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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 3 April 2001 (continued)

Ms McWilliams:

I commend Billy Hutchinson and Dara O'Hagan for bringing this motion today. I support it. I did not have to come into the Chamber to change my mind, but in relation to what Esmond Birnie said, there are a number of myths that I would like to knock on the head. Contrary to his view, the national minimum wage has not caused and will not cause a reduction in employment. All the research on the national minimum wage points to the fact that the vast majority of firms have found it affordable. Dr Birnie needs to take that on board.

Secondly, it has not caused an inflationary hike in earnings or had a knock-on effect further up the pay structures.

Dr Birnie:

I agree with the Member that those conclusions have been reached. However, they relate to the rate of £3·70 per hour, which will go up to £4·10 per hour. They do not apply to the rate of £5 per hour.

Ms McWilliams:

Being a good economist, Dr Birnie should surely know that those who carried out the research have also done the forecasting. They pointed out that the national minimum wage would not cause an inflationary hike in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. On the contrary, the research argues that it benefits employers.

When the Hastings Hotel Group's representative provided evidence on the tourism industry to the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee last week, I asked him about the impact of the national minimum wage on his industry. He said that it was good for the industry to have a national minimum wage. If workers are paid less than this, they are poached and move from one hotel to the other. An employer who can prove that he or she is paying good wages - with good training that leads to decent skills and qualifications - will earn loyalty and hold on to workers. That system can only be useful for the tourism industry. Those are the words of an employer.

Mr Hutchinson pointed out that for too long Northern Ireland and its tourist industry have been known for low wages. This is an indictment of that industry, and we must set a national minimum wage based on realistic living costs in Northern Ireland. It was with this in mind that the Trades Union Congress set a target of £5 per hour for collective bargaining at its 1999 conference. The UK Low Pay Commission settled on this rate also.

Unfortunately, a side effect of the national minimum wage is that certain workers have been told that they are no longer allowed to keep tips. We must have regard to this. In the past those workers have been able to supplement meagre wages by tips from customers. I take pleasure in the fact that, unlike America, we have not gone down that road and here you get what you pay for. Setting wages and reassuring customers that employees are actually getting those wages prevents us from wondering what kind of tips we should be handing out and from treating workers like servants.

Who are the low-paid? They are usually people in the private sector rather than in the public sector, although the Assembly should take a look at the staff from contract agencies who work here and who do not get £5 per hour. Members have queried this. Nevertheless, the proportion of contract agency staff in the Assembly has gone up rather than down. We may need to look at our own House in the public sector before criticising the private sector. However, more often it is the private sector that is not paying the minimum wage.

The low-paid are more often manual workers than non-manual; part-time rather than full-time; and women rather than men. It is also a problem for young people, and the motion addresses this issue as it has been the crux of the problem in the past.

It is inconsistent with legislation to talk about equal work of equal value and then talk about age differentials. Pay should be based on skills and qualifications, not on age. If an individual has the necessary skills and qualifications or is in training, work and pay should follow accordingly. Therefore, on the basis of fairness alone, we should not allow such differentials to enter the equation. That would create a labour-market distortion, and historically younger workers have been seen as a cheap form of labour.

Those are some of my arguments for the creation of a national minimum wage of £5 per hour.

Mr Cobain:

I have listened to people talk about statistics for most of the day, but any economy has the right to pay people a minimum wage. This question involves both moral and economic issues.

There was a lot of resistance to the minimum wage being set. We are now seeing this resistance with respect to how much should be paid as the minimum wage, and that is the next hurdle we will have to jump. Those who have argued against the minimum wage have lost that argument, so the next argument will be to restrict the minimum wage as we go along. These are the arguments that some people are continuing to make.

The same arguments were made regarding a reduction in the number of hours worked. It was said that the economy could not sustain a reduction in working hours, an increase in holidays, and that it could not cater for women. All those arguments have been made before and the economy has proven itself stronger than most expected.

Unemployment in the United Kingdom is at its lowest level for 40 or 50 years. This does not mean that there is not a correlation between wages and unemployment. However, it is not the direct correlation that some are trying to make. Some people in my party have been unable to get over the fact that we have stopped putting children up chimneys in the last hundred years. There are issues that the Assembly must address. The Assembly cannot deal with the matter directly, but there are issues, such as those that Mr Hutchinson raised, that the Assembly could have a direct impact on.

Moving on to the issue of poverty, we cannot have this silo effect where we deal with wages and simply forget about the rest of the issues. During the debate on the Executive programme funds the Department for Social Development, which deals directly with people who are living in poverty, received less than 1% of the £146 million that was allocated by the Assembly. Issues that directly related to poverty were excluded.

People come here and they like to make brief, media- catching statements, which really do not mean anything. The vast majority of Members are - cross my fingers - left of centre, and the people should be benefiting from radical new ideas agreed and put into place by the Assembly. That is not happening. There are people here who have never suffered from poverty and do not look at poverty as a whole. Many of us have experienced poverty, but there are people here who have no perception of what it is like. I listen to arguments about whether the minimum wage should be £4, £4·20, or £4·30. Many of us are angered when we listen to arguments like this, especially when they come from professional people who have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths and have been helped throughout their life. These are the ones who claim that 20p an hour may have an impact on the economy.

My point is that if we are concerned about people living in poverty then the minimum wage is only one aspect. There are people living in Housing Executive homes who will be unable to have their bathrooms and kitchens replaced this year because the Assembly voted to restrict the amount of money that will be spent on that. People are dying of hypothermia because the Assembly refused to provide money for fuel poverty. In the education field, there are second and third generations who are suffering from numeracy and literacy difficulties and we have not provided money for that. I could go on for the next 25 minutes about what the Assembly could have done and yet did not do.

Many of us are deeply concerned about poverty. It is a cross-party matter. However, there are people here who are using this debate. They are hypocrites, because when it comes to issues directly related to poverty, they will refuse to vote for issues because it will, in some cases, embarrass their Ministers and Departments.

Ms Hanna:

I support the principle of a minimum wage, which can and will be negotiated upwards, perhaps even higher than £5. I am no economist but I believe that the argument regarding a minimum wage having a negative impact on employment can no longer be substantiated.

4.00 pm

We have to give people a decent wage for a decent day's work. A minimum wage will go some way towards enabling those caught in the poverty trap of low-paid jobs and benefits to take up the challenge of a job - especially women, who fill three quarters of the low- paid jobs - and towards eradicating the exploitation of workers. It is a tool to tackle inequality by increasing the wages of the lowest paid. It is unfortunate that the under-18s have no set minimum wage; this might reflect their youth, and lack of training, but a fixed minimum wage would give young people some protection from exploitation.

The gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, is increasing. The Low Pay Unit estimates that over three million households in the UK live in poverty, despite the fact that at least one member of each is in paid employment. UNICEF has ranked the UK as being in the bottom four of its league table of child poverty in rich nations. One in three children in Northern Ireland lives in poverty. Women who work full-time are still paid only 80% of their male colleagues' earnings, and part-time female workers receive even less.

The repercussions of these fundamental inequalities spread through every aspect of society - from education and housing to basic ill health which, for many people, is inextricably linked to poverty. To improve the health of the population, it is essential to reduce these inequalities and improve the living standards of poor households.

A higher minimum wage would have further benefits - increased productivity brought about by better staff morale, a lower turnover of workers and reduced spending on benefits. Furthermore, businesses would be encouraged to invest in training. It is essential that a focus on the training of employees is an integral part of changes to the minimum wage. We need to ensure that people are trained to their highest capability and that they are given the opportunities and incentives to further their education, qualifications and careers.

We have a Department for Employment and Learning and we are all much more conscious of the need for training for life and employment. We must ensure that children who leave school can look forward to work, not the dole. Our consultation on the future of selection at 11 is very timely. If we replace selection at 11 - and I hope we will - we must replace it with a system in which all our children leave the education system with good education and job skills. We need to match the job skills to the jobs, and we need the jobs.

This is a reserved matter, but it is very important that Departments work together and look at ways in which their remits have an impact on the living standards of the population and at ways in which we can improve the conditions in which the most vulnerable people live. A more comprehensive overview must be taken of all the issues involved in employment, but I welcome the debate.

Mr McGrady:

Before the Member concludes her remarks, I would like to remove any confusion she or the Assembly might have that I was supporting the substantive amendment and not the substantive motion. I am opposed to the amendment, and I would like us to be on the same wavelength in that sense.

Ms Hanna:

We are, and I never doubted that.

I rushed, and I now realise that I could have had another minute. I welcome the debate in the Chamber, and I certainly support the motion.

Mr S Wilson:

This debate ought not to be simplified into an argument between Green and Orange Tories and all the good people on the other side. Many very important issues have been raised here today. What should the level of the minimum wage be? Various contributors have pointed out that there is no consensus on that. The Low Pay Commission, which includes some trade unionists, says that it should be £4·10. UNISON recommends £4·69. Billy Hutchinson said that it should be £5, while in Europe it is £7. We could have a lottery. Will it affect employment in a buoyant economy? The evidence we have so far is that it does not, but it may well do so in an economy which is going into recession.

There are many imponderables in all this. As Ms Hanna said, to a certain extent we are debating in a vacuum. It is a reserved matter, and we can say whatever we want. Billy Hutchinson made one very important point. He said that this was a reserved matter and that, therefore, we had to ask what this Assembly could do. When he raised that question, I thought - and I am not talking politically - that he really has a strange partner in bringing this motion forward, especially when he asked what this Assembly could do. The only Minister in this Assembly who I know has encouraged workers to take a wage that is below the minimum wage is the Sinn Féin Minister of Education.

On a number of occasions I have raised in the Assembly the question of term-time-only workers. That is something that the Minister of Education could deal with at a cost of £1·15 million. Yet on 20 June, in the only pronouncement he has made regarding those workers - workers to whom he gave support before he became a Minister - he encouraged them to accept an offer that would spread over 12 months salaries that are currently paid over 10 months. That had been put forward, and he said

"I believe that this approach presents the best way forward for all involved".

And he encouraged them to accept it.

I then received a letter from a constituent who had applied for a job with the education and library board as a school porter. The 10 months that he would have been employed for would, if holiday pay were included, have paid him a total of £6,363. Averaged over the 12 months, it would have paid him £3·49 per hour. I am using that to illustrate a point. It is fine when we talk of this as a general concept to say that we support a minimum wage of £5·00. We have already heard Sinn Féin Members talk about their support for this motion. However, when it comes down to Ministers who actually have the ability to ensure that people are paid a decent wage, it seems that the departmental mafia gets to them, and what sounds all very well in this Chamber is not actually delivered on the ground.

I have no difficulty supporting a decent wage for people who are paid low wages. It gives them dignity and encourages employers to value their employees and give them training to increase their productivity. However, we have to ask ourselves - especially given one of the proposers of this motion - whether, when it comes down to delivering, Sinn Féin is actually doing the job.

Mr Ervine:

I am not sure whether Mr S Wilson is for the motion or the amendment, but we will find out soon enough.

We have heard constantly today that this is a reserved matter. In dealing with it, let me take you on one of my wanderings. I dare say that if Mr Roger Hutchinson were here, he would take the opportunity to add something to that.

I was in Germany recently. Wages in the former East Germany are 30% below the German national average. They have achieved wage increases in the last 12 years that bring them to just 30% below.

We have to ask ourselves - and ask the First and Deputy First Ministers, the rest of the Executive and, especially, the Minister of Finance and Personnel - what arguments are going to made to the United Kingdom Government asking them when our transition period is over. When are we going to be at just 30% below the rest of the United Kingdom? When will we be 25%, 20% or 15% below? There is some naivety on the part of the proposer of the amendment when he does not realise that in laying down aspirational markers in the Assembly and, as my Colleague Mr Billy Hutchinson said, by making the differences where we can -

Dr Birnie:

The East German case illustrates precisely the dangers of a rapid increase in wages relative to productivity. Unemployment there is now 30%. Does the Member want that here?

Mr Ervine:

The mark went from being worth about 2d to being worth about two quid overnight. That makes a difference. No one is asking for that. We are asking for the means to let people survive. Not only do we have the shameful circumstances of people not being paid a decent wage, but we also do not even give them permanent contracts in circumstances where they are being paid less than £5 per hour - or, at the moment, less than £4 per hour. They cannot make any judgements about their future lives based upon the degree of income that they get - which is paltry. Even if they could, they will face difficulties because finance houses and similar organisations will not take their word that they are likely to be in employment for a longer period. They get hit by a double whammy.

I accept the comment made by Sammy Wilson that there are things that we can do. There are practical measures that I need not rehearse - my Colleague has made the comment, and I am sure that Dara O'Hagan will back it up. The reality is that we have a choice. We sit here and we take what Westminster doles out to us, like some sort of nodding ducks. Then we get ourselves into an ideological nightmare over the issue of rates. If we were making the arguments sternly in a cross-party fashion, and in a joined-up-government-attitudinal way, then I believe that the Government of the United Kingdom would be very foolish to ignore us.

However, the Government of the United Kingdom have had strange experiences. Only one Unionist voted against the privatisation of gas. I imagine that if I were to look back to when the minimum wage was passed in Britain, as part of a European initiative, I would nearly bet - I may be wrong, but I doubt it - that every Unionist voted against it.

This society's representatives have consistently offered mixed messages to the citizenry and, more especially, to the Government of the United Kingdom. That would tell me that if we can get our act together and go as a unified group of people and kick down the door of 11 Downing Street, we can definitely do better. Therefore when we see a motion like this - and Sammy Wilson identified the core element for us - what can we do about it? There are two things. There is what we can do about it and what we can make others do about it.

I advocate that Members support the motion, abandon the blocking mechanism of the amendment, and accept the reality that unless we fight strong, hard battles we are never going to be as well off as the former GDR is within Germany. We will always be second-class citizens unless we are prepared to go and demand better and more.

Mr Carrick:

I have listened carefully to the debate and much has been said about the principle of the national minimum wage. However, we dare not lose sight of the end-user. The end-users in this case are people. It is a question of seeking social justice for the people. It is a question of seeking a quality of life for the people, and it is about the promotion of self-worth among the people, with the exclusion of exploitation. That is what this debate should be about.

4.15 pm

The guiding principles that were referred to when the Low Pay Commission was given its brief in the Queen's Speech in May 1997 are still as relevant today as they were then. The elimination of poverty, fair recognition of the labour that is supplied, the creation of a prosperous economy and the provision of a stable society are all very laudable.

Paragraph 3 of the executive summary of the second report of the Low Pay Commission states

"Several years will be needed to assess the full effects of the National Minimum Wage. But already it is clear that a large number of people have benefited. Two-thirds of beneficiaries are working women and, of these, two-thirds are part-time workers. Well over one and a half million workers were entitled to a higher pay by April 1999 because of the minimum wage, and our initial assessment is that the substantial majority of these workers, in the formal sector at least, are now receiving their entitlement."

That is a start. We must build on that to make sure that what we have achieved does not slip, and that those who are still excluded and exploited will enjoy the benefits that the rest of us are currently enjoying.

One section of the report deals with small firms. While we want to give due recognition to the needs of employees, we cannot do so in isolation from the impact that will have in small firms. The small firm has been the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy. Their contribution, even in the face of adversity and civil strife over the past 30 years, has been tremendous. Yet, the loyalty and steadfastness of those small businesses has been rewarded with yet more layers of bureaucratic administration, and the imposition of unpaid tax-collecting and benefit-paying work.

The wage departments of small firms are now collecting national insurance, income tax and student loan repayments - all in an unpaid capacity. They are now paying out statutory maternity pay, statutory sick pay and the working families' tax credit. The burden that has been imposed on the small business employer has been horrendous.

We must take into account that there will be a straw that breaks the camel's back. The position of small businesses has to be factored into the thinking of the national minimum pay regime. We cannot divorce one from the other. We have got to work together to produce that social cohesion and economic dynamic that will leave us with a prosperous society.

The minimum rate, whatever it will be, must be tailored to the situation in Northern Ireland and not imposed by a set of circumstances experienced elsewhere. The Assembly will have a role in influencing those charged with that decision by factoring in the unique circumstances that exist here.

Mr Beggs:

I support the concept of a minimum wage and the proposal to increase it. Everyone in Northern Ireland wants to move away from the generally low-wage economy towards a well-paid economy so that the value of all workers is recognised and rewarded.

I have listened carefully to what has been said in the debate, and I have not heard an explanation of why the figure of £5 per hour has been chosen. Would £6 per hour not be more appropriate? I would like to put it on record that, if there were agreed economic evidence that £6 per hour would be appropriate for Northern Ireland, I would support that. I would like to hear, from Members who have still to sum up, why the figure of £5 per hour has been selected.

Because of the criteria for choosing the figure I have suggested, in the amendment, which also stands in my name, that detailed economic research should be carried out in Northern Ireland. Research would make sure that we all fully understood the benefits and possible difficulties involved in choosing a level for the minimum wage. We should not pick the figure out of a hat.

It was mentioned that the TUC has advocated the figure of £5 per hour. Has that figure been applied to Northern Ireland in particular? I would welcome information on that from Members. Detailed research, specific to Northern Ireland, would surely be appropriate.

Several Members have spoken about the minimum wage in other European countries and have pointed out that those figures are higher than the figure proposed. However, Members have failed to mention the high levels of employment in those countries. In addition, I understand that the TUC has recommended a figure of between £4.50 and £5. It has not advocated a set figure.

I agree with Mr Wilson that if there is a Government Department in Northern Ireland that is not paying the current minimum wage, let alone considering future minimum wages, we must take the matter into our hands and address it now. During the summer months people who are paid that wage cannot claim unemployment benefit. Many of those people are in an employment trap. They may have difficulties finding other jobs to suit the times that they are available to work, and they cannot sign off because they will lose all benefit entitlements for some time. We should address those issues now and do what is within our power.

I also agree that it is hypocritical of Sinn Féin to have been a part of moving this motion, considering the fact that it has not put its own house in order.

How are we going to raise wage levels in Northern Ireland? We can do this through education, training and the upskilling of our entire workforce. My Colleagues and I have been pressing for investment in our higher and further education sector. Dr Birnie was critical, only yesterday, of the Programme for Government for not providing significant additional funds towards basic education, so that the value of all workers to the companies that employ them could be improved. The entire economy would benefit from that, and everyone could be paid more.

The economy would be able to make better use of the workforce if its knowledge and skills were developed, and everyone would be able to demand higher wages and in that way everyone's worth would be fully recognised. So why are we limiting the figure to £5 per hour? What is wrong with £6 per hour? I would like to hear evidence and see research done that backed up the figure that is chosen.

I would like to return to some of the comments made by Sinn Féin. When you think about the number of potentially highly paid jobs that have been lost to Northern Ireland over the past 30 years as a result of terrorism, it seems hypocritical of Sinn Féin to criticise the Government or anyone else about any level for the minimum wage. Many people in Northern Ireland do not have a job today because of Sinn Féin's terrorist activity.

If you were an outside investor, would you have chosen to create highly paid jobs in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years? I am pleased that there has been a reduction in terrorist activity and that many new investors are looking to Northern Ireland, but we must get the stability that is required here. We still have to address the 80 or more mafia gangs, many of whom have paramilitary links, so that employers can confidently come here and trade in a peaceful society where there is no blackmailing. We need a fully peaceful society in which everybody backs the forces of law and order and supports the criminal justice system.

I will welcome such a change when those on the other side of the House eventually get off their high horses and show support for a stable Northern Ireland by their actions rather than just by fancy words. Let us all have a stable Northern Ireland in which we can all progress and our children can earn even higher wages. I hope that those of you who have been listening to what I have said know that I did not move the amendment with any figure in mind - not £5, not £4·10, not £6. A proper evaluation should be considered. Other Members have said that Northern Ireland should go it alone in certain areas. What effect would it have on Northern Ireland if other parts of the United Kingdom had a different minimum wage level?

The final decision must follow an examination of the ultimate effects on our economy, so that it is the most needy who benefit. We need to ensure that poorly paid employees do not end up unemployed and in a poverty and benefits trap, as a result of which it is not worth their while to work. It is important that we encourage people into employment, to develop skills and to continue lifelong learning so that if employers do not pay the wages they need, they can look to other employers who will value their skills. The purpose of the amendment is to have an investigation into the ultimate benefits of any possible threshold level.

Dr O'Hagan:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will try to respond to most of the Members' points. Dr Birnie said that Mr B Hutchinson was only half right when he referred to him as an Orange Tory. His party Colleagues should start to question his credentials. Dr Birnie, in moving his amendment, spoke about the poor and their lack of employment in a condescending manner. We should move away from using such language.

Dr Birnie:

Will the Member give way?

Dr O'Hagan:

No. I have only 10 minutes.

The motion is concerned with giving people decent wages that will bring them out of the poverty trap. Dr Birnie said that this is a reserved matter, and I accept that. However, the Assembly can take action by sending out a clear message that we want to be progressive and want people to receive a decent wage.

At first I thought that Mr McGrady supported the amendment, but then it became clear that he supported the motion. He talked at length about social justice and fair pay. I appreciated Mr Hutchinson's contributions on fuel poverty, the poverty trap and income support.

4.30 pm

He raised an important point, which I think was also raised by Mervyn Carrick, about small businesses and the possible burden on them. There is no reason for not being imaginative or for the Government, instead of wasting millions of pounds on questionable programmes such as New Deal, not taking the burden off small businesses and topping up their employees' wages to £5 per hour.

Mick Murphy and Sean Neeson supported the motion, and Mr Murphy spoke about exploitation. Many Members spoke about exploited groups, young people, part-time workers and women in particular.

Mr Neeson put the issue into context, and his contribution about equality legislation and the European social chapter was very useful. He made an important point about the IDB's web site promotion of the North of Ireland as a low-wage economy, which should concern everyone.

Monica McWilliams quite rightly said that a national minimum wage does not increase unemployment and is good for industry. The Northern Ireland Economic Council supports this stance and has stated in a report on the minimum wage that it could have a catalytic impact on a strategy aimed at improving growth and competitiveness by forcing firms to seek and explore other areas of competitive advantage - sometimes referred to as the shock effect. An increased wage rate could induce firms employing low-wage labour to improve other aspects of competitiveness such as management practice, training, the use of technology and so forth, thereby improving productivity and ultimately increasing the demand for labour.

Ms McWilliams also raised the issue of contract agencies. That should be examined, and with particular regard to contracted employees who work for the Executive and the Assembly. She painted a picture of people who are adversely affected and yet again those people were young people, women, part-time workers and manual workers - all forms of cheap labour.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. Will Members please hold conversations outside the Chamber.

Dr O'Hagan:

Fred Cobain and Carmel Hanna supported the motion, and Ms Hanna made the point that one in three children in the North of Ireland is living in poverty, which has an effect on housing, education and ill-health.

Unfortunately the contribution from Sammy Wilson was the usual tirade against Sinn Féin. That is all that needs to be said.

David Ervine stated that it is not simply a case of what we can do, but what we can make others do. That is an important message that should be coming from the Assembly - [Interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Dr O'Hagan:

Mr Carrick spoke about small firms. I will return to that point. Roy Beggs asked why the figure of £5 per hour was chosen. The motion says "(at least) £5 per hour" and addresses the principle of a decent living wage. Ms Hanna asked why we cannot have a figure that could be negotiated up. It does not have to be £5 per hour, and I am sure that Mr Hutchinson, as co-mover of the motion, would be more than happy to see an even higher level of wages.

Unfortunately Roy Beggs's contribution turned into a typical rant again against Sinn Féin. People must understand that as a party we are entitled to bring forward motions - [Interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Dr O'Hagan:

We will not stop doing that; we will not stop raising issues about - [Interruption]

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Member is entitled to be heard.

Dr O'Hagan:

We as a party will continue to raise issues such as low wages, poverty, inequality and injustice.

We are here by dint of our having been elected. We are entitled to be here, and we are here to stay. People like you had better get used to that.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The Member will be reminded to direct her remarks through the Chair.

Dr O'Hagan:

Finally, I want to give a few figures -

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Dr O'Hagan:

No. I have only about two and a half minutes left.

I want to give a few figures that relate to what we in the Assembly can do about the issue. First, the Assembly Commission led the way when it accepted the principle of at least £5 an hour as the minimum wage for any person employed by the Assembly. That is to be welcomed. That is very progressive and sends out a positive message to the rest of society.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Dr O'Hagan:

No, I am sorry. I have only two minutes left, and I want to get these points in about the Executive.

That is where we can make a difference. In total, the 10 Departments employ 4,285 people who are currently earning less than £5 per hour. I will break it down by Department: the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, 47; the Department of Education, 80; the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, 447; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, 174; the Department of Finance and Personnel, 376; the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 130; the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, 239; the Department for Regional Development, 266; the Department for Social Development, 2,192; and the Department of the Environment, 334.

The message from the Assembly should be that it supports the concept of the minimum wage. We call on all Ministers to ensure that every person employed in their Departments earns at least £5 per hour. That would be a practical start.

On the wider issues of decent wages and helping people out of the poverty trap, I urge Members to support the motion and reject the amendment.

Question That the amendment be made put and negatived.

Main question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly considers the current minimum wage threshold to be too low and supports a minimum wage level of (at least) £5 per hour and calls for the youth exemption contained in the current legislation to be abolished so that the £5 per hour rate applies to all.

Adolescent Psychiatric Services


Mr McMenamin:

I beg to move


That this Assembly notes with concern the shortage of adolescent psychiatric services throughout Northern Ireland and urges the Minister of Health to ensure that key staff are recruited immediately with a view to meeting the community need for this vital service within two years in all parts of Northern Ireland.

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

I wish to applaud the magnificent work that the current teams of psychiatric consultants do throughout Northern Ireland. I recognise the tremendous pressure that they are under because of their heavy and stressful workloads.

Aside from adult psychiatrists, I am told there are 14 psychiatric consultants for children currently working in Northern Ireland. Craigavon and Banbridge have three; Down and Lisburn have two; Holywood has two; Gransha has one; the Royal Victoria and Children's Hospitals have three; Knockbracken Health Centre has one; and Tyrone and Fermanagh have two - making a total of 14. The underprovision of adequate child psychiatric services is a recognised problem in this profession.

I will not concern myself in any depth with either adult or child psychiatric services; I will, however, concern myself with the almost non-existent services for young people between the ages of 13 and 18. There is a very limited adolescent psychiatric service based in Belfast, the beginnings of one in Down and Lisburn and little if anything anywhere else. In other areas, adolescent patients receive attention on a grace-and-favour basis from some child psychiatrist, or an adult psychiatrist, but the service appears to be erratic and patchy. With such an acute shortage of psychiatric help for adolescents, those who require such help as a result of the troubles, physical or sexual abuse or straightforward mental illness are unlikely to receive it. There are only six inpatient beds available in Northern Ireland for adolescents requiring inpatient care.

In 1994, 242 young people were held in adult psychiatric wards - hardly the place for distressed adolescents. Levels of outpatient support and day-patient places are totally inadequate. Research has shown that 90% of adolescent suicide victims have at least one diagnosable, active psychiatric illness at the time of death, most often caused by depression, substance abuse and conduct disorders. Only 15% of suicide victims were in treatment at the time of their death. Between 26% and 33% of adolescent suicide victims have made a previous suicide attempt. In Northern Ireland the suicide rate among our young people is alarming. The last statistics taken in 1997 showed that we had 140 male and 17 female suicides, with a high percentage being young people.

I have talked about the pressure that psychiatric consultants are under, but there is also pressure and anxiety on parents when they realise that they need psychiatric help in one way or another for their loved one. I am thinking of a mother whose 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. She had known for several years that her son had a problem, and it was only through her persistence in asking to see a consultant that her fears were realised. When parents hear that their child has an autistic disorder they may experience fear, anger, guilt and other difficult emotions. Many families find that having professional guidance helps them to cope with this traumatic news. Children with an autistic disorder create great stress on the entire family. In a survey, families were asked which areas of their lives were most altered by the autistic child. In order of significance they listed recreational opportunities and finances. In addition, an autistic child creates stress for his or her siblings.

The next step was for the consultant psychiatrist to initiate formal assessment procedures so that the family and the education authority could address the young boy's specific difficulties. In practice this is good, but when you have to wait for up to a year for a report, that can cause considerable anxiety. After nine months the boy's mother called at my constituency office looking for assistance to find out how long it would take the psychiatric consultant and team to finalise her son's report. After several phone calls and a few letters, I finally contacted the psychiatric consultant, and it was only by talking to the consultant that I realised the tremendous pressure they were under. I was informed that the delay was due to a lack of manpower and resources. They were overcome by an enormous workload, with a backlog of almost a year.


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