Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 30 April 2001 (continued)

Mr Beggs:

Before the establishment of the North/ South bodies, visits to lighthouses such as Islandmagee lighthouse in my constituency required local youth groups to contact the Commissioners of Irish Lights in Dublin. Is there now a local contact number to enable people in Northern Ireland to contact the Irish Lights body without having to make international phone calls?

Secondly, the issue of shellfish was discussed. Will the Minister say if any concern was raised at the meeting about the number of bodies in Northern Ireland that are carrying out water quality tests, given the duplication and lack of responsibility that result? Finally, will the Minister say whether the discussions took place in everyone's first language or if Irish was used?

Ms Rodgers:

In response to whether the business of the meeting was carried out in Irish or English, it was carried out in English, because a number of people there did not understand Irish. It would have been extremely rude to carry out business in that language since we did not have any interpreters. If interpreters had been present for the benefit of those who did not understand the language, I would have been happy to carry out the business in Irish. In the absence of interpreters, I could not do that. Indeed, I would be very happy to carry out all the business that I do in this House in my language, which is Irish, if other people could understand me by putting on earphones.

Irish Lights' responsibilities have not yet been transferred to the body, because there are a number of difficulties in that area also.

Mr Beggs:

What about the question on shellfish?

Ms Rodgers:

What question was that? Mr Speaker, it would be preferable if Members would try to ask just one or two questions. It is very difficult to remember three or four.

Mr Speaker:

I have often referred the House to the fact that this is an opportunity for Members to ask one question. When they ask more than one - and sometimes the questions have as many legs as a centipede - the Minister may choose to answer none, one or some of them, but may not necessarily be able to answer all of them, even if he or she wishes to. This is salutary. There is much talk about power sharing; perhaps question sharing with Members who do not have a question might be the way to deal with the matter.


Product Liability (Amendment) Bill: First Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill to amend Part II of the Consumer Protection (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.


Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill: Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker:

No amendments have been tabled to the Bill, but the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, Mr Molloy, has indicated that he wishes to speak on clause 3. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the first two clauses and then deal with clause 3, clauses 4 to 6 and, finally, the long title.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 (Tenancies to which this Act applies)

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

A Cheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. Before addressing the Committee's concerns about clause 3, I want to thank all those organisations that took the time to write to us and give us their views. I also thank the Minister and ask him to pass on our thanks to the Office of Law Reform, whose officials assisted the Committee during its detailed consideration of the clauses.

In giving evidence, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Housing Rights Service raised concerns about clause 3. Their concerns centred on the fact that the clause exempts landlords of registered and regulated tenancies from the main provisions of the Bill - that is, the additional liability otherwise provided for. During consultation with the Office of Law Reform, it emerged that the Department for Social Development has commenced a major review of the private rented sector with the aim of conducting a thorough analysis of the Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 in relation to protected tenancies.

The Committee was told that the intention behind the review was to improve the state of the private rented sector.

1.00 pm

The Office of Law Reform told the Committee that the primary purpose of the Bill was to address the issue of liability in tort. It was designed to clarify and extend the liability that applies to landlords but could not focus on imposing repair obligations on the landlord. The Committee received evidence from the Law Reform Advisory Committee. It emerged that the Law Reform Advisory Committee had been influenced and persuaded by representations from the Housing Executive. In addition, it had concluded that owing to the low return that they receive from rental income, there would be a problem of equity should the extended liability provided for in the Bill be imposed on landlords of restricted and regulated tenancies.

The Law Reform Advisory Committee had not considered the broader issue of housing rights, nor was it trying to improve the quality of housing stock. The focus of its consideration was restricted to the limits of liability in the event of an accident causing injury or damage. The Law Reform Advisory Committee had identified an anomaly between the Defective Premises Act 1972 in Great Britain and the Defective Premises (Northern Ireland) Order 1975 and had endeavoured to remedy that anomaly.

The Committee concluded that this Bill was not an appropriate vehicle for addressing shortcomings in the quality of properties in the private rented sector. Members noted the advice of the Assembly's legal adviser that while grants were available to landlords of restricted and regulated tenancies to undertake repairs, recent reductions in the scale of those grants meant that they were not sufficient to enable a meaningful level of refurbishment to be undertaken.

The Committee concluded that in the present circumstances it would not be appropriate to apply the additional liability envisaged by the Bill to such landlords. The Committee agreed, however, that this was an undesirable outcome to its consideration of the Bill. Members were deeply concerned that the tenants of restricted and regulated tenancies were disadvantaged in relation to the legal redress available to them should injury or damage occur as a result of defects in such properties. The Committee concluded that this situation was unsatisfactory in the longer term.

The Committee decided that its concerns about the exemptions in respect of liability afforded to landlords of restricted and regulated tenancies should be formally conveyed to the review of the private rented sector being undertaken by the Department for Social Development. The Committee further agreed that those concerns should be drawn to the attention of the Social Development Committee, and I have taken steps to do that. The Committee agreed that clause 3 should be recommended to the Assembly for approval. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Durkan:

I agree with much of what the Member has said and thank him and the members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel for the scrutiny given to this Bill. The Committee has done a thorough job, and the useful working relationship that it has fashioned with my officials in the Office of Law Reform has been demonstrated. Law reform bills can be complex and technical, and I am grateful to Members for coming to grips with the legal niceties - and the not-so-niceties - of this Bill.

I agree that it is unsatisfactory that regulated and restricted tenancies are exempted from this limited extension of liability and recognise the difficulties that could have resulted if we had not acted in this way.

It is clear to all associated with the Bill that the current state of protected tenancies in this jurisdiction requires close scrutiny. Those living in such tenancies face certain and distinct disadvantages in living conditions. Equally, and the Committee appreciates this point, landlords of such properties do not have entirely easy options. They cannot command reasonable rents, a fact clearly highlighted for those restricted landlords who, in many instances, are not entitled to a rent worth collecting. The system of grants, which may help to repair unfit properties, is, at best, unsatisfactory. There are little or no enforcement powers available at present. It is in this context that the exemption is standing as part of the Bill. If I felt that any of the above factors would mean that the extension of liability to such groups would not be onerous, I would have no hesitation in applying them.

Like the Chairman, I welcome the fact that the Department for Social Development proposes to review the private rented sector. The universal hope is that this review will bear fruit and lead to an improvement in the housing stock of such properties. However, we agree that this limited law reform measure, which will deal with the situation after an injury or damage occurring, is not the vehicle to bring about such desirable reform.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Defective Premises (Landlord's Liability) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.


Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill: Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker:

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments. There is one amendment tabled and selected to clause 1, which will be considered in the usual way. I have also had indication that a Member wishes to speak about clause 9. I will take the amendment and clause 1; clauses 2 to 8 ; clause 9; clauses 10 to 16, and the long title of the Bill.

Clause 1 (Regulations giving effect to Convention)

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

Aithníodh an gá leis an leasú seo nuair a bhí an Bille faoi bhreithniú ag an Choiste, agus gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Chathaoirleach agus le baill an Choiste as a mbreithniú cúramach ar an Bhille.

Cuireann alt 1 den Bhille ar chumas na Roinne rialacháin a dhéanamh agus coireanna a chruthú maidir le sárú na rialachán sin. De réir mar a dréachtaíodh an Bille, tá an t-uasphionós is féidir a ghearradh i ndáil le coir a cruthaíodh faoi alt 1 (príosúntacht trí mhí nó fíneáil nach mó ná leibhéal a cúig, nó an dá chuid) ag teacht lena chomhfhoráil san Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill 1999 i Sasana, in Albain agus sa Bhreatain Bheag.

Dar leis an Choiste gur cóir an t-uastéarma príosúntachta a ardú go sé mhí le gurbh ionann é agus an t-uastéarma don choir in alt 12, sin é páiste a thabhairt isteach sa tír i gcoinne na rialachán. Chrothomódh an leasú ailt 1 agus 12 sa Bhille.

Ní athraíonn an leasú cuspóirí polasaí an Bhille.

I beg to move amendment 1: In page 1, line 14 leave out "three" and insert "six". - [Ms de Brún]

The need for this amendment was identified during the Committee's consideration of the Bill. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Chairperson and members of the Committee for their careful consideration of the Bill. Clause 1 establishes powers for the Department to make regulations and to create offences for contravening those regulations.

As the clause is currently drafted, the maximum penalty that may be imposed in relation to an offence - three months imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level 5, or both - is consistent with the equivalent provision in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 in England, Scotland and Wales. In the Committee's view, the maximum term of imprisonment should be six months, the same as for the offence under clause 12 of bringing a child into the country in contravention of the regulations. The amendment would create consistency between clauses 1 and 12. The amendment does not reflect any change in the policy aims of the Bill. Molaim an leasú.

The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):

I support the amendment. The issue was raised during our deliberations at the Committee Stage, and the need for an amendment was agreed. Committee members are grateful to the Minister for agreeing to take forward the amendment. It will ensure consistency with regard to the terms of imprisonment for the offences covered by clause 1 and clause 12 of the Bill.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety did not undertake consultation on the specific issues covered by the Bill, and, therefore, the Committee decided that it would undertake a consultation exercise on the policy aims. Twenty-four groups from the statutory and voluntary sectors responded to the exercise, and the vast majority welcomed the proposed legislation.

The Committee is satisfied that the Bill ensures that the best interests of children are paramount. It brings greater uniformity and standardisation to the processes, places existing arrangements on a statutory basis and introduces two new offences. It will now be unlawful for anyone other than an approved adoption agency to assess the suitability of prospective adopters of children from overseas or to bring a child into this country without certain conditions being satisfied.

Some respondents raised other important issues, and I would like to cover those briefly today. Some of them expressed concern about the lack of uniformity on the part of health and social services trusts with regard to charging for assessments of persons who apply to adopt children from overseas. Committee members were concerned that different trusts had different practices and agreed on the need for equality and uniformity across Northern Ireland. The Committee raised that issue with the Minister and welcomes the Minister's intention to issue guidance to the trusts regarding charging for assessments in order to ensure consistency.

As a result of the consultation exercise, it also came to the attention of the Committee that children adopted and brought into Northern Ireland through the intercountry adoption process do not appear to be entitled to a post- arrival health check. That procedure should be completed in the child's country of origin as part of the entry clearance procedures. However, Committee members agreed that a full health check on arrival in Northern Ireland should be mandatory so that any illnesses can be treated and managed properly.

The matter was also raised with the Minister, and the Committee welcomed the Minister's positive response that it is her intention to consider, with the Department of Health in England, whether mandatory health checks should be introduced as an additional safeguard for children adopted from overseas.

Finally, I would like to highlight the Committee's concern at the case of the twin girls adopted, as it were, in the United States and brought into the United Kingdom. It seems that, despite the stipulation in the Bill that assessments must be carried out by a registered adoption agency, all loopholes may not have been covered. Therefore, we welcome the assurance from the Minister that if, as a result of ongoing discussions with Whitehall officials, new primary or secondary legislation is found to be necessary, every effort will be made to bring it to the Northern Ireland Assembly as soon as possible.

I am sure that Members will agree with the Committee that the Bill should go ahead, allowing the positive aspects to come into force, rather than await the outcome of those discussions. The Committee will return to the matters still under consideration in due course in order to ensure a satisfactory resolution.

Mr Ford:

I wish to make a couple of brief points. I welcome the fact that the Minister has introduced the amendment, which, as Members can see, is somewhat similar to one that I sought to put down. She beat me to it by a few minutes.

1.15 pm

As has been highlighted by the Minister, amendment 1 is necessary for internal consistency in the Bill. It is also necessary because of the suggestion that a maximum sentence of three months would have been regarded as relatively light in certain circles. The majority of those who might be tempted to flout the law would be couples who find themselves in trying and difficult circumstances. I am not suggesting that Members should be seeking maximum penalties of imprisonment in those circumstances. However, it is essential that a higher penalty be installed for instances where there is a suggestion that anybody is organising such arrangements for more than one family or is trafficking in babies.

Dr Hendron mentioned consistency on charges between trusts. That is an equality issue. If I may digress, I welcome the action that the Minister took last week to redress the differences that existed in different areas of Northern Ireland regarding fertility treatment. The Minister will need to be seen to be taking action to ensure that trusts are given - and adhere to - sufficiently strong guidance so that she will not face the same equality challenge over the issue of charging adoption fees.

I have no doubt that she will take account of those points, just as she took account of the question I raised last week - even though I did not get the chance to ask it. I urge the House to support amendment 1 and the Bill.

Ms de Brún:

I have written to the Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee about charging for assessments in relation to intercountry adoptions. I share the Committee's view that there should be uniformity between trusts in their approach to that matter. It would not necessarily be appropriate to take statutory powers in the Bill to prescribe the level of charges. However, I understand the Committee's concern and that of those who have raised the matter this morning. As I indicated to Dr Hendron, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will be issuing guidance on charging to ensure that it is carried out on a uniform and consistent basis.

I agree that a mandatory health check would be an additional safeguard. However, those people who are adopting children from overseas are advised to contact their GP to make arrangements for a comprehensive health check of the child as soon as possible. From that viewpoint I am not convinced that it is necessary to make health checks mandatory. The Department expects those parents adopting a child from abroad to have regard for the health of the child.

In preparing for the implementation of the new legislation the Health Department will be issuing extensive guidance over a wide range of matters. That guidance will address the need for adoptive parents to ensure that they approach their GP to arrange a comprehensive health check of the child as soon as is convenient.

In respect of the restriction on advertising contained in the Adoption and Children Bill the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is monitoring the position with a view to introducing an equivalent provision here as soon as possible.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 (Six months residence required for certain intercountry adoptions)

Mr Shannon:

I would like some clarification on clause 9. Some of my constituents have indicated that it can take up to four years to bring a child through the intercountry adoption agency. Paragraph 32 of the explanatory and financial memorandum on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill states that

"the child is required to have had his home with the prospective adopters for a period of at least six months before an adoption order may be made."

How can that happen when some people have told me that it can take up to four years for an adoption to take place, whether it be from the Crimea, Romania or Brazil? Will the Minister tell the House if a difference has been made between the adoption agency and individuals who have pursued the adoption under their own steam and through the process?

It is important that adoption agencies and individuals have the same timescale for adoption.

Ms de Brún:

The idea is that a period of six months would apply to those cases where the placement of the child was made by an adoption agency. In cases where the arrangements were not made by an adoption agency, the current provisions concerning the period before an adoption order may be made will remain at 12 months.

I did not catch part of the Member's question. If I have not answered his question I will try again.

Mr Shannon:

My constituents have told me that it can take four years to adopt. I cannot understand clause 9. The explanatory memorandum states that

"the child is required to have had his home with the prospective adopters for a period of at least six months before an adoption order may be made."

I am trying to clarify how six months is the issue when people have told me that it takes four years.

Ms de Brún:

The child must be in place regardless of the operational question of the time taken. In my view that is separate from the fact that the child must be there for six months. I am still not sure if I have answered the Member's question.

Mr Shannon:

If it states in the legislation that a child must be in the adopter's house for six months, how can we equate that with someone who wants to adopt a child? For example, two suitable adopters in Northern Ireland have told me that it takes four years to adopt a baby from the Crimea. How can they get around this process? How can they fit into the six-months category?

Ms de Brún:

Mr Shannon is not seeking clarification on the legislation but on a totally separate matter which is outside the remit of what we are dealing with today. With regard to the legislation, the period of six months which is being sought is to allow those responsible to be satisfied about the welfare of the child. It is to allow them to assess the suitability of the persons having care of the child and to make whatever additional enquiries may be necessary overseas concerning the circumstances of the adoption or how the child came into the care of the prospective adopters. The other matters are not ones for today.

Mr Speaker:

I must remind Members, as the Minister has done, that when considering legislation it is the legislation itself that we have to consider.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10 to 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

The sitting was suspended at 1.22 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister


Mr Speaker:

Question number 4, in the name of Mr Ivan Davis, has been withdrawn. Question number 7, in the name of Mr Alex Maskey, has been ruled inadmissible under Standing Order 68, on the grounds of sub judice. Question number 13, in the name of Mr Roy Beggs, has been transferred to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and Mr Beggs will receive a written answer.

I remind the House about the question of sub judice. This matter was raised this morning, and I took the view that, under Standing Order 68, any reference to a matter before the court, or indeed a matter set down for appeal, was sub judice. The matter before the court is the lawfulness or otherwise of the particular decision, and that is what falls under sub judice under Standing Order 68. Therefore, under the terms of the Standing Order, it is inadmissible in any questions, including supplementary questions - or, indeed, Ministerial replies - to make reference to the question before the court. I make that point at this stage in the hope - not I trust, a vain one - that that will conclude the matter for the rest of the day.

Public Appointments


Mrs Carson

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment on transparency in public appointments following the publication of the Fourth Annual Report on Public Appointments.

(AQO 1346/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon): The procedures for public appointments are drawn up by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. They emphasise the need for appointments to be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit, the inclusion of an independent element in the selection process, openness and transparency in the appointments procedure and information to be published about appointments made. All Northern Ireland Departments are required to make appointments to their public bodies based on merit and in accordance with the Commissioner's guidance. The involvement of independent assessors in the process should provide a guarantee of the objective implementation of the Commissioner's code and is intended to provide the public with assurance that the process is transparent and fair.

Mrs Carson:

The Fourth Annual Report on Public Appointments states that there are 2,300 public appointments on a total of 117 bodies. Does the Minister agree that this is an excessive number under devolution, especially when the total funding that these bodies administer is taken into account? Many quangos have been made redundant by the responsibilities of the new Government Departments and Assembly Committees.

For example, is the Training and Employment Agency board, with 12 members and salaries totalling £70,335, really necessary? It has a remit that could now be overseen by the relevant Committee and Department. Three members were recently appointed, so it is obvious that the Department wishes to continue with the quango. Will the Minister investigate the situation, with a view to an immediate reorganisation and review to reduce the number of quangos?

The Deputy First Minister:

I take the Member's point. She will, of course, be aware that Ministers are responsible for public appointments in the remit of their Departments. The role of non-departmental public bodies is a matter that will be considered as part of the review of public administration. The First Minister and I will write to the Member with details of the budgets of non- departmental public bodies.

I agree with the thrust of the Member's question. Given the type of structures that have been created politically since the Good Friday Agreement, there is duplication of effort by the large number of public bodies.

Mrs Courtney:

Does the Minister accept that underrepresentation of some sectors still remains an issue? Will he make a statement about the appointment of a commissioner, and does he agree that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should make this appointment?

The Deputy First Minister:

It is accepted that members of public bodies in Northern Ireland should be more representative of the social and cultural mix of the communities which they serve and that members should be drawn from a broad range of backgrounds and experience. Appointments, of course, depend on the range and calibre of people who put themselves forward for selection. We consider it important to encourage a wide range of people to apply for public appointments. Action has been taken to address underrepresentation, and this includes the wide circulation of a six-monthly list of forthcoming vacancies on public bodies; more varied use of the media advertising of public appointment opportunities; and reviewing the job specification for each public appointment to ensure that the criteria do not discriminate against any group.

Application forms are also being revised to make them less off-putting, especially to women and underrepresented groups and to enable greater account to be taken of the merits of non-traditional career patterns.

I agree that the appointment of a commissioner should fall to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister rather than to the Secretary of State as at present. We will therefore make a Prerogative Order shortly which will confer the power of appointment to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

As part of a wider review of the public appointments policy we will also consider whether to appoint a separate commissioner for Northern Ireland. In the interim, however, we have agreed to extend the period of appointment of Dame Rennie Fritchie, who also acts as Commissioner in Britain, and that will last until 28 February 2002.

Mr S Wilson:

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that to enhance transparency in public appointments clear criteria should be published, one of which should be that appointees have no terrorist convictions? In the light of the boast of terrorist involvement this weekend by the Minister of Education, will the Deputy First Minister say whether the First Minister has indicated to him that his party will be joining the DUP in calling for the resignation of the Minister of Education?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member raises a matter which relates to an elected appointment under the d'Hondt system - it is not a public appointment. In relation to public appointments the criteria are there and have, by and large, been fulfilled. As I pointed out in answer to a previous question, things such as the structures under which we operate are changing, and the need for many quangos has receded.

Executive Office in Brussels (Cost)


Mr Poots

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the final cost of setting up the Executive office in Brussels.

(AQO 1333/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

The current estimate is £299,000. The final cost will depend on exchange rates at the time when payment is made. The work of fitting out the office should be completed by the end of May.

Mr Poots:

What was the initial estimated cost for this job, and what process was undertaken to obtain prices for the work? What is the difference between the initial and the current estimates?

The First Minister:

The initial estimate was not a fully worked out costing. The present costing reflects the price of converting open-floor space into office accommodation. The original estimate was much lower than the present one. I regret that I do not have the relevant figure before me at the moment, but I shall inform the Member in writing.

Mr Byrne:

Although the Executive Office in Brussels will represent the Executive as a whole, does the First Minister accept that key sectors such as finance, agriculture and industry need to develop specific issues with the European institutions? How will these interests be catered for?

The First Minister:

We have established an interdepartmental group chaired by the junior Ministers whose function it is in the first instance to consider the priorities of the Office. In that way we hope to ensure that the Office will reflect the interests of the Administration across all the Departments.

Community Relations Council


Mr Ford

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to explain the delay in appointing eight representatives to the Community Relations Council.

(AQO 1323/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

I refer the Member to our written response of 2 April to question 2173/00. The making of appointments was initially hindered by the suspension of the Assembly between 11 February and 29 May 2000. More recently, the Department initiated a triannual evaluation of the Community Relations Council. We also announced in the Programme for Government our intention to carry out a major review of community relations policies. In these circumstances it was decided that it would not be appropriate to make further appointments to the Council before we had an opportunity to consider the outcome of the evaluation and the policy review.

I assure the House that we remain fully committed to tackling the divisions that remain in our society. We will, by means of the review, and the subsequent strategy, ensure that we have effective policies in place to do that.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for that response, but it leaves me a little baffled. I understand that the suspension of this Assembly in the early part of last year prevented the making of appointments. However, in a written answer which I should have received on 16 March, but did not receive until 2 April, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister told me that interviews took place on 7 and 21 February and, in their response to me on 19 February, they indicated that appointments would be made soon. The interviews took place on 7 and 21 February 2000, but I received my response on 19 February 2001.

It appears that the three-month suspension of the Assembly managed to delay matters for an entire year. I cannot understand how the First Minister could have failed to make any appointment if, as they state, community relations policy is a priority for this Executive. Is this failure to appoint staff to such a vital community relations body for over a year to be taken as a suggestion that we believe in the conspiracy theory of politics of this nature, rather than the cock-up theory?

The Deputy First Minister:

I assure the Member that a conspiracy theory was the furthest thing from our minds. I accept that there was a delay in informing those who had been interviewed of their position. We have written to those people, explained the position, and we have apologised for that delay. We have also instructed officials to review procedures for handling such matters to ensure that similar situations do not arise in the future. But the question still remains: would it have been better to go ahead and make appointments prior to the review and the assessment of the community relations policy? Alternatively, would it have been better to await the review and make the appointments on the basis of what might be a re-evaluation of policy and operation?

2.45 pm

Mr Kennedy:

I am sure that the Minister agrees that the issue of community relations is a crucial one. Is it his view that the current aims of the Community Relations Council remain appropriate?

The Deputy First Minister:

I believe that the broad general aims are appropriate. The Community Relations Council has operated under very difficult circumstances through many difficult years. However, its priorities, needs and requirements change as other factors change in our society. Unfortunately, one thing has not yet changed, and that is the attitude of those in our society who do not regard community relations as important. The hon Member and I have seen examples of it quite recently in our constituency. We must make the North of Ireland a better place, and the more we can improve the policy of the Community Relations Council, the better it will get.

British/Irish Council: Environment
Sectoral Meeting


Mr McGrady

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline the topics that were discussed at the last British-Irish Council sectoral meeting on environment and to make a statement.

(AQO 1326/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

The last British-Irish Council sectoral meeting on the environment was held in London on 2 October 2000. Following that meeting, the Minister of the Environment made a statement to the Assembly on 6 November 2000. I refer the Member to that statement and to the communiqué issued after the meeting, a copy of which is held in the Assembly Library.

The environment sectoral meeting discussed a wide range of priority areas suggested by its members. Ministers agreed that the initial work should concentrate on three issues. The first was radioactive waste from the Sellafield site. The Irish Government and the Isle of Man authorities agreed to lead in the preparation of a paper for the next sectoral meeting. Secondly, the British Government took the lead on the topic of the impact of climate change. The third issue was waste management, on which the Scottish Executive agreed to prepare a paper about initiatives being pursued in Scotland.

Mr McGrady:

The Minister will note that since that meeting, President Bush has said that the United States of America no longer subscribes to the principles in the Kyoto protocol on environment and climate change. Can the Minister assure the House that the Executive will continue to play a full part in implementing the principles contained in the Kyoto protocol and also those of the Hague summit of November 2000? These measures in respect of environment and climate change and global warming could well be developed through the mechanisms of the British-Irish Council. Though this is a small community, it is important that we give voice to our concern on these matters.

The Deputy First Minister:

I agree that we must play our full role. I also believe that we can do that through the mechanism and structure of the British-Irish Council. It was very disappointing that agreement was not reached in the Hague. When talks resume in Bonn in July, new efforts will be made to reach a deal that will pave the way for the ratification and entry into force of the Kyoto protocol by 2002. All EU members, as well as people in other countries around the world, remain committed to implementing that protocol. The Executive are fully committed to contributing to the satisfaction of the Kyoto obligation, and we will pursue that at every opportunity, not least through the British-Irish Council.

Programme for Government:
Northern Ireland Bureau Washington DC


Mr Fee

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail what progress has been made on the Programme for Government commitments concerning the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC.

(AQO 1353/00)

The First Minister:

A number of steps have been undertaken in order to meet our commitments in respect of the Northern Ireland Bureau. Engaging an additional member of staff at middle management level has strengthened the bureau's resources. We are examining ways to develop a strong working relationship with relevant branches of the United States Administration and Congress.

In that context, we will be reviewing the functions of the bureau, its structure and its relationship with other bodies promoting Northern Ireland in the United States. The objective will be to ensure that a positive image of Northern Ireland is projected in the United States to maximum effect.

Mr Fee:

In the last few years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the passage of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the adoption of the Programme for Government there have been fundamental changes in the way in which Northern Ireland is governed. Can the First Minister give us some indication of how the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington will reflect those fundamental changes, the new relationships with the Irish Government and the devolved Administrations in Britain?

The First Minister:

The Member is right to say that the context within which the Northern Ireland Bureau operates has changed significantly. We are undertaking a number of steps which we hope will develop its role further. There has already been an increase in staff. An additional member of staff has been recruited to act as public relations manager. The bureau now acts as a representative of this Administration and is already developing good contacts with key people on Capitol Hill and in the Bush Administration. We plan to review the structure of the bureau and its relationship with other bodies in promoting Northern Ireland in the USA.

It is also anticipated that the bureau will move from its present location in the Embassy to more central premises in downtown Washington sometime in the summer. However, the staff at the Northern Ireland Bureau will continue to be accredited to the Embassy in order to retain diplomatic status.


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