Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 8 May 2001 (continued)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourist industry.
Sir Reg Empey:
With permission I will answer questions four and six together.
The impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourist industry has been widely acknowledged. The worst-case scenario estimates that losses of up to £180 million could occur. The economic consequences are factored into risk analyses constantly reviewed by the Executive group chaired by my Colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I maintain close contact with tourist industry representatives.
I thank the Minister for his reply. My constituency of Strangford, being the most attractive tourist destination in Northern Ireland, has undoubtedly suffered. Many people have been affected, for instance, my wife, who sells Irish linen souvenirs. No visitors means no sales. The Kirkistown circuit has been closed, and the Carrowdore 100 has been postponed.
What help can the Minister give the organisers of events, the passing trade, pubs, petrol stations and the ordinary people who are trying to make a living? Foot-and- mouth disease has been a disaster for all of them.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am not going to get drawn into the argument about which is the most beautiful constituency in Northern Ireland. I think it is East Belfast, but that is my personal opinion. I want to make the serious point that I am conscious that the absence of visitors and cancellation of events does have a knock-on effect. I stress that the compensation route will not solve the problem; the only thing that will achieve that is getting our visitors back.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has undertaken a £1 million recovery programme, which is already rolling out. We were able to support the North West Fest proposals to try to make up for the cancellation of the NorthWest 200. If other areas have ideas and promotions we will certainly consider them.
However, the amount of money that we have committed towards the recovery of tourism is proportionately higher than that in any other part of these islands. Twelve million pounds was given to the British tourist authority last week on top of the £2·2 million that had already been submitted. Proportionately, we represent 3% of the UK, and you can see at a glance that our effort has been greater.
This is not the first time that the Minister has ruled out consequential compensation to the tourist industry. He has mentioned that there is a £1 million package available for those in the tourism industry. What innovative ideas are actually coming from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board as to how this money should be best distributed to increase the number of tourists visiting the Province?
Sir Reg Empey:
First, I did not rule out consequential compensation. I am not sure if the Member was present earlier, but I will again refer to the Executive Committee statement of last week which said that the economic impact of foot-and-mouth disease on businesses had been discussed and that it had been agreed that a grant-aid scheme, in lieu of rates relief, should be developed. We hope to announce details of that shortly.
Rates relief is not the solution. It may make a contribution, but I want the focus to be on trying to get our visitors back. To that end, the Tourist Board has put in an enormous amount of work getting together with carriers to encourage the regional tourism organisations to do promotional work in their areas. When the north- west requested help, the Tourist Board brought forward support. It has been very active and stands ready to help. A very substantial programme of events has been taking place in the United States, Europe, Great Britain and the Republic, rolling out over the next few weeks, to try to maintain as much of our tourism sector industry business this year as possible. It is also designed to ensure that the losses will not continue into the next year.
Members are inclined to agree with the Minister that compensation does not lie at the heart of the recovery. However, compensation does lie at the heart of sustaining those businesses which would not survive until that recovery takes place. We have lost the Easter period; we have lost the May Bank Holiday, and I cannot see the recovery's happening in time for the summer holiday period. I read this morning that in Great Britain another £25 million has been awarded to the tourism recovery programme. That makes a total of £265 million. What new grant-aided scheme is going to sustain businesses while recovery takes place?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Executive, through the special group chaired by Ms Rodgers, are looking at all compensation-related issues. There will be a grant-aid scheme in lieu of rates relief, and we will have to look at hardship cases. Some national proposals are in operation with the revenue, with VAT and with the small firms loan guarantee schemes. I have written to the banks. I have also written to the electricity undertakings and the gas undertakings. We have approached other people who are in a position to influence the longevity of these businesses. We will look at individual applications ourselves. However, the only long-term solution is to continue to fight to get people not to cancel or to get people to visit. We have, therefore, been supporting the special offers that many hotels and resorts have been offering, and there are some early indications of success. It is not all downhill. People in the north-coast area have set an example which, I hope, other areas will follow.
What evaluation is being carried out to ascertain the losses in various agri-associated businesses such as livestock marts? Can the Minister support their getting consequential compensation for the loss of 400 jobs in that business?
Sir Reg Empey:
Although it is not my responsibility, the question of marts is a special case. I am assured by Ms Rodgers and Mr Durkan that they are looking very closely at this issue. Members of the Agriculture Committee raised it on a number of occasions. I assure Mr Armstrong that the Executive are acutely aware of that case, and I look forward to a positive proposal being brought forward.
Promotion of Investment (Armagh)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail his plans for the promotion of investment in Armagh City and to make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Programme for Government includes actions by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to work with regional groupings of district councils to co-ordinate marketing information about Northern Ireland and council areas as a location for investment. Armagh is an integral part of this process.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he accept that Armagh city is in a unique position? It has relatively low unemployment at just over 5%, but 68% of residents who are employed commute out of Armagh city. That means that the wages of 68% of the working population are not spent in local shops and businesses. There is a crying need for support to expand the city's manufacturing and retail base and a need to encourage people to spend in the city.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am very familiar with Armagh, having spent many years at school there. I am also very conscious of the points to which Mr Fee referred. I must, however, say that the situation is not new.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has, through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, been very supportive of the new hotel project which now nears completion. That is a very ambitious project that will contribute to the fabric of Armagh's economy. Armagh District Council has been very proactive in developing various facilities, and the tourist industry there was given a real boost. The conferment of city status on Armagh some years ago added to that. The IDB is acutely aware of it, and I am conscious that it is has not been possible to get as much investment as we would like in that area.
For the Member's information, in the past three years there have been six visits by potential investors to Armagh and to the district council area. The IDB is very conscious of Armagh's need. We have a 9·4 acre estate available at Edenaveys, and I visited it the last time I was in the city. I assure the Member that we take his points seriously. We believe that we have the infrastructure in place for investment.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is the Minister aware that in relation to Armagh the record of the IDB over the past five years - in projects and investment secured, jobs secured or safeguarded and IDB assistance to business - is at best less than 0·5% of its overall record of achievement in the North of Ireland? Given that he says that Armagh is now an integral part of the IDB's plans for the future, can he explain how that will change? He will have to accept that it is a fairly abysmal record.
Sir Reg Empey:
While I appreciate the Member's points, I have to say that one must look at the unemployment position in the area. As Mr Fee pointed out, it is at a comparatively low level. That is not to be complacent, because I am very conscious that proximity to the border and the surrounding area's dependence on agriculture are matters which have caused stress in the past few years. LEDU, for instance, has 53 growth clients in Armagh and the council area. That is a substantial number. As I indicated, we have 9·4 acres available for use. We have been very active in tourism, and we have put forward £2·8 million for the new hotel project. That shows a clear commitment to doing everything possible. I accept that it is not the best record in Northern Ireland, but policy must be related to need. The fact that unemployment in the city is comparatively low is testament that the policies have been working.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact that foot-and-mouth disease has had on businesses involved in country sports and leisure activities.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has advised that angling, tourism and related businesses have been affected, as the majority of fisheries adjacent to agricultural land remain closed. While some businesses, such as equestrian centres, have significant problems, the full economic consequences of foot-and- mouth disease will not be apparent for some time.
I am concerned about some country sports. Examples from my area illustrate what is happening in the Province. Trade has decreased by 50% in a number of country sport shops in the Strangford borough, and seven or eight put-and-take lakes have been closed for four months.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Will the Member come to his question?
The Ark Rare Breeds Open Farm, a tourist attraction in Newtownards, has been closed for four months. It has no income but must still pay rates and other bills. What can we do to help these people in the short and long term?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member has brought attention to the most difficult category of people to help - those who are adjacent to farmland. The Member must realise that there is still a significant risk of foot-and-mouth disease as we saw a few weeks ago at Easter when cases appeared out of the blue in the Glens of Antrim and Ardboe. There is no guarantee that the disease has run its course, that there will not be other cases, that the infection is not already in other flocks. The last thing that the Member would want to see is further cases and outbreaks. Therefore those people who operate adjacent to farm land will not be free of the restrictions until we are satisfied on veterinary advice that it is safe to lift them.
As I said earlier, the Executive agreed last week that a grant-aid scheme in lieu of rates relief should be developed. The legislative base here is different, so we do not have the rates relief scheme that there is in Great Britain. However a grant-aid-in-lieu scheme is being developed, and it is likely that it will be administered, in part, by my Department. Obviously, we must take into account the specific hardship cases to which the Member has referred. Indeed, we may be able to make some provision for those hardship cases. However, I stress to the Member that while I understand that these businesses have been closed for months, they are the most difficult hardship cases to solve, and the last thing that we can do is take a chance and run the risk of another outbreak.
Economic Investment (West Tyrone)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the steps he is taking to stimulate economic investment in West Tyrone.
Sir Reg Empey:
My Department, in partnership with the local councils, has taken a number of steps to stimulate economic investment in west Tyrone. They have included attractive new inward investment, assisting indigenous companies to become more competitive and promoting and encouraging the development of new enterprise.
In what areas of information technology communications - telecom or other providers - is west Tyrone deficient at the moment? What is being done to enable it to take on industrial and economical development on a footing that is equal to that of others?
Sir Reg Empey:
Telecom communications in the constituency of West Tyrone, as in the rest of Northern Ireland, are good. However, I assure the Member that one of the Programme for Government commitments is to ensure the availibility of broadband services that have an impact on businesses such as those that are information and communications technology-based. As the Member knows we recently, through the IDB, announced that we are trying to procure additional space in the Strabane area at the Orchard Road Industrial Estate, and we are actively seeking a tenant who could be based in that sector.
I assure the Member that we will ensure that areas such as west Tyrone are put on as level a playing field as possible with the rest of Northern Ireland for the provision of the best possible technology. That is how it will be judged, and I suspect that the Member may well have something to do with assessing whether we get it right.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Byrne you may be able to pose a question if you are brief, but I suspect that the Minister may have to answer you in writing.
I welcome what the Minister said about broadband telecommunications. Will he assure the House that everything is being done to expedite the assessment of all potential inward investment projects, including those that involve some local endeavour and initiative?
Sir Reg Empey:
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I thank the Minister for being brief.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Question two, in the name of Mr Beggs, and question 15, in the name of Mr Maskey, have been transferred to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of Education respectively. Those questions will receive a written reply.
Further Education Establishment (Larne)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline his plans for the provision of a new further education establishment in the Larne Borough Council area.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
The East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education has been given approval for a new building on the existing Larne site. It will be financed from the proceeds of the sale of part of that site. The sale of the land has been formally approved, and the institute has appointed a commercial estate agent to examine the sale options.
I welcome the Minister's statement. Can he give Members an assurance that his Department will foot the bill for any extra costs if the sale of the site does not raise enough money to cover the cost of the new building?
The further education capital budget allocation is fully committed, and there are no central resources available to the institute for the development. Any alternative proposal from the institute that requires financial assistance will be considered in the light of available resources and other capital priorities in the further education sector. It is imperative to pursue the prospects for the commercial sale of part of the site.
Does the Minister agree that Larne Borough Council is disadvantaged by the lack of a permanent further education college, and that East Antrim is the only constituency in Northern Ireland without a permanent further education college? Will he allow any surplus funds raised by the sale of the site to be reallocated in East Antrim in order to address that disadvantage?
I do not concede that East Antrim is disadvantaged in the way that the Member suggested. The East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education at Newtownabbey provides a wide range of courses and attracts large numbers of students from throughout the East Antrim area and beyond. I am satisfied that the main further education needs are currently being addressed. However, I am conscious that there are special needs that could be more effectively addressed by the provision of some further education courses in Larne itself. That is why provision has been made for a new building for the East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education on that site.
Like Mr O'Connor, I wanted a stronger commitment from the Minister. Will the Minister assure the House that as wide a range of courses as possible will be made available in the new facility?
My previous answers have given that assurance. I have met with a delegation from Larne Borough Council; I have visited the East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education, and I am fully aware of what is needed. Current plans are tailored to address those needs so that we can have the most effective range of further education provisions now and for the future.
Further Education Colleges
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the consistency, within the 17 colleges of further education, in their delivery of an educational programme to prepare young people for work.
The Education and Training Inspectorate reports regularly to me on the overall provision in all 17 colleges of further and higher education, and on specific aspects of the colleges' course arrangements. The inspectorate's reports clearly indicate a quality of provision that is usually at least satisfactory and often good or better.
The Minister will be aware that colleges of further education have a degree of autonomy on their boards of governors. Is the Minister satisfied that effective liaison arrangements involving all 17 colleges across the Province are in place and that they are in a position to deliver a cohesive joined-up skills programme to meet the demands of the labour market? For example, if someone undertakes a training course in Londonderry, is he or she qualified for a job in Belfast?
I can assure all Members that effective liaison arrangements exist between my Department and all the colleges. I am currently undertaking a round of visits to each college in turn, an exercise which I expect to complete by the end of the academic year. In the colleges I have visited so far I have had the opportunity to listen to their plans and concerns, and I hope to have the same opportunity in those colleges I have yet to visit. I am impressed by the level of commitment and enterprise in our further education colleges. I am also impressed by the manner in which the colleges, in conjunction with my Department, the university sector and the world of business, are conscientiously addressing the question of skills needs to ensure that we have a labour force that is highly educated and well trained to meet those needs.
Can the Minister tell me what, if any, links exist between representatives of further education colleges and local industrial bodies to enable the formation of special industry-related education programmes?
In order to examine the question precisely, we must look at individual colleges to see how they are responding to needs in their own localities. All the colleges are engaged with local business representatives to ensure that the expertise, skills and facilities are made available to local businesses for training purposes. Many colleges have responded to requests from businesses to meet particular training requirements with customised programmes.
Careers Guidance Review
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the recently completed review of careers guidance.
My Department and the Department of Education commissioned the review of careers education and guidance. The working group's report is a useful first step towards meeting 'Strategy 2010' recommendations on enhancing the current system of careers guidance. That report is now under active consideration in my Department.
In the Republic of Ireland, reportedly, there is one staff member per 500 students. How many careers guidance staff are there in higher education in Northern Ireland?
I would need to be given advance notice in order to answer the Member's question on the number of careers guidance staff in higher education. The report recommends that I should visit more job centres and colleges of further education. The issue of careers education and guidance is frequently raised with me. The report is under active consideration and will be progressed by my Department and the Department of Education. Decisions will be made on the basis of the report's recommendations. The matter is receiving urgent attention.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline how he intends to evaluate the impact of the recently announced student financial package, in terms of access, skills upgrading and student poverty.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if the changes he is proposing for student finance, and in particular the introduction of non-repayable bursaries, will be available to existing students as well as to new students.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail how long the equality consultation on his student finance review is due to take and if it will impact on those elements of the package due to be introduced this September.
Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will take questions 5, 8 and 11 together, as they relate to the same subject.
The process of the evaluation of the student support proposals is currently under consideration. The administrative and legislative details of those proposals are also still being considered. However, I intend to introduce the bursary element in higher education for existing and new students. The closing date for comments on the equality consultation is 15 June 2001. I cannot predict the outcome of that process, but I hope that it will not adversely affect the timing of my proposals.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's response. Although this question may be somewhat premature, will the Minister, as a result of such an evaluation, consider those areas in which capping has curtailed potential student enrolment and where an economic need exists for skills upgrading to alleviate long-term unemployment?
I am not sure that I fully took in all of the issues that the Member raised. I assume the question relates to the increase in places that is contained in the proposals. If so, the allocation of additional places will certainly take into account the skills needs and the areas of qualification that we need to enhance the enrolment numbers. I wish to address that issue together with the higher education institutions to see exacly where those places may be allocated.
What is the total funding that the Minister's Department will make available for the introduction of the new maintenance grants scheme? How many students does the Minster expect to qualify for the maintenance grants?
The current estimate is that in one year around £21 million will be required to meet the applications for access bursaries. It is anticipated that one third of full-time students in higher education - approximately 14,000 - will be eligible for those bursaries. Approximately 3,000 equivalent bursaries will be made available in further and higher education colleges.
The most important outcome of the Minister's review is that more students than ever before will have the chance to access third-level education. How can the Minister assure the House that students from previously under-represented groups will be encouraged to take up that opportunity to access third-level education?
The question points at one of the key objectives of the new student financial support arrangements - to increase representation of those in hitherto under-represented groups, particularly those with lower incomes. Together with the representatives of the students' organisations, schools and universities themselves, my Department will be putting together a programme to inform pupils of the possibilities in further and higher education. The Department will be in a position to provide information as to how best to manage financial affairs.
I also draw the House's attention to the current initiatives in which both our local universities are involved, aimed at reaching out to pupils in schools with a small enrolment and familiarising them with what is available in further and higher education. We shall work with the Educational Guidance Service for Adults on parallel initiatives to inform adults who have not had the opportunity to enter further and higher education about their future prospects.
Third-Level Education (West Tyrone)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail (a) his plans to make third level education available in West Tyrone and (b) the start date for the new college in Omagh.
Omagh College of Further and Higher Education already delivers third-level education in West Tyrone, offering a range of part-time higher education courses. The outline business case for the Tyrone College's project, which encompasses new college buildings for Omagh and east Tyrone, was presented to my Department on 7 March 2001. Departmental officials are assessing the business case, and approval to proceed to the private finance initiative procurement will be given if the assessment is positive. I trust that it will be.
When will opportunities to work in all the faculties of third-level educational institutions be available to those of my constituents who are in full-time and part-time employment? What efforts are being made to use information technology more widely as a means of communication, rather than having students or part-time workers travelling long distances to university campuses?
The question refers to all faculties. Neither of our universities provides courses in all the possible faculties of a third-level educational institution. Some students are obliged to pursue their studies outside Northern Ireland, because their courses are not available here.
It is doubtful whether all the disciplines that can be pursued at higher education level will ever be available in our universities or colleges. However, we are working to widen the provision of higher education courses in Northern Ireland. The provision of higher education in Tyrone is under consideration. Online course delivery is now part of the planning of most courses at all levels of education. The issues that the Member raised are central to forward planning in my Department.
I welcome the Minister's comments about the new college in Omagh. Will the provision of foundation degrees be considered? Full-time higher education is important to a town such as Omagh, which has a population of 25,000.
I have approved several foundation degree pilot programmes that will be introduced in the next academic year. These will be in areas of high-skill demand, including telecommunications, software development and engineering and computing technologies.
One of the pilots currently in development involves Queen's University in partnership with Omagh College of Further and Higher Education, British Telecom and the BBC to deliver a foundation degree in web technology at the Omagh College campus. This foundation degree will provide students in west Tyrone with modern, relevant and very marketable skills and is seen as a significant potential contributor to the economic regeneration of the area. I know that the college is looking forward very enthusiastically to the introduction of this course, and I recently met with representatives of the college and Queen's University to hear where preparations are at the present.