Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 12 March 2001 (continued)
I welcome the Minister's statement. With regard to the study on the expansion of waste recycling, what involvement will there be of private sector bodies, which seem to be playing the major part in recycling and on which we will be depending if we are to meet the targets now being set?
As regards the study on the impact of agriculture on the environment, this is not exactly the best timing for such a study. Moreover, it is couched in terms such as "consideration of good farming practices" and "relevant controls", as opposed to perhaps "consideration of the encouragement of good farming practices". Would it not be better to encourage farmers, by grant aid, to move towards better practices - especially in the face of the current crisis of BSE and foot-and mouth disease - rather than suggest further controls, to add to their problems?
The Member has referred to the waste management strategy. It has set a target for district councils to recycle 15% of household waste by 2005. This will entail a significant increase in the current level of recycling with district councils, estimated to be around 5%. I am pleased to state that my Department will provide, as I have said, £3·5 million to help councils to implement the strategy. This can include assistance with recycling and the development of targets for recycling.
With reference to the farming issues, one takes into consideration the great difficulties farmers have at this time. However, agriculture is a major contributor to the economy of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, of which we are all very much aware. I fully appreciate the dire circumstances that the agriculture industry finds itself in at present, particularly with the current foot-and-mouth emergency.
Nevertheless, we have to take a longer-term view and recognise the impact that agriculture activities have on the environment. The greatest problem is the run-off of nutrients to lakes and rivers, leading to excessive growth of algae and plants. This can cause oxygen levels to fall, which is the most serious water-quality problem affecting waterways on both sides of the border.
At Belle Isle, Ministers agreed that a joint study should be carried out into a number of the most significant impacts of agriculture on the environment. The study will involve representation of both Agriculture Departments. It will assess the use of fertiliser application rates, identify good farming practices and relevant controls, and assess cross-border movement of slurries and spent mushroom compost. Data from private bodies will come in through the Waste Advisory Board, which will be appointed very shortly.
I welcome the Minister's announcement that the Department of the Environment and its Republic of Ireland counterpart will be conducting a joint study into the significant impacts of agriculture on the environment.
I also welcome that the terms of reference for the study include assessment of the use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers, cross-border movement of slurries and mushroom compost and good farming practices.
The Minister also mentioned the problem of disposing of spent mushroom compost, saying that it will be part of the environmental impacts of the agriculture study. Will he briefly outline what the study will be looking at and what impact will this have on the agriculture industry?
As I said, the agriculture problem is a big problem. It is a difficult time for farmers, as I appreciate. The waste management strategy deals with the management of controlled wastes, which includes household, commercial and industrial wastes. Agricultural, mining and quarrying wastes are not included. However, the EU Waste Framework Directive requires that controls will be extended eventually to agricultural wastes.
My Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be working together to bring such wastes within the control regime and to develop an agricultural waste strategy. The aim is to incorporate within this the waste management strategy at its first review in 2002.
So far as the cross-border issue of spent mushroom compost is concerned, the mushroom industry is concentrated in the border counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and Cavan. Spent mushroom compost (SMC) has become a major environmental problem in those areas. In Monaghan, around 60% of SMC is dumped, only 10% is composted, and 30% is land spread. If the compost were to be imported into Northern Ireland for disposal, the district council would need to be satisfied that environmentally sound disposal methods were not realistically available in the country of origin.
Disposal options for SMC include utilisation in the potato sector, vermi-composting using worm beds, pelleting of pig slurry and SMC for use as fertiliser, and waste-to-energy recovery through incineration. Those are issues that we take on board, and, as I said earlier, we appreciate their importance and the difficulties that agriculture is having at this particular time. We are all involved in what is good for agriculture, and for all of us, in the long term.
Mr A Doherty:
My question relates to waste recycling options. This is an urgent matter in view of the punitive deadlines on district councils to produce and implement waste management strategies. The Minister suggested, in answer to a previous question, that work would begin at once on identifying such options. Can he be more precise with regard to the
"joint approach to developing uses and markets for secondary materials and recyclates"
that he mentioned? When will this approach move beyond the agreement stage to the setting-up and operation of effective joint working strategy groups?
The waste management plans are due from district councils by June 2001 and will include proposals for achieving the recycling targets. Cross-border co-operation will provide the economies of scale necessary to make investment in recycling and recovery facilities viable. Northern Ireland is not large enough in itself, so there will be co-operation as far as that is concerned. We will look at it on an all-island basis. As I have already emphasised, that will also provide a larger market for products made from recycled material. That is a big issue on which we are working jointly.
I note that the Minister's water quality control group is going to undertake a study of the freshwater zebra mussel. He used the term "pollution of the Erne system". Is it true that the zebra mussel is a pollutant? Has any effective study been done? Has anything been done to see what its effect is on fishing? Does it usurp and take the food of the fish, or is it an excellent means of clearing the water? Furthermore, what has been done to prevent the spread of this mussel to the Foyle estuary? There are concerns in the fishing industry and, among those who enjoy fishing, concerns as to the effect of the freshwater zebra mussel.
The zebra mussels at first seem as if they are clearing the water, but they do a lot of damage to it. I am not aware of any full investigations having being done. I understand that the Department of Agriculture is undertaking a major study of the zebra mussel issue because, as I said earlier, it is a very big issue that has really been imported. It looks as if the emphasis needs to be on prevention rather than cure because, as I understand it, whenever one has the problem, it is very difficult to get rid of it. Therefore prevention is an important issue. That is why I emphasised that boats and equipment can be cleansed by steam-cleaning the hulls. We depend very much on the people who move boats and equipment in waterways to ensure that they steam clean. The emphasis must be on prevention rather than cure.
Like others, I wish to home in on the issue of waste recycling. The Minister will be well aware that the group of councils in the north-west is of a cross-border nature and, from the point of view of my council in Strabane, we have had difficulties in working in a cross-border manner, particularly with Her Majesty's Treasury.
Will the Minister tell the House under what conditions the United Kingdom management plan is likely to allow cross-border imports and exports of waste? Will the cross-border study involve a study of energy recovery from residual waste?
The waste management strategy allows for cross-border co-operation as part of the district council waste management plans. Any cross-border co-operation needs to comply with the waste management strategy and the United Kingdom management plan for exports and imports of waste. The United Kingdom plan is currently under review. It is likely to allow cross-border imports and exports of waste where there are sound economic and environmental reasons for such activity and so long as the activity is included in the district councils' waste management plan.
The waste management strategy encourages groups of councils to draw up joint waste management plans to achieve economies of scale. Everything that is done will be controlled. The strategy will be watched closely, and control will be exercised on all cross-border activity. The North and South are co-operating so much, because waste management is a big issue - almost too big for Northern Ireland to deal with on its own. It is good that we, as two separate jurisdictions living in a neighbourly fashion, can work together on this big issue.
I too welcome the Minister's statement. It is a clear indication that there is good work going on. When can Members expect the full implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive? Is there a programme for its implementation, and have dates and benchmarks been set?
Has the Minister noted the publication last Thursday morning of the report from the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee? Among the 67 recommendations made in that report, a large number referred to the Department of the Environment. Can the Minister give me, as Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, a commitment that he and the Department of Environment will give early attention to all those areas that are the responsibility of his Department?
There is a 15-year package associated with the Directive, so it will be some time before it is fully implemented. The report from the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee that the Member referred to was issued only last Thursday. My officials have not yet had a chance to consider fully the implications of the recommendations that affect my Department. Some of the recommendations relate to the work of the Department of the Environment. My officials will be in touch with their counterparts in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is premature at this stage to speculate about how the Department of the Environment might respond. However, where there is a duty to respond, I assure the Member that the Department will do so.
When will the EU Water Framework Directive be implemented, and how will it be funded? Is the Minister aware of the problems that there are in many constituencies relating to that? The Minister also mentioned waste recycling in his report. What financial incentives will be offered to individuals and companies to promote waste recycling?
Finances are always a problem. The issue will be pursued, possibly through Europe and the Executive as well. We have 15 years in which to achieve the good water quality specified in the Directive. It will take some time for us to get there, and undoubtedly the money is a problem. That is why there is a cross-border study. Northern Ireland is not big enough to tackle waste management on its own. The Department of the Environment wants to encourage people to recycle and make them realise that it is a valuable thing to do.
A number of financial incentives will be considered to encourage recycling, but the first step is the development of markets and plans. We are working on that at present. This is a difficult issue which is going to be bigger than Northern Ireland can deal with on its own. It is worthwhile for the two different jurisdictions that border on one another to work hand in hand for the mutual benefit of all concerned.
I too would like to focus on waste management and recycling. I welcome the Minister's statement and agree on the importance of economies of scale. What problems have arisen with respect to ensuring the maximum co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic? The United Kingdom immediately implemented the relevant EU Directive, whereas the Republic of Ireland sought, and got, a derogation. That means, in practice, that it is behind us on implementing recycling targets.
It can be very difficult if the two jurisdictions are not running in co-operation and co-ordination with each other. However, we hope to get that married together and balanced so that it will work. It is an important issue, but it will take some time to get us working in co-ordination.
The Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Rev Dr William McCrea):
The Minister said in his statement that officials are to start work on identifying options to encourage expansion of recycling with a joint approach to uses and markets for secondary materials and recyclables. However, the Department is currently considering proposals from district councils on a sub- regional implementation of waste management strategy. The Environment Committee was given that information in a recent presentation by a key official from the Department. Is there, therefore, a danger that this initiative from the sectoral group will be seen as pre-empting the outcome of the present consultations with district councils? Surely the Department of the Environment's would be better actively participating with district councils to develop our own waste management strategy.
I take Dr McCrea's point. There are issues that concern everyone, and everyone must work together to get something which will bring us together. The data will be used to support councils' plans, and the study is welcomed by them. This is why I emphasise that we will be receiving concurrent data, which will be useful and will give us something to go on. I want to emphasise that we are not there for the sake of just being there. We want to gain something which will be of mutual benefit to both jurisdictions.
Mr K Robinson:
I welcome the Minister's statement. I would like to raise again the matter of human sludge. Has the Republic of Ireland failed to sign up to the EU Directive on putting human sludge on to agricultural land? If the disposal of such sludge is close to the border regions, will it pose a danger to the Erne system?
We will take those concerns into consideration. We have to be very careful about what comes into our territory. It has to be guarded and watched. Co- operation between myself and the Minister across the border is vital so that we can watch carefully what takes place.
I am willing to co-ordinate and work this. I want to ensure that what we do is for the benefit of our people up here as well as for people in other jurisdictions.
Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill to amend the law relating to trustees and persons having the investment powers of trustees; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
The sitting was suspended at 12.31 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) -
Department: Equality Agenda
asked the Minister of Education to detail what steps he has taken to advance the equality agenda.
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness): My Department is fully committed to undertaking the very important work that needs to be done in order to advance the equality agenda. The creation of a new Equality Division within my Department at the start of this year reinforces this commitment and signals my determination to ensure that the equality agenda and related work move forward at a much greater pace.
As part of the increased priority I have now placed on the equality agenda, I was pleased that my Department's equality scheme was one of the first in the public sector to be approved by the Equality Commission.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I want to know why he thought it necessary to set up this new division to take the equality agenda forward. Does he think that other Departments should follow suit?
Mr M McGuinness:
The Department of Education takes very seriously its responsibilites under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. A new division was set up to take this agenda forward because of the need to recognise the importance of this area and to take a joined-up and integrated approach to the Department's responsibilities in the areas of equality, rights and social inclusion. A considerable amount of work still has to be done following the approval of the equality scheme, and that will be overseen by this new division.
I welcome the setting up of the Equality Division. Will the Minister ensure that each child is treated equally in every school and that a fair share of resources - whether in respect of school buildings, the pupil/teacher ratio, access to teaching aids, and so forth - be administered?
Mr M McGuinness:
Absolutely. I think that it is vital, given that the word "equality" was such a powerful one during the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Flowing from the Good Friday Agreement is a responsbility - not just in my Department, but in each one of them - to ensure that people are treated with equality, dignity and respect. As Minister of Education I pledge to ensure that this will happen, and I think that the creation of this division shows how much importance I place on the issue. It is vital that every child be treated equally.
asked the Minister of Education to make extra funding available to schools to educate children as to the problem of under-age drinking.
Mr M McGuinness:
Alcohol education is already included in the statutory curriculum, mainly through the health education cross-curricular theme, which is compulsory for all pupils aged four to 16. This is funded through schools' normal local management of schools (LMS) budget.
All too often money given to schools is used to reduce debt created within school budgets rather than on specific projects. Will the Minister assure me that he will ring-fence moneys to deal with this problem in the future?
Mr M McGuinness:
I think that everybody is aware that we will soon be issuing a document for consultation which deals with the whole issue of LMS and the need to put in place a common formula. However, it is vital to educate children about drug and alcohol abuse and to put proper education processes into place.
We must guarantee that there are education programmes to deal with these important social issues. These issues can be to the detriment of young people in relation to the quality of information that we put before them. Ultimately, the children have to make their own choices. However, it is our duty and our responsibility as the people in charge of education to ensure that the full range of information is put before young people. The issues of alcohol abuse and drug abuse are important to the community, to parents, to educationalists and to children. Despite all the other pressures, it is important that we move forward sensibly and ensure that we are able to provide proper education in these fields.
Can the Minister indicate to the House the level of expenditure on making school children aware of the hazards of drug abuse? Also, can he confirm if this growing social problem can be tackled through our education system?
Mr M McGuinness:
It certainly can be tackled through the education system, and I absolutely believe that it needs to be. Educationalists have a vital role in preparing young people for the future. In 1996 my Department issued guidance to schools in the form of a resource pack entitled 'Misuse of Drugs'. This included vital information about alcohol misuse. In addition, under the Northern Ireland drugs strategy, approximately £800,000 was allocated to the education sector in March 2000 to enable provision in schools and the youth service to be strengthened. As a result of that, each of the five education and library boards have appointed two full-time officers to address the development of drug education programmes, including education about alcohol. With regard to details of expenditure, it is not possible to identify that separately.
Is the Minister aware of legislation that is going through the European Parliament at present which places emphasis on improving education for young people on the dangers of alcohol? Will he undertake to study these proposals with the view to producing action which will contribute to the health of young people in Northern Ireland and rid the whole country of the scourge of antisocial and environmentally damaging under-age drinking?
Mr M McGuinness:
I am aware of the European initiative. The Department has taken a keen interest in this. The Department is currently studying the initiative. It is vital for us to do everything in our power to ensure that we learn as much as possible about how we can combat the unacceptable levels of alcohol abuse which clearly exist in our community. Anyone who is out there in the real world either during the day or on a nightly basis can see that there is huge alcohol abuse taking place. This is to the detriment not only of young people but also of the local community. We must do everything in our power to ensure that we face up to these hugely important issues that affect our young people and society as a whole.
AS and A2 Modular A Levels
asked the Minister of Education to detail what additional funding has been made available to schools to implement the new AS and A2 modular format A levels introduced in September 2000.
Mr M McGuinness:
I recognise that these new examinations will place some additional pressures on school budgets. For this reason an additional £220,000 will be made available to schools to help meet the cost of increases in examination fees which will result. These funds will be allocated to schools shortly. Schools will also be able to draw on their share of the general £14·7 million addition made to schools' delegated budgets for this year, as well as the extra £20 million that I have announced for next year. I hope that these will help to ease any pressures.
Certainly the £220,000 will be welcome. Can the Minister give us any indication as to what share of the increased examination fees will actually be covered by the amount that he has announced today? Also, is he aware of the issue of key skills testing that now goes on at A level, which will undoubtedly result in increased administration costs and therefore add to the burden in respect of which he has given some relief?
Mr M McGuinness:
I recognise that schools will face an increase in examination fees arising from pupils being encouraged to take at least four AS levels in lower sixth, and because they will now have to pay exam fees for each module rather than one fee for the final exam. That is why I have made the extra £220,000 available to help meet these costs. In relation to the specifics of how much that represents in terms of the overall requirement financially, I will be glad to send him that information.
Mr K Robinson:
Does the Minister acknowledge that the actual cost of these examinations to schools is not yet being met and that, yet again, schools are being asked to deliver more, without adequate funding? It is time to deal with the principle of actuality instead of going for average costs.
Mr M McGuinness:
We all have to appreciate that this is new and there is no doubt whatsoever that in the coming period we are going to have to assess the types of pressures that these new approaches place on schools. We are certainly committed to doing that. However, I urge people to understand that this is a new development and that there will be a period of assessment required. We are determined to ensure that we can move forward sensibly, so that we can try to at least minimise the pressures on individual schools.
asked the Minister of Education to ensure that any reform of the transfer procedure will result in an increase in educational standards.
asked the Minister of Education to confirm that the Review Body on Post Primary Education will publish its report by May 2001 deadline.
Mr M McGuinness:
With permission, I will answer question 4 along with question 19.
The prime purpose of the review body is to consider research, selection and other information and make recommendations on future post-primary education arrangements.
Only arrangements that will improve our education system, by enhancing choice, equality, accessibility and excellence, will be implemented. The review body has asked for an extension of the original May 2001 deadline to October 2001. This is in light of the huge response to the public consultation process and the wealth of oral and written material which has been submitted for consideration. The Education Committee has not yet finalised its submission. It, and other educational interests groups, have also requested a longer period for consideration of this complex issue. It is vital for the future of our children, and for our economy and society, that we develop the best possible arrangements for post-primary education here. If a little more time is needed to achieve this, it will be time well spent. Therefore I agreed to an extension for completion of the review body's report to the end of October 2001.
In view of the extension of time the Minister has given to the review body, is there a benchmarking tool being used throughout the education system to accurately measure current school and pupil performances, so that in the future we can establish whether a new system, whatever it may be, will be viable and will deliver a higher standard of education.
Mr M McGuinness:
Everybody will appreciate that the review body is undertaking what is an incredibly important review of post-primary education. It has been involved in extensive work: about 25 public meetings, more than 1,000 written submissions - which most people will agree is enormous - and a website that has had approximately a quarter of a million hits. That shows there is an incredible interest in what is probably the most important education debate that we have seen in many years.
With respect to what all of this will do for the issues that Oliver Gibson raised, it is vitally important that we appreciate and understand the incredible good work that has been done in our education system. What we are trying to do is enhance and strengthen that education system.
Obviously, pending the outcome of the review, it remains to be seen how we can move forward and whether or not we can put in place a process, mechanisms and procedures that will further enhance and strengthen our education system. The benchmarks are all there to show our position at the moment - the latest 11-plus results, for example. People will be interested to see whether we can enhance our education system and benchmark it to show whether it is an improvement on the previous one. We cannot pre-empt the outcome of the review. I am as interested and as keen as anyone else to see this completed as a matter of urgency.
The way in which all political parties and educationalists have approached the issue since the review body was set up has been incredibly encouraging to everybody working in what is a very important area for young people, their parents and our society as a whole. I pay tribute to the parties in this Assembly that have moved forward in a positive and constructive way. We must keep up that approach. We must keep moving forward and ensure that the review body is aware that we are all behind it. When decisions have to be taken at the end of this process, I hope that they will be taken in consultation with this Assembly, with the Education Committee and with the Executive.
The Chairperson of the Education Committee (Mr Kennedy):
The other members of my Committee and I have for a long time advocated an extension of the review body's timescale. It is necessary and appropriate, given the importance of the issue. Can the Minister confirm that he has extended the deadline to the end of October? Can he tell us how much money this extension will cost, and where the additional funding will come from?
Mr M McGuinness:
I have extended it to the end of October. I suppose it is possible that the review body will report before then, but that remains to be seen. The extension will not, in my opinion, add unduly to the cost because, as a result of detailed consultation with the Executive and the Education Committee, the review body was not established as early as anticipated.
I welcome the extension of this review. Like Mr Kennedy, my party found during its consultation that the biggest issue for many people was the length of time. The Minister is right. If we want the right outcome, it is important that time is given to it.
Can the Minister assure this Assembly that, following the review, whatever type of transfer system is chosen will mean equality of opportunity for every child who moves from primary to secondary education, whether he or she takes a vocational or an academic route?
Mr M McGuinness:
"Equality" is the key word, and I certainly support our moving forward on a basis on which all our children are treated equally. I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the review body's very important deliberations. Anyone who has observed the review body's management of this cannot fail to be impressed by the incredible amount of work that it has done and has still to do over the coming period. I am as anxious as anyone to see the outcome. It will be my duty to take possession of the report and to manage the forward movement as expeditiously as possible. When I came to this position I made it clear on the very first day that the foundation stones of the Administration would be equality, excellence, choice and accessibility. If we stick by those guiding principles, it will be possible for us all to move forward with an education system that can truly value all our children equally.
Is the Minister satisfied with the present consultation from the Hayes review? Is it adequate?
Mr M McGuinness:
Just to make a correction, it is the Burns Review.
I am satisfied with the amount of work undertaken. The way in which the review body has conducted its consultation with the public inspires tremendous confidence in the community, which can say at the end of the process that it has had an unprecedented opportunity to engage in what is probably the most important education debate that we have seen. Many people have already told me that they were very satisfied that, in each area of the North of Ireland, opportunities were presented for them to have their say.
Examinations (Weather Conditions)
asked the Minister of Education to detail what provision he will make to assist those students who missed sitting whole or part of public examinations as a result of adverse weather conditions.
Mr M McGuinness:
I am aware of the difficulties and understand that the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments (CCEA) is doing everything possible, working closely with the schools involved to ensure that pupils affected do not suffer as a result of the adverse weather conditions. As well as providing advice and support to schools, pupils and parents, the council is making supplementary tests available for those pupils who were unable to attend the examinations.
I thank the Minister for his response. Will he consider putting in place suitable emergency measures to combat any future disruption in the schools at examination times, whether from severe weather conditions or, perhaps, for pupils in the rural community, where there is the threat of foot-and-mouth disease, rather than simply waiting until a crisis is upon us?
Mr M McGuinness:
We should continually review our approach to these situations. We need to put the difficulties experienced into perspective. A total of 594 pupils were unable to attend for examinations because of the adverse weather conditions. Supplementary tests have been arranged by the CCEA for the A level and GCSE pupils this week.
There is concern that some pupils will be disadvantaged, but that will not be the case, in my opinion. However, I do agree that we should continually review our approach to these situations. The Member has raised a very important issue in relation to the agricultural crisis and the effects the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak is having and might continue to have over the coming period. We should all learn lessons from the experience and do whatever we can to ensure that in the future we will overcome the hurdles that are, on occasion, placed before us.
Mr J Kelly:
Can the Minister give an assurance that pupils having to sit the supplementary papers will not be disadvantaged?
Mr M McGuinness:
Yes, I can give that assurance. I understand that the CCEA's subject examination teams will pay particular attention to the marks achieved by pupils taking a paper in any given subject to ensure that the papers are of a consistent standard and that no pupil will be disadvantaged as a result.