Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 March 2001 (continued)
I attended a meeting of Lisburn Chamber of Commerce last week when the Member of Parliament, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, and others in the audience raised this matter. Some Assembly Members were also present, and I indicated that if a particular proposal were put forward it would be looked at on its merits. It is in the public interest to ensure that where it is commercially viable and possible for projects to proceed without recourse to public funds, they do so, and that will be entirely consistent with the views of Members.
Employment: Former Textile Workers
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what action he has taken to assist the creation of alternative employment in those areas affected by job losses in the textile industry.
Sir Reg Empey:
The IDB is promoting employment opportunities in areas affected by job losses in the textile industry to potential investors at home and overseas. The IDB is working with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment to ensure the availability of retraining and is working with councils to address local issues. LEDU is stimulating the development of smaller businesses and opportunities for self-employment.
Can the Minister give an assurance that the infrastructure will be available and will be assisted, given the benefits of the growth of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector of the economy? Will skills be available to meet the challenge, and at the same time will he ensure that there is not an overdependence on a single industry type and that we have a diverse economic base?
Sir Reg Empey:
The point the hon Member makes about dependence on a single industry type is well founded. In Northern Ireland, overdependence on certain areas has been a pattern over the years.
On the question of infrastructure, I was recently in Strabane, in west Tyrone, and announced that we are trying to procure further factory space in that area. That flexible facility at Orchard Road in Strabane could take ICT-related businesses. We also have available space in Omagh, and I can assure the hon Member that one of the objectives of the Programme for Government is to ensure broad-band capability. We are pursuing a national approach with Patricia Hewitt, the Minister for Small Business and e-commerce, and others. A target has been set to have the best facilities in the G7 countries in place by 2005. I have endorsed that, and my Executive Colleagues are actively considering what access can be made to the Executive programme funds to ensure that adequate facilities are made available in remote rural areas to create a level playing field.
My Colleague Dr Farren is acutely aware of the skills issue, and his Department is actively taking steps to ensure that a broad range of skills in particular areas is available. Where people have run into difficulties, particularly in the textile sector, they are offered retraining so that they can avail of the opportunities arising in newer industries.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he has read 'Barriers to Growth and Survival', published in November 2000 by the Federation of Small Businesses; and to make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
As the hon Member knows, I was at the launch of this report, which highlights the key factors influencing the survival and growth of businesses. Given the importance of small firms to our economy, I welcome the report's findings and believe that they will help inform the work of both the new single agency and the existing agencies.
Does the Minister accept that the high rate of bank interest charged to small and medium-sized enterprises is undermining the potential of this vital sector in our local economy? Will he give a commitment to encourage the banks to see it is to their advantage in the long term to contribute to the economy and to end their seemingly short-sighted approach to small businesses?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware that interest rates are a major concern to many small businesses. LEDU is sponsoring, and in the past has sponsored, schemes to offer interest rate relief as part of its package of measures to assist businesses. The report highlighted a range of issues about bank charges, which can be a significant cost for businesses.
It is my intention to meet the banks soon to raise a whole range of issues with them, not least those issues that will arise if the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak continues. The outbreak directly affects tourism, as do the banks' decisions on how rigorously they press for repayments and whether they are prepared to reschedule loans. I notice that that action is being taken throughout the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic.
Electricity Supply Interruptions
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the nature of his discussions with Northern Ireland Electricity following the prolonged interruptions to mains electricity supply at the end of February 2001.
Sir Reg Empey:
I spoke to Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) management early on 27 February about the action being taken to restore electricity supply to customers. I intend to review thoroughly with NIE its response to the February disruptions. That review will include a visit to the NIE incident centre in Craigavon later this week.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He may not be aware that in the first week of March there was also a failure in the Saintfield and Ballynahinch areas. On 21 March there was a failure in the Kilkeel and Annalong areas, and in rural areas around Downpatrick. That is a consistent pattern, and the people there are no longer satisfied with the promises made by NIE after the 1998 debacle. They want an independent review of the infrastructure, which is obviously not adequate for the modern-day delivery of a basic utility.
In addition, will the Minister take on board the fact that the compensation scheme for those who were deprived of electricity in those periods is at the behest of consumers? In many cases they are old people who are not capable of understanding the procedures. Should it not be in NIE's power to make automatic payments to people whom it knows from its records were off supply?
Sir Reg Empey:
That last point is valid. I will ask my officials to draw that matter to the attention of the regulator, who, as the Member knows, is currently conducting a review of NIE's current transmission and distribution charges. I have probably received more correspondence on the issues referred to by the Member than on any other subject in recent months. In particular, I have had letters from people from all over County Down complaining about interruptions to supply. That is why I am visiting NIE's incident centre this week. I indicated to the House in a statement following the worst of the delays that I would be vigorously following it up. However, I felt that it was appropriate to wait until the dust had settled, until people were back on supply and until an analysis could be conducted. Despite the fact that we all understand that our rural network is spread out and that nobody can entirely predict the weather, we have to accept that what we currently have is unsatisfactory.
Question 4, standing in the name of Mrs Joan Carson, has been transferred to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the impact of the merger of training centres with the institutes of higher and further education; and to make a statement.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
The merger of training centres and further education colleges took place in September of last year. Since then, steps have been taken to integrate the facilities and resources of those organisations fully. That process is continuing. The Department is satisfied that the merger has further enhanced the key role played by the further education sector in the delivery of vocational education and training.
Will the Minister say whether the merger has resulted in a reduction in the capacity of technical and vocational training facilities in Northern Ireland? Can any of the funds generated by the sale of the property involved be used to upgrade further education access in borough council areas such as Carrickfergus and Larne and in constituencies, such as East Antrim, where there is no permanent further education campus?
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
The East Antrim Institute, which serves the area that the Member is concerned about, is continuing to explore the options for the provision of further education facilities in Larne. In response to the Member's first point, I reject any suggestion that the merger has reduced physical capacity or the level of personnel available to provide the range of courses normally offered by the further education sector. I argue that the merger has considerably enhanced the further education sector's capacity to deliver the range of courses for which it is responsible.
Higher and Further Education:
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what steps he has taken to increase student places at higher and further education institutions.
Over the next few years, there should be an increase of as many as 13,000 student places in the further and higher education sectors in comparison with the 1998-99 levels. The increases will be as a result of my endorsement of the comprehensive spending review expansion plans, my support for the Springvale project and the additional resources which I secured during the 2000 spending review and the student support review. The additional places include 7,400 enrolments for full-time or part-time study at existing further education colleges.
How does the Minister intend to divide these places between the further education and higher education sectors? Will the places be distributed according to need across Northern Ireland?
Some 2,800 places are to be made available in higher education institutions, and over 9,000 will be created in further education colleges, including the 7,400 enrolments referred to in my initial answer. These figures exclude the 1,000 extra places which have been secured through the student support review, which I announced this morning, the distribution of which has still to be decided. The allocation of these places will be based on several issues of need, including the capacity of institutions to provide the necessary accommodation and the personnel necessary to deliver the courses. There is, of course, the overriding consideration that these extra places should be allocated to the kinds of courses that will serve economic development needs.
The Minister has outlined his belief many times, and as recently as this morning, that increased numbers should be provided in conjunction with wider social access to those additional places, and I am sure that the House would support this view. Is the Minister convinced that the two local universities have done as much as their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales to promote wider social access to additional places through such mechanisms as close liaison with schools which hitherto have not had a tradition of sending pupils into higher education?
I assure the House that both universities have been very active in this respect. In fact, to some extent, the local universities could be described as having pioneered the promotion of wider access, both through the access courses that they provide in conjunction with further education colleges and in more recently established relationships with schools that serve socially disadvantaged backgrounds. I am very aware of universities' contacts with schools from such backgrounds - for example, through summer schools - in order to make pupils aware of the opportunities in universities that they can avail of. I assure the Member that steps have been taken along the lines he suggests and that we will be monitoring the effects of those steps in conjunction with the universities.
Many students would otherwise have gone to other parts of the United Kingdom or, indeed, further afield. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage people from the Province to stay here and use their skills and abilities for the benefit of Northern Ireland and fill the extra places that are being created?
It is precisely because of the concerns raised and highlighted by many survey reports on this issue that we have added so considerably to the number of places available in institutions of both further and higher education. The total I quoted indicates that significant additional places are being made available in further education and in higher education. The most recent announcement - that of an additional 1,000 places - was made in the House this morning. I believe that these places will be taken up by many students who are described in the literature as "reluctant leavers" - those who find that they have to seek courses outside Northern Ireland because of the competition in our colleges and universities for higher education places. Given his experience, I am sure that the Minister will agree that it would be unfortunate if we were ever to place formal inhibitions on the pursuit of higher education outside Northern Ireland.
Of course, Dr Farren meant former Minister.
Mr J Kelly
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to ensure that his proposals to abolish fees in certain skill areas for further education students do not disadvantage their future educational prospects.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail how much of the additional funding secured for student support will be absorbed by additional administration in terms of means testing and targeting.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline how his proposals on student finance will target people who have been under-represented in third-level education; and to make a statement.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will take questions 3, 8 and 12 together.
I refer Members to the details of the statement I made earlier this morning. I put in place a series of proposals. I trust Members will agree that the effect of these will be to widen access to further and higher education; to provide greater equality of opportunity and equity of treatment by reducing the barriers to the participation and the retention of those from less well-off backgrounds; and to increase the contribution which higher and further education can make to regional economic development and the promotion of lifelong learning.
With regard to the points mooted by these questions, I do not believe that my proposals for fees in further education will disadvantage the prospects of students. It would be perverse of me to introduce measures likely to have that effect. On the contrary, I am convinced that the provision of this incentive to full-time students over 19 years of age undertaking vocational qualifications can only be to their advantage.
It is not yet possible to quantify in detail the costs of additional administration since negotiations over the changes to the administration of student support are at an early stage, but I will seek to constrain such costs as much as possible. I have, however, set aside £300,000 to fund the necessary changes to the IT systems which serve the administration of loans and grants.
The Member for Lagan Valley (Ms Lewsley) has asked how my proposals will target people who have been underrepresented in third-level education. This is a key element of my proposals. They include the introduction of individual learning accounts (ILAs) for part-time students in certain vocational areas in further and higher education; the introduction of a childcare grant to assist students in higher education on low incomes with dependant children; and the raising of the threshold for fee payment and the £0·5 million increase in access funds. All these measures will assist in retaining such students and attracting them to further and higher education. The introduction of further and higher education bursaries which are deliberately targeted at those whose families or spouses have less than £15,000 of residual income will be central in establishing greater equality of opportunity for students from less well-off backgrounds who have traditionally been under-represented in further, and more particularly, in higher education.
Mr J Kelly:
Could the abolition of fees and the exclusion of certain disciplines and skills be thought of as discriminatory, and has the Minister sought the views of the Equality Commission on this issue?
I hope we will not be being discriminatory in a negative sense. The intention is to focus on a range of vocationally relevant courses, which I think is right for the needs of the system. Fees can start at zero and go to whatever limit, which is normal for the further and higher education sectors. The fee bands vary considerably, from the lower levels through to postgraduate research levels. So the element of discrimination - if the Member wants to describe it thus - is an inherent part of the current system.
As I indicated this morning, we are trying to encourage participation in certain courses that will be economically relevant to the needs of a rapidly changing workforce. Work on the courses is ongoing, and I will report the final outcome of our deliberations to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister elaborate on how his proposals might increase the administrative complexity of student finance and add to the difficulties of students and parents alike? There are several layers of administrative bureaucracy here.
Our intention is not to add to the complexity of the system but to simplify it. As I explained this morning, this will be achieved through consultation with representatives of student organisations, notably the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland, the Education Guidance Service for Adults and the education and library boards. We will put in place what is intended to be an effective advisory system to ensure that students and their parents fully appreciate their entitlements. Students will also be given advice on the management of their finances during the course of their studies.
The intention is to make the system easier to understand and to give advice directly to those who seek to avail of opportunities within further and higher education. Ultimately we will move to a one-stop shop which will address the determination and allocation of loans and grants.
Mr S Wilson:
Is the Minister aware that under the existing grants legislation, people who have been living overseas and have studied for their primary degrees overseas, so receiving no financial help with their higher education, are not eligible for a student loan if they come to Northern Ireland to study for a postgraduate qualification such as the postgraduate certificate in education? Given the fact that these people have never received financial assistance at higher education level, does the Minister have any plans to change the existing student finance system to allow them access to funding at some stage during their higher education study?
The Member's question is somewhat peripheral to the issues we are addressing, but nonetheless, if this matter needs to be addressed, I will ask my officials to address it. My understanding is that domiciliary requirements are attached to the allocation of grants and applicants must be resident in Northern Ireland for a specified period of time. A student's country of origin may well be the source to which to turn for grants for certain courses in the postgraduate sector so that students from overseas and from outside the European Union bring grants with them. There is a degree of discretion associated with postgraduate awards, which, I assume, are the key interest of the Member. We would want to examine any change in the current regulations very carefully, but, in light of the fact that the issue has been raised, I am willing to examine it.
Young People: Basic Skills
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what measures are in place to improve the basic skills and work-readiness skills of young people in Northern Ireland.
Improving the basic and work-readiness skills of young people in Northern Ireland is paramount as regards my Department's policies and the measures that we are taking in order to address this area of concern. A number of measures are in place, including basic skills education provided by the further education sector; the development of a basic skills strategy for Northern Ireland; Curriculum 2000; the Northern Ireland Business Education Partnership (NIBEP); New Deal 18 Plus and the access strand of the Jobskills programme. All of these provide forms of support regarding basic skills education.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he satisfied that the steps that he has outlined would adequately deal with the 34% of people who fail to get employment because of poor attitude, lack of motivation or personality problems?
Within my Department, and across all Departments, a task force has been established to address the issue of employability, and the first meeting took place last week. The concerns of those who experience significant deficits in basic skills and who find themselves at greatest risk of immediate unemployment - and of drifting into long-term unemployment - are high on the agenda of the task force.
The basic skills committee of the Educational Guidance Service for Adults is due to report. I understand that the report is on its way to my desk. That report will outline in detail how the strategy, which was published last autumn, with respect to addressing basic skills, should be taken forward. While we still have to test the effectiveness of these measures, a lot of advice has been sought and given, and measures are now being put in place. I trust these measures will remove what we would all regard as a matter of concern and a challenge to us - that we have so many school-leavers and adults with very low levels of basic skills.
Will the Minister outline the progress in the development of a Northern Ireland basic skills strategy and explain how it will benefit young people attempting to gain employment?
The measures that I outlined in response to the previous question apply to this question. The basic skills unit within the Educational Guidance Service for Adults, together with the basic skills committee chaired by Richard Sterling, have been working very hard on this issue to give us advice on the broad strategy that we need to adopt. It involves the number of tutors required, the kinds of courses necessary to deal with the deficit of basic skills in the adult community, how and where courses can be provided, the kinds of resources - particularly in terms of electronic delivery - that we might use, and the number of tutors and places that we can make available over the next few years.
When that has been worked up to a series of implementation procedures, I will be in a position to announce what we will be doing in each of those regards to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given that up to one third of our long-term unemployed have qualifications at national vocational qualification (NVQ) level or higher and yet remain unemployed, can something be done to change that deficit?
All the measures with respect to New Deal programmes, both those for 18- to 24-year-olds and the introduction of modifications, made in the light of local consultation, to New Deal for 25-plus, are intended to ensure that the numbers will be reduced even further. It is important that Members appreciate that significant reductions have taken place in the level of unemployment over recent years.
Much of the reduction coincides with the introduction of the New Deal programmes and most people would agree that they are responsible for it. New Deal has made a considerable contribution to the reduction and we are monitoring the situation very closely indeed. The task force that I referred to earlier will be taking forward many of the concerns that underlie the Member's question.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to explain what elements of the New Deal for 25-plus provisions are unique to Northern Ireland.
There are two main unique elements. First, early entry on a voluntary basis will be permitted for a number of special categories to New Deal 25-plus: lone parents, returners and those with basic skills needs.
Secondly, our normal 13-week intensive activity period is to be increased to 20 weeks, with an option for a further six weeks. That can be contrasted with the situation in Britain, where the normal period will be 13 weeks, with a possible extension to 26 weeks.
I want to emphasise, in response to many representations made to us, that 13 weeks were not adequate for the intensive activity period. That period, again in response to representations, is to be relabelled "Preparation for Employment Programme". The most important unique elements are the voluntary early entry, which will include a broader range of categories than across the water, and the different use of the 26-week period.
I welcome the fact that we have a variation in the arrangements for New Deal in Northern Ireland. How successful has the New Deal programme here been in assisting young people, and the long-term unemployed, to get into work? Does the Minister accept that it is in the interests of trainees and industry that we have longer-term, better-quality training schemes in general?
To pick up on a point I made in response to the previous question: New Deal has made a significant contribution to the fall in unemployment. That is evidenced by the fall in numbers in the target groups for the two main New Deal programmes, that is New Deal for 18- to 24-year-olds and New Deal 25-plus, since April 1998 when New Deal was first introduced.
The fall in numbers in the target groups from April 1998 to January 2001 are 61% and 57% respectively.
The fall cannot be attributed solely to New Deal. However, its effect is demonstrated by a comparison with the fall in the non-New Deal claimant group over the same period, which stands at a much lower figure of 4%. We need to ensure that our training programmes are as effective as possible, and there is constant contact with employers and training organisations in the public and private sectors on that matter. We monitor our provision to ensure that we are providing the best range of options to those who qualify for the New Deal programmes.
Further and Higher Education Colleges: Funding
Mrs I Robinson
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the level of funding for colleges of further and higher education.
In the 1999-2000 academic year the total capital and recurrent funding allocated to colleges of further and higher education was almost £106 million.
Mrs I Robinson:
The new further education funding method - student powered unit of resources - has had a varied impact on colleges. Some have done well out of it and others have done badly. Does the Department know what factors are contributing to the differential? Is the funding methodology equitable in its impact? Are the differences the result of failures or successes by individual colleges in marketing and management or are they random?
I can assure the Member that the funding mechanism was worked out in agreement with all of the colleges. I am aware that there are some concerns - as would be expected with any new system. Those concerns are being monitored and any changes that might be made to the funding mechanisms should, and could, only be made following full consultation with the colleges. We are in regular contact with the colleges, and we are aware of the concerns.
We need to take the matter forward - though we will not be imposing anything because the Department did not impose the funding mechanism in the first place. We must take it forward in conjunction with the colleges so that they are fully aware of, and in agreement with, any modifications that might be made.
I am sure that the Minister would like to be able to announce much greater funding for this sector of education. However, is he satisfied that the provision is adequate, considering the disparities in funding between urban and rural areas? Will the Minister undertake a review of the regional variations in funding, particularly in areas such as east Down? There are several different campuses for the East Down Institute of Further and Higher Education, and that adds enormously to the costs involved. Will he take that on board in an overall review?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The Minister has only about 10 seconds to answer.
I reiterate that the current funding mechanism was agreed in consultation with the colleges. I was not responsible for the Department at that time, but, as I understand it, the colleges agreed to disregard the multi-campus basis on which several of them operate. If this is now emerging as a particular concern it will certainly be taken into consideration in any review. The review needs to be taken forward in full consultation with the colleges.
Regional Regeneration Task Forces
asked the Minister for Social Development when he will announce the setting up of new regional regeneration task forces and to confirm that there will be one in each district council area.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
My Department will be consulting widely in the coming months on a revised strategy for urban regeneration policies and actions targeted at the most deprived areas in the Province.
The core aim of the strategy is the creation of broadly representative regeneration task forces to operate at neighbourhood level. I cannot confirm that there will be one task force in each district council area. However, the outcome of the research work that has been commissioned to update the existing data on areas and levels of multiple deprivation will determine where the limited resources available for urban renewal should be targeted.
Can the Minister indicate the timescale for the creation of the neighbourhood regeneration task forces? What will their remit be?
In line with the Programme for Government, we hope to launch the new strategy and begin the process of establishing neighbourhood task forces in the autumn. It is hoped that each task force will initially secure meaningful local representation, carry out a robust analysis of local circumstances and agree on a vision of the area. The task forces will specify outcomes, devise and implement related business plans and co-ordinate and integrate the activities of the relevant agencies and organisations that are involved in the regeneration process.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that certain district towns, such as Downpatrick, were excluded from the analysis in the original document on town centre management. Can he give an undertaking that regional regeneration task forces will be set up, funded and staffed in district towns such as Downpatrick? Can he confirm that the task forces could link in partnership with the reorganisation and redevelopment committees in other towns, such as Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and Newcastle, in my constituency that do not have district status? This would ensure that their good work in regeneration and economic development is fully exploited and developed.
The towns that the Member referred to, such as Downpatrick, will of course be scrutinised. That is not to say that they will be included, but similarly that is not to say that they will be excluded. I accept the Member's point. The work that has been done by other partnership groups was more than useful; it will be learnt from and, I hope, if possible, improved upon.
Will the Minister ensure that the new regional regeneration task force will give particular advice and assistance to those council areas that were unable to take up earlier funding opportunities through, for example, the Community Economic Regeneration Scheme, despite the fact that they were entitled to do so? Will he ensure that the Department for Social Development proactively assists council areas, such as Carrickfergus and Larne, that were in the past entitled to draw down money but did not do so?
The quick answer to the Member's question is yes. The more elaborate answer is that we hope that through the scoping study we will be able to ascertain a range of views across the Province. That will, of course, include the towns mentioned by Mr Beggs and Mr McGrady. Needless to say, I expect that every Member will also want certain towns to be included, so we hope that when our final analysis is made we will not have missed any. We will be able to learn from partnership schemes of the past. It will be a great opportunity to rejuvenate many of the areas that Mr Beggs and other Members are concerned about.