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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 26 March 2001 (continued)

Housing (Mixed Marriages):
Housing Executive Policy


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister for Social Development if he will outline the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's policy on housing couples in mixed marriages.

(AQO 1174/00)

Mr Morrow:

There is no specific policy on the housing of mixed-marriage couples. As with other households, mixed-marriage couples' applications and needs for social housing are considered under the common selection scheme. That scheme provides for, among other things, applicants to declare preferred areas of choice.

3.45 pm

Mr Neeson:

While recognising the problems, I would like to know if the Minister's Department is taking a proactive role in trying to develop integrated housing areas in Northern Ireland, thus promoting the principle of sharing over separation.

Mr Morrow:

Neither I nor the Housing Executive can determine where people live or where they want to live, any more than we can determine whom they want to marry. People are entitled to choose where they wish to live. Therefore, while there are many examples of areas in the private sector where people of different community backgrounds live side by side in harmony, the majority of applicants for social housing still choose to live in areas where their community background predominates.

Energy Efficiency (Households)


Mr Ford

asked the Minister for Social Development what measures are in place to encourage energy efficiency in private households.

(AQO 1190/00)

Mr Morrow:

The current Domestic Energy Efficiency Scheme (DEES) provides physical measures to improve the energy efficiency of dwellings and offers advice to householders on how to save on fuel costs. The new DEES scheme, which will come into operation later this year and will provide a more comprehensive package of energy efficiency measures designed to alleviate fuel poverty, will continue to provide energy-saving advice to the householders.

A number of schemes are also linked to the encouragement of energy efficiency. I can read them all out today or send a list of them directly to the Member. Madam Deputy Speaker, it is entirely in your hands.

Mr Ford:

I will happily accept the remainder of the answer in writing, so that other Members may have answers to their questions.

When the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 came into force, there was an expectation of a 30% improvement over some 10 years. Can the Minister give us an indication of the level of improvement there has been and, specifically, how much has been achieved in privately owned houses, given the large number of privately owned houses that suffer from fuel poverty, especially in rural areas?

Mr Morrow:

I do not have the exact figures, but the Member is quite right when he asserts that the greatest need is in the private sector. My Department hopes to make an impact on energy efficiency in the next 10 years. I will write to the Member to let him know what impact has been made to date and whether or not his assertion of 30% is accurate.

Mr S Wilson:

Will the Minister also give a commitment to review the level of available grant aid? Many people suspect that one of the reasons for the lower take-up in the private sector is that the grant available often does not cover the full cost of the work. This is especially true in rural areas, where contractors cannot achieve the same economies of scale as they can in urban areas.

Mr Morrow:

The Member is aware that we will be launching the scheme in a few day's time. It will then go out to the company that has the installation contract, and we hope to go on site with installations in July. We have some £4 million to kick-start the programme. We will monitor it closely to ascertain the answers to the questions that the Member has raised this afternoon. We will keep the programme under constant review to check if the amount of money allocated for each home is adequate. Neither I nor my Department want a partly done job or, worse still, a job that has not tackled the problems it was designed to tackle.

That will give comfort to no one. That is not the aim. We feel that we would fall far short of the mark if we achieved that. I can assure the Member and everyone else in this Assembly that the costs per property will be kept very much under scrutiny. We will keep an eye on this.



Mr Hussey

asked the Minister for Social Development to detail progress by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on the acquisition of responsibility for council-owned traveller sites since October 1998.

(AQO 1156/00)

Mr Morrow:

It is my Department's intention, as set out in the report, 'New Policy on Accommodation for Travellers', that responsibility for council-owned traveller sites should transfer to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. However, this requires legislation, and the necessary provisions will, therefore, be included in the proposed new housing Bill.

Mr Hussey:

I am slightly concerned. As many in the Chamber will be aware, the Government announced in 1998 that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive would take over responsibility for council-owned traveller sites. The Minister will be aware that many councils were very welcoming of such a move. However, I have noticed in my own district council area that more travellers are beginning to apply for normal housing. There has been an acceleration in this process. Can the Minister tell me if this is something that is common throughout Northern Ireland? Does it bring into question the need for specialist traveller sites?

Mr Morrow:

The Member raised a point in relation to more travellers applying for housing. It is no secret whatsoever that this is the design that we would like to see - more travellers applying for settled housing. We hope that in the future, this will be the way forward. I take the point that the Member raises, however, because if you go down that road, and you conclude that there are more travellers applying for settled housing, then should you be going ahead on the other route? It is a catch-22.

However, I believe that the balance that we have got and the programme that we are currently taking forward is just about right. The Member is aware that we have a number of pilot schemes for settled housing which will be exclusively for travelling people. I believe that when those schemes are fully operational, we will be able to clearly ascertain if our whole programme is working. It will be closely monitored by my Department and the Housing Executive. I hope that more travellers will take up the offer of settled housing, as, indeed, normal families - or other families - do.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I find it incredible that the Minister for Social Development has just referred to non-travellers as "normal families". That is a disgraceful use of language. Given that there has been a lack of progress on the part of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in relation to taking on responsibility, and given that there may be an increase in the number of traveller families applying for housing, is there not still a need for sites? This is a well-established way of life, so we need to deal with the issue immediately.

Mr Morrow:

I am probably in a better position to comment in relation to travellers than the Member who has spoken. The last time she submitted herself to the electorate in respect of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, she was rejected. I have been there for some 27 years, and I am well aware of what the needs of the travelling people are and of what my council has done in relation to supplying those needs. I do not need any lectures from her whatsoever. She may feel that it is abnormal to say that they are not "normal families", but she should perhaps recall that I quickly corrected that. She should not try to make cheap, snide remarks. It would be far better if she tried to deal with people's problems.

Mr Shannon:

Can the Minister indicate the take-up amongst those from the travelling community in relation to Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenancies in council areas? Does he agree that it is desirable to set aside certain areas where there is a demand, rather than place a responsibility on every council in the Province to set aside land and housing, if necessary, for the travelling community?

Mr Morrow:

My Department will try to respond to need where it arises. We will not try to manufacture a need where it does not exist, which would be totally irresponsible. My Department's responsibility is to respond to demand in areas in which there is an obvious need. The Member is quite right - it would not be right to say that there must be a travelling site where there are no travellers. That would be ludicrous, and a bad use of public funds.

New TSN: Funding


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister for Social Development to detail those reviews which he has undertaken or is undertaking to build New TSN into funding formulae.

(AQO 1191/00)

Mr Morrow:

New TSN remains a high priority and is integral to the Department's approach to bringing about social, economic and physical regeneration and redressing disadvantage in cities, towns and villages. However, the Department for Social Development is not currently undertaking any specific reviews of New TSN-related funding formulae. Nevertheless, my Department, together with other Departments, is participating in a New TSN central research study, led by the Department of Finance and Personnel, which is reviewing the relevant funding formulae used by Departments.

Mr Dallat:

Although I am disappointed that no work has been done, I am pleased that there are some plans. Can the Minister provide details of how New TSN is to be built into the formulae?

Mr Morrow:

That is constantly under review, and I will write to the Member and tell him exactly how my Department proposes to tackle the issue. We have said repeatedly, and will say again, that New TSN is a priority for all Departments; therefore no aspect of it will be left out. I can assure Members that my Department will treat the matter seriously.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Will the Minister share with other Members the information that he intends to send to the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Dallat)? It is important information, and I hope that he will place it in the Library. Can he explain why his Department has not undertaken reviews to build New TSN into the funding formulae? The reasons will be of interest to the House.

Mr Morrow:

I am quite happy to make the information available by placing it in the Library or sending it to all Members. My Department has not undertaken any specific reviews because targeting social need is already an integral part of our normal approach to business. The Department complies fully with human rights and the statutory equality obligations imposed by section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It undertakes an assessment of any implications, including New TSN, when policy proposals are developed, subject to wide consultation. That assessment also accompanies policy proposals brought to the Assembly.

Minimum Income Guarantee (Pensioners)


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the action he is taking to encourage pensioners to apply for the minimum income guarantee.

(AQO 1175/00)

Mr Morrow:

As part of its targeting social need programme, the Social Security Agency is working in close partnership with groups representing pensioners on a range of measures to encourage the uptake of the minimum income guarantee (MIG). We have conducted a major publicity campaign to highlight the minimum income guarantee, including mailshots to potential customers and a television advertisement campaign. Pensioners can also complete an application for MIG on a free telephone line.

4.00 pm

The Social Security Agency is now also providing presentations to pensioners' groups, advertising through local newspapers and providing posters and leaflets to be displayed in areas that pensioners visit. Finally, the agency will be writing to pensioners who might now be entitled to the benefit due to the legislative changes from April 2001.

Mrs E Bell:

I thank the Minister for his very encouraging answer. It is estimated that over 500,000 elderly people across the UK are eligible for the benefit but are not claiming it. Will the Minister let us know what he and the agency are doing to overcome the complexity of the 44-page form? Can he ensure the House that the most vulnerable elderly people are in full receipt of the support they deserve?

Mr Morrow:

It is extremely important, especially when you are dealing with the elderly in society, that any form they are given to complete be simple to understand, self-explanatory and not intimidating in any way. I fully take the Member's point.

I take the opportunity to state that there has been a figure appearing in some of the press relating to an estimated 39,000 pensioners who are eligible. The figure is mythical. Seven thousand people have applied for the MIG in Northern Ireland. Of that number, an extra 4,000 people are receiving MIG. However, I want to make it quite clear that the figure of 39,000 is inaccurate.

Mr Carrick:

I listened carefully to the Minister's response. Does he agree that it was expected that there would be a greater take-up? Can he explain why there has been such a poor response when it was estimated that a "mythical" 39,000 pensioners were eligible?

Mr Morrow:

I welcome the question because, again, it gives me an opportunity to deal with this particular matter. Seventy-four thousand people already receive MIG. The additional 39,000 were only an initial and very early estimate of the number of pensioners who might - I emphasise the word "might" - be eligible.

The figure was based on information from one computer system, which does not hold details of other incomes pensioners might have, such as savings and occupational pensions, that would affect entitlement to MIG. Information sent to all 39,000 pensioners allowed them to decide if a claim was worth pursuing.

This is where the figure of 7,000 comes in. Seven thousand people have applied for MIG in Northern Ireland since the campaign began. The result has been that an extra 4,000 people are now receiving MIG. I hope that that clarifies the position. If not, I will be prepared to speak to any Member afterwards and to put it in writing.

Housing Executive Dwellings:
Kitchen/Bathroom Replacements


Sir John Gorman

asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of kitchen/bathroom replacements which will be carried out by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in the next financial year.

(AQO 1183/00)

Mr Morrow:

Single-element kitchen/bathroom replacement starts planned for 2001-02 have had to be deferred. However, there will be a carry-over programme from contracts let before 31 March 2001, resulting in 1,050 completions in 2001-02. In addition, 1,900 capital general improvement programmes are planned for 2001-02. Replacement of kitchens and bathrooms will be carried out as required as part of the general improvement programme.

Sir John Gorman:

I am sure the Minister will agree that that number, while a good attempt, is far below the level of need, as in so many of the housing requirements in the Province. Can the Minister tell the House whether the initiative taken by his Colleague, Mr Gregory Campbell, the Minister for Regional Development, is being followed by the Department for Social Development, bearing in mind that many hundreds of millions of pounds have been directed toward housing in the Province through PPP and PFI schemes in the past?

Mr Morrow:

I reassure the Member that there is no deviation at all from the housing programme, either in build or improvements. I want Sir John Gorman to be certain that my Department is vigorously pursuing the programme that it has set out. Therefore, there is no deviation from that programme. This year's Housing Executive budget of £160 million for improvements will enable it to deliver a robust improvement package.

Mr Tierney:

In the Minister's first answer to Sir John Gorman he mentioned that it was being deferred. Is it being deferred due to a lack of funds, and is the reason for that a cutback in the increase in the Housing Executive budget?

Mr Morrow:

I can only reiterate what I have already said. I know that some say that it is because there has not been the usual hike in Housing Executive rents that has happened every other year. I decided that Housing Executive tenants had been punished enough and that it was time to break that cycle of increases. I want to make it clear that I have no apology to make for breaking that cycle, and that I would do the same if I had to make the decision again. I know that the Member would be in complete agreement with that. The 3% increase that I imposed was the smallest increase for a decade. It was time to reward those hard-paying Housing Executive tenants; they should not be continually penalised.

There are arrears in Housing Executive rent. I am paying particular attention to that area, because I am firmly of the opinion that if everyone paid their share then the whole housing programme would continue unchallenged and Housing Executive rents would not have to be increased by more than the rate of inflation, as has happened in the past. [Interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Housing Executive Dwellings:
Heating Systems


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister for Social Development what budget has been allocated to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for the replacement of Economy 7 heating systems with gas or oil-fired central heating in the next financial year.

(AQO 1182/00)

Mr Morrow:

When the Housing Executive replaces room heaters in an estate, it takes the opportunity to replace any Economy 7 heating systems that are there. It is usually only a small number of dwellings. In addition, a dedicated programme of 500 starts to replace Economy 7 heating systems is being developed, but there is no finance available in 2001-02 to commence the programme. I intend to bid for money for this scheme at in-year monitoring rounds.

Mr Armstrong:

Given the level of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, does the Minister not regret his refusal to commit to the extermination of this problem? Does the Minister not realise that it is often those already in deepest poverty who are stuck with expensive electric heaters? Will he take the opportunity to state in the Chamber today that he will eradicate fuel poverty in five years?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Minister has 23 seconds in which to respond.

Mr Morrow:

I was of the opinion that I was tackling the problems that the Member raised. I assure him that I have not held back and have put all the resources that I possibly can at the Housing Executive's disposal. I have no doubt that when I finish my time as Minister the housing programme will be in much better shape and up to the Member's standards. Therefore, I assure him that the subject of his question is one of my top priorities. I will deal effectively with it.


(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Proceeds of Crime Bill: Ad Hoc Committee


Mr McGrady:

I beg to move

That this Assembly appoints an Ad Hoc Committee to consider the draft clauses for a Proceeds of Crime Bill referred by the Secretary of State and to submit a report to the Assembly by 28 May 2001.

Composition: UUP 2
SF 2
Other parties 3

Quorum: The quorum shall be five.

Procedure: The procedures of the Committee shall be such as the Committee shall determine.

This motion stands in my name and that of Dr McDonnell. It is being moved on behalf of the Business Committee representing the parties of the House and is to enable the Assembly to give an opinion on the Proceeds of Crime Bill referred by the Secretary of State. Standing Order 49(7) provides the mechanism whereby the Assembly can deal with this matter on an Ad Hoc Committee basis, which - according to Standing Orders - specifically time-bounds such a Committee.

I draw the Assembly's attention to the fact that the Committee would have to report by 28 May. That may be possible, but there is an Easter recess intervening. I mention this now, given that we may have to come back to the Assembly to ask for an extension of time. I hope that that will not be the case, but I am sure that the Assembly will bear with us if it becomes necessary.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly appoints an Ad Hoc Committee to consider the draft clauses for a Proceeds of Crime Bill referred by the Secretary of State and to submit a report to the Assembly by 28 May 2001.

Composition: UUP 2
SF 2
Other Parties 3

Quorum: The quorum shall be five.

Procedure: The procedures of the Committee shall be such as the Committee shall determine.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn.- [Mr Speaker]


Helicopter Rescue Service


Mr Wells:

Every time I rise to speak on the Adjournment, it seems to be a signal for the House to clear. I had the dubious distinction of recording the lowest number ever to attend a debate in the House - the debate on the Ballynahinch bypass. However, at least it enabled me to tell my local press that I was speaking to a hushed Assembly.

It looks like that is exactly what is going to happen this afternoon, which is unfortunate as this is an extremely important issue.

On the Order Paper the debate subject is listed as "The future of the helicopter rescue service in South Down." Because of the procedures of the House, the wording had to be specific to a constituency. However, this is a matter of concern not only to the people of South Down but to all who live in coastal areas in Northern Ireland. I am sure that Colleagues from constituencies such as Strangford, North Down and East Antrim will wish to join me in expressing their concern on this issue.

Before going into the substantive part of my contribution on this matter, it is vital that this Assembly establishes who exactly in Government is responsible for the search and rescue helicopter service. Mr Berry, the very hard-working Member for Newry and Armagh, wrote to Mr Adam Ingram about this matter on 13 February 2001, and it is important for me to quote from the reply he received:

"Dear Mr Berry,

Thank you for your letter dated 13 February regarding the removal of search and rescue helicopter facilities from Northern Ireland. As the matter is now the responsibility of the devolved administration, I have transferred your correspondence to Ms Bairbre de Brún, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety."

Therefore it would appear that the Northern Ireland Office believes that this is a matter for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. However, on 8 March, Miss Melarkey, the private secretary in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, replied to Mr Berry:

"Your letter of 13 February initially addressed to Mr Ingram was forwarded to Ms de Brún for reply. While the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety certainly deal with air ambulance matters, we have investigated the issue of Search and Rescue Helicopter Facilities and find that this service is a reserved matter and falls within the remit of Mr Ingram.

Ms de Brún is therefore unable to respond to your query, and your letter has been returned to Mr Ingram's office for consideration."

It appears that no one in the Northern Ireland Office or any other Department in the Administration knows who is responsible for helicopter rescue services.

4.15 pm

Since the 1970s the Province has had a helicopter search and rescue service provided by 72 Squadron based at Aldergrove, and it used Wessex helicopters. That service has participated in numerous rescues, particularly at sea and in the Mournes. Many injured trawlermen have been winched from the treacherous seas by this service, and I have had first-hand experience of such a rescue by Wessex helicopters in the Mournes.

I was walking in the Mournes in July 1998 when I came across a lady who had been injured. She had fallen and broken her ankle. Using my mobile phone I contacted the rescue service, and in a very short time a helicopter was despatched, and the lady was winched to safety. Had it not been for the presence of that service, the lady would have had to endure a long route through very rough terrain on a stretcher, and that would not have helped her condition. Therefore, many people have come to appreciate how important the helicopter rescue service is in Northern Ireland.

At the start of this year, when it was first mooted by the Ministry of Defence that the service would be withdrawn in 2002 and replaced by a service based in Prestwick, there was, quite rightly, a great deal of concern. The issue has united all the bodies affected. Ards Borough Council, Down District Council, the Mourne rescue team and Newry and Mourne District Council are united in their opposition to the change in the rescue services.

Hon Members may wonder why the helicopter rescue service is such an important issue and why replacing Wessex helicopters at Aldergrove with Sea King helicopters at Prestwick is causing so much concern. That concern can best be encapsulated by recounting an event that took place on the evening of Sunday 7 January 2001, when a Mayday signal was received from a Spanish trawler, FV Itxas, which was in difficult conditions of 25-foot waves in the Irish Sea. One of the crew, who had a heart condition, was experiencing severe chest pain. The Donaghadee lifeboat was launched, and the coastguard requested helicopter assistance. Normally assistance would have been provided by the Wessex helicopter based at Aldergrove, but it is not capable of winching injured people off boats at night. Therefore, the Prestwick service was contacted and asked to send a helicopter, but it refused to do so.

The reasons given for the failure to despatch a helicopter from Prestwick were twofold. First, the service made it clear that it did not wish to land on Northern Ireland soil, and, second, it would have taken Prestwick's Sea King helicopter up to 2·5 hours to reach the scene - 75 minutes outside the "golden hour". The "golden hour" is a set of targets included in the maritime and coastguard business plan for 2001. Those targets are as follows: if an emergency call is received during the day the helicopter must be capable of being dispatched within 15 minutes of the message being received and of arriving at the incident within one hour. That applies to incidents within 40 nautical miles of Prestwick. Those conditions have to be met during the day. At night the helicopter must be capable of being dispatched within 45 minutes of the message being received and of arriving within two hours at an incident within 100 nautical miles.

The response to the Donaghadee lifeboat's request was that the Sea King helicopter at Prestwick could not meet those targets, and it did not want to land on Northern Ireland soil. Fortunately, the coastguard was able to lift the sailor from the trawler and get him to hospital. Had that not been possible, a difficult situation would have arisen.

What happened on 7 January has given the coastal communities of south Down - indeed, all of Northern Ireland - an insight into what would happen if the Aldergrove service were withdrawn and replaced with the Prestwick one.

The air-sea rescue unit at Kinloss has denied that there was reluctance to land on Northern Irish soil, even though that was one of the reasons given on the night of 7 January. However, it admitted that it could not meet the standards, as it would have taken it two and a half hours to get to the incident in the Irish Sea. Many maritime communities in South Down, and further afield, are asking whether, if that was the case on 7 January, it will also be the case when the Aldergrove service is permanently withdrawn. Will fishing communities, climbers and those walking in the Mournes be left with no helicopter rescue service in Northern Ireland?

It has been said that if we do not avail of the Prestwick service, there are services based in Donegal and Dublin that can be used. I do not wish to make a political point, but it is important that we have control of our own service. Other incidents might arise in the Irish Republic at a time when the rescue service is required in Northern Ireland, and the Dublin authorities or those in Donegal will, quite rightly, give precedence to their own problems. Even if a Prestwick service could launch a rescue attempt in the "golden hour", priority would be given to incidents on the west coast of Scotland or northern England.

Following the incident on 7 January, Mr Cunningham, who is the leading figure in the coastguard service in Northern Ireland, said that the Prestwick service had refused to come to the assistance of a trawler in Northern Ireland on a previous occasion. He said that we could not consistently rely on Prestwick to respond to our requests. It would appear that we are losing the service in Aldergrove with absolutely no guarantee that the replacement service will meet the needs of the coastal communities of Northern Ireland. In the 'Mourne Observer' of 31 January, the Mourne rescue service expressed the fear that people could die if the service were removed. It is unacceptable that, having enjoyed this service for 30 years, people could be left in life-and-death situations without a rescue service.

There are those who argue that the Wessex helicopters are past their sell-by date. To a large extent that is true, but the solution is not to withdraw the service completely. The solution is to upgrade the Aldergrove service with new helicopters that will enable it to continue providing the excellent service that it has given for the past 30 years.

There are those who say that we cannot afford this service. However, I would have thought that the Ministry of Defence's budget could easily have covered it. With the present situation in Northern Ireland, it could be argued that large-scale savings have been made in the Ministry of Defence's budget due to the deployment of fewer troops in the Province. Some of that additional windfall could be used to fund this service. We face a difficult and confusing time in the year 2002. We need a commitment from the Ministry of Defence. The coastal communities of Northern Ireland require a proper rescue service. Northern Ireland will be the only part of the United Kingdom without this service, and something must be done before it becomes a fait accompli.

In addition to the admirable campaign that has been launched by the district councils, I propose that a petition be drawn up and signed by the South Down community and sent to whoever is responsible to urge them to maintain this service. We do not yet know who is responsible. This issue unites the entire community in South Down and further afield. I do not want to see a situation arising in a year's time where a Kilkeel-based trawler is in great difficulty in the Irish Sea and lives are being lost or people being seriously injured due to the lack of this service. It is a vital service to the community and it must be maintained.

Tomorrow we will be debating the plight of the white-fish trawlermen in Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie. The fishing industry is having a dreadful time at present as a result of the cod recovery plan and the ban on fishing in almost all normal fishing waters until the end of April. The last thing the sea fishing industry in Northern Ireland needs is to have grave doubt placed on the entire future of the rescue service on which it has depended for 30 years.

We need to get the matter settled before the final decision is made in 2002. I am certain that I can rely upon Members to join the campaign to ensure that in 5, 10 or 15 years' time anyone out on the high seas earning a living or climbing or walking in the Mournes can be confident that if the worst happens, there will be a quick and efficient rescue service that can save lives.


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