Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 14 May 2001 (continued)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Mr Speaker:

Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Single Equality Bill


Mr McCarthy

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment on the arrangements for consultation on the Single Equality Bill.

(AQO 1451/00)


Mr Gallagher

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment on the arrangements for consultation on the Single Equality Bill.

(AQO 1479/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon): The principles and values of equality and human rights are central to the Good Friday Agreement and are fundamental to the Programme for Government. We are committed to promoting equality of opportunity and to ensuring that discrimination is tackled through the provision of strong laws and effective public policies. Through our Programme for Government, we are committed to the introduction of a Single Equality Bill.

Consultation on the Bill will be in two phases. The first consultation has begun and will continue until early August. This intial consultation will address the scope of, and the general issues covered in, the proposed Bill. The second phase will take place next year. That consultation will address the detailed measures contained in the Bill and will incorporate an equality impact assessment and regulatory impact assessment.

The current consultation document will be available on request in different languages and different formats to cater for those with particular needs. Seminars will also be held in different locations across Northern Ireland, and additional meetings will be offered to interest groups concerning the content and scope of the Bill, in addition to the invitation for written comment. I am content that the consultation process planned for the Bill will offer a full opportunity for people who wish to comment to do so.

Mr McCarthy:

Does the Deputy First Minister have any idea how we escape a mindset whereby we do not consider people's needs until we pigeonhole them and put them into a group? Should not equality be as much about individuals as it is about groups?

The Deputy First Minister:

That is a very pertinent observation. The reality is that most interest groups in Northern Ireland do coalesce. They form groups, and it is the obligation of the Administration to consult with those groups. However, any individual can make either a written or a verbal submission to the consultation. We would welcome the freshness of an approach such as that recommended by the Member.

Mr Gallagher:

To what extent will the Single Equality Bill strengthen our existing equality laws?

The Deputy First Minister:

The consultation document on the Single Equality Bill makes clear that we are committed to promoting best practice in equality of opportunity and human rights. The Single Equality Bill will not involve a reduction in the protection offered by current laws. Rather, it is designed to build on existing equality legislation in preventing discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity for everyone in our society. We will do everything we can to ensure equality of opportunity, and the Bill will undergo the strictest scrutiny to ensure that that happens.

It will also help us to harmonise, as far as practical, all existing anti-discrimination legislation. As no reduction in the level of protection is being contemplated, harmonisation, in many cases, should strengthen the existing laws.

The Bill will also implement new European Directives on equality. This will necessarily involve strengthening our laws, in many respects, to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of age and sexual orientation. In addition, the Bill will allow us to consider other recent developments in Britain, Northern Ireland and the South of Ireland. Again, this is likely to strengthen the legislation.

Mr McFarland:

Will the Deputy First Minister outline the contribution of the Equality Commission to the development of the Single Equality Bill?

The Deputy First Minister:

We are very pleased with the positive contribution the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland is making. We have been considering its recommendations on race relations and disability law when planning for the Single Equality Bill. We are also looking forward to hearing its views on the consultation document itself. It is planned to hold meetings to discuss the Bill with the commission.

North/South Ministerial Council: Environment


Mr McGrady

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister when the next North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment will take place and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 1425/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

A North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment is scheduled to take place on 15 June. In accordance with paragraph 52(6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Minister of the Environment will make an oral report to the Assembly as soon as reasonably practicable afterwards.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the First Minister for that information. Is the First Minister aware of the additional marine pollution into the Irish Sea from the mass burial sites for animals culled because of foot-and-mouth disease at Great Orton in Cumbria and Berkshaw near Lockerbie? The effluent liquid of blood, fats and grease from decomposing animals is being pumped into the Irish Sea from these sites. What I suspected has now been confirmed to me by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, albeit with alleged caveats as to licences and treatment.

Will the First Minster take this matter up at the next North/South Council meeting on the environment and, as a matter of urgency, either in the British/Irish Council or directly with the Minister concerned?

The First Minister:

First, obviously the British /Irish Council would be a more appropriate vehicle than the North/South Ministerial Council for dealing with discharges into the Irish Sea in Cumbria, although an opportunity to discuss the matter will arise at the next meeting.

So far, no discussions have taken place at North/ South Ministerial Council meetings about the disposal of blood and liquid waste from foot-and-mouth carcasses into the Irish Sea from the Great Orton burial site. The treatment and disposal of such waste in England is a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so that matter too would seem to be more appropriate for discussion in the British/Irish Council.

The Environment Agency advises the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the environmentally safe disposal of these liquid wastes. Officials in our Department of the Environment have been advised by the Environment Agency that liquid wastes from the Great Orton burial site are collected and treated to eliminate the risk of spreading the foot-and-mouth virus. We are told that the waste is taken by tanker to waste-water treatment sites at Workington and that the treated liquid is discharged into the sea through a three-kilometre outfall, which is subject to computer modelling for its effectiveness in dispersal. I further understand that the Environment Agency regularly samples the discharge to ensure that there is no adverse environmental impact.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

If the First Minister is really serious about achieving the decommissioning of murder weapons, should he not stop these North/South meetings altogether? It is in the Republic that immunity for these murder weapons is given. Without the Republic's co- operation, there would be no hiding place for these instruments of genocide of the Ulster Protestant population. Surely those weapons are detrimental to the environment. Perhaps this is another way for the First Minister to boost the SDLP.

Mr Speaker:


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

He has already boosted that party this morning by declaring the result of an opinion poll.

Mr Speaker:


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

That opinion poll gave the SDLP a 2,000 majority over Sinn Féin candidates.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member will resume his seat. I must draw the attention of the Member and the House to the fact that the environment spoken of in the question is not the political but the natural environment.

The First Minister:

I congratulate the Member for managing to get so much into a supplementary question on a North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) environment sectoral meeting. I must point out to the Member that the Ulster Unionist Party has been active on that issue, and it has most recently taken action last Tuesday. We are still waiting to hear of anything at all that the DUP is going to do on the subject.

Mr McClarty:

Have beaches and bathing waters been discussed at the NSMC environment sectoral meetings? Will the First Minister comment on the quality of Northern Ireland's beaches and bathing waters?

The First Minister:

Included in the last NSMC environment sectoral meeting on 23 February was a discussion of the work undertaken by the working group on water quality. The water quality being considered on that occasion concerned rivers rather than beaches. Of the beaches in Northern Ireland recommended by the Marine Conservation Society's 'Good Beach Guide 2001' - there are 11 in total - only one has any problem meeting the water standards. Of the 10 sand beaches, the Member will be delighted to know that six are in his own constituency - two at Benone, two at Portrush and one each at Portstewart and Whiterocks. When I go up for the North West Fest on Saturday afternoon, I hope to visit at least one of them.

Community Relations Council


Mrs E Bell

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to consider making the Community Relations Council a non-departmental public body and to make a statement

(AQO 1460/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

We recently received the report of the regular triennial evaluation of the Community Relations Council. The report recognised the importance of the council's work in tackling divisions in our society. It made a number of recommendations aimed at further improving the council's effectiveness. The most significant was that the council should become a non-departmental public body. We will be considering that recommendation seriously in the context of the forthcoming review of community relations policy.

Mrs E Bell:

Does the Minister agree that, with the high level of sectarian violence that we are seeing on our streets, it is vital that we have a strong, independent Community Relations Council that will support those people and groups who are working tirelessly to bring safety to their communities?

The Deputy First Minister:

I fully agree with the sentiments of the Member. The events of the past weekend highlight the way in which that is needed. I believe that the entire Assembly will join with me in condemning the unwarranted attacks on young Australian tourists. It is an isolated event, but it is appalling that our tourist industry, having already been hit by foot-and- mouth disease, should have a further black mark against it at this time. I take this opportunity, in the context of the question, to say to people visiting Northern Ireland that they will find a welcome and a great generosity here. That should not be distorted by those actions.

I agree with the Member that we need a dynamic community relations approach. We need to do that in a hands-on way. The review that is beginning should lead to that type of approach, which is absolutely essential.

Mr ONeill:

Who will be conducting the forthcoming review? When will it commence? Can the Minister tell us what the terms of reference will be?

2.45 pm

The Deputy First Minister:

The review will begin before the summer - anytime now, assuming that our summer is not over already - and will be taken forward under the chairmanship of Dr Jeremy Harbison. It has lengthy terms of reference, from which I shall specify three key points: to review the background to and the development of existing community relations policy; to identify the aims and objectives of existing community relations policy and the policy instruments used to achieve them; to examine, in the light of relevant developments, the recently completed evaluations of the district council community relations programme and the Community Relations Council, and to decide whether the aims of community relations policy remain appropriate, and whether changes to existing policy instruments are required.

We need a review so that we can arrive at a dynamic approach to the issue - it has long been with us. The Community Relations Council has served us well, and I hope that it will continue to do so. Perhaps the needs of 2001 are different from those of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Child Poverty


Mr Ford

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail the steps taken, in respect of the children's fund, to ensure that children in Northern Ireland achieve parity in relation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's targets on the reduction of child poverty in the UK.

(AQO 1448/00)

The First Minister:

In March 1999, the Prime Minister set a target of halving child poverty in the United Kingdom in 10 years and eradicating it in 20 years. As well as benefiting from national initiatives designed to achieve that target - for example, the introduction of the new children's tax credit - the Executive are committed to playing their role in meeting the Prime Minister's target. Our Programme for Government makes clear our commitment to combating social exclusion and poverty, with a particular emphasis on children.

The children's fund is one of a range of initiatives that will help tackle child poverty. Its principal objective is to provide support for children in need and for young people at risk. The Executive are making £29 million available over the three years to March 2004 for the children's fund. That compares favourably with the amounts allocated to the Chancellor's children's fund.

Mr Ford:

I am glad that the allocation from the Executive programme funds is significantly better than the Chancellor's initiative. Does the First Minister agree that the operation of the Barnett formula is a major issue? The formula should be revised to a needs-based system, so that when the regions of England complain about getting inadequate funding, this Executive can ensure that such funding is not taken away from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The First Minister:

I agree with the Member to some extent. There is much ill-informed comment about the Barnett formula, including the piece by William Rees-Mogg in 'The Times' this morning. Clearly, he does not understand the nature of the formula. I agree that we should consider needs. We pay the same taxes as other citizens of the United Kingdom, and we are entitled to the same quality of service. We should receive sufficient funding to deliver that quality of service, even if that means more money here or less money there.

We must consider the issue of needs, in particular, very carefully, before rushing into a review. The review must be managed properly and to our benefit. When I said that our children's fund compared favourably with the Chancellor's fund, I meant, of course, that it compared well on a per capita basis.

Dr Adamson:

Will the Executive use new targeting social needs (TSN) policy to target child poverty in Northern Ireland?

The First Minister:

Any action to alleviate child poverty must be targeted on the sectors in which poverty exists. Every policy should take into account all relevant considerations. The information that is available through New TSN criteria will be taken into account as appropriate. However, I must emphasise that child poverty is largely dealt with through the tax system; the Chancellor's child tax credit is a key way of doing that.

Child poverty is also a reflection of adult poverty. The best way of tackling that is to get people into good, well-paid employment. In that - as well as in a whole host of matters - providing good employment is the answer to a large part of the problem.

Mr Speaker:

I encourage all Members to address each other through the Speaker.

Ms Lewsley:

The Minister has already answered some of my question in that our children's fund will, relatively speaking, be considerably higher than that of the Chancellor's children's fund. Can the First Minister verify that the amounts of money available through our children's fund initially will be increased in the next round?

The First Minister:

The short answer is "yes". We will have more in the later rounds.

Human Rights Violations


Mr Poots

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what consultation it has had with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on the issue of human rights violations by paramilitary organisations.

(AQO 1433/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Member for the question. We have not discussed this matter with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Mr Poots:

That is quite an astonishing answer, given the debate that took place in the Chamber, and given the Knox report, which referred to the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil attitude to punishment beatings carried out by paramilitary organisations. This has been particularly evident in the past three weeks when the IRA carried out two murders. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister still sit in Government with an IRA commander from the area where Mr O'Kane was murdered. What are you going to do about it, Mr Mallon?

The Deputy First Minister:

We welcome the commission's condemnation of so-called punishment attacks and its intention to explore ways of ensuring better co-operation in efforts to tackle the problem. The research quoted in the commission's statement shows clearly that the scourge of such attacks is all too prevalent - at a terrible cost to individuals, families and communities. It highlights the need for a police service that is accountable and a criminal justice system that has the support and confidence of everybody it serves.

Although criminal justice and policing are reserved matters, the Administration will do all that it can to tackle the underlying social problems that can, and do, contribute to crime, and to ensure that the needs of the victims of violence are met through high-quality effective services. Many organisations are involved on the ground in attempting to address these issues, and the Executive's commitment to victims is outlined in the draft Programme for Government.

Mr Byrne:

I welcome the Deputy First Minister's comments. What steps are being taken by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to ensure that there is compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is committed to furthering a culture of human rights and responsibilities throughout the Northern Ireland Departments and the public authorities for which they are responsible. The human rights unit is actively fostering relations with a wide range of external bodies, for example, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the main universities, to support the aim of improving community relations, and building a stronger community.

All of the Northern Ireland Departments have taken steps to prepare for the full implementation of the Human Rights Act 1988. That has involved assessment of the existing legislation, policies and procedures for compliance with the Convention; building human rights- proofing mechanisms into the policy and legislative development process; training staff in awareness of the Convention's rights, and working with associated public bodies to help them to prepare for implementation.

Mr Leslie:

Does the First Minister agree that the planning of murder or attacks against political opponents by Government, or by those who are a party to Government, should be a priority item for investigation by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?

The Deputy First Minister:

Murder is murder, irrespective of by whom it is carried out. It is equally abhorrent, irrespective of from where it stems. I believe that it is not just a matter for the courts, it is not just a matter for the Human Rights Commission, but it is a matter for everyone to build a society in which these dreadful attacks have no place whatsoever. That will be the ultimate answer, and each and every Member of the Assembly can play a role in influencing the community towards that type of real peace, which is the only peace that will last.

Mr Speaker:

I do not see Mr Séamus Close in the Chamber, and, therefore, the question in his name falls.

Disposal of Classified Information


Dr McDonnell

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail its policy on the disposal of classified documentation.

(AQO 1469/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister follows established procedures to ensure that classified documentation is disposed of securely. 'A Guide To Records Management', issued by the Public Records Office, states that a first review should be carried out when records are 10 years old. The Public Records Office then monitors records found by the Departments to have no further administrative value and thus ensures that nothing of potential long-term historical or research value is destroyed. Unless a disposable schedule specifically sanctions destruction, no records can be destroyed without such monitoring taking place.

Dr McDonnell:

Does the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have any concerns about the possible abuse of responsibility when confidential files are being tidied up? Could the excuse of tidying files up be used to remove and conceal information that should not be removed or concealed? I am concerned about all that in Departments, but I am particularly interested in the culling of potentially embarrassing notes or information on files such as personal files in the Civil Service or social welfare files. There is an opportunity there, and I am concerned about that.

The Deputy First Minister:

Neither the First Minister nor I are aware of the premature or wrongful destruction of documents. Any Member who is aware of any such action should make the circumstances known to us. It would be the responsibility of any Member who has any information in relation to any matter of this nature to make that information known so that it can be immediately investigated. If the Member has such information, I await it with great interest.

Executive Funds: Distribution


Mr Neeson

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail its plans to distribute Executive funds in the near future.

(AQO 1447/00)

The First Minister:

The first allocations from the Executive programme funds were announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on 2 April. Sixty-two proposals totalling £146 million over the next three years have received funding from this round. Those included support for children through a range of interventions in education and social services; key infrastructure projects such as the Toome bypass and the A8 Belfast to Larne route; new measures in agriculture on farm waste management and organic farming; key investment in e-government and libraries; and programmes in areas such as adult education and victims' support.

It is our intention to have a second round of allocations later in the year, with allocations in most cases being made in the autumn. We are already looking at how we can improve the process of allocating resources in the light of our experience from the first round of funding.

Mr Neeson:

I want to thank not only the First Minister for his answer, but also Séamus Close for providing the opportunity to have my question answered. Bearing in mind that infrastructure is such an important element of the Executive funds, if a worthwhile proposal were to come forward to develop a natural gas pipeline to the north-west, would serious consideration be given by the Executive to provide financial aid for that?

The First Minister:

One of the objectives of the fund is to provide for key infrastructure. Infrastructure that relates to power is quite important from an industrial point of view. We are very interested in the provision of gas, not just to the north-west, but to other parts of Northern Ireland as well. The Member will know that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is keeping in close contact with his counterpart in the Republic, because there is value in having a North/South link on this and on other measures that would open up and liberalise the energy market generally. If, in the course of doing that, key projects or key ways arise as matters of Government expenditure, then we will look very closely at those.

3.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

Mr Neeson mentioned that he was grateful to Mr Close for not coming in. The Chair sees it from a different perspective to that of the House. It is inappropriate for Members not to be present when their name comes up for questioning.

Mr Kennedy:

I welcome the First Minister's reply. Are funds allocated on a piecemeal basis, or is there a strategic plan? Can the First Minister assure the House that departmental Committees will be consulted and will be involved in the allocation of Executive programme funds?

The First Minister:

The concept of Executive programme funds was to reflect the key priorities of the Administration, which can be seen in some detail in the Programme for Government. Those key policies were the basis on which the Executive programme funds were decided.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acknowledges that the time for the initial allocations was so limited that Assembly Committees were not given as much opportunity to consider them as we would have liked. It is hoped that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be able to have a more detailed and leisurely consultation with the relevant Committees next time around.


Regional Development

Sewerage Systems


Mr McFarland

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the number of town and village sewerage systems that are discharging untreated sewage into the sea around the coast of Northern Ireland.

(AQO 1457/00)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):

There are discharges from 89 sewerage systems to coastal waters including Foyle, Larne, Belfast and Strangford Loughs. Fifty-four of those discharges receive treatment or are long sea outfalls. The remaining 35 receive minimal or no treatment. All discharges to coastal waters are required to comply with the regulatory standards set by the Environment and Heritage Service under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995. Those regulatory standards are being applied on a phased basis and come into effect on 31 December 2005.

A significant programme of work is already under way to upgrade treatment facilities, and projects costing in excess of £100 million are planned. Each of those are programmed to commence over the next three years. They will provide treatment for 22 of the untreated discharges as well as improving the quality of some existing treated discharges. The remaining untreated discharges will be upgraded, if required, to meet the regulatory standards.

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

Mr McFarland:

Does the Department for Regional Development have any responsibility for untreated sewage discharges from stand-alone seaside dwellings that are not connected to an established system? How does the Department for Regional Development interface with the Department of the Environment in monitoring the discharge of wastewater into the seas?

Mr Campbell:

If the hon Member can furnish me with details of any specific seaside dwellings, I will undertake to investigate them.

In the normal course of events the Department for Regional Development liaises with the Department of the Environment and any other relevant Department on this issue.

Mr McGrady:

I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, and he did not mention south Down, a major tourist area. However, I know that that was an oversight. May I draw to the Minister's attention the disposal of raw sewage into the sea in that area, particularly in the unique and unusual case of the Ballyhornan and Bishopscourt area? That area is a "new village", but it was built 50 years ago. It is now privately owned, but it was built by the Ministry of Defence without planning regulations and without regard for water, sewerage and road regulations.

The residents there simply cannot bring those up to standard for adoption. Will he take a special look at this to "demilitarise" the effects of Ministry of Defence errors? There is no other way that those people can achieve modern water, sewerage and road facilities.

Mr Campbell:

The hon Member is right when he says that I did not mention the scenic and tourist region of south Down, but I also did not mention the equally beautiful scenic resorts of the north coast - for the obvious reason.

There are a series of locations in which, under the regulations that will take effect - particularly at the end of 2005 - we will have to upgrade facilities. This is an important issue. By that time we should have either begun development or have given serious consideration to implementing the regulations. I will investigate the area that MrMcGrady has mentioned, and I will write to him concerning the present position in that area.

Mr Kane:

Can the Minister give the up-to-date position regarding the North Down waste water treatment works?

Mr Campbell:

That issue has been raised on a number of occasions, and I have answered several questions about it. There have been many difficulties with the system of the wastewater treatment works for North Down.

In my last report to the House I indicated that we had visited the Eastbourne area on the south coast of England to see a modern, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment works and how it was operating with the support of local residents.

I had undertaken to write to North Down and Ards Borough Councils to get a representative from each to liase with my officials in the process of determining the location of the North Down wastewater treatment works. I can tell the Member that that has been done, and both councils have responded positively to my invitation.

It is to be hoped that the required series of meetings will take place over the next few weeks. I hope to be able to finalise the correspondence between North Down and Ards Borough Councils and Water Service officials.


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