Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 26 March 2001 (continued)

More recent expressions of intention, and those to be made in the future, are to be fully taken into account. For example, a settlor may say that there should be no investment in a certain type of shares - perhaps those of tobacco companies or arms manufacturers. In such a case, a trustee's power of investment will be qualified in line with the wishes of the settlor.

I want to refer to another issue arising out of clause 7. There are some bodies that are not actually trustees as such but which have powers of investment based on trustee powers under a statute. The investment powers of these bodies are to be updated in line with the new approach, giving them the general power of investment too. Some bodies with statutory investment powers have been individually identified and their powers duly amended in schedule 2.

Part III of the Bill is concerned with land transactions. Trustees are given power to acquire land as an investment, for occupation by a beneficiary or for other purposes.

Part IV deals with the use of agents, nominees and custodians. Again, in this area, professional practice has moved ahead of the current law. Under the Trustee Act (Northern Ireland) 1958, an individual trustee can delegate his or her responsibilities, but it is collective delegation by trustees as a group that concerns us. At present, the trustees are not permitted to delegate their fiduciary discretions, such as the choice of investments or the decision to sell or lease trust property, without express authority in the trust instrument. This can be a serious obstacle to good administration.

In line with most modern trust deeds, the Bill now allows trustees to delegate their powers to administer the trust - including investment and management powers - to agents. However, this does not apply to powers to appoint or replace trustees, or to decide on the distribution of the income or capital of the trust.

For charitable trusts, the scope for delegation will be different - to include certain fund-raising activities. Trustees will have to keep any delegation arrangements they make under review. They will also be subject to the statutory duty of care and additional restrictions to protect beneficiaries. Trustees will also be able to employ nominees and custodians, subject to protection for beneficiaries.

Part V of the Bill makes provision for the remuneration of trustees. It deals with two issues in particular. First, it sets down rules for the interpretation and application of express charging clauses, for example, in wills.

1.15 pm

Secondly, it allows payment to trustees in some areas where the trust documents expressly cover that. Under the Bill, trust corporations will be entitled to receive reasonable remuneration for services provided to or on behalf of their trust. Other sole trustees will not have that right unless the trust instrument authorises it. Where there are a number of trustees, they will be able to authorise one of their number, acting in a professional capacity, to receive payment - again, at a reasonable rate. As far as charitable trusts are concerned, different considerations apply, and more discussion is needed. The Bill provides for regulations to be made in the future, if appropriate, to allow payment to charity trustees who are trust corporations or act in a professional capacity.

Part VI of the Bill deals with a different kind of problem in the present law. The Trustee Act (Northern Ireland) 1958 makes provision for the appointment and retirement of trustees, but it has become apparent that there are gaps in that provision. In particular, there is the situation where the beneficiaries of a trust are all of adult age, and between them, as a group, they are absolutely entitled to the trust property. It is anomalous that, at present, they have no power to direct the appointment of a new trustee, even where there is no one nominated to do so. They can bring the trust to an end and then set up a new trust, but that is not always the best course of action. The purpose of clause 34 is to give such beneficiaries the power to direct a trustee to retire from the trust or to direct the appointment of a new trustee.

The specific problem addressed by clause 35 is the situation where a trustee has become incapable of acting because of mental incapacity, and there is no one available to appoint a replacement. Again the solution is to enable the beneficiaries to direct the appointment of a replacement.

Among the miscellaneous and supplementary provisions contained in Part VII of the Bill is an updating of the existing power to insure trust property found in section 19 of the 1958 Act. There are also provisions on the application of the proposals to special cases, such as personal representatives and pension schemes.

There is provision in clause 44 for the Department of Finance and Personnel to make Orders, subject to negative resolution, to amend legislation in connection with powers of investment or acquisition of land. On commencement it is provided that the provisions should come into operation on a day to be appointed. I have already referred to the significance of schedule 1, which details the situations where the new statutory duty of care applies. Schedule 2 consists of minor and consequential amendments; schedule 3 contains transitional provisions and savings; and schedule 4 has repeals.

In conclusion, I commend this Bill to the Assembly. It is a substantial and technical piece of legislation, but it tackles problems faced by trustees and beneficiaries in a realistic and pragmatic way. It is the result of detailed consideration in this jurisdiction and elsewhere. It aims to improve the position of trusts struggling without the benefit of modern trust documents drafted by expert advisers. Throughout the consultation process, the proposals have been widely welcomed. Members may have points to raise, and I will try to answer as many of those as I can in winding up at the end of the debate. If there is anything to which I am unable to respond today, I will write to the Member concerned.

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

I thank the Minister for his thorough introduction of the Bill, which to me seems to be a very worthwhile piece of legislation. It will contribute significantly to improving the way in which trusts can be run in the future.

I particularly commend the Minister and his Department on the way the build-up to the Bill was handled with the Committee. This is the appropriate model for all legislation, although, as far as I can judge from comments made by members of other Committees, it is not necessarily followed elsewhere.

The Finance and Personnel Committee was consulted about this proposed legislation last summer, which is over six months ago. The Office of Law Reform returned to us about a month ago to discuss the outcome of the consultation process. Only then did the Bill come forward. Therefore, there was every opportunity for the Committee to express opinions on the final Bill that came forward. I would like to think that all of our legislation could be handled this way. I commend the Minister for ensuring that that is what happened with this one.

However, this is such a complicated subject that there were not a great deal of precise recommendations coming forward from the Committee on this occasion. Nonetheless, having looked through the Bill, I think that the outcome is good. In particular, it realistically acknowledges that trusteeship is a professional activity for which trustees expect to be remunerated. That is very clearly acknowledged in the Bill and facilitated through it. It is to the benefit of the beneficiaries of trusts that this should be so, and the measure is welcome.

I also note good provisions for the delegation of the functions from trustees to specialists. As far as I can see, these provisions are drawn fairly widely. That is appropriate. This is a changing environment and it would not be sensible to have narrow legislation in this respect. It is appropriate to rely on the duty of care as the overriding arbiter and overriding measure, which places responsibility on the trustee should anything go wrong.

As a former practitioner in the area of investments, I was interested in the way the opportunities to delegate investment management were handled. I noticed a reference to something called "the policy statement" in the Bill. That is a fairly wide term. I imagine that in practice it will include the investment objective and will have to be agreed between the trustees and the delegated investment manager. It will be up to the manager to ensure that what he is being asked to do is reasonable. I imagine that that will normally be dealt with by negotiations before the investment objective is finalised, so that both parties should be in the position to feel comfortable with it.

Furthermore, I note that the Bill did not make any attempt to specify the type of investment manager, trustee, or nominee to whom delegation could be made. There may have been a temptation when the Bill was being drawn up to look towards the Financial Services Act 1986 and, perhaps, restrict appointments to businesses regulated by that legislation.

You could argue that that would be helpful to the trust in that all of the mechanisms for investor protection contained within the legislation would be a burden upon any investment manager and therefore potentially, or theoretically at least, a benefit to the trust.

It is appropriate that it is not being done. Many worthy investment managers do not operate within the United Kingdom under the authority of the Financial Services Act 1986. In relation to custodians, I would opine that the best custodians are found elsewhere, specifically if you wish to invest, as you reasonably might do, in south-east Asia. The type of custodian you might want to use might not be located in the United Kingdom and there is no reason why that should not be entirely appropriate.

I welcome the broad terms in which those parts of the Bill have been drawn up. I also commend the draftsmen for the clarity of their work, and, although it is quite lengthy, I do not think that the Committee will find it difficult to deal with this Bill, unlike some others that have been sent in our direction. It is my pleasure to support the Bill.

Mr Durkan:

First, I welcome the broad support for the Bill, as expressed today by Mr Leslie, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. As Mr Leslie has recognised, it is a technical piece of legislation. Nonetheless, it is to be welcomed because it deals with a technical and difficult area, and it is an attempt to remove a number of anomalies that are hampering best practice and the interests of beneficiaries in the operation of trusts.

I appreciate the Member's commendation of how the Bill has been handled so far. As indicated in Mr Leslie's remarks, the consultation that was involved for this Bill predated the Assembly, but that does not remove the need for proper consultation with the Assembly. When proposals for legislation concerning trustees were pending we consulted the Committee, and we did so again when we deferred the original legislation in order to take account of wider changes. The Committee's advice was to delay the legislation to allow a more comprehensive and complete Bill to be drawn up. The Committee's interest in this matter has always been helpful.

With regard to the observations about more professional requirements in this field, particularly in the light of the pressures and practices of the modern environment, I can only agree with what Mr Leslie said. It is precisely that sort of consideration which underlies the Bill's proposals. That is why it includes provisions to deal with the remuneration of trustees, the delegation of trustee functions to agents and so on. I note Mr Leslie's point that it is right that the Bill should not unduly define who might be, or should be, appointed in any given instance.

The policy paper on asset management was also mentioned. Obviously, there will be, and should be, scope for consultation between trustees and investment managers in advance of appointment. The exact requirements described by Mr Leslie are envisaged in the Bill. If the issue needs to be clarified, the matter can be followed up at Committee Stage.

Mr Leslie also emphasised the reliance on the duty of care, the importance of which I emphasised several times in my opening remarks. The protection of beneficiaries here will be based upon that duty. It is important that this be made clear when people are appointed to these positions of responsibility and in relation to any future undertaking. This is appropriate given that the Bill deals with the area of law concerning trustees. While we try to modernise the legislation to take account of modern realities and professional requirements, it is important that we avoid being overly restrictive by trying to tie everything into, for example, the provisions of the financial services regulatory regime. I found Mr Leslie's insights in that area particularly helpful.

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I do not think that there are any other outstanding points. The Committee will be considering this Bill further, and while I appreciate, as Mr Leslie said, that there have not been too many comments by the Committee to date in relation to this, I think that that reflects the fact that the Committee recognises the broad welcome that there has been from all the relevant interested parties for this legislation. Nevertheless, the Committee will want to show due diligence when the Bill comes to it for consideration. Notwithstanding all the other pressures that the Committee has to contend with, I look forward to receiving its considered and positive views on the measures.

I hope I have covered all the points that were made today. If not, we can pick them up later. On that basis, I again commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Trustee Bill [NIA 11/00] be agreed.

The sitting was suspended at 1.31 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -

Oral Answers to Questions


2.30 pm

Mr Fee:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will see that my name is listed against question No 1 on the list of questions for oral answer. However, I have been told that a decision was made to transfer that question to another Department for reply, and therefore I have been issued with a written response.

I have problems with this process, and I should appreciate it if you, Mr Speaker, would examine this matter to see if there is a more efficient and effective way of doing things.

I am disturbed that the Executive can alter the published list of questions for oral answer and that a question that has been accepted as being competent by the Business Office can subsequently be transferred to a different Department. I am also disturbed that the Executive can decide that there will be one lead Minister, with the result that Back-Benchers cannot question other Ministers who are involved in a matter.

I am disturbed by the manner in which a question for oral answer, which may elicit supplementary questions and sudden debate on the Floor, can be transferred to become a question for written answer, thus denying Members the opportunity for debate. I am also disturbed that the Minister - who is well able and, I am sure, willing to answer the question - is not in a position to be queried about why the question was transferred.

It seems that the system fundamentally thwarts the rights of Back-Benchers to hold Ministers and Departments to account. The system subverts the authority of the Business Office, the Standing Orders Committee and, to some extent, the Speaker's Office. I would appreciate it if you, Mr Speaker, would take the lead and try to establish what is best practice and good precedent. It would be of benefit to the House if you liaised with the Departments and Offices of the Assembly so that Members can ensure that what Ministers do is fully transparent and that they are accountable.

Mr Speaker:

The Member has rightly identified that it would not be in order to question this or any transfer. However, I understand that he is not querying that; he is querying the procedure. The procedure, as the Member says, is that when a question is tabled and judged to be competent it is then forwarded to the Executive, to identify the lead Department in respect of that question. Even if some other Department has a role to play, the question will be transferred to the Department that has the lead role. What the Member says about that is correct, and it is therefore difficult in practice to ask a question about any Minister's role in a matter if he or she is not the Minister of the lead Department.

A question for oral answer that is transferred will receive a written response rather than an oral reply. However, when that matter is indicated to a Member, he may withdraw the question and resubmit it as a question for oral answer to the Department identified by the Executive as the lead Department. At a later stage, the question goes into the lottery, as one might say, for the ordering of items.

I accept the Member's identification of the Speaker's responsibility to defend the rights of the Assembly and the responsibility of Back-Benchers to hold the Executive to account. That is a long-standing tradition.

I will take seriously what the Member says and will endeavour to carry it through. I have received indications that the process of asking questions is regarded as not wholly satisfactory, not only by Mr Fee and other Back-Benchers, but also by some Members of the Executive. For this reason the matter has been raised at the Business Committee on many occasions. Business managers in that Committee have been asked to provide, to my office, their thoughts about how the process of asking questions can be improved. I trust that I will receive a number of thoughts in that regard, and I will try to facilitate some improvements. As I said, it is not something that is seen only by Back-Benchers as being not wholly satisfactory, but is also regarded by business managers and by some Members of the Executive, in a wholly constructive way, as not being sufficiently open and satisfactory.

Mr Fee:

On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. With regard to the Business Committee's deliberations, I would like to point out that my question to the Minister, who I know is very capable of answering it, was transferred to the Minister for Social Development, who will also be answering questions today. Would it not have been more appropriate for it to be directly transferred for an oral response subject to supplementaries on the Floor of the Assembly later today?

Mr Speaker:

The practical dilemma is that, given the current procedures, by the time the decision on transfer was taken it would not have "made the shuffle", as they say in the Business Office. The Member is identifying practical operational problems with regard to questions. As this matter has been aired, I trust that all those with thoughts and queries on the matter will put them forward so that they may be taken into account. Some queries may result in requests to the Procedures Committee to look at Standing Orders. Some may not necessitate any changes to Standing Orders.

Mr Fee has identified that question 1, standing in his name, has been transferred to the Department for Social Development. Question 4, standing in the name of Ms Lewsley, has been transferred to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.


Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Economic Development Agencies


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what progress has been made in establishing a single development agency in Northern Ireland.

(AQO 1176/00)


Mr Dalton

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what further progress has been made towards the restructuring of Northern Ireland's economic development agencies.

(AQO 1181/00)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 2 and 12 together.

The first draft of a Bill has been produced. Five working groups have been established in the Department, and they have started work on the practicalities of the reorganisation. Consultation on the equality impact of the proposed restructuring will commence soon. Advertisements will shortly appear for the appointments of a chairperson, a shadow board and a chief executive designate.

Mr Neeson:

Has the Minister established a timescale in which the restructuring can be carried out?

Sir Reg Empey:

It is hoped that the equality impact assessment will commence tomorrow. I am hopeful that legislation, subject to Executive approval, can be brought forward to the House before the summer recess so that it can be sent to the Committee over the summer and that the remaining Stages will be completed in the autumn. It is hoped that it will receive Royal Assent before the end of the year. That will enable the organisation to be up and running as soon as possible at the beginning of next year. In the meantime, the existing boards of the existing organisations will continue until they are formally replaced at the beginning of next year.

Mr Dalton:

While we all want to see increased inward investment in Northern Ireland, I am sure that the Minister will agree that small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our local economy. Can the Minister assure me that the new agency will continue to give priority to assisting business development in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector?

Sir Reg Empey:

The hon Member is absolutely right. The backbone of our industry and business is small businesses. It is a much higher proportion here than in the rest of the United Kingdom. I can give the Member that assurance with pleasure. The reorganisation is not designed to simply work for and on behalf of the big battalions. That would be counterproductive, as the structure of our industry is based on small and locally owned businesses.

Mr S Wilson:

Will the Minister give us some indication when he intends to have the IDB, as part of the reorganisation, moved from its existing premises in the centre of town? Has he liaised with the Minister for Social Development to ensure that such a move is not so delayed as to affect the regeneration proposals for the Victoria Square area?

Sir Reg Empey:

That is a very valid point. I have had direct meetings with the Minister for Social Development. We have discussed this particular problem, despite the fact that premises are primarily a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The Member will also wish to know that the current proposal is for the new agency to be a non-departmental public body, which means that it will be outside of Government. It will, therefore, be technically responsible for its own premises. However, I am concerned about initial proposals put forward that would involve two relocations - a move to temporary premises and then to permanent premises. I am resisting that because of the obvious additional cost and disruption that it would cause.

I have no reason to believe, at this stage, that the proposals that we have are in any way going to conflict with the timetable for the redevelopment of Victoria Square, and I can assure the Member that I have no desire to hold that up in any way.

Tourist Board Chairman


Ms McWilliams

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what action he intends to take against the chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board given the report to the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland (NIA 36/00).

(AQO 1157/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

The short answer is none. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) reported deficiencies in the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's procurement systems. These had been identified earlier by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and corrected. That is acknowledged by the C&AG. The C&AG also accepts that the chairman of the NITB acted properly throughout. More generally, the C&AG highlights the importance of codes of conduct for board members and the need to guard against conflicts of interest. My Department fully supports those points.

Ms McWilliams:

Does the Minister agree that the perception among the general public, as a result of this report, is that there has been a conflict of interest? Does he also agree that it is necessary to assure people that such behaviour should never be condoned, even though the report itself has a finding that suggests that? Does the Minister have any concern that the public has not been reassured on that point?

Sir Reg Empey:

The public perception has been influenced to some extent by the comments made by a number of representatives. Many of those comments were grossly inaccurate. The Member should also be aware that when the chairman was appointed, it was well known to the Department and the Minister who appointed him that his company had a relationship with the NITB going back to 1948. The amount of activity between his company and the NITB has actually diminished since he became chairperson.

On the wider question, I said that my Department fully supports the concept of codes of conduct on conflicts of interest. The Member will be aware that when you ask members of the public to serve on a number of public bodies, whether it is the Industrial Development Board or something else, you cannot exclude people who have some knowledge of or role in those particular sectors. For instance, when we appointed the partnership boards to deal with the peace and reconciliation procedures we appointed people from the voluntary sector to sit on those. Having sat on one of those boards, I vividly recall that people were moving in and out of the room when various items were being discussed. It is very hard to ring-fence things completely.

In this case there was a failure in procedure. This was identified by the board, which called in my Department's internal auditors. It then carried out a report before transferring the purchasing procedures to the Government Purchasing Agency and placing a finance director in charge of all procurement. I understand that the system failed the chairman, rather than the chairman's having failed the system. However, the board and the Comptroller and Auditor General have assured me that there was no misuse of position, and that procedures now in place are of the best practice available. I hope that this will resolve the matter in the future.

2.45 pm

Mr Dallat:

Is the Minister aware that in the Northern Ireland Audit Office's 1995 annual report, attention was drawn to a conflict of interest? That report dealt with selective financial assistance for tourism, and it revealed that a board member had not handled his conflict of interest properly. In view of this, does the Minister accept that although this was tolerated under direct rule, there is no excuse for this type of practice in the present arrangement? Does the Minister agree that Mr Bailie - who has, without doubt, many talents to offer - should have been appointed to another body where there was no conflict of interest? Will the Minister please outline to the Assembly what steps he intends to take to restore public confidence in the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the methods by which it makes appointments?

Sir Reg Empey:

There is no evidence in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report that there was any inappropriate conduct by any member of the board, and that is acknowledged. The failure lay in the procedures that the board had been following with regard to its procurements. That was identified by the board's staff, who called in the internal audit side of this Department, which, in turn, drew it to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General. This was in the course of the Comptroller's normal reporting procedures for any public body.

The chairman was appointed a number of years ago. As I pointed out in my previous answer to the Member for South Belfast (Ms McWilliams), if you took all of the boards in the Province and removed from them people who had an involvement in their particular board's area you would not have many people left. For example, take the people who sit on the IDB - their companies may very well apply for and receive selective financial assistance. The same applies to LEDU and other boards - so there has to be a way of managing it. In the case of the tourist board, the fact was that the procedures were defective. That was identified.

I cannot comment on the 1995 report, as I am not aware of its particular details. I can assure the Member, however, that the procedures that are now in place are up to the mark as the ones that are best practice - or believed to represent best practice. I am satisfied that those procedures, now that they are in place, will protect the board members and the public from finding themselves in difficulty in the future.

Mr Speaker:

I do not see Mr Gibson in his place, so we will move on to Mr McClarty.

Tourism: Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Mr McClarty

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourism sector.

(AQO 1180/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

The impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourism sector is widely acknowledged. Economic consequences are factored into risk analyses constantly being reviewed by the Executive group chaired by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I have maintained close contact with tourism industry representatives and discussed recovery plans at a recent forum with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Mr McClarty:

I commend the Minister for meeting with tourism representatives last week and for his concern for this sector. Does he agree that my constituency of East Londonderry - which markets itself as the "Causeway Coast" - is suffering more than most in the present difficulties? Following the meeting the Minister said that compensation for the tourism sector was a UK-wide issue, with which I agree. Will the Minister assure me, however, that he will raise the matter at the earliest opportunity with Tourism Minister Janet Anderson to see whether compensation may be available?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am aware of the matter that the Member referred to, and of his constituency's involvement with tourism. Representatives from his area were in evidence at the meeting last Tuesday of the various interests in tourism. It was an emotional meeting, insofar as many of the members there with small businesses dependent on tourism were in dire straits. Some of them were contemplating signing on the dole, while a number of them indicated that their turnover for the month had been as low as £100.

Anybody who confines the problem surrounding foot-and-mouth purely to the farmers is mistaking the point. The tourism industry is in severe difficulties, as we have seen from the remarks of my colleague Janet Anderson and the comments of Jim McDaid, my opposite number in the Republic. They are suffering great difficulties there. I assure the Member that we are in constant contact with the Department in London. I have raised the matter with the Executive before and will be doing so again later this afternoon. We are looking at this question, which must be put in the national context. We are also working on a recovery plan, which we will put into operation as soon as it is possible to lift restrictions, so as to help the industry get back on its feet before much more damage is done.

Mrs Courtney:

The Minister has already acknowledged the damage that has been done to the tourism industry, particularly in rural areas. Last night, the Minister of Tourism in the Republic of Ireland announced measures to provide compensation - possibly grants - to those affected. In view of that, will the Minister - I understand that it is not his decision alone, that he will have to work with his Assembly Colleagues - see whether a similar scheme could be adapted for those affected in Northern Ireland?

Sir Reg Empey:

Today I followed up comments made by Mr McDaid with regard to compensation. He was referring specifically to parts of County Louth. The suggestions that were floated were not dissimilar to ones that are being mooted in London - delayed VAT payments, rates issues and other matters. We are closely monitoring those, although VAT and revenue issues are not the responsibility of this Assembly. The Minister of Finance and Personnel is aware of this and if there is any package on a national basis, we will expect our share of it and will take whatever action we can. However, the Executive is constantly monitoring the situation in the hope and expectation that we can get an early resolution.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle, in consultation with other Ministers, does the Minister see the opportunity to do something in relation to tourism? If we can get some sort of regionality for part of the North, will there be scope to look at certain sectors, such as areas of County Fermanagh? Maybe something can be done to allow some inward movement of people into areas that will not affect agriculture and have no connection with livestock. That might alleviate some of the pressure on areas that are designated for tourism in particular. What they are suffering is serious, but we must not allow anyone to cause more problems in relation to foot-and-mouth itself.

Sir Reg Empey:

I am conscious of the difficulties in the Member's constituency. I have had a number of representations from that area in the past few days. Last Thursday, I hoped to be in the position to begin removing some of the restrictions, but then we were confronted with the County Louth case. There was also a threat over the weekend in regard to County Donegal, which I am pleased to say has now passed.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has made it clear that as soon as veterinary advice permits, she will bring forward proposals. I fully support that. I know the damage that is being done. I was talking to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board this morning. We are actively involved in the preparation of a recovery plan dealing with people taking holidays in Northern Ireland.

I am aware of the fishing interests, in particular in County Fermanagh, where it might be possible to go ahead at an earlier stage with wet fishing. Members will understand, however, that, for obvious reasons, my Colleague the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure felt compelled to close down the public fishing estate. All these things must be put in the balance, and I hope that the Executive will address them later this afternoon.

Mr Close:

Following some of the Minister's comments, I am concerned that the message that will be going out is that we in Northern Ireland are somewhat restrained or curtailed in what we might be able to do for the tourist industry, which is suffering as a result of the foot-and-mouth crisis, and that we will have to wait for the actions of others in the Departments across the water or in the South. Surely, as tourism is a devolved issue, can our Executive not take direct action to help those who have suffered? That is the message people would like to hear.

Sir Reg Empey:

What the Member says is technically correct, and I agree. We are not currently restricted by what is or is not happening in London, Dublin or anywhere else. To begin with, in relation to movement we have had a more strict regime here than that in Great Britain. The evidence all around us clearly indicates that that was the right thing to do. The Republic was able to get regionalisation in 36 hours. That is the only way in which we are restricted. We believe that there is a very strong case for regionalisation, but that must be sought from the Commission by the United Kingdom Government. I believe there is a meeting tomorrow, at which such a decision could possibly be taken.

That is the key issue, because the kind of promotion that you do must be linked to the availability and ability of people being able to move around, and the desirability of allowing them to do so. Therefore our own regime with regard to restrictions on movement is the key deciding factor. We are not looking over our shoulder to see what London or Dublin is doing. I can assure the Member that I am in daily touch with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which is actively pursuing their programme. There is a meeting of the various tourist interests later this week to plan the campaign, and resources have been made available. The programme will be announced when it is ready.

Tourism: Funding


Mr Poots

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps he is taking to ensure equality of funding for tourism projects throughout Northern Ireland.

(AQO 1173/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board approves funding for projects which meet published criteria and follows standard appraisal procedures. This process is applied equally and consistently to all tourism projects in Northern Ireland where financial support is sought.

Mr Poots:

When will the Minister stop paying lip service to this issue? There is abundant evidence that those promoting tourism in Lagan Valley have not received a slice of the cake commensurate with their effort. Will he even indicate a willingness to lift the current moratorium on grant aid for hotel development in that area? This is inhibiting the growth of tourism in Lagan Valley.

Sir Reg Empey:

I am not paying lip service to anything. The Member raised this issue last November. My response at that time was that the moratorium on grant aid to hotels in the Greater Belfast area was in place because hotels are being built without recourse to public money -

Mr Poots:

Not in Lagan Valley.

Sir Reg Empey:

That may be the case, but the problem is that there are no applications from Lagan Valley. There is not one before the Department at the moment.

I said last November, and I repeat, that the decision to have a moratorium is not a statutory one. It is an administrative decision, based on what has been the practice with the commercial sector and what has been the best judgement. I do not think that the Member would want to see subsidies being paid to companies to build hotels when, commercially, they can stand on their own two feet.

We should bear in mind that the moratorium does not apply to the entire Lagan Valley area. It probably applies up to Lisburn town, but thereafter it is not included. If a project or a proposal comes forward, I am quite prepared to look at it on its merits.


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