Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 12 March 2001 (continued)

School Uniforms and Pupils' Equipment


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Education to outline his policy on school uniforms and to detail what steps he intends to take to ensure that uniform and equipment requirements are within the budget of parents.

(AQO 1026/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

The wearing of a school uniform is not governed by legislation and is a matter for individual schools to determine in line with their internal organisation and management. However, education and library boards may provide or contribute towards the cost of clothing for pupils in post-primary and special schools whose parents are in receipt of income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. The clothing allowances scheme is intended not to cover the full cost of school uniforms but to assist those in need with the cost of purchase.

Parents should not be charged for any equipment for use in connection with their child's education. However, parents may be invited on a voluntary basis to provide their children with incidentals to their education - for example, items such as pens and pencils or articles of sports equipment, which will remain the property of the pupil.

Mr Dallat:

We eagerly await changes to the selection procedure and the consequent changes to the structures of secondary level education, but does the Minister agree that the often extravagant demands of certain grammar schools in relation to uniforms and sports gear may have the effect of closing the door of such schools to children from low-income families who may have qualified for places in those schools? Has the Minister sought advice from the equality unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or the Equality Commission in this regard?

Mr M McGuinness:

It is vitally important that no school should impose extravagant charges on any child which make it difficult or even prohibitive for that child to attend the school. We should approach this matter in consultation with the schools and the school authorities. It is an issue that we should be concerned about. The vast majority of schools behave very responsibly. The importance of the issue lies in the difficulties that it can present in some circumstances. We must establish where it is a problem. If people can identify where the problem is, the best solution will be to move forward in consultation with the school to ensure that no child, parent or family is put under pressure in an unacceptable way.

Before seeking advice from the Equality Commission, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or anyone else, we should establish whether this is a real problem. If it is a problem, then we can consider going down that route.

Mr Molloy:

A LeasCheann Comhairle, can the Minister tell us what is the position on contributions by parents?

Mr M McGuinness:

The restrictions on charging do not prevent schools from seeking voluntary contributions from parents or others for the benefit of the school or in support of any school activity. However, schools must make it clear that there is no obligation to contribute and that pupils will not be treated differently depending on whether their parents have made a contribution in response to the request.

Cross-Border School Transport


Mr C Murphy

asked the Minister of Education to detail progress on establishing a cross-border school transport policy.

(AQO 1042/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

The question of establishing a cross-border transport policy has not been considered. The home-to-school transport arrangements approved by my Department support parental preference and enable education and library boards to provide transport assistance for pupils living within the area of the board who are unable to gain a place at a suitable school within statutory walking distance of their home. I have no plans at present to extend the policy as to do so would divert resources away from the classroom. Our aim should be to concentrate the maximum possible level of resources on teaching and learning.

Mr C Murphy:

I thank the Minister for his answer, and I appreciate some of the difficulties that he has in dealing with cross-border matters, given the illegal actions of the First Minister in this regard - the restrictions that he has imposed on the two Ministers.

Does the Minister agree that this leads to all sorts of anomalies, particularly in border areas? It is ludicrous that, while someone from Forkhill who wants to send a child to an Irish-medium school in Dundalk cannot get assistance from the Southern Education and Library Board, that board is prepared to finance the child's transport to the Irish-medium secondary school in Belfast. That is the sort of anomaly that inaction on cross-border co-operation will throw up. Can the Minister assure us that he will look into this issue in the future when he is back to operating at full tilt in the cross- border bodies?

Mr M McGuinness:

My Department pays out some £45 million per annum on school transport. That has a huge impact on our budget. In relation to the current transport arrangements, everybody knows that education and library boards are required to make such arrangements as they consider necessary or as directed by the Department to facilitate the attendance of pupils at grant-aided schools. The current arrangements, which were introduced in 1997, enable transport to be provided where pupils have been unable to gain a place at a suitable school within statutory walking distance of their home. Therefore, in the context of transport arrangements, the term "suitable school" has a precise definition.

3.00 pm

This issue has highlighted the fact that children from this jurisdiction are being educated in the South, while children who live in the South are being educated in the North. The North/South Ministerial Council is the best mechanism to address the difficulties that this imposes on both education systems and, in particular, to deal in particular, with the children in border areas who are affected in this way. We hope that the next education sector meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council can take place as quickly as possible. It is in the working of that institution that both Departments of Education on the island will face up to what is a key issue for people who live in border areas.


Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Acute Hospital Services


Mr Gallagher

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail how rural proofing criteria will be taken into account in the future provision of acute hospital services in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

(AQO 1048/00)


Mr Gibson

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail her plans to provide acute hospital facilities for the South/West region.

(AQO 1033/00)


Mr C Murphy

asked the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail when the new cancer unit at the Belfast City Hospital will be operational.

(AQO 1043/00)

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brun): Le do chead, a LeasCheann Comhairle, glacfaidh mé ceisteanna a haon, a ceathair agus a seacht le chéile ós rud é go mbaineann siad uilig le todhchaí géarsheirbhísí ospidéil.

I shall take questions 1, 4 and 7 together, since they all relate to the future of acute hospital services.

Tá coinne agam go dtuairisceoidh an grúpa aithbhreithnithe ar ghéarospidéil liom san earrach. Ó cuireadh ar bun é i Meán Fómhair na bliana seo caite, tá an grúpa ag éisteacht le barúlacha pobal áitiúil, leasanna sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta agus le barúlacha mórán eile. Níor chuí liom trácht ar sholáthar géarsheirbhísí i gceantar ar bith sa todhchaí go dtí go raibh faill agam staidéar a dhéanamh ar thuairisc an ghrúpa.

Gidh nár dréachtaíodh sainchritéir ar phromhadh i dtaca leis an tuath le polasaithe uilig an Rialtais a phromhadh go fóill, cuirfidh cinntí ar bith sa todhchaí ar sheirbhísí géarospidéal tosca tuaithe san áireamh go hiomlán.

I expect the review group on acute hospitals to report to me in the spring. Since it was established last September, the group has been listening to the views of local communities, health and social services interests and many others. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the future provision of acute services in any area until I have had the opportunity to study the group's report.

To date, no specific rural proofing criteria for all Government policies have been drawn up, but any future decision on acute hospital services will take rural considerations fully into account. Any decision taken as a result of the review will be in line with the principles of targeting social need and will be subject to an equality impact assessment.

Mr Gallagher:

The absence of rural proofing criteria will disappoint many who live in rural parts of the North of Ireland. However, in their absence, will the Minister outline her current plans to ensure the delivery of acute services in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which has the most dispersed rural community in the North of Ireland? Many constituents live 45 minutes' journey from the nearest hospital, and some live even further away.

Many constituents are of the opinion that one of its hospitals has had its services whittled away as a result of a policy of "death by 1,000 cuts". Will the Minister outline her Department's plans to ensure that the provision of future acute services will be fair to everyone?

Ms de Brún:

On the issue of fairness, I made it clear in my substantive answer that all decisions will be subject to a full equality impact assessment. Obviously, access to acute hospital services is a matter of crucial interest to rural communities. Therefore I have asked the review group to give particular consideration to this matter. I expect that the report from the review group will focus, in particular, on rural areas. In addition, any change proposed in the report will need to be considered in the context of new targeting social need policies and will be subject to an equality impact assessment.

Mr Gibson:

Bearing in mind that we were all assured, when the Assembly was suspended, that George Howarth was about to issue the result of his review, will the Minister indicate when she expects to have this report? What is causing the delay? Is the Department being run by various colleges rather than by the Minister?

Ms de Brún:

First, the Member will know that I did not ask for suspension. That came from a different side of the House. Having taken on such an onerous portfolio, I certainly did not seek four months of suspension in the middle of this. The Member will also know that the review of acute hospitals was announced following the end of suspension and therefore was not affected by that. I have reiterated this time and time again: the whole idea is that we are in a new situation with a new network of institutions, and people expect to have their views taken on board.

I set up the review group to ensure that people in rural and other areas had a chance to make their views known and to give a strategic overview of the services which will be needed in the future. I expect it will report to me in the spring. Such reviews take time. On the one hand there is a need to get this complex issue right, and the review group has gone out to public meetings in order to do this. Also, the group has sadly suffered from the loss of one of its very highly respected members, and that will have an impact on its work. The review group will set a strategic overview for us, and Members will recognise how crucial it will be for the future of our acute hospital services here.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Comhairle. Can the Minister assure us that the review body is continuously taking into account the changes in provision of services in hospitals on the southern side of the border? For example, the removal of maternity services in the Louth Hospital will obviously have an impact on the people in north Louth using maternity services in Daisy Hill Hospital.

Ms de Brún:

The remit of the acute hospitals review group includes scope for co-operation in the provision of services with hospitals in other parts of the island. I therefore expect the group to bear in mind the likely implications of changes in hospital services in the South, particularly in border areas.

Mrs Carson:

Given the confirmation by the Executive that rural proofing encompasses all Departments, what guidance is the Minister giving the group on taking account of this in its report?

Ms de Brún:

I believe I have answered that question. The question of access is within the specific terms of reference of the group. It has been asked to examine access to hospital services, and it is very clear that this includes rural access. We know that that has been dealt with in its meetings in local areas, and I expect the report to give particular focus to rural issues and to highlight the matter.

Hospitals (Hygiene)


Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the steps she is taking to improve hygiene in hospitals.

(AQO 1044/00)

Ms de Brún:

In Aibreán na bliana seo caite d'iarr mo Roinn ar na boird sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta oibriú le hiontaobhais le clár gníomhaíochta a chur i bhfeidhm le bearta i gcoinne an ionfhabhtaithe in ospidéil a neartú. In 'Tosaíochtaí do Ghníomhaíocht' de chuid mo Roinne, a eisíodh ar 8 Márta 2001, iarrtar ar iontaobhais glantachas a n-áiseanna a mheas i gcoinne caighdeán atá le sonrú ag an Roinn.

In April last year my Department asked the health and social services boards to work with the trusts to implement a programme of action to strengthen the prevention and control of infection in hospitals.

Under my Department's priorities for action, which were issued on 8 March, trusts are being asked to benchmark the cleanliness of their facilities against standards to be specified by the Department.

Mr McCarthy:

Does the Minister agree that hospital hygiene standards should be issued by her Department and ought to be included in the specifications when cleaning contracts are being sought and subsequently awarded? Can she detail the patients who became even more ill because they caught an infection while hospitalised?

Ms de Brún:

I have just said that we will be setting standards. In the Department's priorities for action in the year ahead, we are committed to drawing up new standards of cleanliness for hospital facilities and a multidisciplinary group is being set up in the Department to take this forward. The question of additional resources will have to be looked at in that context. Specifications for cleaning contracts will also be looked at.

A voluntary system is in place for consultant microbiologists to report significant infections, including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), to the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre. In 2000, 10 laboratories reported 121 such infections.

In line with the Department's priorities for action for the coming year, trusts will be required to report rates of bacteraemia, including MRSA, in their hospitals. A hospital-acquired infection is a complex matter and cannot be attributed to one source alone. The new requirement will be another useful step in the process of controlling infection.

Mr Kane:

Can the Minister inform the House whether the number of patients with MRSA increased or decreased in 2000-01? We are told that the most effective way to stem the spread of this disease is to improve hygiene.

Ms de Brún:

I will write to the Member with detailed information on the number of patients with MRSA. I agree that a major mode of MRSA transmission is via the hands of health care personnel, so frequent and thorough hand washing is considered of primary importance in preventing the spread of MRSA.

The overuse of antibiotics, for example, increases antimicrobial resistance, and there are other matters that need to be examined. However, cleanliness and good hygiene standards are crucial, and my Department has taken, and will continue to take, steps on the matter.

Cancer Treatment: Hospital Facilities


Ms Armitage

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to give her assessment of the current quality of service at Belvoir Park Hospital and in particular the equipment being used to treat cancer patients.

(AQO 1021/00)


Mr McFarland

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail when the new cancer unit at Belfast City Hospital will be operational.

(AQO 1025/00)

Ms de Brún:

Le do chead, a LeasCheann Comhairle, glacfaidh mé ceisteanna a trí agus a hocht le chéile ós rud é go mbaineann an bheirt acu le seirbhísí ailse.

I will take questions 3 and 8 together since they both relate to cancer services.

Cuireann Ospidéal Belvoir Park seirbhísí uasleibhéil ar fáil atá ag cur leis an tsábháilteacht agus le cumas an trealaimh. Tá an trealamh radaiteiripe ag tarraingt ar dheireadh a shaoil úsáidigh, agus le himeacht ama cuirfear trealamh úr ina áit san ionad ailse úr ag suíomh Ospidéal Chathair Bhéal Feirste. Faoi láthair, tá Iontaobhas Ospidéal Chathair Bhéal Feirste ag aithbhreithniú cás gnó don ionad ailse a chaithfear a réiteach taobh istigh de Rialtas. Nuair a thabharfar an faomhadh seo agus nuair a dhéanfar an cinneadh deireannach ar sholáthar beidh sé soiléir cá huair a bhéas an t-ionad ailse úr réidh. San idirlinn, tá mé meáite ar a chinntiú go mbeidh seirbhísí ailse sábháilte éifeachtacha ar fáil ag Belvoir Park agus glacfaidh mé cibé céimeanna a bhéas riachtanach le seo a chur i gcrích.

3.15 pm

Belvoir Park Hospital provides services at the maximum level consistent with the safety and capacity of its equipment. The radiotherapy equipment is nearing the end of its useful life, and in the longer term it will be replaced by new equipment in the new cancer centre at the Belfast City Hospital site. The Belfast City Hospital Trust is presently revising the business case for the cancer centre, which will need to be cleared in Government. The date for the completion of the cancer centre will be clear only when this approval is granted and a final decision on procurement is taken. In the meantime, I am determined to ensure that safe and effective cancer services continue to be available at Belvoir Park, and I will take whatever steps are necessary to achieve this.

Ms Armitage:

I asked the question because Belvoir Park Hospital has a fine record of care, commitment, understanding and medical expertise. Treatment at Belvoir has saved many lives, including my own. The new cancer service at the Belfast City Hospital may not be operational until 2004. Until then, I hope, Belvoir, the staff and the patients will not be made to suffer because of lack of funding. Some of my constituents have, on occasion, travelled to Belvoir, only to be told that the equipment had broken down and the treatment could not be administered. I know that the breakdown is not the Minister's responsibility, but it is her responsibility to make sure that equipment is functional.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Will you ask a question, please.

Ms Armitage:

My question is about equipment. Will the Minister secure funding? As it is a long time until 2004 and the new City Hospital centre, what does she propose to do for my constituents who travel to Belfast and find that their treatment cannot be administered? Ultimately we are wasting money on the ambulances and minibuses used to take those patients to Belvoir when there is no treatment for them. I am thinking only of the Department's finances.

Ms de Brún:

I agree absolutely with several points made by the Member. First, I join her in commenting on the fine record of Belvoir Park Hospital and of the staff who have done a tremendous job there. Equipment breakdowns result in the disruption of services. That is absolutely to be regretted. It has happened recently. The effects have been minimised, in some cases, by the continuing efforts of the clinical and scientific staff at the hospital, but it is to be regretted that anyone should make their way to a hospital for treatment, only to find that it is not possible because of equipment breakdown.

My Department has asked Belfast City Hospital Trust to assess the capacity of the radiotherapy equipment at Belvoir Park Hospital. I consider urgently any proposals for the short-term replacement of such equipment, to ensure the effective continuation of services while the new cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital is being developed.

Mr McFarland:

I thank the Minister for her answer. She will recall that the decision to move cancer services from Belvoir to the City Hospital was taken in 1998. That now looks extremely out of date. The latest evidence from Belvoir suggests that the equipment is on its last legs. Unlike Ms Armitage, I suggest that it is the Minister's responsibility to find money to make that equipment fully serviceable. I welcome the £4 million that she is putting into the new cancer facility at the City Hospital, but is this just papering over the fact that the Department's plans for combating cancer in Northern Ireland are in tatters?

Ms de Brún:

The Member will know that he and I often have discussions about the tone in which he asks or ends his questions. However, I agree that I need to look, and I will look, at whatever needs to be done - whether that is the replacement of existing equipment or the provision of additional imaging or radiotherapy facilities - to ensure that cancer patients receive timely, high-quality care and treatment. It is clear from the Programme for Government, the budget allocations and the priorities for action that I have set out that the development of cancer services remains a high priority for my Department.

On the issue of the decisions around the completion of the cancer centre, the Member should know that in 1999 an outline business case was prepared on behalf of Belfast City Hospital Trust and was approved at a total estimated cost of £32 million. This envisaged the new cancer centre being operational from the end of 2003. The trust has recently indicated that, owing to significant and rapid developments in cancer services and new building requirements, the cost of the project may be considerably higher. My Department has therefore asked the trust - as I know the Member would expect it to do - to urgently revise its business case and to resubmit it for consideration. That process will inevitably cause some delay to the completion of the project.

The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):

My question follows on from those of Ms Armitage and Mr McFarland.

I know that the Minister is concerned about the very serious situation in cancer services in Northern Ireland. Cancer cannot be treated until it is diagnosed. My question relates to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The Minister has heard me, on a number of occasions, talking about positron emission tomography. The most important thing at the moment is to do with MRI scanning, not just in Belfast City Hospital but in other parts of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister give me an answer on that?

Ms de Brún:

As I told the Committee recently, we have an imaging strategy that we are seeking to put forward at present. The idea of the extension of MRI scanning is a very major part of that. I will be able to come back to the Member, and to the Committee, shortly on the details of how we can proceed with that. Some of the bids that we have made will obviously have an impact on how quickly we proceed with some of our objectives.

Mr Poots:

Is the Minister aware that people have to wait up to two and a half years for MRI scans? A constituent of mine was told after six months that he would get an MRI scan but that it would be in 22 months' time. Further to that, is the Minister aware that many people are having operations cancelled because there are not enough intensive care beds? Many people who have to receive thoracic surgery - in particular, to remove cancer - cannot have the operations because of the lack of intensive-care beds.

Ms de Brún:

If the Member writes to me with the details of any of the cases he has mentioned I will be happy to respond in writing.

We have recently taken action on the waiting list for MRI scans. In particular, a mobile unit was made available. I refer the Member to the announcement that I made about Altnagelvin. We have a strategy to put in place. Specifically, part of the priority of that will be to deal with the whole question of MRI, because we know that there are waiting lists there and that that does need improvement.

I cannot comment on the specific cancelled operations that the Member mentioned - he would need to send me the details. However, I have said many times in this House that the capacity in our hospitals at present is not the capacity that is needed, due to years of underfunding of health and social services. I have asked, and will continue to press the case with, my Executive Colleagues to have further resources made available.

The 'Priorities for Action' document, which was issued on 9 March 2001, outlines my priorities for the coming year. The improvement of capacity, in order to ensure that people have access to hospital services and to deal with a continuing high level of demand and winter pressures, is one of those priorities.

Craigavon Area Hospital: Beds


Mr Savage

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to confirm if patients are being kept on trolleys overnight at Craigavon Area Hospital; and to make a statement.

(AQO 1067/00)

Ms de Brun:

Mar is iondúil le gach ospidéal gnóthach, bíonn feithimh ar thralaí in Ospidéal Ceantair Craigavon nuair a bhíonn ráchairt an-ard ar ghéarsheirbhísí, agus amanna ciallóidh seo go dtugtar cúram d'othair ar thralaithe thar oíche. Mar sin féin, déanann an t-iontaobhas a dhícheall le cinntiú go dtugtar an chóireáil agus an cúram cóir d'othair atá ag fanacht le hiontráil agus le cinntiú go gcoinnítear líon na bhfeitheamh ar thralaí chomh beag agus is féidir i gcónaí.

As with all other busy hospitals, Craigavon Area Hospital does experience trolley waits when the demand for acute services is particularly high, so patients sometimes have to be cared for on trolleys overnight. However, the trust makes every effort to ensure that patients who are awaiting admission receive proper treatment and care and that the number of people waiting on trolleys is always kept to a minimum.

The Southern Health and Social Services Board has been working with Craigavon area hospitals group and the Craigavon and Banbridge Community Health and Social Services Trust to deal with the problem. The measures include increasing the number of intensive care and high-dependency beds and enhancing community provision to take the pressure off Craigavon Area Hospital.

Mr Savage:

The Minister will be aware of widespread public concern about the number of patients who have to wait for beds on trolleys. Does she agree that patients should not have to wait on a trolley overnight for a hospital bed? Can she secure additional finance to help Craigavon Area Hospital resolve this problem?

Ms de Brún:

It is absolutely unacceptable that even a minority of patients should have to remain on trolleys for unreasonably long periods of time. This year's winter plans were supported by an investment of £15 million and involved a range of measures to speed up admissions and discharges from hospital. My priority has been, and remains, the provision of safe and effective services.

I have made several bids this year for money to deal with some of the pressures on Craigavon Area Hospital, particularly the temporary transfer of services from South Tyrone Hospital, and money was put aside for that. I allocated £5·5 million to address the financial consequences of the temporary closure of inpatient services at South Tyrone Hospital. That will cover the additional costs that are incurred by Craigavon Area Hospital.

Nonetheless, Craigavon Area Hospital is one of the three hospitals that most frequently experience capacity problems at the moment. As I have said, one of my priorities for the coming year is to increase capacity to deal with the problem. For example, I have asked that the provision of intensive care and high-dependency beds, and other areas of hospital capacity, be examined. I have also asked that community care be considered as a means of relieving pressures on the hospital.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel will answer questions next, so I will not even begin to answer the Member's question about whether I can get the money to do this. However, I will continue to press my Executive Colleagues for increased funding to enable the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to deal with these problems. Members will be aware that, within the Executive, there are competing priorities for resources.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In the light of the fact that Craigavon Area Hospital cannot cope with the day-to-day demand for beds there, could further use be made of South Tyrone Hospital? What additional measures have been put in place to deal with the patients who have to wait on trolleys as a result of the pressures of winter? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms de Brún:

All acute hospitals are under pressure, and there are particular capacity problems at Craigavon Area Hospital. This year, I made additional resources available for acute hospital services, and I will continue to press Executive Colleagues for additional resources to address the years of underfunding by previous Governments.

South Tyrone Hospital cannot provide overnight accommodation for patients because there is a lack of specialist medical cover there. However, there is an opportunity to develop elective day surgery at South Tyrone Hospital, and I have made it clear that I expect the chairpersons and chief executives of the boards and trusts to take personal responsibility for ensuring that that is done.

In my response to Mr Savage's question, I referred to measures paid for out of the £15 million that had been made available.

3.30 pm

The winter plans put into place contained a range of measures - notably almost 300 extra beds and 1000 community care packages. These measures have undoubtedly helped, but our hospitals are still affected by significant capacity problems directly resulting from years of underfunding by successive Governments.

Mr Carrick:

I note the Minister's comments about the temporary funding of the transfer of services from South Tyrone hospital. Can she confirm that the transfer of services from Dungannon exacerbated the current pressure on hospital beds in Craigavon Area Hospital because the necessary funding did not accompany the transfer of services? Can she assure the House that there will be temporary funding and sustained funding to overcome the problem at Craigavon Area Hospital?

Ms de Brún:

As the Member has accepted, I have made £5·5 million available to address the financial consequences of the temporary closure of the inpatient services at South Tyrone Hospital. This amount will cover the additional costs incurred. The funding issue is not contributing to the other problems of the trust because the finance has already been made available.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Have you received notice from any Minister, or from the Minister of Agriculture in particular, that she intends to return to the House to make a further statement on the foot-and-mouth crisis? I understand that the Minister has briefed the press about a hot suspect case that has been discovered in Northern Ireland. I am wondering why that information was not disclosed to the House this morning?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I have received no notification that any Minister, including Minister Rodgers, is coming to the House to make a statement.


Finance and Personnel

Rating Policy Review


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline the terms of reference of the review of rating policy.

(AQO 1075/00)


Mr Molloy

asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the nature of the rates review and to confirm whether or not it will incorporate a revaluation of properties.

(AQO 1055/00)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take questions 1 and 6 together.

The review of rating policy will examine the role of local revenue raising in our Programme for Government. That will include its impact on households, small and larger businesses - including industrials - and the voluntary sector. Other issues that will be included are the fairness of the system to single-person households and the relationship between regional government and district councils. All the issues will be considered in the context of the equality agenda and the new TSN programme.

The non-domestic revaluation exercise is separate; it is being undertaken by the Valuation and Lands Agency.

Mr Ford:

The terms of reference are restrictive in that the re-examination will be purely within the existing rating structures. Would the site value rating system - used widely in the USA - not represent a better way of ensuring that public-sector infrastructure building, which benefits the private sector economy, is brought fully into account when the new rates are set? The existing rating system does not take that into account and is not a recipe for the twenty-first century.

Mr Durkan:

I want to assure the Member that the terms of reference are not as restrictive as he suggests. I wrote to the Finance and Personnel Committee to update it on the rating review developments and to seek its further views and consideration. The review will involve an open consultation stage. We are trying to look at the whole rating system and no issues are barred from being examined. One issue that we must address is the need to raise resources through some local taxation.

The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):

A LeasCheann Comhairle, I thank the Minister for his reply.

Will he ensure that the review will take into account the changing nature of out-of-town developments and the effect they have had on towns and the shops in them? Can he guarantee that the review will not simply be a paper exercise showing the square footage of buildings but will actually look at turnover, car parking and all the different facilities that out-of-town shopping has and in-town shopping does not have?

Mr Durkan:

First, the non-domestic revaluation exercise getting underway on 1 April - to update the last exercise carried out a number of years ago - will examine a number of issues, including the changes that have taken place since then in relation to retail geography, et cetera. Many people are making the case that the development of many out-of-town shopping centres in recent years has made a difference. Hopefully, the non-domestic revaluation exercise will pick up on that.

However, more importantly, the wider rating policy review can look at our policy for distributing the burden of rating. The non-domestic revaluation exercise will decide, in valuation terms, how that burden should be distributed. We have to look at wider policy issues, including what particular sectors we want to protect or promote or what issues we want the rating system to particularly bear upon. The issues raised by the Member can be reflected in both exercises.


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