Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 30 April 2001 (continued)

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Before I call Mr Fee, I advise Members that question 3 has been withdrawn

Foot-and-Mouth Disease
(Newry and Mourne Area)


Mr Fee

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what assessment she has made of the impact of foot-and-mouth disease on rural communities, particularly in Newry and Mourne, and to make a statement.

(AQO 1359/00)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

My officials began making assessments of the possible impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the agrifood sector in Northern Ireland in the wake of the discovery of the first case in England, based on a range of scenarios - from a few confirmed cases in Northern Ireland to a much more widespread outbreak. If the disease is contained at its current level of four confirmed cases, and exports can resume relatively quickly, the Northern Ireland agrifood industry overall is not likely to incur significant damage and could even gain slightly by being able to sell in markets closed to the rest of the UK. However, some individual farmers and other businesses will be adversely affected, even in this optimistic scenario.

If the disease were to escalate here, the impact could be extremely serious with an estimated cost to the agrifood sector from a prolonged and widespread outbreak potentially rising to over £120 million over a 12-month period. Until the most recent cases in Counties Tyrone and Antrim, our assessment that the impact of the disease on the community in Newry and Mourne was marginally greater than in the rest of Northern Ireland, with restrictions on livestock movement and a ban on meat and dairy exports lasting approximately three weeks longer than elsewhere. Unfortunately, the most recent cases mean that the whole of Northern Ireland is now on the same footing as Newry and Mourne.

Mr Fee:

The Minister has been to the forefront of efforts to combat the crisis every day for months. However, I ask her to consider again the arrangements that are in place, particularly in areas such as Newry and Mourne, which have been under restriction for the longest time. Will the Minister formalise a welfare slaughter scheme? Does she recognise that the requirement to pay the costs of private veterinary practitioners is causing hurt, pain and anger? Because of the restrictions, some farmers have livestock that they simply cannot sell and from which they can make no income. In south Armagh, one livestock sale has lost a turnover of £2 million compared to the same period last year. What will the Minister do about such cases?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I remind Mr Fee of the ruling that the Speaker made this morning. Members may ask several questions, but the Minister may choose to answer only one.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his opening remarks. I shall deal with the question about welfare, which is a pressing issue. As the Member is aware, we have already run a scheme for pigs for those caught up in one of the movement restrictions associated with the outbreak in south Armagh. Evidence of the need for another one is emerging. However, I must be satisfied that such a scheme is justified on animal welfare grounds, as opposed to purely commercial grounds. I will run a scheme if it is justified. I am considering the issue, and I know that there is concern about it.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has reduced the amounts that are paid. Pigs now attract a maximum of £50 per animal in welfare culls, and £30 per sow. Those prices are considerably less than the original prices. The reasons behind those reductions will also apply in Northern Ireland. In extreme welfare situations, a scheme may be necessary, but I need to assess whether it would be used for welfare or commercial reasons. I will come to a decision shortly.

Mr Armstrong:

When will the Minister be able to announce that farm-to-farm sales may recommence, as we have had no more cases of foot-and-mouth disease? I understand that there must be a period of 30 days following the last case before there can be any relaxation.

We all appreciate the fact that farmers can move cattle and pigs to abattoirs. However, it is not possible to move weaned calves to pasture for welfare reasons. I am sure that the Minister knows that there is no movement of cull sows. I welcome the movement of over-30-months cattle to Glenavy. When might such movements take place?

Ms Rodgers:

I shall deal with the question on farm-to-farm sales. It is a major issue, and it has been raised with me by public representatives and by individuals. The Member will be aware that I must balance finely the need to be careful that we do not spread the disease - the virus is still present among the sheep flock - with the need to alleviate the plight of farmers. I recognise that some farmers are in a difficult situation because the markets are closed, and there are no farm-to-farm sales either.

I am keeping the situation under review. Every day that I come into the Department, I ask for an update on the situation, including advice from the vets on whether further movements are possible. However, whatever I do, my priority is not to risk a further outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Therefore I am aware of it; I am sympathetic to it, and I will keep it under review.

Mr M Murphy:

Will the Minister tell the House when the markets are likely to be reopened? Farmers need a proper pricing of their stock.

Ms Rodgers:

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development closed the markets originally. They are now being closed under an EU Directive. I am not in a position to give a date for reopening, because this is a matter for the European Commission. I know that it is a problem. Apart from the problem that mart closures create for farmers, it also creates a huge problem for the marts themselves in that they may be put out of business.

I suspect that there will be other easements before the reopening of marts takes place, because that will mean that cattle, sheep and other animals will be mixing together. I have to say - off the top of my head and without veterinary advice on the matter - that reopening will be well down the line.

Decommissioning Scheme for Fishermen


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline when she will make an announcement on a decommissioning scheme for fishermen and to make a statement.

(AQO 1328/00)

Ms Rodgers:

The pursuit of a fishing vessel decommissioning scheme is a high priority, and work is continuing on its development. When I met with the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee recently, we discussed a draft scheme based on a tendering system by vessel owners for the disposal of their fishing vessels. The eligibility requirements would include that the vessel must be at least 12 m long; it must have fished at least 75 days in each of the preceeding two years, and it must be at least 10 years old. Bids would be ranked according to vessel capacity units multiplied by the number of days at sea.

Based on the bids received, the Department would set separate strike prices for vessels considered to be mainly targeting white fish and nephrops. Successful applicants would receive a grant based on the strike price when their vessel was decommissioned.

The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has made some comments, which I wish to consider. Nevertheless, I intend to announce a scheme as soon as I obtain legal clearance.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for her reply, and I hope that the decommissioning scheme - a conservation measure - is implemented as quickly as possible. Against the backcloth of the terrible problem suffered by the farming community, the other conservation measure adopted by the common fisheries policy has gone unnoticed. Today is the last day of the six weeks of inactivity that the white fish fleet in Northern Ireland has suffered. Will the Minister consider the parallel situation between compensating farmers and other businesses in respect of Government-imposed restrictions and applying the same principle of effective Government - in the light of EU-imposed restrictions - to the white fish fleet industry, which has not been able to leave port for the past six weeks and has had no income?

Ms Rodgers:

The positions are not comparable. Some fishing has taken place outside the restricted areas; the boats have not been tied up. The situation is not the same, because fishermen hunt a wild quarry and can continue to do so even though they are restricted - until tomorrow, as the Member rightly says - from fishing for cod in certain areas of the Irish Sea and the North Channel.

Farmers whose livestock has been compulsorily slaughtered are compensated for the capital value of their animals and not for the consequential loss. As Members will be aware, I am finalising a decommissioning scheme for fishing vessels that will compensate fishermen for their assets in the form of fishing vessels and associated licences. However, I have no plans to offer consequential compensation to the fishing industry.

In other words, a farmer who loses all his cattle has been deprived of the means of an income. Compensation is payable, because the Department has put him out of business for the time being. If a fishing vessel is decommissioned and the fisherman is put out of business, he would be compensated for that. However, as in the case of farmers, the fisherman would not be paid for consequential loss.

Mr Shannon:

Can the Minister give any indication of the number of fishermen who wish to take up the decommissioning scheme? Will the Minister pursue the repayment of grants given for boats in the past from those who are decommissioning? Will the Minister agree that it is very important that only a certain element of decommissioning should take place so that the core part of the industry and its business can be retained?

3.45 pm

Ms Rodgers:

It is impossible to say how many fishermen will apply until the decommissioning scheme is up and running. I can tell you that £5 million has been allocated for it, but I will have to wait until we get bids.

The acoustics on that side of the Chamber are very bad. I could not hear the second part of the question.

Mr Shannon:

The second part of the question was about grants. I understand that those who qualify for decommissioning have to pay back part of the grant that they received for their boats over the years. I am quite concerned about that, and I would like some clarification on the matter. Does the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development intend to ask for all that money, or part of it, to be paid back when the boat is decommissioned? It may leave those who have decommissioned with very little money.

Ms Rodgers:

I do not have any discretion with regard to paying back grants. Those are the regulations. One grant was paid to maintain a fishing vessel or to keep a fisherman in business, and the other will be paid to allow him to go out of business. It is not possible to give him the grant to decommission his vessel and at the same time to allow him to retain a grant intended to keep him in business.

Loughs Agency


Mr Maskey

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline what work her Department is engaged in with the Government in the Republic of Ireland to ensure the Loughs Agency meets the objectives set for it by the North/South Ministerial Council.

(AQO 1360/00)

Ms Rodgers:

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development regularly engages with its co-sponsoring Department in the South, the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, on matters relating to the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. The Departments are currently bringing forward parallel legislation to extend the functions of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. This legislation will provide the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission with powers to licence and to develop aquaculture in the Foyle and Carlingford areas.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development also works closely with the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources on various operational matters relating to the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. The Departments ensure that the agency has sufficient funding and staff to enable it to carry out its functions effectively. My Department also engages with its co-sponsoring Department in the South on various Loughs Agency policy matters. I refer the Member to my earlier statement on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission which took place in Dublin on 6 April 2001.

Mr Maskey:

I would like to have a clearer understanding of when the enabling legislation will be laid. In the light of the statement this morning it seems that many issues are outstanding. When will the enabling legislation be in place?

Ms Rodgers:

I am very anxious to proceed with the legislation as soon as possible. There are some outstanding issues which my officials and the Dublin officials are attempting to resolve. Northern Ireland needs an appeals procedure to match that in the South. At present our appeals procedure allows an appeal from the aggrieved person who has been refused a licence. It does not allow an appeal from a third party who objected to the licence and whose objection was then rejected. We are looking at that part of the legislation and trying to resolve that. If you were to take a judicial review, complications would also arise due to the fact that the two different jurisdictions are involved in a North/South body. The answer to the Member's question is that I am anxious to proceed as soon as possible and will do so as soon as these issues are resolved.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease (Farmers' Losses)


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline her policy on compensation for losses sustained by farmers and rural businesses as a result of foot-and-mouth disease.

(AQO 1322/00)

Ms Rodgers:

Compensation is paid to owners of animals that have been affected by the disease, have been in contact with affected animals or have been exposed to the infection. It can also be paid for a limited range of materials - such as carcasses, fodder or feeding stock - that have been directly implicated as a disease risk. At the request of the Executive, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has set up an interdepartmental group to examine the economic impact of the foot-and-mouth crisis in Northern Ireland. This group, which will report to the Executive, is considering what practical measures might be feasible and appropriate to support those sectors affected by the foot-and-mouth outbreak, taking account of local circumstances.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for her response and her ongoing work in dealing with foot-and-mouth disease, but I specifically ask her to look in greater detail at the issue of consequential loss. Take, for example, the case of livestock marts. They are not closed because they have no customers but because of an edict issued by the Minister herself and subsequently backed by Brussels. Farm businesses, which have been encouraged to diversify by the Minister's Department, are further examples. Their suffering is, in some senses, even worse than that of traditional farms on their own. If it is possible for the Scottish and Welsh Executives to take some action on consequential compensation, is it not also possible for it to happen here?

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware - as, I am sure, are the Members - that consequential loss is a very difficult issue. Pinpointing the assistance necessary for the different sectors and areas is extremely difficult. GB and the Republic of Ireland are likewise facing a tough time in defining where any support might be given.

There is a hierarchy of need that has to be addressed. There are businesses, such as the marts, which have been totally closed down. There are businesses that have not been closed down but that have suffered greatly with a substantial loss of income. There are resource implications in any decision, and it would be a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel to make an assessment and come to a view on what would be possible. That is why the Executive are looking at the issue of consequential loss.

I am very much aware of the issues raised by Mr Ford, particularly in the area of rural development, where people have been getting businesses off the ground. It is an extremely difficult area to deal with, and I can only say that the Executive are looking at several options. I will not go through them all now, but we have considered areas such as rates, small firm loan guarantees and revenue. I am sure that those were covered earlier by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Mr Gibson:

My question fits somewhere into the "hierarchy of need" that the Minister mentioned. Does the Minister have any plans to give financial aid to farmers whose breeding stock has had to be slaughtered as a result of the ban on movement and sales?

Ms Rodgers:

That question comes into the area of consequential loss. I recognise that this is an extremely difficult situation for farmers whose breeding stock has been slaughtered. My departmental advisers have been in touch with all the farmers whose stock has been culled and are advising them on how the situation should be tackled. In relation to consequential compensation, however, I am afraid that my answer has to remain the same as before, except to say that advice will be available to farmers on finance and on how to get their businesses up and going again.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In relation to consequential loss, farmers have so far taken severe losses, and they are now expected to pay vets for visits so that their livestock can be moved from their premises for grazing. I am unsure whether that is being paid for in Britain or whether farmers here are being asked to pay for that separately. It is a consequential cost, so I ask the Minister whether that can be taken into account and farmers given compensation for that loss.

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has decided to shoulder some of the burden of the veterinary certification costs involved in issuing movement licences. This is not happening in relation to all licences, but I am seeking clarification on that matter. I will look urgently at providing a similar facility in Northern Ireland, but that has public expenditure implications, and I need to be sure that it is justified and affordable. This will take time, and in the meantime, farmers are responsible for paying for any veterinary certification that they require.

This is a difficult situation, not just for the farming community, but for many other sectors. There is a price tag and, unfortunately, we do not have a bottomless pit of money. I sympathise and understand that the situation is difficult for farmers. Allowing some movement was an easement for the farmers, but now I have the problem of paying for the licences.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease
(Rate Relief for Businesses)


Mr Close

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail discussions she has had with the Minister of Finance and Personnel regarding rate relief for businesses that have suffered consequential losses as a result of foot-and-mouth disease.

(AQO 1321/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I have raised the issue of rate relief with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I understand that any changes to the existing rating system would require primary legislation, and that would take some time to achieve.

Mr Close:

I thank the Minister for that brief reply. I understand that a rate deferment scheme has been considered and discussed by the interdepartmental co-ordinating group. Can the Minister give more information to the House on that? In talking about consequential loss and the width to which it extends, even into the industrial sector, does she accept the broad principle that there is a need for a hardship package for Northern Ireland and that it should be paid for from the contingency fund?

Ms Rodgers:

The response to the Member's question is a matter for the Minister of Finance and Personnel, not for myself. I agree with what has been said about the hardship being suffered and about the contingency fund. We will be making a very strong case for the contingency fund to be used. At a meeting some time ago in Downing Street with the Prime Minister I flagged up the point that it will be very difficult for the Northern Ireland block to cope with all of the expenditure that is arising. I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will also be making a strong case on our behalf for the contingency fund to be used.

Mr Poots:

The Minister said earlier that the European Union had banned the livestock marts from carrying out their business. Has the Minister contacted the European Union to ask it to support consequential compensation for the livestock marts?

Ms Rodgers:

I have not been in touch with the European Union on that specific issue. I hope that the European Union will be making a contribution towards some of our expenditure. However, in relation to contacting the European Commission, the Member will be aware that, as Northern Ireland is not a member state, any contact would be a national matter and would be dealt with by the UK Minister.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease
("Fortress Island" Approach)


Ms Gildernew

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail what action can be taken to develop a "fortress island" approach to preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from Great Britain or elsewhere in future.

(AQO 1341/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I recognise that tackling foot-and-mouth disease is an all-island issue, and that is why I have had frequent discussions with Joe Walsh, both through the North/South Ministerial Council and bilaterally. There is also constant liaison at official level. Any attempt to develop such an approach must obviously focus on the points of entry from GB, where the disease is rampant.

We have controls in place at all ports and airports, and these arrangements are kept under constant review. We have vehicle disinfectant facilities at all ports, and these have been upgraded by installing mechanical facilities to increase the efficiency of the operations. We also have facilities available at all ports and airports for misting people with disinfectant. People have been are advised of the existence of those facilities and their availability for use on a voluntary basis.

4.00 pm.

I restate my strongly held view that the front line of defence lies with the farmers themselves. We can do whatever is possible at Government level, but each farmer in Northern Ireland has a personal responsibility to act to protect his or her own farm and thereby contribute to the overall objective of beating the disease.

Ms Gildernew:

I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the nature of this disease, the fact that it can be carried by birds and wildlife and that our rivers and lakes cross the border, could more be done by looking at an all-Ireland policy on animal health? Should more work have been done with Joe Walsh, and should the Minister not have taken more advice from officials in Dublin rather than those in London?

Ms Rodgers:

I assure Ms Gildernew that I do not take advice from London or Dublin. I take advice from my officials in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. On the issue of an animal health strategy, I inform Ms Gildernew that as early as November of last year, at a North/South Ministerial Council with Joe Walsh, we decided to begin the process of bringing forward a joint animal health strategy for the island of Ireland. Our officials have been working on that fortuitously, because the foot-and-mouth crisis has shown that this is an all-Ireland issue, as the Member pointed out. Bugs and viruses do not recognise borders, and streams and mountains cross the border. The fact that we recognised that some months before we were faced with this problem indicates that we were thinking along the right lines even before the crisis erupted.

Mr Savage:

There is a matter of concern. Prior to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease a number of farmers were wiped out by brucellosis in their livestock. There seems to be disparity between the amount of money that they got in compensation for their cattle and the compensation being paid to farmers whose animals have been slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth disease. This is a very big problem. When both sets of farmers are allowed to restock, they will all be competing, but not on a level playing field, given the differences in compensation.

Ms Rodgers:

The compensation for brucellosis and for foot-and-mouth disease has always been the same. That is the market value, as assessed by our valuers, and a farmer who is not happy with the valuation that is offered has a right to independent valuation. That has always been the position. Many farmers have gone for independent valuation, and I am aware of one case, at least, in which the independent valuation was lower than ours.


Assembly Commission

Assembly Use of Fair Trade Goods


Mr Ford

asked the Assembly Commission what plans there are for increasing the range of fair trade goods used in the Assembly.

(AQO 1325/00)

Mr Wells:

The Assembly Commission and the Catering and Functions Committee have been actively exploring ways of promoting fair trade goods in the Assembly. We have been working closely with War on Want, which is the leading fair trade campaigner in Northern Ireland. The Commission has also recently re-let the catering contract that commits Mount Charles to purchase fair trade goods where possible. Mount Charles has already been successful in sourcing fair trade sugar and coffee and will, it is to be hoped, be able to purchase fair trade tea in the near future.

Members may be aware that a very successful photocall was held in the Great Hall to promote the fair trade campaign. It involved members of the Commission, the Catering and Functions Committee, representatives from War on Want, Mount Charles and the Tear Fund group from Queen's University.

War on Want has been invited to provide an exhibition in Parliament Buildings, commencing today, to promote the fair trade principles among Members and staff. It is being held at the east staircase on the first floor and will provide Members with an opportunity to view the range of products available and learn more about the fair trade concept.

Mr Ford:

I applaud the actions of the Commission and Mount Charles in promoting fair trade so far. Mr Wells referred to the exhibition, which I trust Members will visit during the course of its time here.

As fair trade is clearly the policy of the Assembly Commission, is it right that such an exhibition should be tucked away in a rarely-visited corner of the building? Would it not be better if, tomorrow, it were relocated either in the Great Hall or in the canteen, where it would be seen by more people, and help spread the message that the Commission believes in?

Mr Wells:

The Member is absolutely correct - the Commission, as individuals, and as a body, are committed to the principles of fair trade. At its meeting on 23 October 2000 the Assembly Commission agreed that the first floor area of the east staircase could be used for exhibitions lasting up to two weeks. The designated areas provide sufficient space for a variety of different types of exhibitions without compromising the efficient functioning of the building.

Mr Ford will be aware that there are many demands on space in the building. The Commission has decided that this is the best area for exhibitions. Other events and have taken place there, and organisations have had very successful exhibitions.

Assembly (Recruitment of Staff)


Mr C Murphy

asked the Assembly Commission to detail what methodology has been put in place for weighing up Civil Service experience and non-Civil Service experience (for example academic, research, policy, political activity) to ensure equality in the recruitment of staff to the Assembly Secretariat.

(AQO 1344/00)

Mr Wells:

The Assembly Commission - in taking forward what is a very substantial recruitment programme - has adopted the principle of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. That principle is being applied to all Assembly recruitment competitions, and adherence to the principle maintains the integrity of the Assembly and cultivates an environment where applicants for Assembly posts will be confident that they will be treated fairly and equally.

All job requirements for Assembly posts are set and clearly defined by the selection panel before jobs are advertised. Application forms are designed to seek only information relevant to the assessment of candidates against the criteria specified for the job.

In determining the job requirements of each post to be advertised, the assessment panel does not - and I repeat - does not consider how potential applicants have gained the requirements being sought. Only those applicants who fully meet the stipulated job requirements are deemed eligible for participation in the recruitment competition.

I assure the Member that the requirements stipulated for all publicly advertised Assembly posts, be they academic qualfications, periods of relevant experience, or both, are entirely job-related and considered essential for the job.

All members of the selection panel - including members of the Assembly Commission, who, on a number of occasions, have been on selection panels themselves - have received criteria-based interviewing and equal opportunities training. Selection panels comprise male and female representatives from more than one community background.

Mr C Murphy:

My remarks are not in any way intended to be a slight on Civil Service or current Assembly staff. However, does the Assembly Commission agree that, in order to deliver the new beginning that the Belfast Agreement heralds, it should enourage applicants from as wide a range of people as possible to ensure that it is not just people with a Civil Service background who are working in this Building?

To have a broad approach and to enhance the new beginning that we are trying to create, it would benefit the Assembly staff and the Secretariat if we could draw people from as wide a variety of backgrounds as possible. Recruitment and interviewing measures should not, therefore, be seen as skewed to those who have a Civil Service background.

Mr Wells:

That is exactly what the Commission has achieved. Over half of the 98 staff appointed have been non-civil servants. Only 46 have been civil servants. Fifty-one per cent of applicants were Protestants, 43% were Catholics; 51% were female, and 49% were male. Those figures are very representative of the travel-to-work area for the Building, and I am confident that the Assembly Commission has carried out its duties and selection in a very fair and even-handed manner.

Assembly (Recruitment of Staff):
Proportion of Civil Servants


Ms Gildernew

asked the Assembly Commission to detail (a) the number of civil servants who have been successful in external competition for appointment to the Assembly Secretariat and (b) what proportion of all recruitment to the Assembly Secretariat has come from the Civil Service.

(AQO 1362/00)

Mr Wells:

Forty-six civil servants have been successful in obtaining appointments to the Assembly secretariat following external competition. To date, 47% of those recruited to the Assembly through external competition have been civil servants.

Ms Gildernew:

In the light of the previous question from my Colleague, Mr Conor Murphy, I would like an assurance that openness and accountability are the key themes in recruitment. Are those people who are seconded from other parts of the Civil Service treated with parity when employed in the Assembly secretariat?

Mr Wells:

I can give an assurance that the Assembly Commission has been entirely fair in all its dealings in the appointment of staff. All our positions are advertised in the the three local newspapers, the 'Irish News', the 'News Letter' and the 'Belfast Telegraph'. When the Commission deems it to be necessary, we also advertise in papers that circulate in the rest of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. We are confident, having analysed statistics on those who are applying, that we are attracting applications from the widest possible section of society.

We have also been successful in attracting 53% of applicants from outside the Civil Service. That percentage includes people who have worked for district councils, the Housing Executive and other statutory agencies. I can give a personal assurance, as well as an assurance on behalf of the Commission, that we have been scrupulously fair in our implementation of the fair employment guidelines in all recruitment activities since the Assembly was founded.

Mr Beggs:

There is a lot of benefit to be had from bringing in skills from areas outside the Civil Service, such as the public sector and other local government agencies. However, does the Commission agree that if it excludes civil servants with relevant experience, it will be in breach of equality legislation?

Mr Wells:

That is a fundamental point. If we said that we would not accept applications from civil servants, we would be in contravention of all of the relevant legislation. Obviously, civil servants are attracted to posts in the Assembly, because they can seek secondment from their Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments and return if they wish. That is clearly one of the reasons why so many civil servants have applied. However, having applied, they are treated in exactly the same way as any other applicants. The figures show that, despite the attraction of secondment, over half of the - very good - staff that we have appointed have come from outside the Civil Service. If the view that there is a bias in favour of civil servants is inherent in this question, the statistics show that that is not the case.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

There are no further questions to the Assembly Commission.


Children's Commissioner Bill: First Stage



Mr Beggs:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Do you consider it in order for a private Member's Bill calling for a children's commissioner to be discussed while the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Committee of the Centre are carrying out consultation processes on the appointment of a children's commissioner? Will you refer the matter to the Business Committee and the Committee on Procedures for investigation?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

That is a matter for the Business Committee to decide, and I will ask it to discuss that at the meeting tomorrow.

4.15 pm

Ms Morrice:

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 14/00] to provide for the establishment of a children's commissioner to promote the rights and interests of children in Northern Ireland; to make provision for the powers and duties of the commissioner; and for related purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.

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

Motion made:

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


<< Prev / Next >>