Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 2 April 2001 (continued)

Toome Bypass


Mr McLaughlin

asked the Minister for Regional Development to give an update on the proposed Toome bypass project following his recent announcement that the sale of Belfast harbour will not proceed.

(AQO 1211/00)

Mr Campbell:

My Department's Roads Service is continuing to make good progress on the Toome bypass scheme. In particular, both the environmental assessment and planning stages of the scheme have been completed. One objection has been received to the notice of intention to make a vesting order, which was advertised in February 2001. The Roads Service is seeking to resolve this objection with the relevant landowner. A geotechnical contractor has completed approximately 70% of the ground investigations on the site. We have appointed Ove Arup & Partners, who are consultants of international standing, as project managers for the scheme. Contractors have been invited to apply for inclusion in a restricted list of contractors who will be asked to tender for the design and construct contract.

My decision not to proceed with the sale of the port of Belfast will not directly impact on this scheme. With regard to funding, the indicative allocations made available to my Department are not sufficient to fund all of the schemes in the major works preparation pool. I have, however, made very strong bids to the Executive programme funds for the Toome bypass and other schemes. I am hopeful that I shall be successful with these bids.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for the comprehensive detail in his reply. However, I was hoping that he would indicate what impact the decision about the Belfast harbour estate has had on the prioritisation of projects. We have already heard reference in earlier questions to other very worthy and relevant projects. We would like reassurance that the Toome bypass project will continue to receive top priority.

Mr Campbell:

The issue of the possible sale of the Port of Belfast has been in the public domain for a number of years. I understand that in the year 1999-2000, public expenditure in Northern Ireland was planned on the basis of a £70 million receipt from the sale of the port. As it did not sell, the impact was borne in that year by reducing expenditure across Northern Ireland programmes generally. Expenditure plans for future years, which have been approved by the Assembly, include most of the funding for the Chancellor's initiative schemes, including the Toome bypass, and do not depend on any such receipt.

Mr Kane:

If the Minister is successful in obtaining funding for several schemes in the major works preparation pool, when will he be in a position to make announcements about other schemes in the pool?

Mr Campbell:

I thank the Member for his question, which is almost predicated upon positive news. I hope for positive news.

I cannot predict events, but, if I am successful, I hope to develop schemes that have been debated at Question Time, during Adjournment debates and in correspondence with Members and MPs. Sometimes MPs do not correspond with me to make requests, but raise issues through the media - more of that later. If there is a response, I hope to move very quickly on several schemes.

3.30 pm

Rev Robert Coulter:

Has the Minister considered the possibility of a private finance initiative, namely a toll system, for the Toome bypass? Since there is an alternative route for those who do not wish to pay a toll, does he agree that this is an ideal opportunity to test such proposals?

Mr Campbell:

I agree that in the foreseeable future there will be opportunities for the private sector to play a role in major infrastructural investments in Northern Ireland. The Member will be aware that in the past three weeks I paid a visit to the eastern seaboard of the United States where I investigated that very possibility. I hope that it will not be necessary to choose this option for the Toome bypass and that I will be in a position to announce that we are proceeding with this scheme. We could then examine the possibility of private sector finance for other much needed schemes in Northern Ireland.


The Environment

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Question 3, standing in the name of Mr Arthur Doherty, has been transferred to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and a written response will be given. Question 8, in the name of Mr Close, has been transferred to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and he will receive a written answer. Question 18, in the name of Mr Byrne, will also be responded to in writing; it has been transferred to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Irish Hare


Mr Poots

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail his proposals to provide greater protection for the Irish hare.

(AQO 1210/00)

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

In October 2000 I launched a species action plan for the Irish hare. The action plan will be implemented by a partnership, which will include the Ulster Wildlife Trust, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and my Department's Environment and Heritage Service. The plan deals with the decline, over the past three decades, in the number of hares in Northern Ireland. The action points in the plan includes the completion of a repeat survey of hares. The Environment and Heritage Service will commission this work once the current restrictions caused by the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak have been lifted. When I have assessed the repeat survey and the impact of the other three measures in the species action plan, I will consider what further steps, if any, need to be taken.

Mr Poots:

Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland that the catching of hares, an endangered species, still takes place? Hares are taken to contained sites, chased by greyhounds that happen to have muzzles on them, and are not necessarily returned to the places from where they were caught in the first instance. Given that the Department is granting licences for this practice, the hare population is continuing to decrease.

Mr Foster:

My Department has powers under the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1951 to issue permits to capture hares from the wild for hare coursing. Recent legal advice has confirmed that the Department might be acting unlawfully if it were to adopt a blanket policy of not granting these permits. The repeat survey and assessment of other protection measures will create an opportunity to re-examine this matter.

In the meantime, I recognise that issuing permits to take hares for coursing is often perceived to be inconsistent with the action plan. Therefore, although this other work is under way, I will ask officials to re-examine the evidence to determine the impact of netting hares on that animal's conservation status.

Tree Preservation Orders


Mr Wells

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail (a) the number of requests made to the Planning Service in the past five years to apply tree preservation orders to protect trees under threat and (b) the number of tree preservation orders made in that period.

(AQO 1198/00)

Mr Foster:

My Department does not maintain central records of such requests. The Planning Service's headquarters is responsible for processing tree preservation orders to protect trees under threat. However, these originate mainly as a result of a recommendation from divisional planning offices, and I am advised by officials that the majority of these requests are made without any prompting from the public. Over the past five years the Planning Service's headquarters has received 98 recommendations for orders to be made. A total of 68 orders were made during this period.

Mr Wells:

Does the Minister accept that urgent action must be taken to protect trees, particularly in urban areas? The public is fed up with the devastation caused by property developers who move in, cut down trees and then lodge their planning applications. Unless something is done soon, many of the best examples of urban forestry and single trees throughout this Province will be destroyed. It is time that the Minister's Department took action.

Mr Foster:

This question is important and has been asked on many occasions. As I previously reported to the Assembly, I am aware of weaknesses in the legislation, and I am considering a range of proposals for strengthening it. These proposals were originally contained in the consultation paper issued by my Department on changes to planning legislation in general. They included increases in fines and the automatic replacement of protected trees which had been removed or destroyed without consent. As a result of representations made to me on this subject I have also asked officials to consider whether further changes are needed. I hope to introduce this legislation by way of a planning amendment Bill in the next session of the Assembly.

Mr A Doherty:

The percentage figures quoted for tree and woodland cover in Northern Ireland are appallingly low. Does the Minister agree that this unsatisfactory situation will not be reversed solely by more stringent conservation or preservation measures?

On the contrary, a more proactive approach must be adopted. Will the Minister assure us that his Department and other relevant Departments will jointly promote a vigorous campaign of woodland development? This campaign must include reasonable and adequate compensation or incentives to farmers and other landowners.

Mr Foster:

I can assure Mr Doherty that we are very much aware of the lack of tree cover in Northern Ireland. We are thinking in terms of preservation, as that is very important. The possible cost to the Department in compensation paid in respect of a tree preservation order is also a material consideration which my Department will take into account before making an order. It is important that a balance is struck between the interests of tree protection and the interests of taxpayers. My officials will be reviewing the compensation provisions in the forthcoming planning amendment Bill.

Mr Armstrong:

Can the Minister advise of the specialist circumstances in which a tree preservation order is issued? Is the Minister satisfied that the current enforcement powers are adequate? If not, will he consider improvements to those powers to ensure that our trees enjoy the best possible protection, especially in urban areas such as Newtownabbey?

Mr Foster:

We are concerned about the lack of tree cover and the preservation of trees. My Department has a statutory duty in relation to trees. Where it is considered expedient to do so, the Planning Service may place a tree preservation order on trees because of their amenity value.

Articles 64 and 65 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 give the Department discretionary powers to make tree preservation orders for a number of purposes including that of the protection of woodland areas.

A tree preservation order simply prohibits the cutting down, topping or lopping of any protected trees without the Department's consent. My Department may not decide to apply a tree preservation order if the health and condition of the trees do not merit their protection; if they are not considered to make a significant contribution to the amenity of an area; or if the trees considered to be under threat can be adequately protected by conditions attached to a planning approval.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In relation to urban areas, is there an impact, perhaps for other Departments, for buildings close to trees, preserved trees in particular instances, and parks where there is concreting close to trees? Is there another way around orders to remove trees from the immediate area?

Mr Foster:

Again cognisance is taken of where trees are situated. The objective of a tree preservation order is to retain and protect the character of an area in which woodlands, individual trees and groups of trees contribute to the visual amenity. They are also used to retain and protect the existing structure and diversity of woodlands, particularly where they offer protection to wildlife habitats, and to inform new development proposals that may have an impact on areas protected by an order.

Pollution (Larne Lough)


Mr Beggs

asked the Minister of the Environment if he has expressed his concern to the Department for Regional Development regarding the pollution that is being caused in Larne Lough as a result of continuing developments in the Islandmagee, Ballycarry and Whitehead areas, where the existing sewage treatment works is overloaded.

(AQO 1233/00)

Mr Foster:

Officials from the Environment and Heritage Service of my Department have been in discussions with the Water Service of the Department for Regional Development about the sewerage infrastructure serving the Islandmagee area. In particular, concerns have been expressed about discharges from the Ballystrudder waste water treatment works. I understand that the Water Service has hired consultants to report on the future provision of sewage treatment for the Islandmagee area.

Pending completion of that report, the Water Service plans to deal with the primary sewage at Ballystrudder by pumping it to the Ballycarry works for secondary treatment. Effluent from the Whitehead area is discharged into the Irish Sea rather than into Larne Lough. The treatment works at Ballycarry performs well and is not considered to be overloaded. The Environment and Heritage Service will seek to ensure through the planning consultation process, and through the regulation of discharges from the Water Service's waste water treatment works, that future development does not proceed in the absence of an appropriate infrastructure. The Water Service is consulted about the water and sewerage aspects of relevant planning applications.

Mr Beggs:

The Minister will be aware that Larne Lough is an area of special scientific interest and that Swan Island in particular is a special protection area. Does he accept, given those designations, that every effort should be made to ensure that the facilities to deal with sewage are adequate to prevent pollution? Will he make a statement on the current water quality in Larne Lough, a tidal lough with a restricted movement of waters in and out.

Mr Foster:

We are very concerned about the quality of waters wherever they may be. However, as far as Larne Lough is concerned, the Environment and Heritage Service is currently classifying waters under the Northern Ireland estuarine and coastal waters classification scheme.

That work is not complete, so a definitive assessment of the water quality in Larne Lough cannot be given at this time. However, last year's data from the estuarine and coastal waters monitoring programme demonstrates that Larne Lough meets at least the mandatory bacteriological standards of the EU's Bathing Water Directive. That provides an indication of the water quality, although I emphasise that Larne Lough is not a designated bathing water site.

Road Accidents


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of the Environment to state how his recent promotional campaign to reduce death on the roads is being assessed and what plans he has to reinforce the message that speeding is the no.1 cause of accidents, particularly among young people.

(AQO 1238/00)

Mr Foster:

My Department's road safety promotion campaigns seek to encourage positive road user attitudes and behaviour. The campaigns' effectiveness is measured by monitoring the extent to which targeted road users are aware of the publicity and the impact that that has on their attitudes.

3.45 pm

This has been a sad weekend, with five deaths on our roads. A fortnight ago there were five deaths and, despite the fact that we preach and advertise consistently, this regrettable occurrence still happens. I extend the sympathy of everyone in the House to all those who have been bereaved in such tragic circumstances. It is very sad to get word that a loved one has been killed in a road accident; the "valley of tears" is a very lonesome place.

Independent research is carried out before and after each publicity campaign is launched and during its lifetime to ensure that it remains effective in changing attitudes. Excessive speed remains the principal cause of death and serious injuries, particularly among young people. My Department, the RUC and the Department for Regional Development will continue to address the problem of speeding through a combination of education, enforcement and engineering.

My Department will continue to aim the anti-speeding message at young, inexperienced drivers in particular through its ongoing publicity campaign "Slow down, boys", a new road safety web site and new initiatives made possible by the increased number of road safety education officers. The RUC will also go to schools throughout Northern Ireland with a recently piloted, anti-speeding roadshow aimed at sixth formers.

Mr Dallat:

The entire House concurs with the sentiments expressed by the Minister. We offer our sympathy to those families who have been bereaved. We are grateful to the Minister for the special interest that he has taken in this subject, and we wonder how much worse it might have been had he not orchestrated this high-profile campaign. However, can the Minister tell us that all measures humanly possible are being taken to understand and to end the appalling tragedies on our roads?

Mr Foster:

We are keen to do what we can, where we can, whenever we can to ensure an end to road deaths, injuries and collisions. I assure Members that we are working on this very difficult problem. A road safety consultation document is now being circulated to focus public attention afresh on road safety. This significant theme cuts across several Departments.

Attitudes may have changed a little bit. Excessive speed is the cause of many collisions and is therefore a big issue for my Department. We are getting our message through, though perhaps not quickly enough. Research carried out after the launch in 1999 of the anti-speeding campaign "Thump" showed that nearly half of all drivers and more than 40% of 17- to 24-year-olds surveyed indicated that they had changed their driving behaviour as a result of the commercial. Fifty per cent of 17- to 24-year-old male drivers said that speeding is never a risk worth taking. That was an increase of five percentage points from the pre-campaign survey. Thirty-two per cent of 17- to 24-year-old male drivers claimed that they personally could not exceed the speed limit at all on country roads while driving safely. That was an increase of nine percentage points from the pre-campaign survey. This shows that progress is being made. However, there is still much to do.

Mr Shannon:

How does the Minister envisage enforcement of the campaign to reduce deaths on the roads in terms of manpower, financial resources and man-hours, which will be reduced according to the recommendations of the Patten Report? In the Ards borough last year there were 60,000 man-hours available for policing, yet this year there will only be 32,000. How can the Minister expect the delivery of a campaign when the number of man-hours is being cut so dramatically?

Mr Foster:

I accept that the RUC is under strength at this time. I have always maintained that even though there are cameras around - and perhaps there are not enough of them yet - the best deterrent is the hands-on approach. I am sure this applies to all of us when our driving is not as good as it should be and we see a police car around. The hands-on approach makes us come to terms with driving and encourages us to drive decently, respectably and responsibly. I accept Mr Shannon's point, and I intend to speak to the Chief Constable on this matter.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasChann Comhairle. I concur with the Minister's expression of sympathy to all those who have been bereaved due to road accidents this weekend. I pay tribute to the Minister's efforts to address this ongoing and terrible problem.

The promotional campaign and advertisements on this matter can certainly be described as shock tactics. Has the Minister examined the issue of signage such as that currently used in the Republic of Ireland as a consciousness-raising deterrent to speeding? It seems that that does have some measure of success in the road accident statistics in the South of Ireland.

Mr Foster:

We will certainly take steps to examine anything that we deem necessary to improve the roads situation. We will take any offers that will help us in that regard. As far as the Republic of Ireland is concerned, the road death rate there is very high. I have spoken to Mr Noel Dempsey, and he is not at all satisfied with it either. However, we will take steps to do anything, on either side of the two jurisdictions, to help each other on this matter.

Driver and Vehicle Licensing Fraud


Mr Paisley Jnr

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the steps being taken by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to combat fraud.

(AQO 1193/00)

Mr Foster:

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland (DVLNI) has a comprehensive range of anti-fraud measures in place in specific areas of the agency's business. Measures include identity checking for driving licences, a number of security features on the new photo card driving licences, ownership and compliance checks for transport operator licences, identity checks for taxi, PSV, and transport operator licences, insurance and MOT compliance checks for vehicle registration and licensing. Roadside checks and wheel clamping to deter vehicle excise duty evasion are in place.

There are links with Interpol and others to ensure that imported vehicles have not been stolen or written off. There are also close links with the RUC, other police forces, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and other Government Departments and agencies to prevent vehicle-related fraud.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am sure that the Minister is alarmed by the extent of driver and vehicle licensing fraud in Northern Ireland. I understand that it is around 10% for ordinary car vehicles, amounting to around £11 million lost to the economy a year. Can the Minister confirm the areas of the Province where such fraud exists and at what levels? Can he tell us where it is most prominent?

Furthermore, has the Minister met with the RUC about the level of fraud? If he has not, will he give us an undertaking that he would be prepared to meet with them to discuss additional measures that they could take by way of a task team to tackle this disgraceful level of fraud in our country?

Mr Foster:

As I said earlier, we will take steps where we can to assist us in what we can do to ensure that everything is clean and above board. At this time I have no details as to where the greatest level of fraud is taking place, but if I can find out, I will certainly give him a written answer.

The most recent survey of vehicle excise duty evasion shows a 10% evasion rate in Northern Ireland, compared to 3% in Great Britain. Evasion in Northern Ireland represents a loss of some £12 million to the UK Exchequer.

The DVLNI works closely with the RUC - the primary detection authority. The agency also has responsibility for payment of penalties, fines and for prosecuting cases in court. In the current year, 1 April to 28 February, 12,000 penalties have been paid, and there were 1,849 prosecutions. The revenue collected as a result is nearly £1·6 million.

Since the introduction of wheel clamping in 1998, 2,000 vehicles have been clamped, 300 have been scrapped and 11 have been auctioned. DVLNI has plans to introduce statutory off-the-road notification and automatic number-plate-reading cameras to combat vehicle excise duty evasion.

We are examining the problem. It is not escaping our eye, and cognisance is being taken of it all.

Mr Kennedy:

Has the Department of the Environment given consideration to means of combating the growing problem of importation fraud, which involves new cars being imported into Northern Ireland?

Mr Foster:

A certificate of conformity must be produced for all new cars imported into Northern Ireland. The certificate proves that the vehicle meets European and British safety standards. The only exception to that is personally imported cars. To qualify for personal import status, the importer must produce evidence that he has been in a foreign country and has driven the vehicle abroad and that the vehicle is intended for his personal use.

A percentage of imported vehicles are checked via the Interpol link to ensure that they are not stolen. The agency also checks vehicle details on an electronic link with vehicle databases in Great Britain and the Netherlands. The European car and drivers information system highlights vehicles that are involved in fraud. It will be developed further in the future to include other European countries.

Road Safety Officers


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of the Environment to make a statement on the appointment of road safety officers.

(AQO 1218/00)

Mr Foster:

In July 2000 I announced plans to increase the number of road safety education officers from 11 to 21. The number of officers had been reduced from 16 in 1991. Over 330 applications were received for these posts, and consequently the selection process has been protracted. Interviews are taking place, and I expect the successful candidates to be appointed by the end of the month.

The appointment of additional staff is important and will allow for the enhancement of a range of road safety activities next year. This will include a 25% increase in the number of visits to schools, with substantially increased support for teachers and participation in courses for drink drivers, which are being extended across Northern Ireland. New initiatives will be introduced, including a driver improvement course, practical child pedestrian safety training at the roadside and a new scheme for monitoring the fitting of child safety belts.

Mr Ford:

I join the Minister and others in expressing my sympathy for those who have suffered as a result of road accidents this weekend. I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply, although it is worrying that we still do not have the additional road safety officers we were promised last July.

There seems to be a particular difficulty with car crashes involving young drivers at weekends, and speed is the major part of the problem. Considering that, is there not a need for a more imaginative campaign about that and some of the other issues that he has highlighted, directed at young drivers?

Mr Foster:

We will take all measures that are reasonable, legal and rational to prevent so many collisions, accidents, injuries and deaths on the roads.

There were 330 applications for the road safety education officer positions, and they do take a long time to process. The selection process has been protracted because of the high standard of the applications and the fact that so many of the candidates met the selection criteria. Procedures for recruitment and promotion are established centrally and, in the interests of equality of opportunity, must be faithfully adhered to.

We will take all action that we can to ensure that there are fewer deaths on the road, fewer collisions and fewer injuries.

Planning Applications (Strangford)


Mrs I Robinson

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the backlog in planning applications that impact upon the parliamentary constituency of Strangford.

(AQO 1225/00)

Mr Foster:

My Department does not hold information about planning applications on a constituency basis. However, I can provide the Member with figures for the district council areas of Ards, Down and Castlereagh, which are wholly or partly in the Strangford constituency. At the end of February, the number of planning applications that were more than two and a half months old were 327 in Ards, 204 in Down, and 106 in Castlereagh. That is a total figure of 637.

Mrs I Robinson:

Will the Minister concede that the backlog is having a detrimental impact? What steps is he taking to resolve the unacceptable delay in processing these major applications? Does he accept that all such delays only serve to inflate house prices in the Strangford constituency?

4.00 pm

Mr Foster:

We are endeavouring to reduce the backlog as much as possible. In the districts mentioned in my answer the total figure of 637 represents an increase of 114, or 22%, on the figure of 523 at the end of March 2000.

The backlog in the Castlereagh district had fallen by 17·5% by the end of February. Unfortunately the backlogs in the Ards and Down districts had gone up by 55% and 11% respectively. Both districts are in the Downpatrick division of the Planning Service; that district has been particularly affected by staff shortages. I visited the Downpatrick office recently. It is under strength and needs some help because it is overworked. Staff shortages are being addressed, and I expect to see an improvement as the year progresses.

On the positive side, we have reduced the backlog by 9%. That has been achieved against an increase of 5% in the total number of applications received. I am optimistic that we will meet the target of eliminating the backlog by the end of 2002.

Mr McCarthy:

I wish to speak about ordinary applications. Does the Minister agree that it is totally disgraceful and unacceptable that a local council approves an application in December 2000 and yet four months later that application has not been processed and passed as approved to the applicant?

Mr Foster:

I accept what the Member has said, and I thank him for the point that he made. It is not acceptable, but it is not the case that people are doing nothing. If the Member can give me specific cases I will gladly look into them.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)


Executive Programme Funds: First Allocations


Madam Deputy Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on first allocations from the Executive programme funds.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I will make a statement on behalf of the Executive on the first set of allocations from the Executive programme funds. I will also touch on the outcome of the final routine public expenditure monitoring round for the financial year that has just ended.

The Assembly will recall that a key innovation in our first Programme for Government and Budget was the creation of Executive programme funds. Our aim was to assist the development of new policies and programmes and new improved services as well as directing spending to new strategic infrastructure projects. By marshalling our resources in that way we are determined to support our agreed priorities and we can break away from the patterns of spending that applied under the period of direct rule and see - more and more - the difference that devolution involving local politicians working together can make.

We are all aware that the problems that our constituents face can only be addressed by close co-operation between Departments and by us finding local solutions to local problems. These funds are a key instrument in promoting co-operation between Departments and making them address multi-dimensional issues in a cross-cutting way. That is how we will ensure that our focus is on those whom we are trying to help and what we are trying to achieve and not on those responsible for delivery or management.

We established five Executive programme funds to achieve that change: the social inclusion and community regeneration fund, the new directions fund, the infrastructure and capital renewal fund, the service modernisation fund and the children's fund. In total we have made resources amounting to £372 million available for these funds over the next three years.

This includes the amounts originally announced in October, which we have since supplemented when possible, most recently by adding £10 million from the February monitoring round, which I will come to later.

The Executive regard these funds as a major means to support and promote the priorities of this Administration. At the same time the Executive recognise that the creation of the funds signals a new way of working together that will take time to mature. We decided therefore to have two rounds of allocations on the funds this year. This will allow time for experience to be gained in operating the funds without committing all the resources available immediately. It will also make time for potentially very valuable proposals to be properly developed and considered at a later stage.

However, in the case of the infrastructure and capital renewal fund, it is necessary to commit resources in good time to permit investment to proceed. This means that, by and large, only a single and early allocation is feasible each year. This is reflected in my announcement today.

The purposes for the funds were set out fully in the Programme for Government and Budget documents in the autumn. The criteria we adopted to guide the processes of bidding and selection have recently been issued to the Assembly Committees. Bids were sought in January on the basis of clear guidelines to Departments describing the principles underlying the funds and including both the general criteria applicable to bids for any fund and the more specific points covering each fund separately. In total, Departments lodged 139 bids across the five funds totalling £581 million over three years, more than the total resources available in the funds, and well in excess of the amounts we intended to allocate in the first round.

All bids have been scrutinised carefully and measured against the criteria for the funds by the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Economic Policy Unit and the Equality Unit working closely with all the Departments. Among other things, an assessment was made of the consistency of the proposals with the principles of New TSN and the statutory equality duty under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Executive have been able to draw on this analysis in considering all the bids.

For the first tranche of allocations from the Executive programme funds in the 2001-02 financial year, the Executive consider that 62 proposals should be supported across the five funds. In total, this support would amount to £146 million over the next three years. In addition, the proposals announced last week by the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment will be funded from the new directions fund. A full list of the allocations has been circulated to Members, along with a copy of my statement.

Before going into the details of the allocation to each fund, I would like to give Members an overview of what we are aiming to achieve in the first tranche in strengthening the implementation of the priorities in the Programme for Government.

The priorities which we adopted in the Programme for Government were: "Growing as a community", "Working for a healthier people", "Investing in education and schools", "Securing a competitive economy" and "Development North/South, east/west and international relations". When the Assembly commented on the draft programme, Members gave a strong emphasis on the needs of young people, a theme that is found in our first three priorities. It was in the light of such views that we placed greater emphasis on children in the revised programme which the Assembly endorsed last month and committed ourselves to a new children's strategy.

This focus on the needs of young people is central to my announcements today, with over one third of the projects focused on the young. This is clearly the case in the specific bids on the children's fund, but there are many other bids, under three other funds, that will make a major difference to the future of young people. A key aim is to protect the vulnerable and ensure that education is open to all, including those who might otherwise fall out of education.

The second main area on which we are making a major focus is improved health and improved health services. That is central to our overall priority of working for a healthier people. A quarter of our Executive programme fund projects are in this area. We will invest in healthier communities. A key part of our public health strategy is seeking to focus much more on the prevention of ill health. We will also start to develop hospital accommodation and use new technology and projects to improve the quality of service.


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