Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 5 March 2001 (continued)
Victims: Bloomfield Report
Mrs E Bell
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail discussions the Victims Unit has had with the Victims Liaison Unit in the Northern Ireland Office regarding the implementation of the Bloomfield Report.
The Deputy First Minister:
I first want to pay tribute to the Member for her interest in this issue and her efforts, long before it became fashionable.
The Junior Ministers, Mr Haughey and Mr Nesbitt, regularly meet Mr Ingram, the Northern Ireland Office Minister for Victims, to discuss the matter. The next meeting will take place in the very near future. In addition, officials from the Victims Unit meet their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Office on a regular basis to discuss a range of issues relating to the needs of victims, including the Bloomfield Report.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Deputy First Minister for his personal comments. As I have been working in respect of this issue for over 15 years, I do not think that it was a backhanded compliment, but rather a reflection of the work that I have done.
Does the Minister agree that it is vitally important that the relationship and work programmes of both units are clear and obvious to all victims - individuals and those in organisations? Can they be assured that they will all be treated equally? Will they also be entitled to apply for the moneys that were announced by the Minister, Adam Ingram, some time ago?
The Deputy First Minister:
I very much take the point that the Member has made. We are, as are the junior Ministers, keenly aware of the need to work closely with our counterparts in the Northern Ireland Office and to have regular meetings to ensure that gaps in service provision do not appear and that key areas are being addressed by the relevant parties.
In addition, an information leaflet outlining the split of responsibilities between the two units was sent recently to individual victims' groups and political parties' spokespersons. This exercise has received a very positive feedback.
On the last point, I can assure the Member that the Northern Ireland Office will distribute the money that was recently announced. We will be having discussions about that to ensure that we have a very substantial input and that that money is used to the best advantage.
I thank the Deputy First Minister for what he said in relation to victims. Does he accept that the word "victim" is bandied around a great deal and that there are many people in Northern Ireland, whose family members were killed or banished, that suffer and are victims too? Can the Deputy First Minister tell the House how his Department defines a victim?
The Deputy First Minister:
I take the broad point. Over the years we have often heard about lace-curtain poverty throughout Northern Ireland and elsewhere. A similar factor applies to this issue. We should be aware that the entire community has been a victim of the ongoing violence and counter-violence of the past 30 years.
To respond to the Member's immediate question, I do not think that it is possible to have a totally definitive position on it. Let me try this for size - Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's definition in his report is
"the surviving injured of violent conflict-related incidents and those close relatives or partners who care for them along with close relatives and partners who mourn their dead".
Unfortunately, there are far too many in each category in the North of Ireland. However we define the term "victim", we must realise that there is a need for individuals, groupings, and the entire community, to feel their way out of that terrible period.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister assure the House that much needed funding for victims' and survivors' groups will not be syphoned off by Government Departments through bureaucratic administration costs?
The Deputy First Minister:
I again put it on record that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister was allocated £420,000 in the current financial year to assist victims. Final decisions on the allocation of these resources have not yet been made. However, the emphasis will be on providing practical help and support by contributing to the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund, supporting the four trauma advisory panels, assisting with specific projects undertaken in the health and trauma fields, developing capacity building and by commissioning research on service provision for victims. Of course, the European Peace II programme will include a specific measure for victims, with funding of approximately £6·67 million. This money will become available in the next financial year.
Finally, no one in this society should ever fall into the trap of considering that there are good victims and less worthy victims. All victims need help, and they require the total support of the community. So far as we are concerned, they will get it.
Departments' Replies to
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the average time taken by each Department to reply to written representations by Members of the Assembly and to give an assessment as to how this has changed since devolution.
The First Minister:
Departments aim to issue ministerial replies to correspondence from Members within 10 working days of receipt. However, depending on the nature of the information sought, some replies may take longer. In such cases, interim replies may be issued to keep Members informed. The position pre-devolution was similar.
We think that to calculate the average time for replies to Members' correspondence would incur disproportionate costs for all Departments.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is the First Minister aware of the fact that it has taken over 20 working days for the Minister of Health to reply to me on the issue of time worked by junior doctors? That does not meet the aim that he has just outlined. Does he not accept that the arrangements that he and his Colleague put in place - consisting of 10 ministerial Departments, 2 junior ministerial Departments and all the "North/Southery" accoutrement - are expensive and excessive and involve duplication? Furthermore, does he not agree that we have too many Ministers but too little democracy? Does he accept that now is the time to review and reduce these arrangements so that Northern Ireland can have the democracy that it is entitled to?
The First Minister:
I note the Member's use of the words "expensive" and "excessive". I must congratulate him in one respect - he has asked more questions than any other Member. Many people will think that his efforts, at a cost of nearly £100 for each question, have been excessive and expensive in themselves.
This issue is of great importance to many Members, not just in terms of the number of written questions sent directly to Departments but also for the number of questions tabled for oral and written replies here. Can the First Minister quantify the actual value of this pile of questions, which he indicated Mr Paisley Jnr has asked?
I am afraid that the First Minister will have to respond in writing since the time for his questions is up.
The Deputy First Minister:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During an interjection, which I suppose could be interpreted as a question, Mr McCartney made an allegation which was incomplete. In the interests of accuracy - and with your tolerance - may I put the matter right? This is what he omitted:
"Similarly, there is a fear among Sinn Féin supporters that whatever they do Unionists will up the ante by contriving new demands and conditions to exclude them from executive office. Again, I believe that this is an unfounded" - [Interruption].
Order. Will Members please resume their seats. I will have to make a comment about matters of order in response to a question earlier today, but I hope that those who raise points of order will remain in order. The Deputy First Minister is responding to something that was said earlier, and I have to say that this does not seem to be a point of order. However, on a number of occasions Members have sought to refute something that was said about them personally. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander - not that that expression is any reflection on the Deputy First Minister.
The Deputy First Minister:
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This gander will conclude on this note. I quote exactly:
"If, however, it was misguidedly attempted, neither our party nor I as Deputy First Minister would confer any compliance, support or credibility on such a blatant contravention of the Agreement."
Mr McCartney, over to you.
Oh no. I have it here.
Members will know very well that aids and accompaniments are not acceptable in the Chamber. I hope that all Members, however distinguished, will observe that.
Order. A matter was raised earlier today with regard to what recourse would be taken when Standing Orders were not sufficient. There seemed to be some uncertainty. Therefore I refer the House to the ruling I made on Monday 14 December 1998:
"I intend to use Erskine May for guidance on matters which arise during business in the Assembly or other matters where I am asked to give a ruling and where the Initial Standing Orders and the draft Standing Orders are not clear or are insufficient."
I had assumed that Members would understand that the same would apply when we moved to our own Standing Orders. When Standing Orders are not clear, or are insufficient, I will have recourse to Erskine May, except in the very exceptional circumstances where Erskine May would be in conflict with our Standing Orders. When Standing Orders are inadequate, or when they are entirely silent, I will use Erskine May, as I said on 14 December 1998.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
SDLP take note.
My accuracy was called into question by the Deputy First Minister. I obtained a proof copy of what he said, which was entirely consistent with the remarks I had made in the House. I have it here. I was aware that it would not be a point of order to do exactly what you permitted the Deputy First Minister to do. You acknowledged that it was not a point of order, but you let him make it. Knowing you to be a person of probity and equity, I have to say that the same right to breach - if that is what it was - a point of order, or question, should be extended to me briefly as was extended to the Deputy First Minister.
Order. It is clearly not a time for an exposé of the rightness or otherwise - [Interruption].
But you permitted it.
You permitted it.
Order. The matter was raised by the Member in question. He chose to make a remark about what another Member had said. He made his remark from certain proofs - so be it. The Member has asked for an opportunity to respond. Other Members have, at times, asked for opportunities to respond when their integrity has been called into question by a particular reference. The Deputy First Minister took such an opportunity. It is inappropriate now to engage in a toing and froing, but if the Members wish to exchange papers which demonstrate something, that is another matter. If the substance of this question is a matter of earnest debate, it should properly be debated in the form of a motion.
Mr Speaker, I endorse what you have said. However, you yourself indicated that the Deputy First Minister's response was not a point of order - and he did rise on a point of order; in fact that was his opening gambit - yet you chose to allow it. You justified your decision on the basis that the Deputy First Minister was responding to something that had called his accuracy into question, yet you deny me the same opportunity to respond.
Order. The Member does not seem to be aware -
I am very aware.
-that he is running perilously close to questioning the integrity of the Speaker, in which case he would be wholly out of order. The Deputy First Minister asked for an opportunity to respond in the form of a point of order, but, as I indicated, that was an incorrect term to use. His was a statement in response to the question that had been asked, and I permitted it. That is for the Speaker to do, as the Member knows very well.
With equity and fairness.
I am grateful for your kind remarks in that regard.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Dr Paisley, you have already had one point of order. My generosity knows no bounds, so I will allow you to make one further point. This must be the last one.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I view with seriousness, Mr Speaker, your challenge to a Member that he was moving into very serious territory just because he tried to defend himself. He was not moving so, and he did pay tribute to your integrity. He is entitled to respond to the Member's comment that he did not say something which he did, in fact, say.
Order. A Member is not entitled to question a ruling from the Speaker, as Dr Paisley, who is probably the most experienced parliamentarian in this Chamber, knows well. I hold by the ruling that I have given. [Interruption].
Order. If Members wish to have a conversation, they are entirely entitled to do so, but they should have it in the Lobby so that others, who want to observe the conversation, will know where it is taking place.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
Urban Clearways: Control Zones
Mrs E Bell
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail his plans to alter the timings attributed to control zones on urban clearways.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
I have no plans at present to alter the operation times of urban clearways that are designated under road traffic legislation. My Department's Roads Service, in conjunction with the police, carries out periodic reviews of these times to ensure that they are consistent with traffic management requirements.
Mrs E Bell:
Is the Minister aware that serious traffic congestion occurs in urban clearways outside the current timings, particularly on Friday afternoons before 4.30 pm? That seriously impedes the journey home for many commuters. Will the Minister consider extending the timings to relieve that situation?
There has to be a balance between the benefits that waiting restrictions bring to traffic movement and the inconvenience for those who wish to park for access to shops, and so on. That is an operational decision for the Roads Service. Officials periodically review clearway times with the RUC, which has responsibility for enforcement. If any Member has a query about a particular location he may take the matter up with the divisional roads manager in the relevant division. In Mrs Bell's case that is the eastern division. If subsequent to that there is still dissatisfaction I will look at the individual case.
Public Transport (Rural Areas)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to review public transport services in rural areas; and to make a statement.
Public transport services in rural areas will be considered during the development of the 10-year regional transportation strategy. In addition, and as part of my Department's obligations under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, an equality impact assessment of the strategic planning and operational management of the bus and rail network - including that in rural areas - is planned for 2001-02.
There have already been recent substantial improvements to public transport facilities serving district towns and their rural hinterlands. New bus stations have opened in Newry and Armagh, and combined bus and rail centres will open soon in Bangor and Coleraine. Construction of a new bus station in Magherafelt is underway, and work on a new bus station in Antrim is expected to begin in the next financial year. Translink is also keen to construct a new bus station in Downpatrick.
The Department for Regional Development also administers the rural transport fund for Northern Ireland which provides around £1·3 million annually to support community-based transport schemes, additional rural bus services and research into rural transport needs.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and may I ask him to thank his officials for consulting me on my question during the week. He will not be surprised by my asking him to consider a number of other imaginative schemes that will apply existing resources to supporting transport services in rural areas. Specifically, I am asking about the pilot projects that have been undertaken in Britain and parts of Northern Ireland to use the postal services to help provide transport for the elderly and vulnerable in particular. Will the Minister look at the possibility of utilising the fleet of education and library board buses that are all over Northern Ireland and which have qualified drivers? Those buses lie redundant for most of the summer and every evening.
The post buses to which the hon Member refers are minibus-type vehicles that are owned and operated by the Post Office. Not only do they deliver mail, but they also provide transport for fare- paying passengers in local areas. They are more prevalent in Scotland. However, the Post Office currently operates extremely limited services in Fermanagh. Officials from the Department for Regional Development have had discussions with the Post Office about extending post-bus services in Northern Ireland with funding from the rural transport fund. The Post Office has not yet taken up the offer of support. I would be prepared to re-examine the possible extension of post-bus services.
The issue of education and library board buses is one that I will need to discuss with other Departments. Rural bus services are frequently - almost invariably - uneconomic and are subsidised by profit from urban services. Unfortunately, the Department for Regional Development does not have the resources to subsidise rural bus services, whether provided by Translink or by education and library boards. However, I am prepared to have discussions about the possibility of extension.
There are already some public transport schemes in the Province, including one in my constituency of Strangford. Will these schemes, which were in the past partially funded by Europe and by Government Departments, continue in the future? Will similar schemes be initiated to provide public transport in areas of the Province which at present do not have adequate coverage?
As I have not had notice of the supplementary question, I am unable to respond immediately to it. However, I will undertake research to find out whether I can give an assurance that those services can continue. These issues will be considered under the regional transportation strategy. The consultation period for that strategy began in January 2001 and will end in the middle of this month. The strategy will be brought before the Assembly in the autumn. All these matters will be up for consideration as part of that strategy, but I will undertake to obtain the information that the Member has asked for and to respond to him in writing.
I thank the Minister for his warm and generous consideration of those living in rural areas and their need for transport services. I ask him to give the same consideration to my constituents in Glenavy and Ballinderry, and also my neighbouring constituents in Crumlin, when he considers the possible "mothballing" - I think that that is the term that has been used - of the railway line. With his generosity and his recognition for those living in rural areas, it would be incomprehensible if the Minister were to consider mothballing this facility, in view of the hardship that those people would suffer.
I thank the Member for the supplementary question and the ingenuity with which he brought it to bear on the Floor of the House. I have met four separate delegations on this matter. The consultation period for the Antrim-Knockmore line closed at the weekend. Last weekend there was a considerable response to the advertising of the possible mothballing of the line.
I was acutely aware before the advertising of the consultation period closed, and am even more so now, that I am in receipt of a considerable volume of objections to the closure of the line. I will give sympathetic consideration to everyone who comes to see me about the line. I hope and expect - and this is without prejudice to whatever the final outcome may be - that, if the points made by all those objectors and by the hon Member are of such validity that I decide to retain the line, I will get the funding from the Assembly to allow me to keep it open.
Housing Schemes: Roads and Services
asked the Minister for Regional Development to give his assessment of the time taken by developers to complete housing schemes in bringing roads and services up to the required standard, thus enabling them to be adopted by his Department.
In the case of private streets which have been determined through the planning process, it is the responsibility of developers to bring roads and sewers up to the required standard for adoption by the Department for Regional Development. Where such roads and sewers are provided to the prescribed standards, they are adopted promptly. Progress of developments in general is related to many varied factors and, regrettably, can sometimes be much slower than is desirable.
Where satisfactory completion of roads is not effected within a reasonable period from the date of completion of dwellings, my Department has powers under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, as amended, to enable it to complete the necessary work at the developer's expense. Such action is normally only initiated after efforts to persuade developers to meet their obligations have not been successful, with each case carefully considered on its merits.
Does the Minister accept that almost 20 years is an unacceptably long period to wait before roads and services are brought up to standard and adopted in a new development, such as Prospect in Carrickfergus? Will the Minister ensure that, in future, developers' bonds are accessed, using the article 11 procedure, at a much earlier stage in order to ensure that roads and sewerage in a private development are brought up to standard? Does he agree that there are unacceptably large numbers of unadopted roads in the Carrickfergus, Larne and Newtownabbey areas?
The Member referred to Carrickfergus and the East Antrim area. Roads Service informs me that there are approximately 60 developments, representing an estimated 130 bonded sites, around Carrickfergus. Roads Service is working with the developers to bring these sites to adoption standards as quickly as possible.
The hon Member referred to Carrickfergus in particular, and I should inform him that notices under article 11 of the 1980 Order were issued on 15 February, giving a particular developer 28 days - the minimum allowed under the Order - to commence necessary remedial work.
Road Defects: Public Liability Claims
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail his Department's expenditure during the last financial year on public liability claims arising out of defects on public roads.
Expenditure on public liability claims peaked in the mid-1980s at £6 million. Claims arising out of defects on public roads in 1999-2000 were in the region of £3·4 million. The reduction has been brought about by the introduction of the Central Claims Unit and the improvement in road maintenance systems. Obviously, one of the difficulties is the current level of expenditure on road maintenance, which I have continually said is half of what is required.
Following the recent publication of the Northern Ireland Audit Office report on Roads Service management of street works in Northern Ireland, the Minister announced measures to ensure that utilities reinstated roads properly after digging them up. We all have experience of roads needing repairs just days or weeks after works are completed. Can the Minister assure me that roads are inspected immediately after work is completed and that appropriate action will be taken?
I share the Member's concern over issues arising out of the Audit Office report. I have written to all the utilities concerned and I hope to meet with senior representatives of those utilities in the near future in order to establish the exact point that he raised. People have a right to expect that these utilities - which by law are able to enter the road surface to lay cables - ensure that the maintenance and relaying of a road's surface is to the same standard as it would have been if they were not there. I am determined that that will be the case.
My question is rather similar. Does the Minister agree that when his Department complies with the report's recommendations, public liability claims should be substantially reduced?
I hope that that will be the case. It is certainly my intention that it should be. The more we can encourage utilities to do what is both their moral obligation and their legal obligation, the more likely we are to see a reduction in the number of claims. The forthcoming meeting that I intend to have with the utilities will maintain that specific objective in mind.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There have been recent allegations in the Foyle constituency of surplus maintenance that has been nothing short of archaeological digs. Owing to the lack of co-operation between the Roads Service and the Water Service, some streets and roads have been dug up no less than five or six times during one programme of surface maintenance. Can the Minister tell us how the management of those programmes could be better directed?
I want to ensure that any difficulties arising out of an alleged lack of co-operation are not repeated. The indications in recent months have been that co-operation has improved considerably. Nonetheless, if there are signs that a lack of co-operation is at the core of a difficulty in terms of surface maintenance, I will endeavour to ensure that it does not happen again and will have the necessary officials investigate the matter and respond to the questioner.
Roads (Moyle District)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail any plans for upgrading the road infrastructure in the Moyle Council area and, in particular, the fourth phase of dual carriageway on the A26 Frosses Road from Glarryford to Ballymoney.
The Roads Service is considering proposals to dual the section of the A26 between Glarryford and the Ballycastle junction. The proposed scheme, which is estimated to cost some £16 million, is currently being assessed for possible inclusion in the 10-year forward planning schedule. However, there are many schemes competing for inclusion, and the size of the schedule will depend on the overall funding that is available. I hope to announce details of the forward planning schedule later this year. In the Moyle Council area, there is also a continuing programme of minor works schemes.
I welcome the Minister's response in relation to the A26. Does he accept the imperative for an adequate access route into the Moyle and Causeway coast area? The present thoroughfare is not conducive to desperately needed economic development in that area.
The short answer is "Yes". If the question were posed by any one of a number of Members, the answer would be the same. There are a number of schemes under way in relation to the Moyle area that should be of some benefit. For example, a one-mile southbound climbing lane on the section of the road between Newbuildings junction at the southern end of the Ballymoney bypass and Glenlough Road. That is estimated to cost £500,000 and is currently under way. Improvements at the Portrush Road roundabout at Ballymoney, involving the construction of differential acceleration lanes on both main road exits from the roundabout to allow the safe overtaking of slow-moving vehicles away from the roundabout, will be carried out shortly at an estimated cost of £180,000. These are indications of the importance that Roads Service attaches to the road network in the north coast area.
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the level of subsidy provided by his Department to operate the Antrim-Knockmore railway line.
The Department for Regional Department provides Translink with an annual subsidy to meet the deficit it incurs in operating railway services in Northern Ireland. The Department expects to pay about £12 million to Translink in the current financial year. However, the subsidy is not route-specific. Therefore there is no information available as to the level of subsidy that is required to operate the Antrim-Knockmore section of the Londonderry-Belfast route.
In the light of the proposal to close the Antrim to Knockmore line, I accept that we must obtain the best estimate of how much subsidy would be required to continue to operate services on this line in addition to providing a service from Antrim to Belfast via Bleach Green. My Department has asked Translink to provide this information.
When will the Minister be in a position to tell us how much money the Department believes may be allocated in subsidy for this line? Will the Department, in arriving at its conclusion, take into account the subsidy for the replacement bus service, together with the fact that fewer people would use that service?
On 23 February my Department received an economic appraisal for the retention of the Antrim to Knockmore line. That contains a considerable amount of useful information, but it does not tell us how much it would cost to keep the line open until major work is required. We have asked Translink for that additional information. The economic appraisal says that major work on the track will be required in about three years' time. The estimated cost is approximately £12 million.
At this point, I will repeat what I have said in response to the many representations which have been made to me about the line: I want the line to remain open, and I know that many Members share my view. However, we must face up to the fact that it will cost money to keep it operational, even in the three years before the major work is required. The net running costs of the bus substitution service to which the Member referred are likely to be much lower than the cost of maintaining the train service. My Department has asked Translink for its best estimate of the net running cost of the train service.
Mr B Bell:
Has the Minister considered the implications for the Belfast Area Plan of this proposal to close the Antrim to Knockmore line, particularly in the light of the proposed location of 20,000 new houses along this public transport route? As an interim measure, is he prepared to consider the provision of a light railway shuttle service on that line instead of the proposed bus service?
Unfortunately, there is no short, simple and obvious answer to the Member's question nor to the analysis underlying it. I am prepared to look at any option that will assist in keeping the line open. Several options have been placed before me, and I am examining each one. We were told that Irish Rail had spare rolling stock. Approaches were made about this, but it emerged that no such stock is available. There have been indications that Translink might be able to get rolling stock from Great Britain, which might be suitable after modification for our gauge. So far, however, that venture has proved unsuccessful. It is likely to be towards the end of 2003 before Translink can acquire new trains.
I am prepared to examine all options to try to keep the line open.