Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 February 2001 (continued)
In addressing skills needs, I meet regularly with industry representatives on a sectoral, cross-sectoral and individual basis. As a consequence, a range of initiatives has been put in place, including additional targeted higher and further education places and additional modern apprenticeships. I shall remind Members of a response that I made on one occasion regarding the 'Back to your Future' initiative which my Department launched before Christmas. This initiative was designed to put current job opportunities before expatriates in the IT and telecom sectors - particularly for those with a number of years of experience. We are experiencing a considerable shortage of experienced personnel in a number of our enterprises and are anxious to encourage our own people who have these skills to come back and avail of these opportunities. Perhaps Members could play a role by bringing news of new opportunities to the attention of acquaintances who possess such skills. These openings are available on an unprecedented level, offering worthwhile career opportunities and quality of life.
The Minister has referred to the Northern Ireland Skills Monitoring Survey, 2000. Of all "difficult to fill" vacancies, 43% are based on either a lack of practical skills, a lack of technical skills, a lack of qualifications or a lack of work experience. What immediate steps can the Minister take to address the more prevalent skill shortages? For example, the construction industry has a shortage of 60%; business services suffer a shortage of 56%; and the manufacturing sector is crippled by a shortage of 47%. In addition, the most prevalent external skill shortages in the associated professional and technical occupations amount to 72%. There is a shortage of 52% among managerial and administrative occupations.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
I compliment the Member for his familiarity with the report. Lest percentages deceive us, the report identifies the fact that only approximately 20% to 21% of surveyed employers reported difficulties in recruiting for their vacancies. Therefore, a significant majority are not encountering levels of difficulty of the kind that the Member has drawn to our attention. Of those employers who are encountering difficulties in filling vacancies, some have experienced acute levels of difficulty.
With regard to the immediate steps we are taking, we are in constant contact with the various sectoral training councils, and we work closely with them on all of the training programs. We are also in regular contact with the further education colleges and the universities. Therefore numbers are increased in accordance with the information available to us in respect of training at all levels. We must view our difficulties in the context of the pressures that arise on the labour market - not just internally in Northern Ireland, but also those created by the situations that have emerged in the South.
The need for specific skills in the construction industry has obliged businesses to seek workers from far beyond the shores of Ireland and Britain. The pressures and the associated levels of remuneration cannot be ignored, given the effect that they have on our internal labour market. We should not be complacent; rather we should continue to monitor and address the matter and work with the training providers to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all sectors of the economy to the best of our ability.
I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education Committee for answering the first part of my question.
Does he recognise that the greatest barrier to eradicating unemployment in Northern Ireland is not an unwillingness among investors to come into the Province? Rather, it is the fact that they cannot get people who are skilled to do the job. What does he intend to do to get unemployed people into a position in which they are able to begin active employment ?
We have to be careful about how we describe the scale of the difficulties. The difficulties relate specifically to several expanding sectors of the economy. We need to provide these sectors with the skills of experienced people. That is what motivates Attract Back-style programmes. In a few weeks' time I hope to be in New York at a major jobs fair, where companies from Northern Ireland and the Republic will draw the attention of our expatriates in that part of the world to the opportunities now available, particularly in the IT sector.
Members should examine the range of training programmes which we provide, directly and indirectly, through our colleges and universities, at basic NVQ level and above. A considerable amount of effort is being made to ensure that we have skilled workers available. There are tailor-made programmes which can be put together under the Bridge to Employment initiative. Employers who identify particular needs can be assisted by the Training and Employment Agency to recruit, and have trained for them, workers who can have a very good opportunity to obtain employment in those enterprises associated with the Bridge to Employment initiative programmes.
We have taken further initiatives by holding discussions with some of the most recent investors, during which we asked them to identify their skills needs and provide in-service courses. When workers are recruited they are guaranteed opportunities on training programmes - with the support of their employers - to acquire certain skills. Such initiatives, and many others, demonstrate a very clear determination on the part of my Department to meet the skills needs of all investors, indigenous or foreign.
Does the Minister accept that quality training, particularly in craft and practical skills, can only be provided over a longer term? The current short-term training schemes do not meet the needs of young unemployed people or of the long-term unemployed.
Will the Minister consider increasing resources for modern apprenticeships to provide more worthwhile, value-added training, especially for young people? I am aware that Shorts Bombardier has an excellent training scheme in engineering and technical skills. Perhaps this could be replicated across Northern Ireland.
The Member and others in the House should be assured that the formal training programmes available are accessible within an agreed national framework - one which involves the employers through the various sector training councils. The Member mentioned the case of Shorts Bombardier. These courses are designed from the outset to make sure that they meet the needs of the sectors or enterprises.
I hesitate to suggest that any of the courses are inadequate in terms of the needs of the particular sectors or industries. Where there are inadequacies, they tend to be revealed in the course of ongoing monitoring of the achievements and skills levels of those who acquire their NVQ awards and those who complete modern apprenticeships. Any shortcomings will, I trust, be quickly identified and addressed, so that we can guarantee to existing and future employers a workforce trained and skilled to the highest standards of the sectors they are preparing to enter.
We are not making particularly good progress through the questions, so I ask Members to be as concise as possible in the last five minutes or so.
I note the Minister's comments about shortages of experienced workers. Does he agree that on occasions employers are their own worst enemies because they impose arbitrary restrictions with respect to age, practising a form of ageism? They exclude applicants who are aged over 25, 35 or 45. Other employers demand graduates when a sub-degree level qualification would be adequate for the job in hand.
I agree up to a point with the Member's comments with respect to the approaches adopted by certain employers. In the course of recent surveys it has been identified that some employers, when seeking to recruit, demand a higher level of qualification than is necessary. Many graduates have had to emigrate because they could not obtain employment here. The oversupply of graduates may well have conditioned employers to seek graduates rather than workers with other levels of skills. That is a matter which employers need to address.
With respect to the issue of ageism, employers are encouraged to follow the guidance in the voluntary code of practice on age diversity in employment which was circulated in June 1999 by the then Department of Economic Development. My Department also helps older workers back into employment through New Deal 50+. Members are probably aware that there is currently no legislation on discrimination in employment on grounds of age, although we could expect this to be considered in the context of the proposed single Equality Bill.
Disabled People: Employment
Rev Dr William McCrea
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the steps he is taking to help people who become disabled whilst in employment to keep their jobs.
My Department's disablement advisory service provides a range of help to people in these circumstances. Financial and practical support is available through the access to work and employment support programmes. Advice is also provided by disablement employment advisers based in jobcentres and supported by occupational psychologists.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The Programme for Government states that the disabled are to be given special consideration. Does the Minister not understand that many of the disabled - and I am speaking about those who become disabled while in employment - feel disadvantaged and therefore need and deserve more positive protection?
I have to confess that I am not aware of cases in which those who became disabled in the course of employment were not able to avail of support. As I indicated in my response, there are forms of support available to them, and I trust that these are being drawn to their attention and that employers themselves are aware of the kind of support that can be made available. Certainly if there were any failure to provide that kind of support, I would be very concerned. If the Member has particular cases in mind, I would be only too pleased to receive the details and follow them up in correspondence or more directly with him.
Is the Department in a position to meet all demands for disabled access?
I take it that the Member refers to the bid for Executive programme funds, which I mentioned earlier when I said that the Department was making a special bid for additional funds in order to ensure that our further and higher education institutions have effective and adequate access for the disabled. Obviously the fact that we are making such a bid indicates that the situation is not yet a completely satisfactory one. We trust that, in a very short period, we will be able to remove the current backlogs. I am aware that many institutions are already taking steps on their own initiative to ensure that disabled access is available.
Order. Will the Minister please bring his remarks to a close. We are now beyond the time allotted for questions to him.
Questions 4, 11 and 14, standing in the names of Dr McDonnell, Mr Neeson and Mr Dallat, will receive written answers. Question 8, standing in the name of Mr Roger Hutchinson, has been withdrawn.
Urban Renewal (Rathfriland)
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail his commitment towards the urban renewal of Rathfriland.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
While my Department has no immediate proposals for the urban renewal of Rathfriland, I point out that, in partnership with the International Fund for Ireland, over £800,000 was provided for the community regeneration project in Rathfriland which was opened in 1998. My Department's input was £350,775.
I thank the Minister for the figures. In the past, Rathfriland was one of south Down's most buoyant towns, and a wide section of the community sold its produce and purchased what it needed there. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Commercial properties are closing weekly, and fears are being expressed about violent undercurrents that are posing a threat to an element of society in the area. Does the Minister agree that Rathfriland and other such deprived areas would benefit socially from a more buoyant local economy?
The quick answer to that is yes. In Rathfriland, as in other towns across the Province, grant aid of up to 30% is available to owners for the refurbishment of derelict private property under the International Fund for Ireland's urban development programme, which is administered by the Department.
Antisocial Behaviour (Antrim Area):
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of actions that have been taken against tenants in relation to antisocial behaviour in the Antrim area in the last 12 months.
This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, whose chief executive has advised that, in the Antrim district during the period from 1 April 2000 to 9 February 2001, one notice seeking possession arising from the tenants' antisocial behaviour has been served and that a further 31 cases are at different stages of investigation. While the Housing Executive has limited scope for action in some cases of antisocial behaviour, such as noise and pet nuisance, 38 such cases have been referred to Antrim Borough Council's environmental health department for action.
What action does the Housing Executive take in cases of antisocial behaviour?
The Housing Executive usually tries to deal with antisocial behaviour through mediation, using its neighbourhood disputes system. However, when mediation does not produce the desired result, the Housing Executive has a range of available options. The Housing Executive has also set up a central antisocial behaviour unit, which includes an officer seconded from the RUC, who will help district offices to deal with the worst cases.
When paramilitaries put drug pushers out of their homes, these unconvicted drug pushers can go to the top of Housing Executive lists. Does the Minister agree that the correct way to deal with such people is through a Housing Executive antisocial order, so that if these people leave their homes, they do not go to the top of a Housing Executive list in a nearby area?
I thank Dr Hendron for his question, which has also been raised by a number of other Members, both orally and in writing. We propose to bring forward new housing legislation which we hope will address this issue adequately. The present housing legislation is not only inadequate for dealing with this situation; it is also intolerable and unacceptable.
Mr C Murphy:
A Cheann Comhairle, the Minister will be aware that problems with troublesome tenants who cause difficulties for their neighbours is not confined to the Antrim area; it is widespread throughout all constituencies. Will he encourage the Housing Executive's mediation facility that he has mentioned to deal constructively with community restorative justice groups in areas that are trying to tackle the problem of antisocial behaviour?
The Housing Executive deals actively with different groups and organisations on antisocial behaviour, which is like a cancer running through our whole system. I have had direct representation from tenants who approached me as the Minister with responsibility. I know that it is of little comfort to them when I say that I have sympathy with their plight. They do not want sympathy; they want action. I reiterate what I said to Dr Hendron: that I hope that the new Housing Bill will deal effectively with this problem. I had hoped that the Bill would be at a more advanced stage. The fault does not lie with me or with my Department; it lies elsewhere. However, I trust that the Bill will come before the House in the near future.
Disability Living Allowance: Appeals
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline how long it takes to process appeal papers in respect of disability living allowance; and to make a statement.
There are currently delays of six to eight months in the resolution of disability living allowance appeals. Owing to the introduction of new legislation in October 1999, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of disability living allowance appeals being received by the Department, and there is a backlog of work. In response to that, the Department implemented a recovery plan and recruited additional staff to deal with the extra work. Those plans are beginning to result in a reduction in the backlog, but it will be some time before service returns to normal. It is prudent that I apologise to all customers affected by those problems.
I thank the Minister for his positive reply. I know that he shares - as do most Assembly Members - our concern about the six to eight months' delay with appeals for disability living allowance. Those who suffer from that delay are disabled people and people with family problems who are without that money for a lengthy period and find it extremely difficult. The Minister has indicated that he has put additional personnel on the job. Can he mirror the social services unit that is specifically dedicated - not seconded to do a part-time job - to eradicating this unacceptable delay for those sensitive people whose welfare, literally, is dependent on receiving their benefits when they are due? He is sympathetic, but we must take more specific action.
The Member is right. I am more than sympathetic. We have taken decisive action to address the problem, and we hope that we are making a definite impact. I have some figures that might interest the Member and the House. There are currently 857 appeals to be dealt with by the Disability Living Allowance Branch. The number is decreasing steadily, and it is estimated that it will be reduced to normal levels by mid-summer. There are almost 1,400 to be listed for hearing at a formal appeal; that makes a total of 2,257 outstanding appeals. I trust that that will, in some way, convey to the Member and the House the volume of the workload which we are dealing with effectively. Better days lie ahead. I hope that for the Member, for the House and for me.
In relation to problems over disability living allowance, what steps is the Minister taking to eradicate what have been referred to as "clerical errors" in the processing of the forms? Does he agree that perhaps a simplification of the form given to those seeking that benefit would go a long way towards eradicating the errors, and thus the appeal process, which he currently has to deal with?
That is not as simple as the Member makes out. It would be much easier for me to stand here and say that we had a system that was so simple that everyone's case would be dealt with overnight. I wish that that was the case, but many situations must be taken into account. Let me reassure the Member that extensive overtime is being worked by the appeals tribunal. Moreover, the number of appeal writers has been increased by over 100% - from 15 to 35. Following a training period for the last group of 10, additional staff will start to write appeals from this month.
The action taken to manage the build-up in the appeals process centres is as follows: six additional staff are being recruited; overtime working has been approved; cross-training of medical panel members has taken place; the average number of weekly sessions for all benefit-related appeals has increased from 79 to 93; and additional, legally-qualified and medical, panel members will be recruited through the Northern Ireland Court Service. There can be only one impact, and that is that the situation will get better.
The House will note that Members who take the trouble to get their names on the list often find that we do not reach them. Therefore I am trying to adhere to the list as much as possible and move on. Mr Ervine is not able to be here for question 5.
Hawthorn Grove, Carrickfergus:
asked the Minister for Social Development to advise (a) of any proposals by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to redevelop Hawthorn Grove, Carrickfergus and (b) when redevelopment plans can be expected to be made public.
There are at present no plans to redevelop Hawthorn Grove, Carrickfergus. The Housing Executive's chief executive has advised that the bungalows at Hawthorn Grove are proposed for demolition. This decision was based on the extensive vandalism that has taken place, the fact that the dwellings have been subject to severe oil pollution and absence of demand in the area for that specific type of accomodation. This line of action will ensure that the site can be thoroughly decontaminated, leaving it available for future development.
Does the Minister accept that two years of disrepair is an unacceptable length of time before consideration is given? There must be a more streamlined system for addressing smaller schemes. This facility has not generated possible rent income for that time. Secondly, does he accept that there is a need for disabled pensioners' two-bedroomed bungalows in Carrickfergus, and will consideration be given to allowing such development on this site?
The Member is correct in saying that there is a high demand for accommodation with two bedrooms or more, but not for these single-bedroomed bungalows. I agree that the consideration time is too long and that it is unacceptable. I want to look at that very carefully with the Housing Executive to ensure that the situation there is speeded up. I will certainly take it on board.
asked the Minister for Social Development to state the current level of unfit housing in (a) Northern Ireland and (b) County Fermanagh.
The latest available figures from the 1996 Northern Ireland house conditions survey show that there were 43,970 unfit dwellings - representing 7·3 % of the total housing stock. In the Fermanagh District Council area the figure for unfit dwellings was 3,510 - representing 17·5% of the total housing stock.
It is a serious and unfortunate situation that unfit housing is worse in Fermanagh than in anywhere else in Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales. The Minister, I am sure, is aware that many of those who occupy unfit housing in County Fermanagh do so because they made minor mistakes when they were filling in their application forms. This resulted in the issue of closing orders on those properties. The closing orders, as we know, are now preventing some needy cases from making fresh applications for replacement dwellings. Does the Minister agree that in order to tackle the issue of unfit housing effectively in Fermanagh, there is a compelling case for a review of all the closing orders that have been issued? Will he direct the Housing Executive to get that review underway now?
By coincidence, I represent the same constituency as Mr Gallagher, and I am acutely aware of the situation that prevails in County Fermanagh. According to housing surveys, County Fermanagh is the worst area for housing. The most recent house conditions survey, from 1996, shows that Fermanagh has the highest percentage of unfit houses in any district council area. However, the same survey shows that that situation is being remedied in Fermanagh at a faster rate than in any other area. Surveys are carried out on a five-yearly basis, and I expect that when the next survey is published in 2001 it will show a considerable reduction in the unfit housing situation there.
Chapter 2 of the Programme for Government, to which the Minister's Department has signed up, recognises that poor housing contributes to social exclusion, and it commits the Executive Committee to better co-ordination in the fields of housing, social security, education, training programmes and social services. Can the Minister tell me what contribution he is making to that improved co-ordination?
The Member may well remember that I am on record as saying that I believe that a good home is not a privilege but a basic right. That is the position that I take. My Department is not shy about making bids for funding for housing. We have in fact produced considerable sums of money to enable the Housing Executive to carry out its repairs and maintenance programme for the incoming year.
We also put in place the smallest percentage rent increases for over a decade. I believe that those are the real ways to treat people who are marginalised and socially deprived. As a result of the actions that I and my Department have taken, housing will get better, not only in Fermanagh, but across the whole of Northern Ireland.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee (Ms Gildernew):
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I accept that the Minister made bids for funding. Does he agree that we need to eradicate, not reduce, the intolerable level of unfitness? Were his bids successful?
The Member is a member of the Social Development Committee, and she is very well aware of what our bids were and whether they were successful or unsuccessful. She knows perfectly well that they were successful. If any Members think that I can eradicate house unfitness in seven months, they are not living in the real world. I have inherited a housing situation that has been developing over the past 30 years. Those who want to be realistic know that that matter can not be solved overnight. For some 27 years I have been championing the case for Housing Executive tenants in Dungannon District Council. As an estate agent, I have also been working for 30 years in housing. Therefore, as I have said before on the Floor, I do have a little knowledge of housing. I know the complexities and difficulties, and I am quite determined that my Department will be at the cutting edge in tackling the housing situation.
Housing Executive Structure
Sir John Gorman
asked the Minister for Social Development to give his assessment of the future structure of the Housing Executive.
At this time I do not envisage any significant changes to the role and functions of the Housing Executive. It will remain as the single comprehensive housing authority in Northern Ireland. I am, however, continually looking at ways to be innovative in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation.
Sir John Gorman:
The Minister is aware that when the Minister of Finance and Personnel was speaking on the Budget, he described a study that was going on in the Department for Social Development. May I recommend that the Minister accelerate that and produce its results, having confirmed that it exists.
Can he consider how it was that in the 1980s and 1990s the Housing Executive was able to attract very considerable sums from the private sector, which it is prevented from doing now in the case of house building?
I can only repeat that we are always looking at ways and means of being as innovative and imaginative as possible with regard to the Housing Executive. That is something that we will keep in the forefront, and, in consultation with the Social Development Committee, we will report on it from time to time. I can only reiterate that we will look continually at the situation and that we envisage the Housing Executive as the single, comprehensive housing authority in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future.
What role does the Housing Executive see for the community groups in the different council areas? Can he confirm that the Housing Executive is considering giving them a bigger say in the estates that they represent, even to the level of considering funding for community groups to look after some of the tenders for work in those estates? Has the Housing Executive considered that matter, is it considering the matter currently, and what are its intentions?
Members should wait to see the new Housing Bill. The Housing Executive continually consults with community groups, housing organisations and associations. We can have a meaningful debate about housing in Northern Ireland when the Bill is published. It is not helpful to speculate, and Members should not speculate on speculation.
The Minister has mentioned the new Housing Bill several times today. Can he indicate when he intends to bring the Bill before the House?
I had hoped to put the Bill before the House before the summer recess, but that is unlikely now. We have lost four months, and, as I have said, the fault is not my Department's or mine. I regret that four precious and important months have been lost because others could not give direct answers to direct questions. Therefore it is highly unlikely that the Bill will come before the House before the summer recess.
Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme
asked the Minister for Social Development to confirm if he has made an application for extra funding to extend the Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme; and to make a statement.
The first year's budget for the new domestic energy efficiency scheme has been increased from £2·88 million to £4 million. If additional funding is required because uptake is greater than anticipated - and if work can be undertaken by installers - a bid for extra funds will be made during the financial year.
Last Friday, simultaneously with England, Scotland and Wales, I launched the United Kingdom fuel poverty strategy. This consultation document outlines the commitment of the Government and the devolved administrations to the eradication of fuel poverty as far as is practical by 2010. The domestic energy efficiency scheme will be the main mechanism by which Northern Ireland hopes to reach that target.
How long will it take to implement the changes?
We hope to launch the scheme in the spring. This period is difficult to gauge because we are not sure what the level of uptake will be. We will be in a better position to ascertain that once the domestic energy efficiency scheme has been launched.
We are trying to eradicate fuel poverty as far as possible by 2010. I accept that it is guesswork, but it is the best guess that we can make. It will be an ongoing process, and we will be better able to gauge the size of the problem when the scheme is up and running. We do have statistics and figures, but those could change as the situation develops.
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail plans he has to extend the proposals under the Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme to those under 60 years of age who are in receipt of incapacity and/or disability benefits.
The purpose of the new domestic energy efficiency scheme is to focus on the most vulnerable groups living in cold homes. Pensioners on low income are deemed to be particularly at risk. That is why the scheme provides greater benefits for them. However, I accept that the disabled, and those in poor health who are under 60 years of age and on low income, are in need of support. Such people may be helped by the Housing Executive adaptation scheme if they qualify for a disabled facilities grant. Whilst there are delays with the process, the Housing Executive has been working hard with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to reduce waiting times and improve the overall service.
A report on the adaptation process should be available for consultation in April 2001. There is scope for the new domestic energy efficiency scheme (DEES) to complete other grant programmes and vice versa. It will be the responsibility of the new scheme manager, when visiting homes, to determine whether a householder under the age of 60 with a disability merits improved heating standards. Contact will then be made with the relevant authorities in order to initiate the application for adaptation. That is the best approach for the householder; their circumstances can be fully assessed by an occupational therapist. The individual's medical condition may require other adaptations to areas such as the bathroom or kitchen. Officials will discuss arrangements with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to allow such cases to be fast tracked.
I welcome the Minister's comments about people who suffer from disability. He spoke about the adaptation programme, which has experienced considerable delays. Under the Programme for Government, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has responsibility for ensuring that special emphasis be given to the needs not only of the elderly but of the disabled and other special groups in the provision of social housing. Linked to the Minister's target of reducing fuel poverty in vulnerable households by improving energy efficiency in 20,000 private sector homes between 2001 and 2004 -
The Member should ask a question.
Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that we find the resources to achieve that objective soon?
The question was in that last line. Resources are finite. A line must be drawn to prevent the scheme from becoming unwieldy and difficult to manage. Resources would become diluted and priority groups would suffer. I wish that there were a scheme with sufficient finance and resources to support all groups. Unfortunately, in the real world that is not the case.
I shall return to the original question. I have raised the issue of discrimination between applicants for help under the scheme. Disabled people under 60 will gain £750 towards heating costs; in comparison, people over 60 who receive benefit will gain £2,000.
The Member will recall my acceptance that a disabled person or a person in poor health under 60 on low income was in need of support. Such a person - if he or she qualifies - may be helped by the Housing Executive's adaptation scheme with a disabled facilities grant. Such people could have access to that grant and should pursue it.
I hope that that addresses the concerns that the Member has raised, and I encourage her to direct her constituents accordingly.
Adjourned at 4.03 pm.