arrangements for delivering water and sewerage services. We must make sure that services meet the challenge.
The real problem in west Tyrone is a human rights issue. First, I acknowledge a decision recently made by the Minister for Regional Development to move the major waste-water treatment works in Omagh from Hunter's Crescent on the Derry Road to an out-of-town site. That campaign was long but successful, although there are still concerns about the new location. The Minister is listening sympathetically to Omagh District Council on the matter. Omagh is, after all, identified as a key service and growth centre in the 'Shaping Our Future' documents.
For years, Omagh District Council and I have taken an interest in the campaign to ensure that all rural homes are connected to a public water supply. I issued a millennium challenge to previous Ministers of the Environment - British direct-rule Ministers included - on that matter. In west Tyrone, there is an unduly large number of homes that are not connected either to public water mains or to the sewerage system. We all accept that the availability of good quality water and sewerage services is an essential requirement in any society and is fundamental to the maintenance of public health.
In this day and age, it is inconceivable for city dwellers to consider that even 2% of homes in the North are not connected to public water mains and that 17% are not connected to the public sewerage system. Those are merely figures and statistics that do not reflect the personal hardship. In fact, they mask the real daily hardship for families that lack the amenities that the rest of us take for granted. Hot water from a tap, fresh water for family use - that is hardly a luxury.
I will give some examples of how people are affected socially and healthwise. There is a female pensioner in Greencastle, County Tyrone, living on a small farm. She has to walk to a well every day, which is simply a spout coming out of a wall built to protect access for the lady. I showed a photograph of that to Reg Empey recently, and he was alarmed that such a situation could exist in this day and age. A mother of young children at Backglen Road, near Mountfield in County Tyrone, regularly travels to Omagh to collect four-gallon drums of water for bathing and other everyday uses in her home. The irony of that situation is that the family lives three quarters of a mile from a reservoir, the main source of tap water for the Omagh area. Fortunately, the issue is being addressed.
Families in rural Donemana are apprehensive about offering a cup of tea to a visitor because of the stigma attached to not having clean, hygienic water in their homes. People have difficulties with central heating, and others have no washing machines. There are various families affected in Whitebridge Road in the Sixmilecross area of County Tyrone. Examples include farm dwellings and the absence of a fire hydrant at a forestry division outpost. People who have plans for expanding small engineering businesses in the locality face tremendous difficulty.
One elderly man had a water test report carried out on his well. An undue presence or level of E.coli was detected in the water after the gentleman had spent eight days in intensive care in Craigavon Area Hospital. That raises questions about the environmental standards of many of the water wells currently in use. Dr Wilson, a clinical scientist who carried out tests on the water sample taken, revealed it to be unchlorinated water. There was an unsatisfactory resolution due to the presence of E.coli. The real hardship in that case speaks for itself.
The application procedure is the question. When people do not have running water in their homes they apply to the Water Service to be connected to a public water main, and the financial viability is considered. The Water Service previously allowed a maximum of £2,900 for water mains connection. Fortunately, that was increased to £5,000 recently for an individual unit or home. A home in a rural area was previously allowed £2,300 and no more towards sewerage connections. That figure was recently raised to £4,000. That was announced in May 2000. It was welcome because that kind of figure makes a difference for some families.
However, more work obviously needs to be done where the allowable cost limit has not made a difference for individual families. Again, referring to one of the examples I used earlier - and I am not blaming anyone - it is unrealistic, where a proposed scheme is estimated to cost £20,900, for the Department, under the new scenario, to allow £5,000.
The Member is aware of, and welcomes, the recent increase in the cost-benefit analysis figure for water and sewerage connections. Does he agree - I suspect that this is where he is heading - that in circumstances such as those cited, we need some additional criteria to be introduced, particularly in areas of west Tyrone, given the sparse population and the distance from supplies?
Absolutely. I welcome Mr Hussey's comments. He understands the issue because he represents the same area as myself. As well as additional criteria, sources of funding in addition to the Department must be found.
A typical letter coming back from the Department's Water Service reads something like
"I refer to your request for the provision of a public water main at a certain road. Unfortunately, this scheme has proved to be uneconomical. The estimated cost of the necessary work is £13,000. In this case, it is uneconomical by £10,100."
People on low incomes are expected to make up the deficit simply to access something that everybody else takes for granted. Such problems are everywhere in the North and, I contend, in west Tyrone in particular. I can list Omagh, Drumquin, Gortin, Cranagh, Dromore, Creggan, Mountfield, Sixmilecross, Dunnamanagh, Castlederg, Newtownstewart, Douglas Bridge and Killen. This is not an isolated problem; it is significant.
We have had many debates in the Chamber about rates and the regional rate accounting for services from which people benefit. Assembly Members representing rural areas have been very vociferous - across all parties - about the deficit in services such as the roads infrastructure and proper access to hospitals in rural areas. That is another area where people wonder why they pay rates and what they get in return.
I am asking for greater will on the Department's part. I would like to see an interdepartmental focus on this question. Surely the Executive, through the Programme for Government, need to address this in an urgent way. What are the Executive programme funds for? They should be for areas like this. I want to see Minister Gregory Campbell going forward with a bid to ensure that all homes are connected to water supplies.
The 2001 census will provide analysis of housing stock and population figures. Therefore, if the millennium challenge has come and gone - and there has been some response in relation to the increased allowable cost limit - let us go for a challenge from 2001 to 2011 of eradicating any deficit of this nature.
The Assembly has to make a difference in such areas - along with the Water Service, district councils, community groups, the European Union and rural development agencies. Let us have a task force aimed at bringing to the starting blocks those homes and families in rural areas that do not have public water main connections.
The necessary resources need to be made available to achieve the standards set by EU Directives. There is a real perception that such a situation predominates in areas west of the River Bann. People often say to me that they pay tax and rates like people living elsewhere.
In departmental or Government terms, the sums of money required to redress the huge imbalance are not massive. Doing so will dramatically enhance the quality of life for many rural families - if the will exists to put it right.
I have a copy of the Department of the Environment's Water Service capital works programme for Omagh and Strabane districts, which was issued in November 2000. There are various categories and states of readiness pertaining to hamlets and rural settlement patterns: category one - sewage treatment works required to facilitate rural development; category one - schemes that are already under construction or are scheduled to start; category two - other schemes scheduled to begin in the next two years; and category three, which is probably the greatest area of concern - schemes that are under consideration but may prove to be economically unfeasible.
This concerns townlands and areas such as Clanabogan, Newtownsaville, Tattyreagh and Roscavey. Those are examples from the Omagh district in particular, where property developers have plans to facilitate housing in rural hamlets, but are being held to ransom by the absence of adequate sewage treatment provision. The Rural Housing Association Ltd also has plans to build in some rural areas, but that scheme too is being held back by inadequate sewage treatment works.
Those are two areas that I deliberately focused on: the absence of public water main connection for homes and families in rural areas, and the need for joined-up government for rural development and the provision of adequate sewage treatment works for hamlets. The west Tyrone area plan, which is being developed, must take account of the growing need of hamlets in west Tyrone. There must be joined-up government.
Any new arrangement or structure for delivering water and sewerage services must be capable of securing facilities of the highest quality at the lowest possible cost to the consumer and of maintaining and improving safeguards for the environment and public health.
In local terms, pertaining specifically to west Tyrone - but also to other areas where the problem is evident we must ensure that 100% of existing homes are connected to a public water main supply. Rural development needs must be matched by adequate sewerage schemes to serve homes, schools, businesses and other properties in settlements such as hamlets. Indeed, the concept of hamlets is growing.
It is crucial that the development of hamlets be enabled and facilitated in line with commitments to rural communities made in the Programme for Government and guidelines set out elsewhere. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I support the case made by Mr McElduff, and I thank him for raising the matter. I made a similar case in February 1999, also detailing the problems of electricity supply in rural areas.
Many properties in west Tyrone have never been connected to a public water supply. It is difficult for many people to comprehend that at the start of the twenty-first century there are still people in rural communities who do not enjoy that basic public amenity. Purely in terms of new TSN and equality, those unfortunate people must not be expected to live much longer without the Department for Regional Development connecting them to a public water supply.
No matter what the technical, logistical or even economic difficulties, those people deserve the provision of a public service such as water. It is essential for public health and for public service reasons. Parents and children who live in isolated communities, especially in the Sperrin Mountains, upper land parts of Omagh and Strabane districts, do not enjoy such basic amenities.
There are also many households throughout west Tyrone that do not enjoy connection or access to a public sewerage system. The lack of public sewerage facilities is hampering development in many parts of the Omagh and Strabane district - Clanabogan, Drumnakilly, Gortnagarn, Tattyreagh, Aghyaran, Newtownsaville and Roscavey. Indeed, other rural settlements are also being hampered.
Many rural communities that have been growing over the past 10 years are now being prevented from further developing due to environmental pollution resulting from a growing density of septic tanks. Many small rural schools will only survive if we can have housing development provided near them. That will only happen if there are, in particular, public sewerage connections.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
As Mr McElduff said, the EU water quality and waste water treatment standards require that those public services be provided. I pay tribute to the Department for Regional Development, for over the past 18 months there have been about 82 new connections to the public water supply in the Omagh and Strabane districts. I pay tribute to the officials who have endeavoured to provide a supply, given the economic parameters and constraints.
Up until May 2000 the thresholds were £2,900 for water and £2,300 for sewerage. Since then, those have changed to £5,000 for water and £4,000 for sewerage. However, for someone living in a house in an isolated area, there can be a deficit of £5,000 between, for example, the £15,000 which is allowed and the £20,000 that is needed to provide a water supply. There needs to be some sort of discretion applied.
I ask the Department for Regional Development to consider the matter so that isolated houses or groups of houses could be afforded, in particular, a public water supply. I understand that in very isolated areas without a high density of population, the septic tank is sufficient to handle the sewage. However, if we are serious about new TSN and about equality, then, wherever one lives in Northern Ireland, one should be entitled to a public water supply.
I am not going to list the areas without a public water supply, but the topography of west Tyrone is such that it has a large section of the Sperrin Mountains upper lands. There are difficulties in those glens and due consideration needs to be given to that. Beyond west Tyrone there are problems in parts of north Antrim and in south Down. However, we feel particularly aggrieved that in the Omagh and Strabane districts there are many households that still do not have such a basic amenity. I support the motion, and I hope that some discretion can be applied.
Finally, I have been told that the new threshold for financial limits applies only to existing properties and, therefore, takes no account of new houses that may be built on any new stretch of pipeline for water. That is perhaps where discretion could be applied and the basic needs of the people met.