Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 February 2001 (continued)
I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the five clauses, followed by the long title.
Clauses 1 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
That Mr David McClarty should replace Mr Tom Hamilton on the Committee for the Environment. - [Mr J Wilson]
That Mr Tom Hamilton should replace Mr David McClarty on the Committee for Social Development. - [Mr J Wilson]
The sitting was suspended at 11.24 am.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair) -
The Deputy Speaker:
Questions 7, 12 and 18, standing in the names of Mrs Courtney, Mr Dallat and Dr McDonnell, will receive written answers. Question 11, standing in the name of Mr Roger Hutchinson, has been withdrawn.
Global Point Development
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the amount of funding allocated to the Global Point development at Ballyhenry, Newtownabbey, in terms of capital funding, site clearance and construction.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
To date, the Industrial Development Board (IDB) has spent £5·1 million on the Global Point development at Ballyhenry. The works, which will result in 100 net usable acres, include major earth works, the construction of access roads and the provision of services and extensive lanscaping works. The total expenditure by the IDB on site development is estimated at £6·7 million.
Mr J Wilson:
Is the Minister in a position to advise us when buildings are likely to become available for occupation?
Sir Reg Empey:
Arrangements are progressing with our partners in this development, Prologis, incorporating detailed provisions for master planning, marketing and future development of infrastructure and building on the park. Only IDB-approved projects will be permitted to locate in the park, but it is expected that the first available unit will be ready for occupation by the end of this year.
The business park is situated a short distance from the infamous Sandyknowes roundabout, just on the edge of the A8. It also sits immediately adjacent to the Bleach Green railway line. Has the Minister had any discussions with his Colleague, the Minister for Regional Development, on public transport links to the site?
Sir Reg Empey:
I have not personally had a discussion with the Minister for Regional Development, but I know that the issue of railways has been examined very closely. Newtownabbey Borough Council has a particular interest in it, as the site for a halt would be immediately adjacent to its council offices at Mossley Mill.
As the Member points out, there is a huge traffic problem already, and I am quite certain that the developers will be anxious to have the best possible links; a railway halt is one possibility. I know that that is strongly supported by Newtownabbey Borough Council.
asked the Minster of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to confirm his total commitment towards business development in the Moyle District Council area.
Sir Reg Empey:
My Department's agencies, LEDU and IDB, are committed to working in partnership with the council, the district partnership and organisations such as CORE and Moyle Economic Development Forum to ensure that a holistic approach is adopted towards business development in the Moyle District Council area.
Does the Minister recognise that the lack of manufacturing businesses in the Moyle area and the higher dependence on agriculture - estimated at making up 26% of the workforce - have contributed to higher unemployment and social deprivation? What is likely to be his Department's response in relation to targeting social need, and what has been the uptake of small business set-up grants from LEDU in the Moyle area compared to other council areas?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware of the Member's strong views on those matters; they have been in evidence whenever I have visited the Moyle area, which I have done on several occasions recently. The Member is right to say that there is still a high dependence on agriculture and tourism. He and his colleagues on the council know that we are working hard on the Campbeltown issue and on other plans that, we hope, will help.
However, there is no disguising the fact that there is a lack of facilities in the manufacturing sector in that area. There is land available in the council area; there are 4.2 acres available at Leyland Road. The dependence on agriculture - an area of particular concern at the moment - highlights the difficulty of creating balanced economies in district council areas.
The situation in the Moyle area is not ideal. There is dependence on agriculture and tourism, both of which are subject to considerable fluctuation. However, LEDU has a number of companies in the Moyle District Council area which have received letters of offer and are doing reasonably well. I accept that the situation is less satisfactory, so far as IDB is concerned.
I assure the Member that there is no lack of commitment on the part of the Department or myself to ensure, in conjunction with IDB and LEDU, that his district gets as fair a share as possible. However, we cannot dictate to companies where they should start up. I know that his council is working closely with LEDU, under the Business Start programme and other programmes, and I hope that that partnership will continue.
As the Moyle District Council area adjoins my constituency, I too am concerned about the level of unemployment in that district. Does the Minister agree that, through the Causeway Coast and Glens tourism consortium, there is real potential for the creation of jobs in the tourism industry? Is he taking steps to reopen the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry service?
Sir Reg Empey:
I understand that the Moyle District Council area has the highest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland. It vies with Strabane for that unenviable title, so we must be conscious of the difficulties. The Causeway Coast consortium, as with many other self-help tourism efforts, deserves our support. We work closely with Moyle council, because some of the best potential tourist assets anywhere on this island are concentrated within that area, and I wish to see it prosper. The Glens, as well as the Giant's Causeway and other sites, present wonderful opportunities to bring visitors to the Province.
I accept that it is a TSN area and that it requires special treatment. My Colleague, Dr Farren, is particularly aware of the training and employment needs in the district. The tourist board will do all that it can to ensure that Moyle District Council area is given the best opportunities for employment creation.
I note what the Minister said about tourism. He is right in saying that the Giant's Causeway must be the number one tourist attraction in Ireland. However, it is not just a matter of attracting coaches filled with day trippers, as has been the case hitherto. To make a difference to the Moyle District Council area, we need visitors to stay overnight, preferably for a week or a fortnight. There are plenty of facilities for tourists, particularly along the coastline and in the Glens of Antrim, but such facilities must be properly promoted.
Can the Minister reassure the House that the all-Ireland tourist body will not simply be a device for sending one-day visitors by coach from the Republic? It should spend a sufficient proportion of its budget to ensure that there is a significant increase in the number of overnight visitors to the area.
Sir Reg Empey:
The issue of overnight visitors is key. Coach trips are welcome, but recently visitors have been coming to Northern Ireland for the day and returning to the Republic to spend the night. This is partly due to the currency issue. Regrettably it is also because of other circumstances which make some overnight stays unsatisfactory. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is acutely aware of the problem. The bulk of profit from tourism - apart from people's visiting amenities - is generated by money spent on accommodation, food and entertainment. Clearly, the potential spend is at a minimum with a day trip, and at a maximum with an overnight stay.
The hon Member is preaching to the converted in requiring that emphasis. We do our best to ensure that the accommodation is of the highest quality. We have had extensive talks with the coach companies, and some of them are increasing the number of coach visits to Northern Ireland. However, that tends to be at the shoulder of the season because of the problem we have in Northern Ireland in the summer. Until that problem is resolved, it will be difficult to achieve the desired level of overnight stays.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline his policy on the new consumer strategy.
Sir Reg Empey:
Creating and implementing a new consumer strategy, as foreshadowed in the draft Programme for Government, will involve a two-tier approach. My Department will prepare a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment strategy to focus on consumer issues and areas directly relevant to it. I propose to use the strategy as a template to address consumer areas in which other Departments have interests and where there is the potential for a joined-up government approach, thereby creating a consumer strategy for Northern Ireland.
What steps will be taken to ensure that young people have increased awareness of their rights as consumers?
Sir Reg Empey:
The strategy will contain a number of key themes - increased education on information for consumers, improved access to high-quality advice, improved representation for consumers, promoting consumer orientation of businesses and better communications and understanding of consumer affairs. The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has an exceptional web site that recently won national awards. That is a direct way of communicating with young people, more of whom have a propensity to use the Internet.
Placing the consumer strategy in schools is another area that I am keen to investigate. Many young people are specifically and deliberately targeted by commercial organisations and are influenced in some controversial areas. The question is a very interesting one, and I will ensure that it is drawn to the attention of my Department, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and the Trading Standards Branch.
Small to Medium Enterprises
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline how locally promoted small to medium enterprises (SMEs) can best be served by the new single economic development agency for Northern Ireland.
Sir Reg Empey:
Northern Ireland is primarily a small firms economy. This will be reflected in the priority given to small to medium-sized entreprises in the new agency. The agency will play a key strategic role in small business development. I envisage that a significant proportion of the agency's resources will be targeted at promoting innovation and best practice in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector.
I welcome the Minister's answer. Will he ensure that the new development agency - through its area officers - is adequately manned, to ensure that client executives who work with SMEs are not based in Belfast only?
Does he accept the merit of having client executives based in particular territories and working from area offices? Some in the SME sector feel that the client executive in the manufacturing and engineering sectors has to work out of Belfast and travel 80 miles to Tyrone or Fermanagh. People feel that they are a wee bit left out and that communication and consultation is disrupted.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware of the point made by a number of Members about the agency. I give a commitment that the new agency will have a regional dimension; there should be no doubt about that. The regional dimension will involve something other than the current office structure of LEDU. The IDB, as Members know, does not have offices outside Belfast. Therefore, to achieve any coherence in helping a local region, the agency must provide a comprehensive service to potential customers in the different areas within that region. While the detail has not been worked out, the commitment to have a regional dimension is absolute. For that commitment to be meaningful the agency, through its regional offices, must be capable of delivering a holistic service to the community.
I welcome the Minister's comment that the focus of the new agency will be to help with innovation. I also welcome his remarks regarding the regional representation of the new agency. I am sure he will accept that the greatest potential for innovation is in our small and medium-sized businesses. These businesses need assistance to turn a dream or a workable idea into a reality, thus generating employment.
Can the Minister assure me that established and emerging local firms will receive at least the same attention as the large multinationals he hopes to attract?
Sir Reg Empey:
"Team West Tyrone" is very obvious. Mr Gibson is not here, but he may emerge at any moment.
Northern Ireland is primarily a small and medium-sized enterprise economy, as the Member knows. Well over 90% of our employers are small to medium-size businesses. It follows that unless we have a strategy to address their specific needs, we will fail to deal with the potential for growth. In other developing economies - and, indeed, in the United States - the growth in employment has not been in Fortune 500 companies; it has been in small to medium-size enterprises.
I assure the Member that, despite a lot of publicity inward investment gets, indigenous or small companies create the vast majority of new jobs. In an economy, you need inward investment to ensure that you bring in new ideas, new scales and international connections.
I assure the Member that the emphasis is on ensuring that small to medium-sized enterprises have the capabilities, are competitive, are provided with the capacity to function and the tools to do so. We are trying to do that through rolling out broad-band technology, the creation of a new agency, training and through a whole range of technical assistance, which is currently given by the Industrial Research and Technology Unit.
Therefore the Member can be assured that the emphasis will not be largely or exclusively on the attraction of inward investment. It will be across the board because that is where new jobs will be created.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I am very encouraged by the Minister's answers. Will he consider that the Foyle constituency merits the location of a regional office to service the growth of the SME sector? I am sure he is aware that that sector in Foyle suffered as a result of the closure of the IDB offices.
Sir Reg Empey:
I have repeatedly made the commitment to the House - and I reiterated it a short time ago - that the new agency will have a regional focus. I am reluctant to say exactly where those offices might be. A range of considerations must be taken into account when making those decisions. I do not propose to tell the hon Member today what the specific situation will be in the Foyle area. All I will say is that the agency will have a strong regional focus.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Given the catastrophe that the agriculture industry is facing, I am sure that the Minister will agree that the only possible and viable strength that communities in rural districts have will lie largely with tourism. That being so, can he assure me that those small and medium-sized businesses linked to tourism will be given the utmost consideration when they put their plans forward?
Sir Reg Empey:
I agree with the hon Member that the industry currently faces a catastrophe. No doubt he will be aware that areas over which I have responsibility - namely, the processing sector - are also facing a serious situation. While we sit, many people are idle, and companies have been effectively suspended, unable to send products out of Northern Ireland or to process them. Therefore I appreciate acutely the significance of the Member's point.
With regard to tourism, the Assembly treats it as a business. That is why it falls under my Department and not under the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, as on the mainland. The Member will also be aware that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's business support services will be transferred into the new agency which is being established to deal with all economic matters. That is being done to ensure high quality and consistency in service.
I give the Member the assurance that he seeks: we regard tourism businesses as a very viable alternative. Rural development, as he is aware, is one of the key themes emerging throughout the European Community, and it applies significantly to his constituency. Subject to market conditions, we will deal with those companies and provide them with the best possible assistance available.
'Best of Northern Ireland'
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to confirm that he intends to be present at the 'Best of Northern Ireland' exhibition at the Houses of Parliament; and to make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
I understand why the hon Member might have some interest in this question. I wish to thank Mr Roy Beggs Snr for securing the opportunity to host the exhibition and confirm that it is my intention to attend. The exhibition will provide an excellent opportunity to promote Northern Ireland and, in particular, to emphasise examples of innovation and excellence drawn from all aspects of the Province's life. I look forward to the exhibition later this week.
On the basis of previous exhibitions, what practical benefits does the Minister foresee coming from it?
Sir Reg Empey:
Mr Deputy Speaker, you may be aware that a ballot is periodically held in the House of Commons to provide Members with the opportunity to host exhibitions in the House. Mr Roy Beggs Snr was successful in that regard. We will use this as a major opportunity to market a range of activities in Northern Ireland. It will be held from 26 February to 2 March in the Upper Waiting Room, and I hope that the Prime Minister will formally open it.
Our objective is to give a positive and forward-looking image of Northern Ireland to a wide variety of Members of Parliament and invited guests including potential investors, key influencers, existing investors and trade contacts.
Also, IDB will be helping Mr Beggs host a number of events alongside the exhibition in which we will network with people whom we consider to be potential investors and with people who are interested in doing business. It is important that we present a positive and constructive image to the business community at every opportunity that arises, and I believe that this exhibition provides such a platform.
North/South Gas Pipeline
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline proposals to build a North/South natural gas pipeline.
Sir Reg Empey:
The position regarding a South/North natural gas pipeline remains as stated in my reply to question AQO 473/00. I have recently received an initial proposal for a South/North pipeline flowing from the Republic to Northern Ireland which is currently being assessed by my Department and the gas regulator.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he not agree that it would have been more in Northern Ireland's interest to have this pipe and the commencement of the work running North/South rather than the reverse?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am inclined to agree. However, one has to understand that the gas industry in Northern Ireland is privatised, and the function of my Department is to regulate along with the gas regulator. We can only react and give licences if a specific proposal is put to us. So far, Bord Gais in the Republic has put forward a proposal, which we are currently evaluating. It is the only proposal that has formally been put before us, and we will have to deal with that as best we can.
The Republic's decision about where it is going to get its new gas supplies has been delayed on a number of occasions in the last six weeks, and that has slowed things down. There is also the question of the levy and various other matters. All I can say is that a firm proposal which has been put to us is currently being evaluated, and the hon Member knows only too well that we are very keen to see a positive resolution with regard to both North/South and north-west.
In view of the Minister's remarks to Mr Close, can he indicate what progress has been made in negotiations between the director general of the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas (OFREG) and Premier Transmissions on the granting of a gas licence for the south-eastern region of Northern Ireland? What steps will the Department take to encourage potential developers to expand this much needed energy into other areas of the distribution networks? Are there any applications or negotiations ongoing to provide natural gas to the south-east of Northern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
The answer to the last part of the Member's question is "Yes". Regarding the negotiations, I personally have had two meetings with representatives of Bord Gais in the last six weeks. Discussions are ongoing. So far as Premier Transmissions is concerned, I have no proposal from that company before me at present. The only one we have is from Bord Gais, and we can only deal with the proposal that we have.
Of course, I have met Premier and other private companies on a number of occasions, and it is no secret that I personally - and it is the Department's preferential choice - would prefer a North/South pipeline which would supply power stations in the Greater Dublin area and a north-west power station which would supply Coolkeeragh and allow us to feed the towns en route, both south-east and north-west. However, I repeat that we are only able to deal with an application if it is in front of us, and only one is currently being evaluated.
Does the Minister believe that it is feasible to have both a north-west pipeline and a pipeline that goes to the south-east with a North/South interconnector? If he does not believe that that is feasible, what is his preference? With regard to the value to the economy and the numbers of people using it, the south-east pipeline would be perceived by people living in that area as being of equal or greater value than that of the north-west pipeline.
Sir Reg Empey:
A meaningful energy market and a competitive gas market are both necessary. I want to see an integrated market because one power station consumes 20 times more gas than all the domestic consumption en route to it. Without the base load, the economics of any pipeline are severely restricted. To use an analogy, it is like having a shopping centre with no anchor tenant.
There is a scheme available. However, no formal application has been made to provide a north-west pipeline to feed Coolkeeragh, which would allow the towns en route to access natural gas. Similarly, the departmental view is that a North/South pipeline should run from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland to feed new power station developments in the Greater Dublin area, thereby having base loads at each end of the two pipes.
That would also create a unified network across the island because the Corrib gas field, which is to come on-stream, would be able to sell into Northern Ireland's market and we would be able to sell into the Republic of Ireland's. There would then be two pipelines - one to Ballylumford from Scotland, and the existing one from Scotland to the Republic of Ireland. That is the ideal solution, but the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is not in control of matters because it is up to the private companies to make their applications. The Department can only respond on receipt of those applications.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Questions 1, 6, 12 and 20, standing in the names of Mr Dallat, Mrs Courtney, Dr McDonnell and Mr Neeson, will receive written answers. Question 13, standing in the name of Mr Roger Hutchinson, has been withdrawn.
Executive Programme Funds
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the bids made by his Department for Executive programme funds.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has submitted seven bids for Executive programme funds. They are bids for: increasing provision for adult basic education; improving physical access to further education and higher education institutions for disabled people; improving links between business and education; a new major further education building project; developing on-line service delivery and job centres (there are two separate bids for that); and developing childminding networks. Those bids amount to £23·48 million over three years.
I thank the Minister for that information. Which of those bids does he consider to be a priority?
All the bids are of considerable importance; and none would have been made had it not been so. None of them can be regarded lightly. However, my priority is adult basic education, and I am sure that many Members, if not all, appreciate the urgent need to address deficits in basic literacy and numeracy. Those have been highlighted by international and domestic reports in recent years. Improved physical access for the disabled at further and higher education institutions and the improvement of links between Northern Ireland business and education partnerships also deserve priority.
One in four adults in Northern Ireland has some literacy or numeracy difficulty.
If we are serious about promoting social inclusion and developing a fairer society, this problem must be addressed effectively. It is a major barrier to social and economic inclusion, which is not always acknowledged. We also need to have regard to developments in Great Britain and the Republic in which substantial investments have been made. I trust that this bid will be successful and that we will not only avoid falling behind our neighbours in terms of their provision but will advance quite rapidly towards eliminating the deficits among so many in our adult population.
Further Education Colleges: Enrolment
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of current enrolment at further education colleges.
I am pleased to inform the Member and the House that enrolments in further education colleges have risen to 89,379 in 1999-2000. That is an increase of 3,000 on the previous year.
Information on the current academic year is not yet available, as students are still enrolling in some courses. However, we can regard the increases that have been taking place as significant and very satisfactory. They indicate the desire and determination of school leavers and those of maturer years to avail of the training and educational opportunities available in further education colleges.
I thank Minister Farren for his announcement. Is he aware of the tension in higher and further education colleges over the underfunding of students? Does he have any plans to review that situation?
In recent months we have frequently addressed, in one way or another, the questions associated with student financial support. Members will be aware that I have gone to considerable lengths to emphasise the importance I place on the further education sector, in the House and elsewhere. I have also voiced my concern to ensure that students in the sector are as adequately supported as possible.
Before Christmas, I announced new arrangements for student financial support. These include significant improvements and are now the subject of detailed analysis and determination by my Department and the Department of Finance and Personnel. I trust that they will be seen as significant improvements for students in the further education sector.
Is the Minister aware that the current enrolment for full-time HND courses in the East Down Institute of Further and Higher Education is restricted to building engineering? Does he agree that with the developments in commerce courses must be provided in computing, information technology and software engineering if the local community is to sustain itself economically? Will the Minister reconsider the restriction on full-time courses and allow the East Down Institute of Further and Higher Education to expand its curriculum and, therefore, its enrolment?
Over recent years, additional places have been made available in the further education sector to enable colleges to provide higher education courses such as HNDs.
The allocation of additional places to particular colleges must take account of the criteria set down to enable colleges to indicate clearly that they are in a position to deliver on particular courses. In 1999 the then Department of Education awarded the East Down Institute 32 full-time higher education places over the next two years in the vocational area of construction.
That was the first year in which the Department was able to allocate full-time higher education places to the institute. All colleges approved to deliver full-time higher education must operate within an allocated number of places known as the maximum student number - MaSN, as it is generally called. It has been noted that the institute has so far used 16 of the 32 places over the two-year period. The institute's allocation formed part of the additional 600 places allocated to the further education sector following the comprehensive spending review. In addition, a further cohort of up to 100 HND places in the vocational areas of software engineering and electronics have been introduced in the current year. Any further increase will be dependent on additional resources becoming available and being distributed in the light of existing priorities. It will also be dependent on the colleges meeting the criteria that have been set down, thus demonstrating that they have the capacity to provide courses in any particular area.
Mr K Robinson:
I thank the Minister for his answers. I notice that he has placed top priority on the basic skills element of further and higher education. Will the Minister assure the House that his Department will focus its efforts upon colleges such as the East Antrim Institute for Further and Higher Education, to enable them to expand the numbers on programmes such as LEAF? That initiative is targeted at clients in marginalised estates in Newtownabbey, who are currently unable to access the main college campus, so that they may benefit from any economic expansion at the Global Point site in Newtownabbey.
In all the further education colleges that I have had the privilege of visiting so far - I am trying to include a visit to every college in the current academic year - I have been impressed by the extent to which they are involved in outreach of the kind referred to by Mr Robinson. In particular, I have been impressed with the outreach aimed at providing courses in basic skills and, beyond that, in providing opportunities to access further and higher education - particularly for those who have not had these opportunities before.
The Department is committed to encouraging all the colleges to maintain and expand upon this provision. Obviously - as in all these respects - resources are critical in determining the extent to which the provision can be made. However, it is provision that is being made very effectively by many colleges, and - I am pleased to say - many people are benefiting from the very determined outreach approach that colleges in all parts of Northern Ireland are making in this important matter.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the steps he is taking to address the external skills shortages identified in the Northern Ireland skills monitoring survey 2000.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what areas of skill shortage he has identified and to outline the steps he is taking to address them.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail discussions he has undertaken with specific employment sectors on the issue of skills shortages.
With your agreement, Mr Deputy Speaker, I intend to answer questions 5, 9 and 15 together, as they all touch on similar issues.
The recent skills monitoring report provides essential information that will assist in targeting resources on specific industry sectors and occupations where skills needs exist. It is one of a number of sources of information brought together by the skills task force.