Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 March 2001 (continued)

Sir Reg Empey:

There is a certain element of truth there. If we sit and do nothing, that is exactly what will happen. It depends at what point you measure, but our prices are anywhere up to 25% higher. It depends what you are measuring against and what you are comparing. However, if we simply add the climate change levy and the increased fuel prices and do not take any action, then that is precisely the result that will flow from that. It is precisely that outcome that I am determined to avoid. That is why it is essential to try to set down a few targets for ourselves and why I wanted to do so at an early stage in the year.

Mr A Doherty:

The Minister referred to the potential of offshore wind generation. That would impact very positively on sustainable development in both environmental and economic terms. Since Mr Esmond Birnie anticipated my main question, and I suspect that the Minister's response to Ms Jane Morrice dealt substantially with my other question, I will simply ask the Minister to explain the assumptions that helped form the report's conclusions about wind energy.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I congratulate you on the brevity of your question.

Sir Reg Empey:

The first thing that the Member has to understand is that no assumption is firm. They have made very interesting maps of the wind patterns and flows throughout the island. They then have to take into account the depths involved, et cetera, so it is a very intricate measurement to calculate. If Members get an opportunity to look at the report, they will find it interesting.

They make assumptions about the best physical location, consistent with wind direction, the amount of time during the year that that wind is blowing and the seabed conditions in the area. It is on the basis of these factors that they are recommending that it is physically and logistically possible to generate a given amount of electricity and that it is economically possible to do so within the suggested timescale. Theoretically, one could build wind farms ad infinitum until all our electricity was generated in this way, but if calm weather conditions were to prevail, we would be back to using batteries.

You can only go so far with each energy option if you want to have a diversified system. No firm assumption can be made about anything, but experts have looked closely at the weather patterns, the seabed situation and the economics involved, and they have made recommendations to both the Republic and ourselves. At present we are running with those, and we hope that there will be further significant development. To cover 7·7% of generation using renewable resources would mark a dramatic increase on anything that we have here at present. Given that we do not have any significant hydro schemes, there must be a significant commitment to other renewable resources.

Mr Shannon:

In the light of the increase in electricity charges from 1 April 2001, will the Minister explain the role of the regulator in controlling NIE prices? How can he ensure that dividends for shareholders do not take precedence over charges to NIE customers? What grants and incentives are available to increase the use and provision of alternative types of energy, for example, hydro, wind, biomass and solar power?

Sir Reg Empey:

If NIE wishes to increase its charges, it is obliged to notify the regulator. In this instance, NIE argued that, on the basis of the increase in the amount of raw materials needed to generate power, the generators were increasing the cost to the customers. They are entitled to do this because fuel costs are a part of the electricity premium that the customers pay. The regulator looked at NIE's arithmetic and concluded that the charges reflected accurately the costs that were being incurred by the generators. These costs were not being incurred by NIE because of its operations, but on the basis of the bill charged by the generators for producing the electricity. He concluded that that was accurate enough in this case.

I accept the Member's point about the dividends for the shareholders, but that is not, in itself, a matter for the regulator. However, I am reviewing the extent of the regulator's power, and I want to hear the opinions of Members and the Committee. We are looking closely at this matter to ensure that the regulator has at his disposal the necessary tools to do his job. He is currently involved in a major review of the transmission and distribution element - a huge issue - and, if he concludes that a certain change in the pricing structure is required, this will be introduced by April 2002.

On the question of the use of renewable resources, I indicated that the incentive for the provision of renewables is the premium that is paid for electricity generated in that way. Whether or not people actually use renewable energy is down to personal choice, because the renewable premium, the eco-premium or green tariff requires a higher payment. Therefore as far as I am aware, there is no cross subsidy in the system at present, and, indeed, as people are paying a premium for it, it would not make much sense suddenly to start subsidising it because that would in many ways defeat the objective.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Poots:

Can OFREG take into account the fact that oil prices have now fallen since NIE made the initial announcement of a 9% price rise? Given that the price of oil is not what it was when the initial announcement was made, can that not now be revised downwards?

When will the Minister be in a position to decide whether or not to give the go-ahead for Orimulsion for Kilroot?

Will the North/South interconnector involve the building of a power station in the south-east of the Province? I assume that that pipeline is running through the south- east of the Province. If it does not involve the building of a power station, is that scheme still viable?

Sir Reg Empey:

Oil prices have fallen since the announcement was made; it is relevant for the regulator to take these matters into account. Of course, it will be pointed out to us that the oil prices rose well before the actual increase was applied for, and we will probably be told, "Well we had to take time to react to a price rise so it is only right that we take time to react to a price fall". But the answer to the Member's question is that the current market price of the raw materials for electricity generation is a legitimate area for the regulator to review. I have no doubt that he will do so.

With regard to the Orimulsion issue, there is no application before the Department at the moment to produce electricity based on Orimulsion. All that has happened is that the suppliers of the fuel have been in Northern Ireland. I have met them. They have indicated that they want to see Kilroot use this fuel. I have asked them some questions on the environmental issues which may arise. I have sought experience from other European countries but currently there is nothing on our table from any company which wants to convert and generate. As soon as I get an application, I will look at it. I am interested in what Members think of Orimulsion as a fuel, because I would wish to take into account their views before reaching a decision. So far no application has been made.

A power station in the south-east of Northern Ireland on the route of the interconnector would be ideally located at present. For example, a power station in the greater Tandragee area would be in a perfect position. Again, that is a matter for the private sector.

With a power station the economics would be infinitely superior. The study I am having undertaken on the application is giving an early indication that without it there may still be positive possibilities, albeit more difficult ones than if we had a power station there. It is still my intention to go for the comprehensive north- west and south-east solution. That is still our objective. That application is currently on our table; it is being economically and logistically reviewed at present.

Mr Hay:

I know that the Minister is aware of the very long campaign fought for natural gas in the north and north-west of the Province, by the local authorities there. The Minister and his Department have worked extremely hard to make this a reality. However, can the Minister indicate to the House the timescale he envisages as necessary for natural gas actually to get there?

Can he give the House a realistic timescale on natural gas coming to the north and north-west of the Province?

1.15 pm

Sir Reg Empey:

If we are spared to see this interconnector and the north-west pipeline installed, I will be the first in Londonderry to check the Member's house to see that he has a gas cooker.

We are looking at a timescale of three years. For a power station to be operational by 2004, the go-ahead for construction will have to be given this year.

I was not joking when I said I would be up in Londonderry.

Mr Hay:

For your tea?

Mr Speaker:

I had better draw these offers to a close. The time for questions to the Minister is up.


Budget Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Mr Dodds:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware, as will other Members, that I tabled 12 amendments for consideration at this stage of the Bill. In our view, the purpose of those amendments was to remove wasteful expenditure on the all-Ireland dimension of the agreement and retain that expenditure within the Northern Ireland Departments. For the benefit of Members, Mr Speaker, I should be grateful if you would say why those amendments have not been accepted.

Mr Speaker:

The Member will be aware that it is not modern practice for Speakers to give reasons for the selection or non-selection of amendments. From time to time, however, it is appropriate for a Speaker to identify the principles upon which selection is made.

In this case the process under which the 12 amendments submitted were not selected identifies an important principle. I cannot draw to mind any circumstance in which it would be appropriate for me or any successor as Speaker to select amendments which, if made, would render a Bill ultra vires. Such a Bill would not proceed to Royal Assent, since the Secretary of State would not grant permission for that. For the propriety of the Assembly and its proper business, it seems inappropriate for amendments to be selected which, if made, would make the Bill ultra vires.

Mr Dodds:

I do not wish to challenge your ruling, but for the purposes of clarification it appears that your ruling confirms what many of us suspect when we look at the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The North/South implementation bodies and the North/South Ministerial Council are given a special and privileged position within the legislation. While it may be possible to amend allocations and appropriations in respect of other items of expenditure, these items are specially protected. That is a lesson that will not be lost on the wider Unionist community.

Mr Speaker:

The Assembly is a devolved body and is therefore subject to the legislation under which it and the other institutions consequent upon the Belfast Agreement were established. The Assembly is also subject to other pieces of legislation such as the Human Rights Act and so forth. The Member is correct in saying that the institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement are not subject to the procedures of the Assembly. They are not devolved matters which we can address.

As no amendments have been selected, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the clauses and then the schedules.

Clauses 1 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill, which now stands referred to the Speaker.


Government Resources and Accounts Bill: Final Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move

That the Government Resources and Accounts Bill [NIA 6/00] do now pass.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the various Committees that were involved in the scrutiny of the Bill. The Finance and Personnel Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Committee played a significant role in dealing with some very complex issues and in shaping the Bill's final form.

I am particularly grateful for their support in ensuring that the Bill can be passed in the current financial year. The primary purpose of the Bill is to enable departmental estimates and accounts to be prepared on a resource rather than a cash basis. It marks a major milestone on the way to full implementation of resource accounting and budgeting in Northern Ireland Departments and demonstrates a commitment to introducing best practice accounting methods to the public sector.

Those changes will improve the way in which the Assembly votes and scrutinises public spending with proper management of the full costs of Government activities, better treatment of capital spending and systematic reporting of allocations of resources to objectives.

The Bill also makes a number of important improvements to the Comptroller and Auditor General's powers to scrutinise public spending. As I have indicated, I am committed to securing appropriate forms of audit and accountability for Northern Ireland, and this Bill is a first in that process. Following the necessary wide-ranging consultation I intend to introduce further legislation that will deal more specifically with local audit and accountability arrangements. I therefore commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Government Resources and Accounts Bill [NIA 6/00] do now pass.


Street Trading Bill: Final Stage

Mr Speaker:

At Further Consideration Stage of the Bill, an amendment was made to clause 17, which deals with a penalty. As that is a reserved matter under paragraph 9(b) of schedule 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I was required to refer the matter to the Secretary of State before the Bill could proceed to Final Stage.

The Secretary of State has given his consent, and the Bill can therefore properly have its Final Stage.

The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):

I beg to move

That the Street Trading Bill [NIA 2/00] do now pass.

The Street Trading Bill replaces the provisions of the Street Trading (Regulation) Act (Northern Ireland) 1929, which relates to the licensing of street trading. The Bill seeks to enable district councils to control and regulate street trading and their districts in such a way as to prevent undue nuisance, interference and inconvenience to persons and vehicles.

The 1929 Act has become outdated, which is hardly surprising since today's street traders operate in ways that were unheard of 70 years ago. The Bill introduces more effective measures for dealing with unlicensed trading and those who trade contrary to the terms of their licence. However, it also seeks to provide a more transparent system in which the rights and responsibilities of councils and traders are properly addressed.

District councils have indicated that they will need time to set up new administrative arrangements. Existing and prospective traders will also require time to familiarise themselves with the new legislation, and to that end the Bill contains a clause stating that the new provisions will come into operation on a date appointed by the Department. It is planned to make the Bill operational four months after Royal Assent.

Finally, I would like to thank Members for their interest in and contributions at the various stages of the Bill. I am particularly grateful to the Chairperson and members of the Social Development Committee for their diligence in the scrutiny of the Bill.

Mr Dodds:

I congratulate the Minister and the Department for seeing the Bill through to the Final Stage. I also congratulate the Committee for its work. I had the privilege, as the then Minister, of introducing this piece of legislation to the Committee, and I am glad to see it reaching the Final Stage today. I also take the opportunity, on behalf of Members who are not present, to say a word of thanks to the Minister for taking on board the representations made to him, and the arguments put to him, on a number of amendments. These amendments, in the view of many of us, will strengthen the legislation considerably, and they will give local councils the powers that they need to deal with the problem of illegal street trading and, at the same time, provide proper regulation.

The Minister and the Department have shown a great deal of flexibility and a willingness to listen to points that have been made. As a councillor on Belfast City Council, I know that officials in the health and environmental services department are looking forward to being able to tackle the problem of illegal street trading in the centre of Belfast with the new powers that have been given to them under this Bill. I want to put those comments on record - not only on my behalf, but on behalf of other Members, some of whom are not present.

Mr Speaker:

Does the Minister wish to reply?

Mr Morrow:

I have said all that I want to say.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Street Trading Bill [NIA 2/00] do now pass.

The sitting was suspended at 1.26 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair)-

Oral Answers to Questions



Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

2.30 pm

Mr Speaker:

Question 10, standing in the name of Mr David Ford, has been transferred to the Department for Social Development and will receive a written response. Question 4, in the name of Mr Roy Beggs, has been withdrawn.

Commission/Strategy for Children


Ms Lewsley

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail what contact have they had with representatives of children's groups regarding the creation of a consultation paper on a commissioner for children/strategy for children.

(AQO 1000/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

We recognise the need to draw on the experience and expertise of organisations who work with children and represent their needs.

The Deputy First Minister and I had a meeting with a number of such organisations on 20 February. They included Save the Children, Barnardos, Children's Law Centre, the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroups Association, Parents Advice Centre, Playboard, Putting Children First, Voice of Young People in Care, and Childcare International (Northern Ireland). The meeting was very positive, and we look forward to continuing to work in partnership with children's organisations in developing our proposals.

Ms Lewsley:

From speaking to a number of the organisations mentioned, I know that they found the consultation exercise very positive at this stage. Can the First Minister outline how the inclusion of representatives of those children's organisations will be taken forward, considering that they will not be represented on the working group?

The First Minister:

The discussion we had on 20 February was very much a preliminary discussion in which a number of general areas were raised. From our perspective, we very much welcomed the exchange. Obviously, officials will be speaking to those organisations, and to others, in greater detail as part of the consultation and as part of the development of our proposals.

The interdepartmental working group is one thing, but we do wish to engage in a very wide-ranging discussion with people who have practical expertise in this area.

Rev Robert Coulter:

In again welcoming the decision to appoint a children's commissioner, may I ask the First Minister to assure me that the Assembly will have ultimate responsibility for children's matters?

The First Minister:

Of course, any legislation will have to be enacted by the Assembly, and so the Assembly will have to consider its relationship with the children's commissioner. Indeed, the Assembly may wish to consider whether it wishes to have any particular procedure for that responsibility, perhaps through one of the existing Committees. Naturally, the ultimate responsibility will rest with elected representatives here.

North/South Ministerial Council
and British-Irish Council


Mr McGrady

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the items planned for discussion at the next North/South Ministerial Council plenary session.

(AQO 997/00)


Mr McClarty

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment of the work in progress in the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

(AQO 1815/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 2 and 5 together.

The items planned for discussion at the next North/ South Ministerial Council (NSMC) plenary session have not yet been agreed. However, at the last NSMC plenary meeting it was agreed that a report on the study on an independent North/South consultative forum, and one on competitiveness between the two economies, would come forward to the next plenary meeting.

Overall, there is some progress in both the NSMC and the British-Irish Council (BIC), although in some areas that progress has been slower than had been hoped. Of the NSMC's six implementation bodies that were established, some have been meeting and working well, others have not been meeting. There is substantial progress in a number of the areas, mainly at official level and in terms of co-operation. The work of BIC continues centrally at official level. Difficulties over nomination to both bodies have held back meetings in plenary session, and in some sectors.

The failure of the Minister for Regional Development to participate fully in the institutions has made progress in transport in both BIC and NSMC less easy. The first sectoral meeting of each body, led by the First Minister and myself in December 2000, commenced the work, which is much needed.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply on the proposed agenda for the next North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting. I agree with him that the non-participation of the DUP in certain areas is to the disadvantage of the people of Northern Ireland and I hope that that situation will be remedied very quickly.

We had a strong, emotional debate this morning about foot-and-mouth disease and the many animal health problems that face this community and, indeed, the entire island of Ireland. Will the First and Deputy First Ministers ensure that animal health is a priority on the agenda for the next NSMC meeting? Considering our experiences, many people cannot understand why an implementation body has not yet been created to give this issue a full review.

The Deputy First Minister:

Despite our powers of persuasion prior to the Good Friday Agreement, it was not possible to have the type of implementation body that many of us wanted. I hope that attitudes will change and that those powers of persuasion will be used more successfully. The importance of co-operation in agriculture on a North/South basis has already been recognised by this Administration and by the NSMC. Animal health is already one of the areas of co-operation in the NSMC. At the last meeting of the NSMC agriculture sector on 17 November 2000, the council endorsed proposals to formalise liaison arrangements at official level on the full range of animal health matters.

The Council agreed that a strategic steering group should be established to replace the current arrangements. The group would co-ordinate animal health policy on the island. In support of this group, working groups would be set up to consider policy issues on animal health that affect the whole of this island. I am certain that foot-and-mouth disease will be discussed at the next agriculture sector meeting scheduled for 21 March 2001.

Mr McClarty:

Will the Deputy First Minister agree that the problem with the North/South Ministerial Council lies in the failure of Republicans to fulfil their decommissioning obligations? Does he agree that Sinn Féin Ministers have a responsibility and that they cannot expect to take all the benefits and give nothing in return? Will he support the calls for decommissioning made by Archbishop Brady and the Member for West Belfast, Mr Attwood?

The Deputy First Minister:

The relevance of that question to questions two and five is immediately obvious. However, I will give my views, as the Member has requested.

I have always stated that there is a requirement for decommissioning - it is in the Good Friday Agreement. It is essential that people throughout the North of Ireland are satisfied that there are no illegal weapons or explosives held in this country. I have no problem with stating that again for the record.

In relation to that, and to the question under consideration, a judgement has been made in the courts of the land, and that judgement, pending appeal, stands. There is important business to be done by the Executive, by the North/South bodies and by the British-Irish Council. We should not have any reason to impede that important work.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Does the Deputy First Minister not think that it ill becomes him to come to the House and attack a party that has been consistent in its attendance to this matter? Should he not turn to his partner sitting beside him, who has taken this matter to the courts of the land and is not even nominating his own Ministers now?

I congratulate him on finding that the DUP had set the right example. Does the Deputy First Minister not feel that it ill becomes him now to tell us about all the good things that will come? His dreadful partner - under the terms of the agreement, they act together as Prime Minister - is responsible for this election gimmick.

The Deputy First Minister:

I commend the Member and his party for their consistency - they are consistently wrong. Consistency ceases to be a virtue when it is based on a false premise.

Mr McCartney:

The Deputy First Minister makes a virtue of consistency. Can he tell the Chamber why, at the SDLP conference in November 1998, when talking about decommissioning - with which he is now prepared to dispense - he declared that if the Executive were formed and there was no decommissioning, he would join with his partner-in-crime in hunting the offenders from the Assembly?

The Deputy First Minister:

I commend the Member for his consistency - he is consistently inaccurate. What I said at our party conference is a matter of record, and I will produce the record for the Member. There was a two-way guarantee - [Interruption]

Mr Speaker

Order. This time is for asking Ministers questions in order that they might respond. There is little parliamentary purpose in asking questions and then not listening to the answers that the Minister gives.

The Deputy First Minister:

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your guidance. Some Members are consistent in making noise.

I made a guarantee; in fact, I made two guarantees. I said with regard to the institutions that the goalposts could not and should not be moved. My offer was never recognised, and we saw what happened then - suspension and other things. In the interests of accuracy, I will ensure that the inconsistent Member receives a copy of what I said at the party conference before the end of the afternoon.

Northern Ireland Executive:
Brussels Office


Mr Neeson

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail when it is intended that the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister will visit the office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

(AQO 972/00)

The First Minister:

The office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels should be completed in May. We have not, as yet, made any plans to visit the office, but we will consider how best to launch it in order to gain maximum benefit from our presence in Brussels.

Mr Neeson:

I received a written response from the First Minister today about staffing. The Executive are in the process of making two senior appointments to the office in Brussels. Can the First Minister assure me that it will not be a case of jobs for the boys and the girls? What will be the full staffing complement of the office? How widely will the jobs be advertised? What is the target date for the official opening of the office?

The First Minister:

We hope that the office will open in May. The delay is regrettable, but it will not frustrate our objective. We have appointed the head of office, and that person will take up post in Brussels on 26 March. The office will be located in the United Kingdom permanent representation until our own facilities are available.

Posts will include head of the office, deputies and locally recruited support staff. The first two mentioned are members of UKRep. consequently, they have diplomatic status, so it is necessary for them to be civil servants. The post was trawled internally and filled in the normal way. There is no question of "jobs for the boys".

2.45 pm

Mr K Robinson:

Does the First Minister agree that the absence of an established, dedicated office in Brussels is not helping us to keep Europe informed about the present difficulties facing our agriculture industry? Does he also agree that the sooner we get the office opened, the sooner we will be able to arrange events such as the excellent "Best of Northern Ireland" exhibition hosted by Mr Roy Beggs MP at Westminster last week?

The First Minister:

Mr Roy Beggs MP took the initiative with the support of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the IDB. It was an excellent venture, and it would be good to be in a position to replicate that in Brussels.

As I said in an earlier reply, the head of our office will be in Brussels this month. It would be nice to have our own office accommodation available immediately, but I am quite sure that he will actively represent Northern Ireland's interests from the outset. The Member is right to refer to the agricultural problems we are facing. They are very significant. The improvement to our representative capability in Brussels will be very welcome.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

Does the First Minister agree that it would be much better to have a dedicated office representing the Assembly in Brussels, rather than one for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, occupied by the cronies of the said Ministers?

The First Minister:

It is not right for the Member to refer to the civil servants who will be occupying those posts as "cronies". Would the Member make a comment like that about officials generally in the Civil Service or about the civil servants servicing his Colleagues? We should have a little bit more decorum in the way that questions are put.

It is clear that an office of the Executive is needed to represent the Administration. We hope to work closely with other bodies such as the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe (NICE) and, indeed, with the MEPs. I hope the Member's Colleague, who is an MEP, will be prepared to co-operate with us in a more positive way than he is.

TSN Action Plans


Mr C Murphy

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the departmental targeting social need action plans approved by the Executive to date.

(AQO 994/00)

The First Minister:

All Ministers have agreed their Department's New TSN action plans, and those plans are now being implemented. The Executive Committee have agreed to publish a report explaining the New TSN policy and setting out departmental action plans. We expect that report to be published in March.

Mr C Murphy:

I thank the First Minister for his answer. Can he advise us of the status of any of the action plans published by public bodies - subsidiaries of Departments - in advance of the Executive's agreeing departmental action plans? Furthermore, in the light of the NISRA report published last Friday, which indicated the continuing unemployment differential between Catholics and Protestants, can he assure us that implementation plans should be more than just targeting efforts and existing resources? Resources should be focused on areas of greatest need to ensure that issues like the unemployment differential are effectively tackled in a realistic timescale.

The First Minister:

New TSN was initially developed under direct rule. We have adopted it and are working it out in practice. We will be publishing the departmental programmes and plans in March and the Member will be able to see them then.

One of the things we wish to do - and we will return to this when we debate the Programme for Government later on - is develop the Northern Ireland economy in such a way as to get as close to full employment as possible. The unemployment differential, as it is called in Northern Ireland, has been remarkably stable over the course of the last 25 years. However, the differential between Protestants and Catholics is less than that which exists in the Republic of Ireland - a little-known fact, but one that is relevant and shows the intractability of the problem. We will tackle it by trying to provide as much employment as possible and eliminate unemployment generally. That is the best way to tackle the issue.

Mr O'Connor:

I welcome the First Minister's answer. Can he tell the House how progress on the implementation of the New TSN plan will be monitored?

The First Minister:

There will be opportunity to monitor the implementation plans through the Assembly and its Committees, in the same way that Members can monitor the activities of Departments generally.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has its own Equality Unit. This unit will be keeping these plans and their implementation under review. The Deputy First Minister and I are very concerned to ensure that the Administration's obligations to carry out and implement policies that deal with people fairly across the board and to promote equality of opportunity are met.

We will be looking very carefully at the operation across the Administration to ensure that equality of opportunity is genuinely promoted and that plans, proposals and policies that are unfair are not adopted.

Dr Birnie:

Does the First Minister agree that the unemployment statistics published last Friday illustrate that all sections of the Northern Ireland community are moving much closer to full employment?

The First Minister:

That is certainly true. Unemployment is now down to 5·8%, which is close to the lowest record historically. The lowest figure in the twentieth century, so far as I am aware, was 4%, so 5·8% is very encouraging indeed.

There will be significant problems, however, in tackling long-term unemployment and ensuring that people have appropriate skills to enter the labour market. That is why - as we will see when we debate the Programme for Government - that one of the chief emphases of this Administration will be on developing skills in order to enable people to move into the labour market and to take up the benefits of employment opportunities we hope to create.


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