Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 26 March 2001 (continued)

Ms Rodgers:

As regards the Member's first question, the sheep were found in Meath. Some had gone immediately to slaughter; others were slaughtered as soon as the facts were established.

As regards speaking personally to the RUC, I inform Mr McCrea that if I had to speak personally to everyone who is involved in dealing with this situation, I would not even get my six hours' sleep at night.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I did not ask you -

Ms Rodgers:

I am going to answer the question if the Member will wait and listen.

With regard to my speaking personally to the RUC, Mr McCrea may or may not be aware that security is a reserved matter and that I have no function in relation to it. My senior officials have had meetings on a daily basis with the RUC and have been liaising with them.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I thought it was a reserved matter.

Ms Rodgers:

Security is a reserved matter, as the Member will be aware. My officials have been in daily contact with the RUC, and I get daily reports on everything that is happening. I have spoken to the Minister responsible for security, Mr Adam Ingram, and to the Secretary of State - and I will be meeting the Secretary of State today - because they are the people in charge of the security forces.

I do not have a personal problem with speaking to the Chief Constable. I have often spoken to him on constituency and other issues, as Mr McCrea may well be aware, and he may also be aware of the constituency issues that I have spoken to the Chief Constable about. [Interruption].

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. May we hear the Minister's response?

Ms Rodgers:

In relation to the present crisis, I am dealing as effectively as I can with everything that needs to be done. It would be a pure waste of my time to start having discussions with the Chief Constable. I have full confidence in my staff, who are liaising with him. I have confidence in the Secretary of State, who has assured me that everything possible will be done. Security is a matter for the Secretary of State and the Minister in charge of security. I am dealing with the other agriculture issues, the Commission, regionalisation, and all of the other issues that have been raised in the House today.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

What about last Thursday, and the removal of the mat?

Ms Rodgers:

The mat may have been removed. I have been informed that it was not removed by the Minster of Finance, or on his instructions. I do not know who removed the mat, but I will make enquiries and will let the Member know if I find out.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her report. Is the Minister aware that the current strain of foot-and-mouth disease is of Asian origin; that it is one of the most virulent strains of the disease; and that the British Government have, as usual, been economical with the truth in respect of what they have said about the outbreak? Is the Minister suggesting that the Taoiseach's comments are not correct? How confident is she in Tony Blair's statement that the UK Government would support the case for regionalisation of the North as soon as it was practical and possible to make such a case?

Ms Rodgers:

With regard to the UK Government's support, I have already replied to that question - twice, I think - and I refer Mrs Nelis to my reply to Mr McGrady's question.

I was somewhat surprised by the Taoiseach's comments. I have been in constant contact with the Department of Agriculture in the Republic at both ministerial and official level about all these matters, including our port controls, and at no time have any concerns about those controls been raised by me. That is my position.

I do not want to comment on the suggestion that the British Government has been economical with the truth, except to say that I regret the tone that is being used. I do not think that this is the time for point-scoring against any Government, north or south, east or west. I have the greatest sympathy with the farming community in Great Britain and what they are going through at the moment, and with the politicians who are trying to grapple with a very serious situation.

I can only say that I am not aware that the origin of the disease has yet been discovered. I know that it is being looked in to. I am not aware whether it is the Asian strain or what strain it might be, where it came from, or whether it came from a piece of food that was brought in. So far as I know, that is not yet clear, so I cannot comment on Mrs Nelis's assumptions.

Mr Armstrong:

We have come to expect a statement from the Minister every morning now, since we are in such dire straits. How confident is she that the Republic of Ireland's borders with Northern Ireland are manned so that foot-and-mouth does not cross over? I know that there is a problem with policing the borders with RUC officers, as this disease was encouraged by Republicans in the border areas. We all know that Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials do not have the powers to stop and search vehicles, and might need to have RUC officers with them.

Why do we not stop the use of swill? We do not know whether it is the problem or not. We know that it can be a problem. I believe that lorries are being sprayed if they are coming from agricultural areas, but cars are not.

At the time of BSE I asked whether the Minister could assure us whether meat of Northern Ireland or United Kingdom origin was being used by Government bodies. Are not many of our problems due to importing produce that does not come up to the standards that we practice here in the UK? We expect a lot from our farmers, but then the Government's cheap food policy brings in produce that does not come up to our standards. That is why we have diseases and problems that are not related to Northern Ireland.

I believe that we have valuers coming in who have been valuing foot-and-mouth-infected stock in the UK to value the stock in Northern Ireland. If the disease can be carried in the nose, then they have it. I do not know how long it stays there.

Ms Rodgers:

I am glad that Mr Armstrong has run out of questions, for I have difficulty in keeping up with him. There are no valuers being brought in from the UK to deal with this outbreak. It is being done by our own valuers.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

They are UK valuers. They are our valuers.

Ms Rodgers:

I beg the Member's pardon. It was a slip of the tongue - it is just the way I am made. It depends on where you are coming from. I will rephrase that to keep Mr McCrea happy. There are no valuers coming in from Great Britain.

There have been in-depth interceptions of vehicles along the border, and mobile patrols are there. There have been 140 interceptions over the weekend. That area is being dealt with in relation to the border controls.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) is actively considering banning the use of pigswill. That is being considered for the short term - during the current outbreak - but the long term will also have to be considered. I have already said that we are monitoring that area very closely at the moment.

There are only 10 licensed pigswill dealers in Northern Ireland at present. We are keeping a close eye on it at the moment.

11.30 am

Mr Byrne:

Like other Members, I want to congratulate the Minister on the work she and her officials are doing at this trying time. Does she agree that the Ulster Farmers' Union has been supportive and encouraging of the "fortress farm" policy, which is very welcome? Can she outline the difficulty that the Veterinary Service is having in Northern Ireland and say whether there are any plans to hire private vets to assist with the workload?

Ms Rodgers:

The Veterinary Service has been working flat out, and the vets have been under a lot of pressure. My Chief Veterinary Officer assures me that we have not yet reached that stage, but if it becomes necessary, we certainly will employ private vets.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Three times in her statement the Minister boasted of her very close and cosy working relationship with the Irish Republic. However, today it is one step ahead of her on regionalisation. With friends like that - well, we know the adage.

The Minister says it is up to the UK to make the bid for regionalisation for Northern Ireland. If that is so, then farmers are asking if it is not about time that the Minister worked even more closely with the UK Minister and the UK Prime Minister to ensure regionalisation? She should do that instead of working as closely as she is with the Irish Republic and achieving nothing.

Ms Rodgers:

I never mentioned a cosy relationship, but if the Member thinks that it is cosy, fair enough. With regard to working closer with the UK Minister, Mr Paisley should recognise, from everything I have said in the House so far today, that I am working very closely with the UK Minister, the Prime Minister and MAFF officials. The Member should also recognise that we are on the same land mass on the island of Ireland and that it would be absolutely stupid, not to say foolish, for me not to be working equally as closely with my counterpart in the Republic, which I am doing.

Talking about having friends like that, I welcome the fact that the Republic has got regionalisation - on foot of France and Holland - as that strengthens my case. Rather than play dog in the manger, I welcome it. By the way, I have the full support of Joe Walsh. He told me on Friday evening that he would fully support me in Europe, at the Commission and the committee, in seeking regionalisation.

Mr Maskey:

Go raibh maith agat. I appreciate the measures outlined by the Minister and echo the comments of Mr McGrady. He recognised that there are limitations on what the Minister can do as she is subject to restrictions from Westminster. Given that, I am not taking away at all from any of the work that the Minister has done in the last number of weeks.

Nevertheless, a very serious matter has been addressed over the last number of days by the Chief Veterinary Officer in Britain and the Taoiseach. I am not trying to score points and would prefer the question to be dealt with. On the question of an all-Ireland task force, clearly there is a different imperative at work in Britain than there is in the rest of Ireland. There is no doubt in my mind that Tony Blair is as concerned about when he needs to call an election as he is about the foot-and-mouth problems. I have heard some silly descriptions here this morning about "fortress farming", "fortress Northern Ireland", fortress this and fortress that. The other day I even heard Danny Kennedy trying to rationalise how a farmer in north Down or the Ards Peninsula can be treated differently from somebody in Monaghan because of the regionalisation policy.

Returning to the question of an all-Ireland task force, given the serious comments from the Chief Veterinary Officer in Britain and the Taoiseach, can our Minister assure us that there will be immediate discussions with her Irish counterparts with a view to establishing an all-Ireland task force? Such a task force could deal with this matter in the most thorough way possible, making sure that no stone was left unturned.

Ms Rodgers:

I sometimes think that people believe that the answer to everything is to set up a committee. We are facing an emergency situation on the island of Ireland. The most effective way to deal with it is the way in which we have been dealing with it so far. We have been doing what we need to do as a Government to deal with the immediate problem in Northern Ireland.

The Republic has been doing exactly the same thing. As a result of the very close relationship and, indeed, converging interests and the threat on the island, under the Good Friday Agreement and the new institutions I am working very closely with the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Mr Joe Walsh. I am in discussion with him on a daily basis. I have met him and will, I hope, be meeting him again early this week. My Department is probably in touch with the Department in the South as we speak.

Thanks to modern means of communications, rather than have to prepare papers for a task force and go through the whole process of setting that up, we are able to deal with it much more effectively than if we had to set up yet another task force, thereby adding to the bureaucracy at a time of emergency.

Mr Leslie:

I thank the Minister for coming to the House again to update us on progress. However, I am perturbed that she referred just now to a state of emergency. I had thought and hoped, from the state of things at the moment, that we were still a few dramas short of an emergency on the island of Ireland.

Clearly, the situation is different across the water. It seems to be more a matter of luck than good judgement that we have prevented further importation of footand-mouth, to the best of our knowledge. The Minister said earlier that one can carry the virus on one's clothes, but we are not spraying the clothes of people coming through the ports. If I understand correctly, she said the other day that that would cause a human rights problem. For example, the spray might adversely affect asthmatics. I am an asthmatic myself, so I have some sympathy with that position. However, I recall clearly that in 1967 everybody coming into Northern Ireland walked through a mist of disinfectant.

If that is unsuitable for certain people, then an exception should be made for those people and some other approach could be adopted. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the majority of people, and as many people as possible, should be subject to a precaution of that kind.

I am also concerned that while efforts are at last being made to spray high-sided vehicles, we must recognise the intensity of the infection in the parts of Scotland through which people perforce travel if they are coming to the ferries to Northern Ireland. Can the Minister assure this House that she is confident that it is sufficient only to spray those vehicles? Should we not be spraying all vehicles coming into Northern Ireland by that route?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Again, Minister, I am looking at the time.

Ms Rodgers:

I will answer as briefly as possible.

In my view, we are still in an emergency situation for as long as we do not have an assurance that we have completely eradicated the disease. Therefore, I am dealing on a daily and hourly basis - and, indeed, over the weekend - with new issues arising. To me, that is an emergency. It is not something that you can sit down coolly and deal with, on the basis that you do not have a moving target.

Perhaps "emergency" was a bit strong. However, I do not want people to get the view that we are over the crisis in Northern Ireland, because we are not. That would be unfortunate. However, I like to think that we are in a better position than we were three weeks ago, since we have not had further cases.

As regards the spraying of clothes, I have been told that on a health basis it would not be possible, and that on a human rights basis it would not be allowable. However, anyone coming from across the water who has been in touch with farm animals or with farms should report to our facilities at the ports or the airports and will be sprayed.

If there are people in the farming community who have been away across the water, they should have their clothes dry-cleaned, and they should not go back to their farms without taking all the necessary precautions. I have to stress again that the farm gate is the first line of defence against this disease.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The time is up.

Mr Hussey:

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be aware that this is the third statement on the matter. I have noticed that it is often the same Members who are called to ask questions. Will the Speaker's Office consider adopting the excellent policy of the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee? Will you look at which Members are being called to ask questions, and perhaps allow others to ask questions on this important subject?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

That decision is taken by the party Whips. It is the norm to call the Committee Chairperson, followed by the Deputy Chairperson. The Speaker receives a list of Members wishing to speak from each party Whip. If the Member has a problem about not being called by his own party, I suggest that he bring it to the attention of his party's Whip.

Student Support

student support

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment that he wishes to make a statement on student support proposals.

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):

Members will recall that 13 months ago, on the eve of suspension, I announced my intention to conduct a review of student financial support. The details of the review's terms of reference were published approximately 12 months ago. Notwithstanding suspension, we have proceeded expeditiously to complete the review and formulate the set of proposals which are being announced today.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Members will acknowledge, I trust, that in formulating this package of new methods of financial and other support for further and higher education students, we are serious about making a difference in student support in both sectors. I also trust that the seriousness of our determination to make a difference for the better will be acknowledged outside the Assembly.

Members will recall that, before Christmas, I announced the broad framework of my proposals to change the arrangements for student support. I indicated then that further work on the detail of the proposals needed to be done by my officials in liaison with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Thereafter, it would require final clearance by the Executive.

I am pleased to say that the Executive fully endorsed my package of proposals last Thursday, and my purpose today is to inform the Assembly of the content of that package. I thank my Executive Colleagues for their support and, in particular, the officials in my Department, in the Department of Finance and Personnel, and in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister who worked hard to ensure the finalisation of this package.

I will begin by recalling the key aims that underpin my proposals. Those aims are social, economic and educational, and I was encouraged by the support that they received in most quarters. My key aims are to widen access to further and higher education - especially higher education - in Northern Ireland and provide greater equality of opportunity and greater equity of treatment by reducing the barriers to participation and retention that exist for those from lower socioeconomic groups.

I wish to increase the contribution that higher and further education makes to economic development in Northern Ireland, particularly by enhancing the skills base. I wish to promote lifelong learning through increasing participation in higher and further education.

11.45 am

In support of those key aims, my proposals are designed, first, to target resources in higher education to those from lower income groups, thereby widening access to higher education from among the underrepresented and those with specific needs; secondly, to upgrade support to those over 19 years of age wishing to participate full-time in vocational further education to boost the skills base of the economy; thirdly, to increase support for certain categories of students who are under-represented in both higher and further education, including part-time students; fourthly, to provide potential students and parents with a clearer, simpler system of administration for student support, particularly in relation to full-time education.

As Members are aware, my Department, along with other Departments, operates in a world of finite resources and many competing pressures for those resources, not only in higher and further education itself but in other areas such as health, schools, transport, and so on. I have made no secret of the fact that I wished to go even further than I have done. However, I would not have been fulfilling my ministerial responsibilities if I had come forward with proposals which did not have careful regard to affordability and to the need to ensure that any additional resources were indeed targeted on clear and pressing priority areas. That has meant that options such as abolishing the loan-based system or the total abolition of fees in higher education were not real options for me.

I trust that Members will appreciate that we are at the beginning of a new political era and that the changes that are being announced today do not mark the end of a process but rather the beginning of a process of change.

Student loans were first introduced in 1990 in recognition of the growing cost to taxpayers of higher education. The present loan-based system is a response to the crisis in higher education funding, identified by Dearing in his report in 1997, as more and more school-leavers each year move into third-level education. It costs some £90 million each year to fund loans to students in Northern Ireland. It is a simple fact that neither the Northern Ireland Executive nor the Executive in Scotland nor the UK Government in Whitehall could afford to operate a student support system without a strong loan element.

Furthermore, the current loans offer a good deal to students in commercial terms, a situation acknowledged by student representatives and by a departmental Committee. They are not repaid until the graduate is in employment and earning £10,000 per year. They are repaid at a zero rate of real interest, and no more than 9% of income above £10,000 is taken annually in repayment.

Some 75% of students now take out a loan, and the average loan is about £3,200 per year. Let me remind Members that the private rate of return to those with a degree is some 20% above those without a degree. Dearing, Cubie and many other commentators, including the departmental Committee, agree that those who benefit most from higher education should pay something towards their upkeep during their course.

In theory one could change unilaterally the basis on which the loans are repaid, but in practice this would of necessity have to be done on a UK-wide basis since the Inland Revenue is unlikely to accept collection on a different basis in each jurisdiction. The Scottish Executive accepted this position despite the Cubie recommendations.

We have covered the ground on fee contribution before, but it is worth repeating that I did not feel that complete abolition would help the least-well-off members of society who aspire to higher education. Expenditure in that area would not be appropriately targeted, and it would be extremely divisive to make the change, as in Scotland, for locally domiciled students at local universities and colleges. European Union regulations mean that the many Northern Ireland students who have recourse to further and higher education opportunities outside Northern Ireland would be precluded from so benefiting. That would be a divisive and politically unacceptable position to move to.

Having set the context for my proposals, both in terms of aims and objectives and financial constraints, I shall now set out the detail. My proposals are based on a new targeting social needs/skills approach. There are three main elements to the overall package within which my proposals can be grouped.

First, there are measures to promote greater full-time adult participation in further education in order to improve equality of opportunity, to enhance the skills base and to promote lifelong learning. I wish to place much greater emphasis on the further education sector as a significant engine for economic development. Members will be aware that I have taken many opportunities - both inside and outside the Assembly - to express that emphasis. I have begun this process through a range of measures designed to upgrade the sector's information and communication technology capacity, to restructure its staffing profile, to improve facilities and to identify centres of excellence relevant to regional economic need.

I have been successful in increasing part-time enrolments of over-18-year-olds. However, I wish to secure an increase in adult full-time enrolments. Therefore, I propose to abolish tuition fees on a broad range of vocational courses at levels 2 and 3 for full-time students aged over 19. In so doing I will be pleased to have been able to go further than my pre-Christmas proposal, which was to confine fee abolition to courses in certain key skill areas.

In combination with fee abolition, I propose to introduce around 3,000 discretionary further education access bursaries. Those will be decided on a sliding scale of up £1,500 each for full-time students aged over 19 on incomes below £10,000, up to £1,000 for those whose incomes are between £10,000 and £12,500 and up to £500 for those whose incomes are between £12,500 and £15,000. The bursaries will replace the current further education discretionary awards and will be administered by the education and library boards.

In addition to fee abolition and the introduction of discretionary bursaries, I intend to increase the access funds - the support funds - administered by the further education colleges by a further £0·5 million a year. That will bring the total to approximately £1·7 million and focus them specifically on hardship in order to provide a greater safety net drop-out for those students who find themselves in financial difficulties after starting their courses.

Full-time course provision provides a much better opportunity for adults to reskill completely and to change career direction. This will be an essential element in meeting the needs of the new knowledge-based economy by providing adults with the incentive to make the necessary change. I expect, therefore, that this combination of fee abolition and bursary provision across the broad range of vocational provision, together with the increase of £0·5 million in the access funds of the further education colleges, will provide the necessary incentives and represent a significant step forward in narrowing the gap between further education and higher education student support.

I have not concentrated my attention purely on the full-time aspect of further education. As well as the increase in access (support) funds, to which I have referred and which will be equally accessible to part-time students, I will take action to ensure that a consistent fee remission policy for part-time students operates in every college across the further education sector. This will remove uncertainty about entitlement and eliminate local variations. It will provide for the tuition fees of students on low incomes or benefits, or who become unemployed after starting their courses, to be met by the colleges.

I will also provide individual learning accounts to help pay fees for part-time further education students in certain vocational courses to encourage greater participation in important skill areas and enhance lifelong learning.

The second broad category of the new arrangements is the introduction of access bursaries and other measures in higher education to widen access for the under-represented and provide greater equity of treatment for those in higher education from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Social groups IV and V make up 25% of the overall population, but students from these groups represent only 11% of the student population. There are a number of factors in this under-representation, but finance and debt aversion are included in them. Evidence from the recent student income and expenditure survey, which covered Great Britain and Northern Ireland, demonstrates that students from these groups get less financial support from parents and relatives, have to assume more debt, have to undertake significantly longer part-time hours of paid work and are more likely to drop out for financial reasons than students from better-off families.

I intend, therefore, to address these elements of inequality of opportunity and inequity by introducing means-tested, non-repayable access bursaries on a sliding scale of up to £1,500 per annum for full-time undergraduates whose parental or spouse residual income is £15,000 or less. It is estimated that such bursaries will be taken up by over one third of the full-time student population. The amount of bursaries and the income thresholds at which they are payable will be along the same lines as the discretionary further education bursaries which I have already mentioned. They will interact with loan-based support. For example, someone whose family or spouse has a residual income of less than £10,000 will receive a total support package of £4,320, which is made up of £2,820 in loan and £1,500 in bursary.

To interact with these new bursaries I intend to reduce the loan available by up to £250 for students whose parents or spouses have residual incomes of over £46,000 per annum. This will enable resources to be targeted on assistance for students from lower-income families. The full reduction of £250 will apply to those with earnings of £47,700 per annum and above. Average earnings in Northern Ireland are around £18,700 per annum. It is estimated that reduced loan entitlement will affect only 20% of the student population.

I intend to raise the residual income threshold at which a student contribution towards tuition fees becomes due from £17,805 per annum to £20,000 per annum. Currently the maximum is £1,050. Therefore, more than 50% of students will not pay anything towards the cost of their tuition. It will also mean that many students who are required to pay a contribution which is less than the maximum amount will benefit from a further reduction.


Residual income is gross income, before tax and National Insurance, reduced by certain allowances, for example, superannuation payments that qualify for tax relief or for adult dependants.

In addition to these measures, I will introduce a childcare grant to assist students on low incomes with dependant children and to help to reduce the disincentive to full-time higher education. The grant will be based on 85% of the actual costs of registered or accredited childcare in term-time and 70% of actual costs during the long vacation, subject to a maximum of £100 per week for one child and £150 per week for two or more children. For those students who, for whatever reason, cannot avail of registered or accredited childcare, assistance is available through the access (support) funds of their institutions.

In addition to these measures for full-time higher education students, part-time students will be assisted by individual learning accounts (ILAs). ILAs were introduced in September 2000 to encourage lifelong learning by helping those aged 18 and over to meet the costs of a wide range of part-time courses. In Northern Ireland, learning eligible for ILA support is extended to vocationally relevant part-time higher education courses including the Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and part-time Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) offered by universities and higher education colleges as well as courses offered by the Open University and vocational courses studied through distance learning. For the initial 20,000 Northern Ireland account holders, up to £150 is available towards the first course costs, provided the learner pays at least £25. For subsequent eligible courses a discount of 20% will be available.

Where a part-time higher education course extends over several years, each complete year is regarded as a separate course for ILA purposes. Employed students may get a contribution from their employer towards fees and other course-related costs. If that is for a course purchased through an ILA, the employer may offset the contribution for tax purposes.

Thirdly, an increase in domestic higher education places, in order to widen access and increase the contribution of higher education to regional economic development, is proposed.

It has been argued by a wide range of commentators, including Lord Dearing, that there is a shortage of higher education places in Northern Ireland. This has the effect of driving up the grades required for entrance to our universities, leading to the phenomenon of "reluctant leavers" - those who must go outside Northern Ireland to take up a higher education course. It is impossible to quantify the exact extent of the problem, but I have been successful in bidding for an additional 1,000 higher education places on top of the 4,400 already announced in the Programme for Government.

In my view this is a reasonable estimate of the need at this time. I have not yet decided how these places will be allocated, but the majority will certainly be targeted at disciplines regarded as important for economic development.

In addition to the proposals I have already covered, I intend to ensure that we do everything possible to make clear and concise information and guidance on the student support system easily available to all those who need it. Therefore, I will be commissioning the education and library boards, assisted by student representatives including the National Union of Students (NUS), the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and others, to review the nature and distribution of the financial information they provide to students, potential students and parents.

I am also conscious of the special needs of mature students and I intend to ask the Educational Guidance Service for Adults (EGSA) to provide a guidance service, again in co-operation with student representatives, to ensure that such students receive full information about the costs and other aspects of entry into higher education. I am delighted at the positive response of the student representatives to this proposal.

I will also open discussions with the education and library boards and the Student Loans Company with a view to re-engineering the administrative system for higher education loans to make the process simpler and more transparent, and to develop its capacity for the electronic delivery of services.

The cost of implementing my proposals will be some £65 million over the next three years. I trust that Members will agree that this represents a significant investment in the future of our young people. It is an investment that has been secured with considerable difficulty given the competing pressures on the Executive. I hope, therefore, that I can rely on the support of the Assembly as I move towards a public equality consultation as required by my Department's equality scheme.

In conclusion, I thank the Assembly again for the opportunity to speak today and, more importantly, for the contribution that the Assembly and its Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee have made to this debate. I also extend my thanks to my Colleagues in the Executive, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First and the Deputy First Ministers. I know that I have not delivered everything that the Committee sought in its report, but I have attempted to give effect to several of its key recommendations. I have tried to seek a conclusion that I believe to be in the best interests of our students and our wider society.

The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):

I congratulate the Minister on the completion of this most recent, and lengthy, part of the review process. I note the extra resources that he has secured from both the Department of Finance and the Executive. The Committee welcomes those. I want to ask two brief questions. Will the Minister confirm that, since his previous statement on this matter on 15 December 2000, he has significantly widened the scope of the provisions for further education students in respect of access bursaries and the non-payment of up-front tuition fees? If so, I am interested to know why he has broadened that. The Committee will welcome that change.

Will the Minister provide an assessment of the level and generosity of his bursary scheme? The Committee welcomes it in principle, but I am concerned about how it compares with the situation in another devolved administration - namely Scotland - where, as I understand it, the bursaries are set at £2,000 for family incomes less than £10,000 and do not taper down to zero until the family or spouse income reaches as high as £25,000.

Dr Farren:

With respect to the first question, we have widened the scope for the abolition of tuition fees in relation to courses in further education. We did so because, on reflection, it appeared that it would be more appropriate to be as broad as possible rather than to approach the issue on the more restricted basis that I initially thought might have been necessary.

The same answer applies to the question of access bursaries in the further education sector. With respect to the comparisons that the Member has drawn with the situation in Scotland, one of the most important challenges that I met in formulating these proposals was their affordability - there are many competing bids and demands for the funds that are available to the Executive. Furthermore, as a basis for my proposals, targeting social need had to be clearly demonstrated. That was the challenge put to me on behalf of the Executive by both the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit. I had to clearly demonstrate that I would be targeting the resources that would be made available to me at those students from the lower income groups in our society, particularly income groups IV and V. As my figures illustrate, these groups are badly under-represented in further and higher education. For that reason, the thresholds are drawn at a lower level and the amounts available are within the limits of affordability. As and when greater resources are available, we can look at the amounts that we make available and the thresholds below which they will apply.


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