Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 18 June 2001 (continued)
In the light of the Minister's response and cases in my own constituency, will he actively seek out single parents and mature students who qualify for the childcare grant to ensure that they benefit from it? We have to seek out eligible people and make them aware of the grant rather than wait for them to come to us.
When I announced a new package of financial and other support for students, I mentioned plans for initiatives in conjunction with the Educational Guidance Service for Adults, the National Union of Students and the Union of Students of Ireland to fully inform potential students - whether they be school-leavers or adults returning to education. This will include information on available courses and the necessary support and advice to help them succeed.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement that 1,000 students will benefit immediately from this grant. Will the grant awards be based on means testing, and will they be available to single parents in receipt of maintenance awarded through the courts? Will the grant apply equally to male and female student parents?
The childcare grant is available to parents who care for children below school age, and that applies to male and female carers. Details of their means will be taken into account, individual cases will be judged and applicants will benefit accordingly.
Educational Guidance Service for Adults (East Antrim)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment whether there are proposals to develop an Educational Guidance Service for Adults office and a learningdirect centre in the constituency of East Antrim.
The Educational Guidance Service for Adults (EGSA) is seeking to expand its services throughout Northern Ireland, and it plans to open two offices in the Craigavon and Dungannon areas. In the short term, EGSA is collaborating with the East Antrim Institute of Further and Higher Education to provide a service to customers in this area. The provision of learndirect centres is a matter for the University for Industry and its Northern Ireland partners. East Antrim Institute, which has a learndirect centre on its Newtownabbey campus, will be invited to present proposals for the further development of learndirect services in the east Antrim area.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but the East Antrim Institute is not in my constituency. There is no further education college in the East Antrim constituency. Will the Minister acknowledge the need for a focal point for continuing education in East Antrim? In the past there has been an absence of education projects from such groups as EGSA. A centre would encourage continuing education and, perhaps, attract additional educational funding from other organisations such as Proteus, which have failed to invest in education in the East Antrim constituency.
Mr Beggs has frequently asked about the provision in his constituency, and I have highlighted the redevelopment of provision for further education in Larne. It is actively under consideration, and on several occasions the Member has received details from my Department and myself on the investigation of the re-establishment of such provision in Larne. I do not accept that the situation in his constituency is being neglected. The remit of EGSA runs throughout Northern Ireland, and need will be met where it exists.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Byrne has advised me that he will be absent. Question 8 will receive a written answer. Mr Armstrong is not in the Chamber.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to co-operate and co-ordinate with relevant Departments to maximise careers guidance for students engaged in further and higher education.
Careers guidance in further education is delivered through a partnership formalised by service level agreements between each institute and my Department's careers service. Each university has qualified careers staff. I will periodically review the effectiveness of those arrangements to ensure that students are helped to make informed career decisions.
The Minister is aware of a real need for students in further and higher education to have an understanding of potential career paths that will optimise their contribution to the employment sector. Will the Minister examine the current student career guidance system to ascertain its effectiveness?
The question is essentially but not exclusively concerned with the universities' responsibilities for careers guidance. I am aware from my own experience that both of our universities have highly developed careers advisory services. Those services ensure that students throughout, and particularly towards the end, of their courses are made fully aware of career prospects ahead of them, and of the professional programmes that they need to pursue to enter the careers of their choice.
The provision of careers guidance in further education colleges has come under the remit of the careers review that we have undertaken in conjunction with the Department of Education. My Department is currently examining the report from that review, and it is hoped that decisions will soon be made in the light of its recommendations.
In his reply to Question 1, the Minister answered both my main question and my supplementary.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You are supposed to ask Question 11.
As my questions were both answered in the reply to Question 1, I will follow on.
The Minister stated that 100 foundation degree places are to be introduced across the area. What are the intended numbers for each specific college? I particularly want to know about the Newry and Mourne area.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I must advise you that it would have been normal to have asked Question 11, and then asked the supplementary.
I cannot give a specific breakdown of numbers for each of the colleges that will be involved in the pilot scheme.
In theory, 100 full-time equivalents could amount to almost 200 students. Given that most of the initial courses will be available on a full-time basis, however, it will probably be less. Numbers in the colleges will not be huge, as we have 100 full-time equivalents, but this is part of a pilot project which will begin its second year in September. There will then be a detailed ongoing review, which will evaluate the effects and benefits of the introduction of foundation degrees. That will help us to decide their future. We have to remember that foundation degrees are not the only form of higher education provided in institutes of further and higher education.
Association of University Teachers
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the current status of pay negotiations with the Association of University Teachers.
The current status of pay negotiations with the Association of University Teachers is a matter for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association as the representative body for higher education employers. It is its responsibility to advance pay negotiations with the Association of University Teachers.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In respect of your handling of question 11 from Mr Bradley, I find it unsatisfactory that a Member can raise an entirely new question under the guise of question 11. It was the Minister's responsibility to link questions 1 and 11 had he seen the relevance of that link. It is unsatisfactory for any Member to be allowed to ask an entirely separate question under the guise of one which is advertised.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am inclined to agree with Mr Kennedy. Mr Bradley took me by surprise. Time is up.
Warm Homes Scheme
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the steps he is taking to publicise the Warm Homes scheme.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
I announced the Warm Homes scheme at the National Energy Action conference on 27 March 2001. At the same time the Department for Social Development wrote to a wide range of interested persons to draw their attention to the scheme. Future publicity is the responsibility of the Eaga Partnership, which has already contacted voluntary organisations to advise them of the scheme.
The Warm Homes scheme should target senior citizens - though not exclusively - to prepare their homes for that extra heat which is necessary for winter. We often hear that senior citizens are not getting their full entitlements. Will officers from the Department for Social Development phone or visit all senior citizens to ensure that everyone benefits?
Research has shown the areas of greatest need. The scheme that we now have in place will address that need. It is the responsibility of the scheme manager, which is the Eaga Partnership, to advertise and to make this scheme as widely known as possible. I have no reason to believe that they will not be successful in doing that. On the contrary, I am quite satisfied that all those who are entitled to benefit under the scheme will know about it. We will continue to monitor that to ensure that the people who need the scheme most are aware of it.
Further to his response to the Member for Strangford (Mr McCarthy), can the Minister indicate, in financial terms, the response to the home energy efficiency scheme from my constituency of Mid Ulster? Were there many successful applications?
I do not have figures relating to individual constituencies with me, but I will try to make that information available to the Member. The scheme starts on 1 July 2001 and in its first year will run for nine months. We have funding of £4·38 million for that period.
Can the Minister advise how many efficiency schemes will be processed on 1 July or in the first nine months of operation?
It is anticipated that approximately 4,000 households will be addressed in the first year. The target thereafter is 6,000 in a full year.
Housing Executive Tenants:
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail how many Housing Executive tenants in the constituency of East Antrim have refused the installation of double glazing.
I understand that one tenant has firmly refused to have double glazing installed. The Housing Executive is aware of some problems arising from a scheme in the Whitehead area, and a meeting involving the Housing Executive, a local councillor and a representative from the residents' association took place on 30 May 2001. The Housing Executive is addressing the issues raised by the Member.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I was referring to Dunluskin - a completely different area. I will pass other names to the Department.
Does the Minister support the installation of double glazing where the contractors do not measure the window frames and subsequently resort to block cutting, which gives rise to unnecessary dust and disruption to the home? After installation the windows might remain unplastered for three to four weeks, which is not acceptable. Will the Minister review this current practice? All people would then be encouraged to upgrade their homes by installing double glazing.
It is imperative that any work carried out by the Housing Executive or its contractors is done to the highest standards. The executive generally does a very good job, but there are unacceptable exceptions. The competence of the work and the contractors on any scheme are closely monitored by the Housing Executive. As to the question of whether double glazing should be installed ad infinitum, it is difficult to say yes or no. Every case has to be treated on its merits, and that is the way forward.
Community Groups (Meetings)
asked the Minister for Social Development, pursuant to AQO 1372/00, to detail (a) the four groups he met with; (b) the seven groups he declined to meet; (c) the criteria for meeting with the four groups selected; (d) the reasons for refusing to meet the other seven groups; and (e) the criteria on which he bases such decisions.
I will ensure that the Member receives the requested lists of groups. As to the reasons for meeting - or declining to meet - particular groups, I assure the Assembly that I meet a wide range of people and organisations from all sections of the Northern Ireland community. There are no formal criteria for decisions on requests for meetings. Each case is considered on its merits and in relation to the demands of my other responsibilities. If the Member had a list of all the groups I meet across the community, I have no doubt that she would be quite impressed.
I thank the Minister for his answer. My questions arose because some community groups that were concerned at being refused meetings had contacted me. I impress on the Minister the need for inclusiveness and the need to ensure that fair and equal treatment be given to all sections of the community. Go raibh maith agat.
Whatever faults I may have, I do not think that not trying to reach out and meet groups from all sections of the community is one of them. I assure the House that I try to be as transparent as is humanly possible in all my ministerial duties. I have not, at any time, tried to sidestep or evade any group or organisation that has come to me with real and genuine problems and concerns. I have reached out, and groups and organisations come to me from all sections of the community across the Province.
I was interested to hear the Minister's reply and to see how he is relating to Sinn Féin in answering its question. I find that rather surprising, given that he and his party were instrumental in Sinn Féin's gaining the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat in the recent Westminster election. Would it not now be in keeping with the DUP's new image to meet with all deputations and groups?
I am disappointed that the Member took the opportunity to score a few cheap, snide political points. I, and I alone, offered to and did stand aside in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency. I offered her party the opportunity to ensure that one candidate went forward. It was her -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I must advise the Minister that this is totally inappropriate.
Which was wrong, Mr Deputy Speaker: my answer or the question?
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the measures he has put in place to ensure that all those entitled to benefits are aware of their availability.
The Social Security Agency realises how important it is that everyone should claim and receive the proper benefit entitlement. The agency ensures that the public is aware of the range of benefits and other services that are available through a number of measures, including a comprehensive range of leaflets, promotion in the media and a benefits enquiry line for people with disabilities, and by working closely with a number of voluntary sector organisations.
Publicity campaigns to signal the arrival of new benefits and to increase awareness of existing ones are regularly undertaken. Some recent measures are: the launch of the agency's customer charter pack, which includes a guide to all benefits and details of agency locations; the minimum income guarantee campaign, which has given pensioners in Northern Ireland an extra £100,000 per week; the foot-and-mouth disease financial help leaflet, targeted at those most affected by the crisis; and the recently launched guide to public services for pensioners in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for his reply. However, I understand that about £6 million went unclaimed in 2000. Therefore the various measures that the Minister listed are not working. Does the Minister agree that we really need better education for those people who meet the general public? They should be better educated in more than one benefit. They should change their mindset to such a degree that claimants who come to benefit offices are not seen as a nuisance. Claimants should be given full help, education and assistance in filling in the plethora of forms, and pointed in the right direction. They must be recognised as being the most deprived and vulnerable in our society, rather than often being dismissed and told to go to the Citizens Advice Bureau.
In general, I agree with Mr Close. However, I will outline several things that my Department is either doing or has done. The qualifying conditions for social security benefit are contained in the leaflet 'Your Guide to Our Services'. That leaflet is incorporated in the Social Security Agency's customer charter pack. It is also available separately at all social security offices and at the benefit shop in Castle Street.
The leaflet is a signpost document that tells customers the following: who can get the benefit; how to claim; rates of benefit payable; what other help is available; and where more information can be obtained. Other leaflets and claim packs are available from social security offices.
I accept that this information should be as widely available as possible. We have run publicity campaigns, which have had some success. The recent minimum income guarantee publicity campaign has resulted in just over 7,000 pensioners claiming the minimum income guarantee since the campaign was launched in March last year. Of these, just over 4,000 have been successful. That resulted in the average extra payment of £100,000 a week in the hands of pensioners in Northern Ireland. We are getting there, and these figures are sure signs of increased public awareness of what help is available.
What evidence is there that the publicity campaigns have been successful?
The information that I have already given is evidence of the campaigns' success. Over 4,000 of the pensioners who applied were successful - that represents an extra payment of £23 a week each, which comes to a total of £100,000 extra a week for pensioners. With regard to long-term strategy, the Social Security Agency will be developing a strategy for maximising the uptake of all benefits as part of its targeting social need (TSN) initiative. That will follow on from the introduction of the family resources survey in Northern Ireland, the results of which will, I hope, be available by autumn 2003.
I commend the Minister on the number of initiatives that he says he has taken on creating awareness. What training do the staff in the benefit offices receive to make them competent in relaying the information to the public? How do they protect claimants' privacy? Some old people feel that they are begging for something that they are not entitled to, and they often have to speak to people in a reception area or hallway where there is no privacy.
Benefit forms are constantly being reviewed by the Social Security Agency. Work is under way to simplify several claim forms, such as the minimum income guarantee form. Over the next few years, the welfare reform and modernisation programme will see a much simpler and more streamlined application process introduced for all benefits.
Customers can contact their local social security office for help with completing forms. Pensioners and disabled customers can avail of a free telephone line that offers the facility to make a claim by telephone, or arrangements can be made to call at their home. Staff training is an ongoing process and is constantly reviewed to ensure that all staff are competent and capable of dealing with queries that come across the counter on a day-to-day basis.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Ms McWilliams does not seem to be in the Chamber, so I call Mr Mick Murphy.
Mr M Murphy
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of housing benefit claims currently being processed; and to make a statement.
At the beginning of May 2001, a total of 130,935 tenants were receiving housing benefit. Of those, 90,677 were from the public sector and 40,258 were from the private sector. The average length of time taken to process a housing benefit claim is 13 days in the public sector and 23 days in the private sector. Those figures compare favourably with similarly sized local authorities that administer housing benefit in Great Britain. Housing benefit is an important part of the social security system, providing assistance with meeting accommodation charges for those on low incomes.
Mr M Murphy:
I do not believe that the figures you quoted accurately reflect the time it takes to process applications for housing benefit. What is the cause of the delays? What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that the assessment of housing benefit claims is carried out more quickly and in a less complicated way so that delay and complexity will not remain a barrier to payment? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Since 1998 the total number of claims has decreased by some 10,000. During this period the percentage of private sector tenants has increased from 25% to 31% of the total caseload. The average length of time it takes to process a housing benefit claim from the date of receipt to the date of payment is 13 days in the public sector and 23 days in the private sector.
I listened to the Minister's reply with great interest. I wonder whether, if those waiting in the benefits queue were to treat the Minister in the same way as the crowd he was part of treated the First Minister in Upper Bann last week, he would condone their behaviour?
I am not sure of the relevance of the question. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to answer it. If the Member is referring to my presence at the electoral count in Upper Bann, I was there. However, he should check with some of his own associates to find out my exact role at that event.
The Minister mentioned that housing benefit waiting times compared favourably with those across the water. How do current figures compare with those from three years ago? People want to know if there is a bigger drain on the resources than there was three years ago.
Housing Executive figures compare favourably with the larger-sized authorities. As I said, it takes the Housing Executive 13 days to process a claim in the public sector and 23 days in the private sector. In Manchester, it takes 88 days in the public sector and 100 days in the private sector. In Birmingham, it takes 57 days in the public sector and 73 days in the private sector. In Liverpool, it takes 51 days in the public sector and 38 days in the private sector. In Sheffield, it takes 105 days in the public sector and 78 days in the private sector. The Member will find that Housing Executive figures compare very favourably with others.
Northern Ireland Housing Council
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the cost of overseas trips undertaken in an official capacity by members of the Northern Ireland Housing Council in each of the last five years.
The cost of overseas trips outside the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in each of the last five years is as follows: 1996-97: £3,714; 1997-98: £2,079; 1998-99: £7,179; 2000-01: £5,370. No overseas conferences were attended in 1999-2000.
Given that many tenants have waited years for basic repairs, does the Minister agree that the lifespan of the Northern Ireland Housing Council is at an end - particularly since we have a Social Development Committee in the Assembly - and that the money could be better spent on tenants?
The Housing Council has carried out a very useful function in years gone by. If the situation changes we will examine the matter. I have no plans to change the housing delivery and advice structures at the moment.
Has the Minister planned any conferences to pour some balm on the uncomfortable losers who are displaying their ill temper and impetuosity in the form of questions this afternoon?
I would prefer to devote my energies to the job I am doing - looking after the housing programme. I do not get too worried about those who have stupid remarks to make in the Assembly. I would rather deal with those who want to - [Interruption].
I note what the Members are saying, but they should sit on their swords and get on with the job, like the rest of us.
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail any plans he has to increase help with housing costs for homeowners with a mortgage who make a fresh claim for income support.
Homeowners should, where possible, have a responsibility to provide for short-term contingencies themselves - for example, through mortgage payment- protection insurance policies. By securing appropriate insurance cover, homeowners can become more self-reliant and avoid situations such as short periods without work that are not covered by the benefit system.
The current income support rules on help with housing costs, which also apply to jobseeker's allowance claims, were introduced in October 1995. For the majority of people, help with mortgage interest is restricted until they have been on benefit for 39 weeks. Exceptions to this rule are people who took out a mortgage before 2 October 1995, certain vulnerable people who are subject to a shorter waiting period, and people aged 60 and over, whose interest is paid from the start of the claim. There are no plans to reduce the waiting period.
I thank the Minister for his reply, although he rehearsed the facts rather than address the question. In the current climate we have regular and unpredictable job losses right across Northern Ireland. Property prices are higher than they have been for a long time, and the greatest fear, particularly for young, new homeowners, is that they will end up out of work very suddenly and lose their homes. Will the Minister not accept that his Department has the lead responsibility in ensuring that mortgage repossessions are kept to a low, that home ownership is kept to a high, and we do not have people thrown out of their houses because of unexpected unemployment?
I have the greatest sympathy with people who get into difficulties with their mortgage repayments. I have spent some 27 years of my life helping people and have arranged many mortgages, so I do have some knowledge about that.
The majority of people making fresh benefit claims are people who have been working. It is reasonable to expect that people in employment who take out a mortgage should make some provision against difficult times such as short periods of unemployment between jobs. Many will have savings or final payments from their employment that will help cover part, if not all, of the mortgage payments during this initial period. I want to re-emphasise that the fresh claims are coming mostly from people who have been working.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves that a sum not exceeding £4,679,167,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002 and that resources, not exceeding £5,021,262,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(a) and 3(b) of Table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2001-02 that was laid before the Assembly on 11 June 2001.
I propose the adoption of the resolution under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make to the Assembly proposals leading to cash appropriations from the Consolidated Fund. In doing so, I act on behalf of the Executive, and the spending allocations reflect the decisions of the Executive.
The main spending plans were approved by the Assembly during the Budget debate on 18 December 2000. There was, therefore, a period of scrutiny of the proposals between the presentation of the draft Budget on 17 October and the Budget debate on 18 December. Since then my Department and I have sought to provide all the briefing and analysis needed in regard to the proposals. We have also sought to develop procedures for the future, which will improve the scope and detail of the consultative process.
The Budget, as approved on 18 December, has been supplemented by further resources carried forward from 2000-01, and by the first allocations from the Executive programme funds, as I explained in my statements of 12 February and 2 April. The main purpose of today's motion is to seek the Assembly's approval of the use of resources by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas, for the year ending 31 March 2002. This was summarised in the Estimates booklet that was laid before the Assembly on 11 June.
The resolution also seeks the Assembly's approval of the allocation of a cash sum from the Consolidated Fund for the 2001-02 financial year, as detailed in the Estimates booklet. To ensure that the Assembly, and especially the Committee for Finance and Personnel, had the best possible opportunity to consider the Estimates, drafts were provided a month ago, before the printing process was finalised. We also offered briefing on the significance of the change from cash-based estimates to resource- based estimates, which takes effect this year. That offer still stands, and officials from my Department will provide further briefing on those issues for Members in the autumn.
The amounts of cash and resources covered by today's resolution are additional to the Vote on Account approved by the Assembly in the Supply resolution debate on 19 February, which was followed by the passage of the Budget Bill. When the amounts quoted in today's Supply resolution are added to the Vote on Account, the total cash and resources contained in the 2001-02 Main Estimates will amount to some £8,486 million and £9,327 million respectively.
I remind the Assembly of the significance of the Supply resolution for which I seek support today. The resolution is the basis upon which the Assembly authorises the expenditure of Departments, the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and other bodies in carrying out their functions. One of the Assembly's most fundamental responsibilities is to authorise expenditure while holding Departments accountable for the use of this money. This is one of our main means of ensuring that we deliver on the commitments set out in the Programme for Government.
The scope of the debate covers expenditure in 2001-02. The resolution is the means by which Estimates can be examined by the Assembly, thereby implementing the Budget agreed by the Executive and approved by the Assembly last December.
It will pave the way for us to consider the Budget (No 2) Bill, which, subject to the approval of the Assembly, will provide the legal authority for Departments to incur expenditure this year. As such, those steps represent the conclusion of the 2001-02 financial cycle. It is important that a clear distinction be drawn between those processes which are concerned with the current year and the preparatory steps that we are taking towards the development of a Budget for 2002-03, on which I will make a statement to the Assembly tomorrow.
Before I cover the details of the Estimates, I want to acknowledge the confirmation by the Finance and Personnel Committee that appropriate consultation on the spending plans is reflected in these resolutions. I welcome the Committee's keen and constructive interest in finance issues, and I look forward to further advice and assistance from Committee members throughout the key phases of our financial cycle.
As Members will be aware, 2001-02 is the first year in which Budget allocations and Estimates will be determined and managed on a resource, rather than a cash, basis. The technical side of that transition does not need to take up time today. However, it is important that I draw out some important aspects of the Estimates that differ from the position on the Budget. The Budget as approved in December 2000 concentrated on expenditure in the departmental expenditure limit (DEL). The Estimates include some annually managed expenditure (AME) as well as expenditure that falls within the DEL. The main items that fall into that category are social security benefits, some of which are subject to annual appropriation or authorisation, and others which are charged under legislation to the National Insurance fund. Hence they do not feature in the voting process. Expenditure under the common agricultural policy also falls into the same category, because it is fully funded by the European agricultural guarantee and guidance fund.
As well as those AME items, there are some aspects of expenditure which were nominally attached to the departmental expenditure limit but which are ring-fenced by the Treasury. As we have no discretion on the use of those resources, they have also not been included in the context of our monitoring rounds, even though they were shown in the Budget documents in October and December last year. Those include expenditure under the Peace I programme and the special addition that was provided some years ago to cover the costs of the Moyle electricity interconnector.