Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 19 June 2001 (continued)

Mr C Murphy:

I beg to move

That, in Standing Order 72, delete all and insert:

"Subject to the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a Member may move a motion for the suspension of one or more Standing Orders in whole or in part. A motion under this Standing Order shall require cross-community support within the meaning of Section 4(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998."

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am somewhat at a loss as to why we were forced through the Lobbies on the previous motion. I was aware that the DUP was opposed to progress. I did not realise that that also extended to technological progress.

This motion to amend is part of the Standing Orders -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Is this a point of order, Dr Paisley?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Yes. Surely it is entirely out of order for the Member to comment on the previous vote. His job is to move this motion now, but he has no right to start to comment on the previous vote.

Mr Speaker:

If I were to interpret the rules of the House so strictly in that matter, we should certainly shorten all the debates by a substantial amount. I have listened to a number of questions to Ministers from all sides of the House, including the Member's side, in the past hour and a half that were well wide of the mark. The Chairman of the Committee on Procedures should continue.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I continue to move forward. This motion to amend Standing Orders is part of the Committee on Procedures' ongoing work to clarify, where necessary, the existing Standing Orders. In this instance, the motion has been moved to clarify the meaning of Standing Order 72, which allows for the suspension of Standing Orders to facilitate the Assembly's plenary business in unusual circumstances or because of an unforeseen event.

Experience has shown that it has been used on several occasions, and that sometimes only part of a Standing Order has had to be suspended. The current wording of Standing Order 72 makes reference to "one or more Standing Orders", and my legal advice is that the reference to one may be interpreted to include part of a Standing Order. The Committee has been advised that the wording of that Standing Order should be tightened to make it clear that part of a Standing Order can also be suspended.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That, in Standing Order 72, delete all and insert:

"Subject to the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a Member may move a motion for the suspension of one or more Standing Orders in whole or in part. A motion under this Standing Order shall require cross-community support within the meaning of Section 4(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998."

The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.

On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -


Assembly Business


2.30 pm

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, I gave notice to the Speaker -

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I remind the Member that points of order are taken at the end of Question Time. Your point of order may be taken at the end of the first half-hour session.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

This is nothing to do with today's Question Time. It is an important point of order about which I have already spoken to the Speaker, and I want to put it on the record. It is a simple reference to what took place in the Assembly yesterday and is recorded in Hansard. Questions that were entirely out of order were put to Mr Morrow by Mr Leslie and Mrs Carson. I have referred the matter to the Speaker, and I told the Speaker that at the opening of this session I would put it on the record.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I thank the Member for his point of order. The matter has been raised with the Speaker and is being examined by him.


Oral Answers


Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Children's Fund


Mr B Hutchinson

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline the current position on the development of the children's fund and, in particular, the proposed timescale for consultation and further allocation of funds.

(AQO 1601/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

The first allocations from the children's fund were announced on 2 April. It will provide £10·5 million over the next three years to 12 projects, which are to be developed by different Departments. Those are designed to assist children in need and young people at risk. The remaining £18·5 million will be distributed in future bidding rounds. We are committed to ensuring that the voluntary and community sectors are fully involved in that process.

The Executive will shortly consider proposals on the criteria that might be used to select future projects, and the structures that could be put in place to manage the allocation process and ensure that appropriate accountability mechanisms exist. Those are being developed taking account of initial views from the voluntary sector and will be subject to full consultation covering any associated equality implications over the summer and early autumn. When the consultation exercise is complete and the arrangements are finalised, we will move quickly to invite bids for support from the children's fund and assess those in line with our final criteria. We hope that the timescale will ensure that the final arrangements reflect fully the views of the voluntary sector.

Mr B Hutchinson:

How will the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister use the criteria of the children's fund to ensure that the Chancellor's targets on reduction of children's poverty are met in Northern Ireland?

The Deputy First Minister:

It may be worth looking at the allocations to date, of which there have been several. Those include allocations for disabled children; £1·3 million for specialist residential units; £1·6 million for the Families for Life regional adopting service; £1·2 million for counselling support for pupils in schools, and contributions to the school age mothers programme. Those are the sort of areas to which the money has been allocated.

The criteria will be governed by their obligation to implement TSN requirements, which will be strictly applied. As elected representatives, we know the nature of the problem. We must try to ensure that every penny spent goes to children in need and at risk. We will welcome any advice from the volutary sector and elected representatives that will help us do that.

Ms Lewsley:

In his reply to the first question, the Deputy First Minister spoke about the views of the voluntary and community sector. Can the Deputy First Minister tell us how those views will be fully represented in the development of the children's fund? What steps will be taken to ensure that the operation of the children's fund fits with the developing children's strategy?

The Deputy First Minister:

We are very pleased that the voluntary sector has been involved in helping officials to develop proposals for the management of the children's fund and hope to build on that productive relationship as we take the children's fund forward.

Some time ago the First Minister and I had a valuable meeting with a large range of organisations connected with children. That type of dialogue has continued with officials, and it will develop. We recognise the sector's key role in supporting children in need and young people at risk and the importance of ensuring that it is involved in distributing funding in future bidding rounds. After the Executive have had an opportunity to consider proposals for future allocations from the children's fund, we are planning full consultation with the sector and other interested parties. Those proposals envisage the sector's being actively involved in a number of aspects of that fund.

In addition we are committed to putting in place a comprehensive strategy on children's rights and needs. The strategy will set out the Executive's vision, values, strategic goals and specific objectives for children. It will also include a strong focus on children in need and young people at risk. The development of that strategy is being informed by experience gained through the operation of the children's fund. It will be important to have consistency between the goals in the strategy and the long-term aims of the children's fund, and we are committed to making sure that that will happen.

Mrs E Bell:

I am heartened by the Deputy First Minister's comments. To allay earlier concerns, how will he will ensure that funding allocated to Departments or statutory bodies will not be used directly, or indirectly, for other things or to enable funds to be diverted from mainstream projects?

The Deputy First Minister:

The first and obvious reply is vigilance to ensure that if money is channelled towards children in need or at risk that is where it goes. Funding from the Executive programme funds is ring- fenced within the respective Department baselines, thereby ensuring that it can only be used for the specific purpose for which it was made available. That will also ensure that any allocated funding no longer required must be returned for reallocation. I repeat: it must be returned for reallocation, and funds will be allocated to other bodies, whether in the statutory, voluntary or community sectors, on the same basis.

Officials are developing arrangements to ensure that all Executive programme fund allocations can be effectively monitored and accounted for. There will be no hiding place for those who try to divert money for children in need or at risk into other purposes; there will be no hiding place in the Administration, in the voluntary sector, in the community sector or in any other sector.

Strategic Plan


Mr Byrne

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline what plans there are to provide a strategic plan for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

(AQO 1628/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

The first corporate and business plan of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be available on Thursday, and copies will be placed in the Assembly Library.

Through the plan the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister as a Department seeks to promote good government and has several strategic aims. The first aim is to promote corporate thinking and collectivity in all institutions of the Government and to ensure that the Administration's key policies are agreed and delivered. Other aims include ensuring the effective operation of all institutions; developing relations internationally and within these islands; communicating the policies and activities of Ministers and institutions of Government; building a Programme for Government and modernising the Government's programme; and promoting better community relations in a culture of equality and human rights.

As Members will know, considerable progress has been made in realising those strategic aims, not least through the development of a programme for Government, including, for the first time, public service agreements, and also through the introduction of the concept of a single equality Bill and the implementation of evaluation of New TSN.

Mr Byrne:

I thank the First Minister for his answer, and I welcome the fact that an announcement will be made on Thursday. Will the effectiveness of any plan be open to external evaluation and subject to ongoing monitoring and review?

The First Minister:

Regular monitoring of what the Administration does is crucial. That is the primary function of the Assembly and its Committees. I expect that the Committee of the Centre will be particularly anxious to do that. Of course, many of the aims and objectives of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are directed towards co-ordinating the work of the Administration as a whole. In effect, our success should be measured in relation to the success of all the Departments collectively.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Is this plan not now in jeopardy, given that the First Minister has written a letter to the Speaker of the House telling him that he intends to resign from his office? That being so, does the First Minister not think that he has a responsibility to this House and to the country to tell people the exact terms of that letter? Is he going to resign if there is no announcement made by IRA/Sinn Féin? Is he going to resign if some arms are put away?

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Is he going to resign if all arms are put away?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. The question refers to the strategic plan, and I will ask the First Minister to -

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I am speaking to the plan. How can you have a plan when the First Minister has already said that he is resigning? It has taken him nearly 18 months to get to this plan.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


The First Minister:

When the corporate plan is produced, Members will be able to assess its quality and see that considerable work has gone into producing it. I must say that I was very interested to listen to the question as it was originally framed, because Dr Paisley was clearly expressing his concern about the future of this institution, and he was clearly indicating his desire to see it continue. That, of course, is entirely in accordance with the manifesto of that party, which shows that it is slowly creeping towards full acceptance of the agreement.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Mrs Carson:

Will the First Minister assure the House that the corporate and business plan for his own Department targets issues such as training and staff development, which could contribute to equal opportunities for all the staff?

The First Minister:

As in the Civil Service as a whole, we are committed to providing equality of opportunity. It is our policy that all eligible persons should have equal opportunity for appointment and advancement on the basis of their ability, qualifications and aptitude for the work. That is an issue that is carefully monitored to ensure that equality of opportunity is, in fact, provided.

The corporate and business plan also includes a commitment to ensure that staff have the necessary skills to meet the business needs of the Department and to fulfil statutory obligations. The implementation of that commitment includes an undertaking to produce a training and development needs analysis by September of this year and a training and development plan by March 2002. Given the unique nature of the work of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, one of the skills that we most need to acquire and develop is the skill to advise on policy formation.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Mr McGrady is absent and will receive a written answer.

2.45 pm

Disability Rights Task Force


Dr Hendron

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the implementation of the report of the disability rights task force.

(AQO 1630/00)

The First Minister:

The Executive's response to the recommendations in the disability rights task force's report entitled 'From Exclusion to Inclusion' is being prepared. We plan to issue the response for consultation during the summer. The disability rights task force has set us a challenging agenda for ensuring comprehensive and enforceable rights for disabled people, and we believe that its impressive report will play an important role in achieving equality of opportunity for disabled people in Northern Ireland.

Dr Hendron:

I thank the First Minister for his reply. A major defect of the Disability Discrimination Act is the fact that it does not apply to education. The disability rights task force recognises that. What is being done to give rights in education to disabled children?

The First Minister:

The Member is quite right to say that the disability rights task force recognised that gap in the Disability Discrimination Act, and he will also know that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, which takes forward the recommendations in Great Britain with regard to that aspect of education, received Royal Assent on 11 May.

Responsibility for taking those educational recommendations forward here rests with the Department of Education and with the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment - while it is still called that. Both Ministers have indicated their commitment to introducing legislation on those issues, and I hope that we will see it on the statute book as soon as possible.

Mr Beggs:

Will the First Minister clarify the role of the Equality Commission in relation to the Disability Discrimination Act as it applies to Northern Ireland and in ensuring that issues in this report are implemented?

The First Minister:

In relation to the Disability Discrimination Act, the Equality Commission has a role similar to that of the Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain. The Equality Commission has specific duties in relation to disability. Those include: to work towards the elimination of discrimination and promote the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people; to keep the legislation under review; to undertake formal investigations; to prepare statutory codes of practice giving practical guidance on how to comply with the law; and to provide information advice to employers and service providers.

In Great Britain, the Government have referred a number of the task force's recommendations to the Disability Rights Commission as part of its role to monitor and review the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act. As the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has a similar role to perform in relation to the Act as it applies in Northern Ireland, we have already asked the Equality Commission to work in tandem with the Disability Rights Commission on those particular task force recommendations.

Freedom of Information Bill


Mr Ford

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an update on the introduction of a freedom of information Bill.

(AQO 1612/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

No decision has yet been taken on separate additional legislation for Northern Ireland. The situation will be reviewed in the light of our experience with the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Westminster Freedom of Information Act at present extends to Northern Ireland. That Act must come into force within five years, and the Lord Chancellor has the responsibility for appointing dates for the different provisions to take effect.

Mr Ford:

The Minister's response is extremely disappointing. I am sure that both he and his Colleague are aware of the fact that freedom of information was made a priority by the incoming Scottish Executive. As a result, the system of government in Scotland is considerably more open than in the UK as a whole.

If we are going to show the way forward in this Assembly, we should be seeking to do rather better than the very tardy progress in Westminster, which it appears the Ministers are satisfied with.

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member is wrong on two counts. First, the Executive decided in February 2000 that the Freedom of Information Bill, which was passing through Parliament, should apply to Northern Ireland, because in the time available it would not have been possible to have had a freedom of information Bill on the statute book in this Assembly.

Hence we would have been without any freedom of information Bill. A decision has to be taken by the Executive either to continue with that or to draw up a freedom of information Bill for Northern Ireland. That is what many Members favour.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not cover the devolved Administration in Scotland. The Scottish Executive recently published a consultation document on draft freedom of information legislation. The proposals follow closely, but not exactly, the structure of the United Kingdom Act, and they are broadly similar in their provisions. As in the United Kingdom Act they propose to confer rights to information rather than access to documents and that there will be a roughly equivalent enforcement regime. A similar period of five years is proposed for the implementation following the enactment of the legislation.

Therefore there is no statutory regime in Scotland. There is no freedom of information legislation applying to Scotland. It is at the consultation period. I suggest to the Member that there was more wisdom in the decision taken by the Executive here to at least have a freedom of information Bill until such time as we could produce a better one, unlike Scotland which left itself without any and finds itself consulting.

Mr Dodds:

In considering the freedom of information Bill or part of its provision - or even in advance of its introduction and in the interests of openness and transparency - will the Deputy First Minister use his influence with the First Minister, who takes his advice on many things and who regularly consults with him on every decision that he makes, and ask him to include details of his current resignation letter which has been kept hidden, his original resignation letter and the letter relating to policing that Mr John D Taylor received from the Prime Minister? Perhaps he could even throw in the opinion polls that he had done secretly and which told him that he was going to win the election when he lost it.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Member for the question. He sets me a difficult task. There will be discussions in the Executive about the important issue of freedom of information. I hope that the hon Member will be present.

Mr Dodds:

I am not in the Executive.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

The party represented by the hon Member has got revolving-door Ministries. I was guilty of thinking that the hon Member was still a Minister, but it is not his turn this week or next week. However, now that the election is out of the way we will maybe see the musical chairs operating again.

The First Minister and I do not consult each other; we make decisions jointly. The strength of this Administration is that it has the representatives of both sections of the community jointly making decisions. Come and join us and see that it works.

Mr Dallat:

Assuming that democracy will survive, will the Minister tell the House what the likely steps will be to introduce the Freedom of Information Act?

The Deputy First Minister:

Democracy will survive. It will survive in the Chamber and in the Administration.

Madam Deputy Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

It will survive because there have been those on both sides who have been at pains to show the alternative to democracy.

An independent working group of senior officials has been established to oversee the implementation of the Act across all Departments. Contact will be maintained with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Information Commissioner's Office to establish best practice, promote awareness of obligations under the Act and ensure compliance with all aspects of the new legislation.

We are currently considering the most appropriate date to implement the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in the devolved Administration. That depends on several factors, which include the time needed for the Information Commissioner to set up her office. The Executive Committee will be considering that matter shortly with a view to the First Minister and I reaching agreement with the Lord Chancellor on the implementation date to be applied here.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Mr Armstrong

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, following the initial relief package provided by the Executive for industries affected by foot-and-mouth disease, if any further relief measures are being considered; and to make a statement.

(AQO 1616/00)

The First Minister:

There has been a positive response from businesses to the financial relief package we announced on 21 May. There have been over 400 calls to the helpline to register interest in the help for business scheme as well as contact through the web site. Applications will be processed as quickly as possible by the new unit established to administer the scheme.

While we welcome the good news on regionalisation, which will lead to a reopening of export markets, we are aware that some businesses are still suffering due to the impact of foot-and-mouth disease, and we are keeping the situation under continual review. The interdepartmental task force led by the Economic Policy Unit continues to monitor the impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the Northern Ireland economy and provides regular reports to the Executive.

Mr Armstrong:

Can the Minister assure me that assistance measures available in Northern Ireland remain on a par with those in the rest of the UK, bearing in mind that foot-and-mouth disease was first diagnosed in GB and not here?

The First Minister:

It is our aim that the assistance available here should be no less beneficial than that available in similar circumstances in Great Britain. Where there are legislative and other constraints, as in the case of rate relief, alternative ways of achieving the objective are being developed. Officials from our Department continue to attend the Whitehall rural task force to keep abreast of developments and wider economic issues in Great Britain, and I am sure that Northern Ireland benefits from any national schemes.

As the Member knows, the measures available in Northern Ireland include the following: the help for business scheme; the small firms loan guarantee scheme; the deferral of tax, VAT and National Insurance payments; business advice from LEDU and the IDB; marketing Northern Ireland and attracting promoters through the tourism recovery strategy; advice on alternative training and employment opportunities; advice on benefits and advice to farmers on farm business. The information leaflet published by the Executive entitled 'Coping with Foot-and-Mouth Disease - Help for Businesses' provides further details including contact numbers, and those can also be obtained from the web site.

As a way of showing that the assistance is as beneficial here as it is in Great Britain I would like to cite the marketing tourism scheme. We invested £1 million in the scheme - on a per capita basis adjusted for the size of Northern Ireland compared with GB - which is higher than the equivalent figures for across the water.

Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (Identity)


Mrs Courtney

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline what plans there are to provide a clearer identity for the Office and the Executive.

(AQO 1624/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

It is important that the public can easily recognise and identify with the work of the Administration that serves it. With this in mind a corporate identity for the Executive and its Departments is currently being developed. It will provide a clear branding of all aspects of the work of the Administration and will feature on correspondence, publications, advertisements, buildings and vehicles. There will be an overarching branding framework for the Executive, but each Department will have its own clear identity within that structure in relation to its functions.

A strong corporate identity is important for the promotion of Northern Ireland's interests in Europe, the United States and everywhere abroad. We want to provide a clear image for the devolved Administration that can be recognised everywhere.

3.00 pm

Mrs Courtney:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his response. Will he assure us that the Executive identity will be coherent and that all Departments, including the semi-detached Departments with DUP Ministers will be fully integrated and signed up to the programme?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member is pointing up the failure of two Ministers to participate properly in the workings of government. That is a major issue and one that brings no credit to those who are adopting that position. The corporate identity aims to make it easy for the public to recognise government and the relevant Departments within government. Even at this late stage, I appeal to the two Ministers who do not take part in the proper workings of this Administration to think again and probe sufficiently to see if they have any conscience left in calling themselves Ministers and not assuming responsibility.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. Time is up.


<< Prev / Next >>