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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 18 June 2001 (continued)

Energy Costs


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail any measures he has for mitigating the continuing rise in energy costs; and to make a statement.

(AQO  1588/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

Principal measures include: the introduction of increased competition, consumer choice and liberalisation into the energy market and interconnection with other competitive markets; an examination of a possible buyout of the long-term generator contracts; an electricity transmission and distribution price control review; and studies on the development of an all-island energy market.

Mr Armstrong:

My supplementary has nearly been answered. Will the Minister offer his ongoing commitment to provide cheap, variable, alternative fuels as energy alternatives?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am familiar with Members' frustration at the relatively slow progress in dealing with what is a matter that affects every consumer.

I cannot think of any other issue on which I have had more traffic from Members, whether in the form of delegations or questions. As the Member will know, the subject has been debated in the Chamber, and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee is currently undertaking an energy inquiry. Next week I am hoping to meet electricity representatives to review the report on the industry's performance, particularly during the storms earlier this year.

However, there have been positive developments. A new gas-fired - and infinitely more efficient - power station is being built at Ballylumford. The Scottish interconnector will, I hope, come into operation at the turn of the year, and we have a proposal for another gas- fired power station, which will be located at Coolkeeragh near Londonderry. All of these things, combined with the regulator's review of transmission and distribution costs, should contribute to a reduction in costs and certainly greater efficiency in the energy system.

Making radical changes will mean dealing with the long-term contracts, and while we are actively pursuing the option of buying out those contracts, it is a very complicated and expensive process. I hope to be in a position to report to the House later in the year.

Mr Close:

Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland consumers have very little to look forward to in terms of reduced prices until the long-term contracts are dealt with? Can he give us any further details of the position of those negotiations? This is the fundamental issue as regards the high cost of energy in Northern Ireland. Until those uncompetitive contracts are dealt with, the consumer cannot look forward with any real hope to the downward pressure on prices that is required.

Sir Reg Empey:

The Member is probably right, but there are a number of things to be considered. It is a matter of trying to open more of the market to competition. The contracts include a specific fuel cost section, and therefore there is a direct linkage between international fuel costs and the price the customer pays. The more efficient the plant, the smaller that component part of the price is, because 80% of what the consumer pays is in generation costs. With brand new plants at Ballylumford and, it is to be hoped, Coolkeeragh, we will have state-of-the-art equipment in place which will be able to generate more elctricity per unit - or per therm of gas - than is currently the case. Additionally, we will have the interconnector.

The Member is correct in that a very bad deal was done in 1991, and we are paying the price for that. There is no point in trying to hide that from the House. I intend that all of these issues - the regulator's review of transmission and distribution costs; the gas pipelines; the way we treat the contracts and a range of other matters - will be dealt with in the current calendar year. I intend that we will then be in a position to report to the House with a comprehensive package of what it is possible to do. I cannot be more specific than that.

The Treasury will have a role in deciding whether we can deal with the buyouts. That will mean bonds. Bonds have been used as a tool in some other utility buyouts in Great Britain. However, each case has to be dealt with on its merits. We are dealing with very large sums of money, and we have to be aware that we are taking major decisions. We will never get ourselves completely free from this until we deal with the contracts.

Penn Nyla (formerly Courtaulds)


Dr O'Hagan

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail any contact between his Department and Penn Nyla (formerly Courtaulds) in Lurgan in relation to impending job lay-offs in the factory; and to make a statement.

(AQO  1574/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

At the end of March the chief executive officer of Penn Nyla met with IDB officials to outline the steps being taken to sustain the weft knit business. Since then, IDB has been in regular contact with him to review progress, agree actions to help the company and provide practical assistance.

Dr O'Hagan:

People who represent the constituency are concerned. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has met trade union representatives from the factory and will meet the management. Can the Minister give details of the investment that the company received from the IDB? There are concerns that machinery in the factory has already been broken down and sold off. Has any public money been used to purchase that machinery, and, if so, will there be any clawback? What has been done with regard to jobs for people who have been laid off? It has been predicted that by the end of August all the employees will have lost their jobs and the factory will be closed. Go raibh maith agat.

Sir Reg Empey:

I am familiar with the concerns that the Member raises. Those matters have raised their heads on previous occasions. However, the hon Member will be aware that the company had to be summoned to appear before the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Industry. Perhaps that gives an insight into some of the difficulties that we have in dealing with large corporations. They like to make decisions unfettered in any way, and the only reason that the summons could be issued was that the company had received public money. IDB, as it does in all cases, had to look at the letter of offer under which that public money was drawn down to see if its terms and conditions were implemented. I cannot be more precise. We are watching that type of thing closely.

I raise two other points. We wanted to achieve a successful outcome, and an alternative buyer has been sought, either a management buyout or another company. So far no offers have been received. However, under the circumstances, we are prepared to examine any proposals and treat them on their merits, irrespective of previously agreed arrangements with the existing owners and without the overhang from other offers. If we feel that the letter of offer has not been implemented as was agreed, the potential for clawback exists. However, that is a legal matter, and I cannot go into too much detail here.

Mr Carrick:

I have noted what the Minister has said. We welcome the fact that the meetings have taken place and that various proposals have been looked at. Nevertheless, how does the Minister propose to minimise the impact of the job losses in Lurgan, and can he say whether the recommendations of the textiles task force will be based on facts and focused on the textile industry rundown in Lurgan?

Sir Reg Empey:

Significant progress has been made on the implementation of the Kurt Salmon report. One of the recommendations was that a company should be established among the industry, something we are facilitating at present. An interim chief executive has been identified, and many of the legal technicalities have been completed. I look forward to the early launch of that company, which will help to promote the textiles industry.

I want to make it clear that we facilitate the industry to help itself. We will have to give considerable thought to how we target the selective financial assistance offered to companies. We want to give it to companies that bring forward proposals in line with the Kurt Salmon recommendations. The procedures have been followed in the current situation in Lurgan. As soon as we detect a threat to jobs, the Department of Higher and Further Education is notified, and a team assesses the situation individually with each worker who will be directly affected.

2.45 pm

In some cases people decide to retire, but other people require retraining or another job. The Member will also be aware that in his constituency, we have, fortunately, had consistently lower than average levels of unemployment. The claimant count is currently running at 3·6%, which is in the bottom quartile for Northern Ireland. I am optimistic that if it is not possible to find an alternative buyer for the factory, then many of the people there will be able to be redeployed. There is a standard procedure for this, and my Colleague Dr Farren is directly involved in it. If the company cannot be replaced, I hope that as many people as possible will be relocated and retrained.

Tourism Ireland Limited


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail his plans in relation to the setting up of offices for Tourism Ireland Limited; and to make a statement.

(AQO  1584/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

The North/South Ministerial Council has decided that the company will have its headquarters in Dublin and a regional office in Coleraine. The board of the company is also currently developing its proposals for offices in key tourism markets. Progress will be considered by the North/South Ministerial Council at the end of the month.

Mr Ford:

I am a little upset that the Minister is unable to be more specific about where the key markets are. It seems that there is a huge need for urgent action on the part of Tourism Ireland Limited. It is obvious we cannot expect that a long-term development programme will deal with the crisis currently arising out of foot-and- mouth disease, but it appears that very little is being done to promote this region for tourism both internally and from GB over this summer. Surely as we can now hope that foot-and-mouth disease is being put behind us, it is incumbent upon Tourism Ireland Limited and the Minister's Department to do more to actively promote tourism, particularly rural tourism, whether that requires overnight stays or day trips in Northern Ireland.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Is there a question there?

Mr Ford:

I thought that there was, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Can the Minister not give more hope, in the absence of compensation for the great majority of those affected, that his Department will be engaging in strong tourist promotion?

Sir Reg Empey:

I do not accept that nothing is being done. Tourism Ireland Limited is not going to be effective in the marketplace until the tourism season in 2002. It has only just been established; it must get its staff together, and it must get agreed marketing material. McCann Erickson has been appointed to work on that. We have seen some preliminary sight of it, but it will not be effective in the marketplace until next year.

The Member will be aware that my Department has made £1 million available for a particular promotion in the short term to deal with the aftermath of foot-and- mouth disease. That is ongoing. It applies in all markets, both locally and internationally. Proportionately, that is two or three times more than is being spent in the rest of the United Kingdom. We will also have access to a small amount of national resource as a consequence of moneys that have been allocated by the Treasury to the British Tourist Authority - we will get a share of that. That share alone would not have been sufficient.

In addition, with my Colleague the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure we have supported alternative locally based actions such as the North West Fest. If there are other applications coming forward we will look at those on their merits, but over the next few months we have a rolling programme of specific promotional events. I am sure that if the Member cares to look at the tourist web site, he will see that there is a very ambitious programme ongoing which we hope will contribute towards the minimisation of the losses in the industry over the coming season.

Mr Kane:

Does the Minister accept that the difficulty with the concept of Tourism Ireland Limited is not so much about offices as about the Republic of Ireland's ability to hog the tourists who visit attractions in Northern Ireland? What plans are afoot to tackle the problem of tourists who day-trip in Northern Ireland yet base their holidays in the Republic of Ireland and subsequently leave their currency there?

Sir Reg Empey:

I am not surprised to see the Member on his feet about these issues, given his particular interest in north County Antrim. The Member has put his finger on the problem, which is that 70% of the people who visit Northern Ireland from overseas come onto the island via the Republic. In recent years there has been a pattern of day-tripping, but with the overnight stays taking place in the Republic. The Member is absolutely right.

He may recall that, in the setting up of Tourism Ireland Limited, it was written into the agreement and understanding of 18 December 1998 that the company has to pay particular attention to the special circumstances of Northern Ireland over the last 30 years. That is written into what might be regarded as the deeds of the company. Any marketing that it does, now or in the future, must therefore take that into account. That particular phraseology is there to prevent precisely what the Member was talking about.

It is not simply a matter of Northern Ireland versus the Republic. It also applies to the north-western part of the Republic itself. You will find great dissatisfaction in places north-west of Sligo and into Donegal. The people there feel that they have not been getting their share of the tourist traffic. It is a question therefore of moving many of the visitors further up the island, and of developing our ability to bring international visitors directly into Northern Ireland via our own airports. That means air links, and, as the Member will be well aware, we are poorly served at present by international destinations. We currently have only a Brussels route and an Amsterdam route. We have no route to Paris and no flight to North America. Negotiations are ongoing to resolve both of those matters, but until that infrastructure is there, we are always going to be fighting a rearguard action. We are acutely aware that that is the real problem, and therefore we have to take steps to counteract it.

Mr Dallat:

I thank the Minister for his continuing interest in Tourism Ireland and his unquestioned efforts to make it a success. Does the Minister understand the frustration that there is locally that this key project appears to be taking an unacceptable length of time to get up and running? Will he assure the Assembly that he is making every effort to fast-track the project, given that it is a key element in our future tourism?

Sir Reg Empey:

I appreciate the frustration, but we have asked some very high-calibre individuals to head this organisation. These are people who run chains of hotels and people who understand business.

For example, the deputy chairperson came from Microsoft. They are working as hard as they can. They have had four or five meetings, and I hope to meet them at the end of the month in the Member's own district. It is my view that resources have been provided. They have had some difficulties with staffing and getting secondments from Bord Fáilte in the Republic, but that is an industrial relations issue. Through the Tourist Board we have supplied all the help that we can. They are working on the material for next year. That is the key thing, because you must have the marketing tool.

Andrew Coppel, who was born and bred in Belfast, is the chairperson, and he has a very clear understanding of the tourism issues. I am confident that when it starts to roll out for the next tourist season, the Member will feel satisfied that we have got matters right and that the market will grow in Northern Ireland.

Job Creation in the North-West


Mrs Nelis

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail his targeting social need strategies to increase job creation in the north-west, specifically in the Foyle constituency.

(AQO  1576/00)

Sir Reg Empey:

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment's actions aimed at reducing unemployment and increasing employment opportunities for the unemployed and long-term unemployed in deprived areas across Northern Ireland, including the north-west, are detailed in 'Making it Work', the New TSN action plan report which was published on 21 March. It is available in the Assembly Library.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am not sure that we in the Foyle constituency can wait for this to be put into action, given that we have the highest long-term unemployment in the whole of the Six Counties. Fourteen of the most socially deprived wards are located in the Foyle constituency, and this is directly related to long-term unemployment. I ask the Minister to consider setting up a task force in the Foyle constituency to address this long-term unemployment. We talk about it, but no action is ever taken.

Sir Reg Empey:

The Member needs to be reassured that I fully understand the situation in the Foyle constituency. As the Member will know, I have visited the area as frequently as I possibly can. I visit the city regularly. I know that my colleague Dr Farren, through his own Department, has been working very hard, and his Department and mine have been co-operating to devise the best measures that we can.

The Member will also be aware that the Programme for Government makes a series of major commitments. Long-term unemployment is still high in the Member's constituency, but I think it ought to be noted that if you compare the situation today with that of five or ten years ago, there has been progress, albeit insufficient. Nobody can be complacent, but there has been progress.

Indeed, there have been a significant number of industrial developments in the Foyle constituency that we hope will provide the long-term foundations for a resolution of these issues. It is only possible when the opportunities are there. At the risk of taking some time on this answer, I will give the Member an example. When it was indicated that the Coolkeeragh power station might be rebuilt, we formed a group in the city, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel and others, to try to bring together businesses that could benefit from the £200 million that will be spent on the erection of the power station. We encouraged local businesses to be available to take advantage of the contracts when they came in.

That is the sort of measure that we are trying to take, as well as those that are published in the Programme for Government. I believe that given enough time to work through this Programme for Government, we will see inroads being made into long-term unemployment in that area.

Mrs Courtney:

I note the Minister's response to the previous question, and his reference to Coolkeeragh. I suggest - and I think that he has already indicated this himself - that one significant way in which his Department could positively contribute to overcoming the high levels of deprivation and unemployment, as well as underpinning the policy of targeting social need and equality, would be to confirm when the investment in the new gas pipeline will take place, enabling Coolkeeragh to be built. When is the Minister likely to be in a position to make such a statement?

Sir Reg Empey:

The Executive has discussed this matter, and we will be negotiating during the summer with Bord Gáis and Questar, its American partner. They have made an offer, which is currently on the table. We have set up a negotiating team with the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Economic Policy Unit and my own Department, and we will be entering into discussions with the Irish Department responsible for energy and negotiating the best deal that we can possibly get. We will be bringing back proposals in the autumn.

I am hopeful that this can be successfully dealt with, but it does involve a very complicated set of negotiations. I take heart from the fact that we actually have an offer on the table, and that we have something to negotiate about. There is a requirement for additional generating capacity by 2004-05 in Northern Ireland. At present, the only proposal on the table is from the Electricity Supply Board of Ireland (ESBI), and we are actively pursuing it to the best of our ability. The Executive will make a final decision in September.

Mr Hussey:

The Minister will realise that the north-west area spreads well beyond the confines of the Foyle constituency and includes a large part of west Tyrone. Does the Minister agree that while we welcome improving economic activity, we also realise that parts of west Tyrone continue to fall dramatically behind the Northern Ireland average?

3.00 pm

Can he give assurance that his TSN strategies will address this issue in the greater north-west area, including west Tyrone in general and Strabane District Council in particular?

Sir Reg Empey:

There is no way that "Team West Tyrone" are going to let me forget that they are part of the north-west. I sympathise with the Member, because I suspect that behind his question is the fact that he does not anticipate the benefits of gas spreading to Omagh and the surrounding areas. I understand that, but the Member should take heart from the fact that one cannot be sure what route the pipeline coming from the gas field in the west of Ireland might take.


Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment

Degree Courses


Mr Fee

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline his plans to increase the number of institutes of further and higher education that offer degree courses.

(AQO  1596/00)

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):

I do not have any plans to increase the number of institutes of higher and further education that offer degree courses. Members should be aware that currently 12 of our 17 colleges deliver degree courses, three of them delivering degree courses on a full-time basis for different degrees in their entirety. Members may also be aware - due to several references having been made - of the development of foundation degrees from next September. These will be delivered in the institutes of further and higher education and will mark a significant and very welcome development as far as the involvement of these institutes and the provision of degree programmes is concerned.

Mr Fee:

The experience with the university campus in Armagh has been excellent, and the more opportunity that the people across Northern Ireland have to access foundation degrees and further education, the better.

Can the Minister give any more details of how many additional foundation degree course places there might be in the near future, and at what institutes they will be provided?

Dr Farren:

In the first phase, 100 full-time equivalent places will be made available, and I have commissioned eight foundation degree pilot programmes. These are developed and delivered by university-led consortia involving further education colleges and employers. The following further education colleges are involved in developing, and will be therefore involved in delivering, the pilot programmes: Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, Newry and Kilkeel Institute of Further and Higher Education the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education, the East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education, the Upper Bann Institute of Further and Higher Education, the North East Institute of Further and Higher Education and the North Down and Ards Institute of Further and Higher Education, and Omagh College.

Mr Armstrong:

Will the Minister concede that widening the provision of degree courses to the institutes of further and higher education would result in more accessible high level education?

Dr Farren:

It is important to underline the fact that in the development of higher education courses in our institutes of further and higher education very strict criteria apply, and these include the appropriateness of buildings and equipment, the experience of staff and the viability as regards student numbers.

With regard to full-time higher education, the Department requires that colleges have a track record of delivering part-time education across at least four vocational areas, viable enrolments in each course and a reasonable total of higher education enrolments expressed as full-time equivalent students. Those critieria are in place in order to ensure that wherever higher education programmes are delivered they are delivered to the highest and most exacting standards.

Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster (Part-Time Teaching Staff)


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the number of teaching staff employed on a casual or part-time basis by Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster.

(AQO  1581/00)

Dr Farren:

The latest available figures relate to the 1999-00 academic year. The Queen's University of Belfast employed 98 casual part-time academic staff, and the University of Ulster employed 85 such staff.

Mr Ford:

Is it appropriate that such high numbers should be employed on a part-time basis? Is this an appropriate way of recruiting teaching staff to universities? Does the recruitment of so many people on a casual basis make it difficult to meet equality targets?

Dr Farren:

The Member must appreciate that the numbers of part-time staff in both institutions are not excessively high and that staff are recruited on the basis of rigorous criteria. Staff have to meet the desired qualification and experience requirements, where experience is relevant. I assure the Member that the colleges are required to observe those criteria. However, it is for colleges and universities to respond to their own recruitment needs.

In some disciplines, staff recruitment is not always easily achieved, particularly in fields where there is competition from the commercial sector. However, our universities ensure that they apply high standards. I do not agree that the figures indicate a worrying trend.

Mr McClarty:

Does the Minister intend to convert many of the part-time posts into full-time positions?

Dr Farren:

I am not responsible for such matters; it is for the universities to determine their own recruitment procedures. As Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment I am anxious that when recruiting staff the colleges and universities should meet the highest standards in every area. I am assured that they themselves will determine how to dispose of part-time staff in proportion to full-time staff. That will be judged by colleges and universities according to their needs and circumstances.

Limavady College of Further and Higher Education (Capital Expenditure)


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail his plans for capital expenditure at Limavady College of Further and Higher Education; and to make a statement.

(AQO  1590/00)

Dr Farren:

The estate of Limavady College of Further and Higher Education is in relatively poor condition, and the college is carrying out an economic appraisal of its accommodation needs. I recently made a ministerial visit to the college and observed at first hand the condition of some parts of the estate. This is why the college is engaged with the Department in developing its plans for the future development of its accommodation needs. When the appraisal is clear, the needs will be considered in the light of available capital resources and other priorities in the sector.

Mr Dallat:

Is the Minister aware that Limavady College of Further and Higher Education plays a key role in the delivery of further education, not only in the Roe valley but beyond that jurisdiction? Can he assure us that when the appraisals are complete every effort will be made to upgrade a college that was sadly neglected during direct rule?

Dr Farren:

The House will be aware of my firm commitment to ensuring that everything possible is done to upgrade the accommodation and the facilities in the further education sector. I am aware of the considerable contribution by Limavady College of Further and Higher Education and all other colleges to the educational needs of their areas, Northern Ireland and beyond. Since my recent visit to Limavady College of Further and Higher Education I have been more aware of that than ever.

We will move as expeditiously as resources allow, making good the considerable deficits in estate and facilities that colleges experience.

Ministerial Counterparts
(Republic of Ireland)


Mr ONeill

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline any contact he has had with his ministerial counterparts in the Republic of Ireland in matters relating to his Department.

(AQO  1594/00)

Dr Farren:

There are a number of issues that fall to my Department that are the subject of North/South co-operation requiring regular contact with colleagues in the South. The contacts and co-operation include issues such as higher education research, vocational education and training, the mutual recognition of vocational qualifications, tourism training, joint overseas recruitment and European funding issues.

I have had the opportunity to raise these matters in discussion with counterparts in the South, in particular the Minister for Education and Science, and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I have also had the opportunity to raise some of these matters at meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council sector bodies on trade and development and tourism.

Mr ONeill:

Does the Minister agree that continued cross-border co-operation is important in further and higher education, particularly with regard to a better return on resources, the ability to maximise the range and quality of opportunity and access for our students? Can the Minister provide some details of his meetings with the Department of Education in Dublin?

Dr Farren:

Since taking office I have had meetings with Minister Michael Woods and his predecessor Micheál Martin, in which we ranged across many of the issues that I referred to in my initial response to the Member.

Contacts have been developing between officials in our Departments since those meetings. There are long-standing contacts between officials dealing with educational matters at higher and further education level and well-established contacts between the officials within the Training and Employment Agency and its Southern counterpart, FÁS.

I come from the university sector, and I am well aware of the formal and informal contacts that have developed over the years. I have been quite surprised at the degree of contact, evident in student flows between North and South at the further education level.

During the course of the visit to Limavady I was surprised at the number of Southern students who are enrolled in some of the courses there. They travel quite a distance to avail of the high standard of the courses that we make available in our further and higher education institutions. Historically, there has been, and still is, a considerable flow of students from North to South. Staff exchanges at various levels also take place.

We are building on a healthy situation. We want to strengthen what has been taking place and to be innovative where development is required.

Dr Birnie:

The Southern Irish universities do not have an equivalent to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Given that they do not get the benefit of such an external benchmarking of their research standards, would the Minister consider suggesting to his Dublin counterpart that something like the RAE be considered for the Republic of Ireland?

3.15 pm

Dr Farren:

It is hardly my place to suggest to my counterpart in the South how he should benchmark the research initiatives that are funded there. It is evident from the considerable flow of funding into the universities and research institutes in the South that their performance is judged highly. They have their internal systems in the universities for benchmarking research, and I am satisfied that their initiatives ensure high standards. The existence of co-operation, albeit that it might be greater in a number of disciplines, between our institutions and those in the South is testimony to the high regard that academics and researchers here have for the standards down South.

Call Centre Employment: Training Provision


Mr Kennedy

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to outline training provision for call centre employment.

(AQO  1587/00)

Dr Farren:

My Department, through its institutes of further and higher education, provides a wide range of courses which are suitable for people wishing to pursue careers in call centres. The Training and Employment Agency, through existing programmes such as New Deal and Bridge to Employment, also contracts with a wide range of training providers to deliver training in customer care, which is the key skill for securing call centre employment.

Mr Kennedy:

Will the Minister ensure that there will be adequate levels of pay for those employees and that his Department will also cover issues that affect health and personal safety?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am not clear as to whether that is an appropriate question to the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.

Dr Farren:

You are quite correct, Mr Deputy Speaker. In taking care of the responsibilities that fall to my Department and to the institutes and training providers with whom we are associated in the delivery of the training referred to in the Member's question, the highest standards apply.

Childcare Grant


Ms Lewsley

asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the number of students likely to benefit from the new childcare grant announced as part of the student support package.

(AQO  1592/00)

Dr Farren:

My officials estimate that around 1,000 students will benefit from the new childcare grant announced as part of the student support package.

Ms Lewsley:

I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome the fact that his student support package addresses childcare. Can he explain why there are inequalities in childcare provision between colleges of further education?

Dr Farren:

Before I could give a detailed answer I would require information on the inequalities to which the Member seems to be pointing. I refer to my earlier comments with respect to the questions on Limavady College. My Department is investing considerable sums of money in further education to ensure that the highest standards are attained, whether the money goes directly to courses or to support services such as childcare facilities. We are concerned that these services are adequate to meet need and of the highest standard. If the Member has particular institutes in mind where she feels there are severe inadequacies and which may be in breach of requirements, I will be willing to receive such information and have the situation in those institutes examined.


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