Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 21 May 2001 (continued)

2.45 pm

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Kennedy):

Does the Minister intend to listen to calls for an extension to the consultation period on the review of the LMS funding formula, and will he bring this to the attention of the Executive Committee?

Is the Minister aware that joint representations have been made to me, as Chairperson of the Education Committee, by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Governing Bodies' Association (GBA) and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) on the issue? How will he deal with the fact that incorrect information was published by his Department in the original document?

Mr M McGuinness:

The issue is important to all of us. It is crucial that we complete the process of consultation as quickly as possible. I have set out a time span for that. I was made aware recently that there were concerns about the consultation period. The deadline of 29 June allows schools three months in which to respond. That is substantially in excess of the standard eight-week period for consultations.

Briefing conferences were held at the end of April in each board area to explain and clarify the proposals to schools and to chairs of boards of governors in order to assist them in framing their responses. Forms based on tick-box responses and further written commentaries, if desired, have been sent to all recipients of the document. Those measures should help ensure that schools can stay within the timescale. The end of June deadline is dictated by the school summer break and the need for sufficient time to consider the responses and discuss any revised proposals with the Education Committee and the Executive. Adequate time must be allowed to make the necessary changes to operational arrangements in the Department and boards to ensure the smooth implementation of a common formula in April 2002.

The publication of incorrect data was a mistake, and that was clearly acknowledged by the Department. All the interested parties were informed, and we have apologised for it.

Literacy and Numeracy


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Education why he has revised the targets for literacy and numeracy at Key Stage 1, 2 and 3 downwards and to indicate what plans he has to address this issue; and to make a statement.

(AQO 1533/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

As I explained to the Member in my letter of 26 April, the provisional literacy and numeracy targets set in 1998 had to be based on the results of only one year's statutory assessment. They were therefore a best estimate of what might be achievable.

With four years' assessment results now available, we considered that there were sufficient trend data to inform a review of the targets, most of which were, nonetheless, retained. In two cases, the provisional targets were unrealistic. First, the target for the number of pupils achieving level 4 and above in English at the end of Key Stage 2 has been revised from 80% to 77%. Secondly, the target for pupils achieving level 5 in mathematics up to the end of Key Stage 3 has been revised from 85% to 75%. Those changes are not an indication of a reduction in standards; rather, they represent more realistic targets, based on the additional information now available as a result of four years of statutory assessment.

Mr Dallat:

I thank the Minister for his continuing interest in the issue. As we come closer to achieving full employment, employers are increasingly dependent on employees who may have serious literacy and numeracy problems. That information has been given to several Committees. Is the Minister aware that those employers have to organise their own classes in basic English and simple arithmetic? He must agree that that is totally unacceptable, given that we already have approximately 250,000 people with serious literacy and numeracy problems. Lowering targets is not the way forward.

Mr M McGuinness:

I am aware of what has been said by people in business and industry. I share the Member's concern. The Department is greatly concerned about the issue. There are several reasons for it, including the transfer procedure, which has been shown to have a negative impact on the motivation of pupils who fail to obtain a grammar school place, and the relevance of the curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4. Both those issues are being reviewed.

The improving performance of the primary sector provides a firm foundation for improvements in the secondary sector. In order to get this right, it is important that we do the work at primary level and that we be involved in the different processes and projects that identify the difficulties. The contribution made by such things as the reading recovery programme is critical. When visiting primary schools recently, I have been impressed by the number of teachers involved in creating their own reading recovery programmes. I agree with the Member that there is still a considerable amount of work to be done. We are setting about that task.

Mrs Carson:

Is the Minister satisfied with his evaluation of the existing policies to tackle the numeracy and literacy problems? What does he intend to do to put realistic targets in place?

Mr M McGuinness:

I have recently taken a decision to put in place realistic targets that are achievable. It is important that we continue with the programmes that are available through the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and other education sectors. I am satisfied that we are getting this right and that the programmes now in place can deal with the difficulty. There is much good work that can be done. I am satisfied that we are facing up to what is a clear educational problem that we must move to address as quickly as possible.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Why is progress slower than initially expected regarding literacy and numeracy in the secondary sector? What is the effect of that on underachievement at school leaving stage?

Mr M McGuinness:

A great deal of it has to do with the impact of the transfer procedure. We have had discussion and debate on this subject recently. Many educationalists have gone on the record as identifying problems surrounding the 11-plus and our transfer procedure as a major factor in demotivating pupils who cannot gain a place at grammar school. We look forward to the proposals of the Burns review in October, and when we receive a copy of that review, we will look at the proposals and recommendations that have been made. All of that will directly address the issue raised by the Member.



Mr McElduff

asked the Minister of Education if he will seek increased financial assistance from the Executive to address the growing number of vandalistic attacks on local schools.

(AQO 1531/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

Vandalism costs will be taken into account in the next spending review. However, those costs are a drain on the resources available for the education sector. We must work with school authorities and local communities to help stamp out this problem.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as a fhreagra. What was the cost of vandalism to our schools across the five education and library board areas last year? Does the Minister agree that school budgets cannot reasonably expect to withstand these additional costs?

Mr M McGuinness:

The expenditure by boards amounted to slightly over £1 million. We have made additional funding available for school security: £4 million has been made available over the last four years specifically for that.

These have taken the form of access controls on doors, particularly to control visitor access, internal audio and visual monitoring systems and intruder alarms. The measures are largely directed towards personal protection of staff and pupils and are determined on the basis of risk assessments carried out by individual schools.

The measures are in addition to the more significant capital works undertaken by boards and individual schools to protect school buildings, which take the form of fencing, closed-circuit television (CCTV), external security lighting, security grilles and windows and the provision of security stores. We are very conscious of the fact that year-on-year there have been burdens on the education and library boards and other school sectors.

All of us deplore any attack on schools, wherever they are. It is vital that people understand the huge contribution that schools make to our society and that elected representatives and leaders in society make it absolutely clear to those who are involved in this disgraceful behaviour that they should desist.

Post-Primary Provision


Mr C Murphy

asked the Minister of Education to outline his plans to proceed with progressive proposals for a new way forward for post-primary provision.

(AQO 1535/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

The independent review of post- primary education is due to report at the end of October. Following consultation on its findings and recommendations, my intention is to bring forward proposals for change early next year.

Mr C Murphy:

The Minister will be aware, as I am sure we all are, that the outcome of these discussions will have massive implications for the future shape of education in the North. Is he satisfied that by the time the recommendations in the report come through, the consultations will have been comprehensive enough?

Mr M McGuinness:

The Gallagher and Smith research report of September 2000 entitled 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland' provided information on education in England, Scotland and a number of other European countries. Substantial knowledge of these systems, and of that in the South, also resides within the membership of the review body and the panel of education advisers. The review body has undertaken study visits to the South, Scotland, the Netherlands and Austria to experience their systems at first hand.

Everyone knows that the consultation has been the biggest by far on any educational issue in recent years. The review body has held over 25 public meetings, two open days to receive oral evidence, meetings with representatives of business and commerce and has received over 1,000 written submissions. There has been a huge public interest in the review body's work, and there have been well over a quarter of a million hits on the official web site.

It has been a very intensive consultation process, and I am satisfied that we have done everything in our power to be as inclusive as possible, and to make it as easy as possible for everyone to contribute to what is undoubtedly the biggest issue in education that we face in coming times.

Mr Savage:

Will the Minister consider making funds available for transport in rural areas to get young people to school?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Savage, is this relevant to the question?

Mr Savage:

Yes, very much so. I was thinking especially of families in the post-primary sector in rural areas.

Mr M McGuinness:

Transport is available. If the Member is dissatisfied with any aspect of that I will gladly listen to any representations he wishes to make.

School Governing Bodies and Education and Library Boards: Gender Balance


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of Education to give his assessment of the gender balance on school governing bodies and education and library boards.

(AQO 1511/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

Women are underrepresented on schools' boards of governors and on the education and library boards. My Department does not hold details of the gender balance of boards of governors and has a direct involvement in only 10% of the places. In the reconstitution undertaken in 1997, the Department of Education nominated 1,040 representatives, of which 419, some 40%, were women.

Mr Neeson:

Will the Minister keep this situation monitored, bearing in mind the importance of the equality agenda? Will he also consider the underrepresentation of those from ethnic minorities on school boards?

3.00 pm

Mr M McGuinness:

We will certainly do that; it is vital to keep the underrepresentation of the ethnic minorities to the forefront of our minds at all times. The Member is correct in pointing out that there are huge responsibilities on all Departments, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the equality issues that flow from that, to ensure that we deal with the issue in a proper fashion.

As a Minister, I am very much for encouraging everyone in our society to recognise the rights of women and ethnic minorities, and my Department is consistently pointing out to everyone in the education sector the need to move forward and to make progress as quickly as possible.

Pre-School Provision


Ms Gildernew

asked the Minister of Education to detail (a) the current level of pre-school provision and (b) whether he is confident that he will meet his target of full provision by 2003.

(AQO 1520/00)

Mr M McGuinness:

In 1997, there were funded places for 45% of children in their final pre-school year. As a result of the pre-school education expansion programme, the level has risen to 75% in this academic year, and it is expected to exceed 85% in the year 2001-02. I remain very confident that by March 2003 a place will be available for all children, whose parents wish it, in their final pre-school year

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Time is up - [Interruption].

Mr S Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Standing Order 19 refers to Questions. Earlier, during Question Time, you protected the Minister of Education and enabled him to avoid answering a question that is pertinent to the capital spending for schools across the Province - an issue that many people in the Unionist community are concerned about. Could you please tell me - [Interruption].

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Are you now making a party political broadcast?

Mr S Wilson:

No, I am not. I am asking a question.

The grounds on which you refused to have my question put were that I had not addressed the Minister as "Minister". Hansard will show that I had referred to his dual capacity as Minister and commander. Will you agree to scrutinise Hansard to see that the term "Minister" was used, and will you also inform the House which section of Standing Order 19 states that a Member must address a Minister by his proper title? Do you agree that his proper title is Minister and commander?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Standing Order 1(2) states

"The Speaker's ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."

I rule - and I have no reason to alter my view about it - that that rule applies here. Secondly, I ask you to address the Minister by his proper title. My ruling is final.

Mr McGrady:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker - [Interruption].

Mr S Wilson:

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I accept that your ruling is final, but your ruling must be based - [Interruption].

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr McGrady has a point of order.

Mr McGrady:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask you to read Hansard and to recall what happened during Question Time today. Standing Order 60(1)(g) describes how wilful disregard of the authority of the Speaker requires certain courses of action. Will you exercise that judgement in respect of the Member who has just spoken and of Ian Paisley Jnr and report to the Assembly as to whether there was a breach of due regard to the authority of the Speaker?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Standing Order 60(1) states

"The Speaker may, if any Member: persistently or wilfully disregards the authority of the Speaker order the Member to withdraw immediately from the Chamber and its precincts during the remainder of that day's sitting and the Keeper of the House shall act upon any instructions as he/she may receive from the Speaker".

That ruling is final, and I am taking no more points of order from you, Mr Wilson. If you raise any more I shall ask you to take account of this and take the necessary action.

Mr S Wilson:

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am not taking any further points of order on this matter.

Mr S Wilson:

Mr Deputy Speaker, you have - [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am not engaged in an argument with you, Mr Wilson. I am ordering you not to raise further points of order.

Mr S Wilson:

Under which Standing Order did you rule my question out of order in the first place? I am entitled - [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Wilson, you are totally out of order, as I have told you on a number of occasions. I will rather humanely allow you to continue to sit here on the basis that you conduct yourself properly.

Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Ulster Hospital


Mrs I Robinson

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the level of capital investment required at the Ulster Hospital.

(AQO 1521/00)

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

Chuir Iontaobhas SSS Uladh agus Otharlann plean forbartha straitéiseach isteach a leagann amach moltaí ar infheistiú caipitil ag Otharlann Uladh. Tá mo Roinn ag cur bailchríche ar a measúnú ar an phlean, a mholann móruasghrádú na hotharlainne ar chostas de thart ar £98 milliún; móruasghrádú a chéimneofar thar seacht mbliana.

The Ulster Community and Hospital Health and Social Services Trust has submitted a strategic development plan which sets out proposals on capital investment in the Ulster Hospital. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is finalising its assessment of the plan, which proposes a major upgrade of the hospital costing around £98 million phased over seven years.

Mrs I Robinson:

Last year the Minister received a report on the capital needs of the Ulster Hospital. It is now May. Can the Minister tell the House when a decision is going to be made? That is what the people who use the hospital need to hear. Can the Minister tell the House how long it takes to read one report, given that her officials met with representatives of the Ulster Hospital throughout the drafting of it, and especially since the Health Department awarded itself £2 million to deal with it?

Is the Minister aware of how bad things are? The accident and emergency department at the Ulster Hospital was built in 1974 to accommodate 25,000 people. Today it is dealing with almost 80,000 people. Is the Minister aware that there are four patients lying on trolleys in one cubicle? Is that acceptable?

Ms de Brún:

I thank the Member for her questions. At a meeting on 14 December 2000 with my officials, the Ulster Community and Hospital Health and Social Services Trust set out its strategic development plan for the Ulster Hospital. A draft of the plan was provided at the meeting, and the Department received copies of the finalised document on 10 January. The Department is urgently assessing the detail of the plan, and when that is completed I will consider the options available and announce my decision as soon as possible. That is in keeping with the normal timescale for looking at the details of plans of this complexity.

I recognise the urgent pressures to increase bed capacity at the Ulster Hospital, and £2 million has been earmarked in the public service agreement to fund an additional 20 adult beds at the hospital.

The trust has submitted an outline business case for the reinstatement of the Jaffa ward to provide that extra capacity. A decision will be taken following an announcement on the strategic development plan and after the individual business case has been assessed by Health Department officials. I am aware of the pressures on the hospital, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that this matter is advanced as speedily as possible.

Mr Savage:

The Ulster Hospital is so inundated with patients that there are four people in a cubicle where there should only be one. The same thing is happening in Craigavon Area Hospital.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

You must refer only to the Ulster Hospital.

Mr Savage:

When does the Minister hope to alleviate the problems in the Ulster Hospital?

Ms de Brún:

I refer the Member to my answer to Mrs Robinson.

Mrs E Bell:

I am aware that the Minister and her Department know of the current situation in the accident and emergency department of the Ulster Hospital. My Colleague and I were there two days last week during that awful time, as was the Minister's permanent secretary. I believe that other Members also visited the hospital.

As Mrs Robinson has already stated, having seen the situation we urge the Minister to make sure that the timetable is expedited. A lot of things happened: some beds were supplied, and day wards were opened. I ask that this situation does not happen again.

Ms de Brún:

I thank the Member for her comments and for the recognition that the permanent secretary of the Department visited the hospital to see the situation and to report to me at the end of last week. As I said to Mrs Robinson, I am very clear that we need to move as speedily as possible regarding this situation and, indeed, with other hospitals that are under pressure.

I reiterate that the situation has arisen through years of continuous and historic underfunding of health and personal social services here. The situation cannot be rectified overnight. Given the work that the Department has undertaken with the Ulster Community and Hospitals Trust and the strategic plan that is now in place, I am confident that we can make a start.

As I said to the Member on a previous occasion, the hospital staff have identified some elements to us as requiring particular attention. They identified an immediate need for the replacement of essential medical equipment and a back-up generator. They forwarded the details of the proposed replacement programme to my Department, the total cost being £1·48 million. I hope that we can move more speedily on this while taking forward the other aspects of the hospital's needs.

Mobile Health Centres


Mr McCarthy:

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether she has any plans to introduce mobile health centres.

(AQO 1510/00)

Ms de Brún:

Níl rún agam ionaid sláinte taistil a thabhairt isteach. I have no plans to introduce mobile health centres.

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the Minister and her permanent secretary for their quick response when asked to witness the horrendous scenes at the Ulster Hospital. Let us hope that those scenes are never repeated. The Minister has already given us a commitment on that.

Mobile health centres would be of great benefit to the rural community in order to provide equality of access as well as good health services. Should the Minister not be pursuing more imaginative methods in the delivery of general health?

Ms de Brún:

I have consulted widely on new arrangements for primary care in 'Building the Way Forward in Primary Care' That consultation has been completed, and there were no issues raised about mobile health centres or their use. When I have considered all of the responses I will decide on the future arrangements in primary care as quickly as possible.

At present there are a number of incentives to improve access to primary care services in rural areas. These include a rural practice payment scheme, which supports GPs in remote areas, a practice liablility payment scheme, which assists essential practices in isolated areas - doctors can be asked to dispense prescriptions for patients who have difficulty in obtaining their drugs and medicines.

3.15 pm

There is an essential small pharmacy scheme, which gives help to pharmacies dispensing low numbers of prescriptions. There are outreach clinics that can bring hospital services to patients in rural areas. Boards can organise development schemes with GPs to improve services locally in response to local needs. We have taken a number of other points on board, as the Member will be aware, in terms of access to health services in rural areas, through the strategic review of the ambulance service, for example, and through the review of acute hospital services.

Executive Committee


Mr Paisley Jnr

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail (a) when she will next meet with the Executive Committee, and (b) what issues does she intend to bring to the attention of that Committee.

(AQO 1496/00)

Ms de Brún:

Beidh mé ag freastal ar an chéad chruinniú eile den Choiste Feidhmiúcháin, atá le bheith ann Déardaoin 14 Meitheamh. Mar a mhínigh mé sa fhreagra a thug mé ar a mhacasamhail de cheist Dé Luain 27 Samhain 2000, ní gnáth trácht poiblí a dhéanamh ar mholtaí atá le cur faoi bhráid an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin nó atá á machnamh aige.

I will be attending the next meeting of the Executive, which is scheduled for Thursday 14 June. As I said in my answer to a similar question on 27 November 2000, it is not the practice to make public comment on policy proposals that are to be brought to the Executive or are under consideration by it.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Given that the Minister has responsibility for health and public safety, does she intend to bring to the attention of her Executive Colleagues any concerns that one of them is an IRA commander? If so, does she believe that that is compatible with being part of the Government of Northern Ireland? Will she take this opportunity to inform the House of her position in the same organisation as her ministerial Colleague?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Minister, since this is not your area of responsibility, you are not required to answer that question.

Western Health and Social Services
Board Area (Psychiatrists)


Mrs Courtney

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail her plans to (a) increase the number of psychiatrists in the Western Health and Social Services Board area and (b) reduce the waiting time for general practitioner referrals for this service. And to make a statement.

(AQO 1515/00)

Ms de Brún:

Tá na boird sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta freagrach as measúnú riachtanas áitiúil a ndaonraí agus as ceannach seirbhísí le riar ar na riachtanais sin. Tá leibhéil éagsúla gairmithe meabhairshláinte riachtanach do riachtanais éagsúla, lena n-áirítear síciatraithe, síceolaithe, altraí agus teiripithe saothair.

Health and social services boards are responsible for assessing the local needs of their population and purchasing the services to meet those needs. Different needs require different numbers of mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and occupational therapists. The Western Health and Social Services Board is piloting a project on mental health pressures that will help to inform the best model to meet its local needs. That model should indicate the number of mental health professionals required locally, including psychiatrists, and indicate how best to reduce waiting lists for those services.

Mrs Courtney:

I welcome the Minister's commitment to a pilot scheme in the Western Board area. My concern is that there should be sufficient funding available to ensure that the level of psychiatric cover will not be allowed to fall below such a critical level again and that GPs will not have to wait for up to seven months for a referral.

Ms de Brún:

Mental health services throughout the North have traditionally been underfunded, and pressures have been increasing as more people use the services. There are limited resources as well as competing priorities, which the Executive have to decide upon. The health and social services boards and I believe in local provision and in the need to improve mental health services. The Western Health and Social Services Board is aware of the need to develop its mental health services and to make the most of the resources available.

I have allocated an additional £2 million this year toward the development of new mental health services. However, the effects of previous underfunding cannot be addressed overnight. I will also continue to argue the case for additional resources so that boards and trusts can continue to improve their delivery of services.

Mr Hussey:

I am sure that the Minister is also aware of the impinging factor of the shortage of nurses. She will also be aware of the concerns currently being expressed by the Royal College of Nursing. I am not casting any aspersions on the nurses who have come from abroad to Northern Ireland, but how and when will the Minister address the problem of the shortage of nurses in the Western Board area?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I take it you refer to psychiatric nurses? Did you understand that, Minister?

Ms de Brún:

Traditionally, the question has been asked about acute hospital services as opposed to mental health services and the specific point raised by Mrs Courtney. On the issue of the spread of mental health services in the community and acute hospital services, the Western Board is working in Limavady and Omagh to ensure that it has the information and the direction that it needs to take services forward. Nurses from abroad have not been taken into the mental health area as much as the acute hospital area.

Orthopaedic Consultants


Dr Hendron

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail what action she is taking to reverse the decline in the number of orthopaedic consultants in Northern Ireland.

(AQO 1495/00)

Ms de Brún:

Faoi láthair tá 35 mháinlia chomhairleacha ortaipéideacha anseo agus post ag 18 sainoiliúnaí. Thairg triúr lianna comhairleacha éirí as ar na mallaibh ach fanfaidh siad ina bpoist go ceann tamaill bhig eile. De na hoiliúnaithe atá ann, tá ceathrar iarrthóirí féideartha ann do na folúntais do lianna comhairleacha a d'fhéadfadh a bheith ann sna míonna seo chugainn.

Sna tosaíochtaí do ghníomhaíocht tá tiomantas ar leith seirbhísí a fhorbairt agus fógraíodh dhá phost i máinliacht dhromlaigh le deireannas.

Currently there are 35 consultant orthopaedic surgeons here and 18 specialist trainees in post. Three consultants have recently submitted their resignations but will remain in post for a further short period. Out of the current training pool there are four potential candidates for consultant vacancies that may arise over the next few months. A specific commitment to develop services in fractures and spinal surgery is contained in the priorities for action, and two consultant posts in spinal surgery have been advertised recently.

Dr Hendron:

I know that the Minister accepts that there is a serious shortage of orthopaedic surgeons in Northern Ireland, especially in comparison with England and Scotland. Two young, recently appointed consultants have resigned to take up posts in England, while two others will job-share, which means that four young surgeons are leaving the National Health Service in Northern Ireland because they could not get adequate operating theatre and outpatient access in the Royal Victoria, Musgrave Park and Craigavon Area hospitals.

Even more importantly, it has recently been revealed that accident and emergency consultants in Craigavon and Antrim hospitals will cease to attend fracture clinics in those hospitals from 1 January 2002 in order to follow their speciality to Royal College standards. Does the Minister therefore accept that these actions will thrust the Northern Ireland orthopaedic service into a sudden, large and unplanned increase in workload, which could easily lead to a devastating reduction in elective orthopaedic surgery such as hip or knee replacement?


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