The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Nesbitt):
I beg to move
That the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001 be approved.
The Order arises because the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission are being transferred from the Department of the Environment to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
The Planning Appeals Commission deals with appeals against decisions of the Department of the Environment's Planning Service. Under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 and the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, the Department of the Environment has responsibilities relating to, for example, the remuneration allowance of the commissioners of the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission.
The Water Appeals Commission comprises the four most senior members of the Planning Appeals Commission. It deals with appeals in regard to the work and responsibilities of the Department of the Environment, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department for Regional Development.
The Department of the Environment has been considering the appropriateness of its role in regard to those appellate bodies for some time. However, since the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 in Northern Ireland it has been examining its functions more closely to ensure its compliance with the 1998 Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Department was satisfied that the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission are entirely independent and impartial. However, it recognised - as did we - that the current statutory arrangements could create a perception that the commissioners are not fully independent. For that reason, and with Mr Foster's agreement, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister proposes to acquire the sponsorship functions of the Department of the Environment.
The proposed transfer will provide these appellate bodies with more robust and transparent levels of independence and impartiality. The transfers would be effected under article 4(3) of the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001. The functions under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 that would be transferred from the Department of the Environment to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would include powers to appoint commissioners to the Planning Appeals Commission and to determine their remuneration and allowances. The Office of the First Minster and the Deputy First Minister would also be granted powers to appoint staff to assist the commission in performing its functions, to determine their remuneration and allowances, and to determine remuneration allowances for any assessor appointed by the chief commissioner to assist at hearings. It would also acquire powers to make rules for regulating the procedure for proceedings before the commission and to prescribe fees in respect of commission applications.
It is proposed to transfer the functions contained in the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 that provide for the appointment of the chief commissioner and other commissioners of the Water Appeals Commission, the payment of commissioners and those appointed to assist the commission. The four most senior members of the Planning Appeals Commission act jointly as commissioners of the Water Appeals Commission.
A consultation role in the appointment by the chief commissioner of an assessor to sit with the member of the commission at an appeal or hearing would also be transferred to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minster. There would also be provision to approve the payment by the commission of fees and allowances to an assessor and to make rules to regulate commission procedure.
Some of those functions currently fall to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, where these Departments have an interest in a water appeals hearing. Mrs Rodgers, Mr Campbell and Mr McGimpsey have agreed to the transfer of those functions to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as outlined in articles 8, 9 and 10 of the Order.
The transfers of several other functions are set out in the Order. In February 1999, the Assembly approved an earlier report by the First Minister Designate and the Deputy First Minister Designate setting out details about certain functions of the 11 Departments in the Northern Ireland Administration.
The principal Departments (Transfer and Assignment of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 1999, which implemented the agreed structures, was enacted in December 1999. Since its enactment, Departments have identified several statutory functions that must be transferred to other Departments to create consistency with the agreed allocation of functions at that time. The opportunity is now being taken to enact those transfers.
First, article 3 of the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001 will transfer functions relating to the payment of expenses of the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the Civic Forum from the Department of Finance and Personnel to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. While the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister supports the operation of the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the Civic Forum, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that expenses in respect of these functions are defrayed as Department of Finance and Personnel expenses. That will be addressed and corrected by article 3. When the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was drafted, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister did not exist. The Order before the Assembly would regularise that position.
Secondly, the functions being transferred from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Finance and Personnel come under article 4(1) of the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001. These transfers are necessary because of the distribution of functions under the principal 1999 Order. They relate to functions conferred on the Department of the Environment under social security legislation that deals with rate fraud in housing benefit claims.
Thirdly, the opportunity has been taken in article 4(2) to transfer several provisions from the Department of the Environment to the Department for Regional Development. Those provisions properly fall in the remit of the Department for Regional Development; they relate mainly to its responsibility for public transport and its obligations as a public roads authority for Northern Ireland.
Fourthly, article 5 of the Order transfers functions from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to the Department of Finance and Personnel. This relates to the appointment of a committee to advise Departments on the exercise of functions under the Statistics of Trade and Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 1988. That committee is currently appointed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the focus of its work is predominantly economic and business statistics. This degree of specialism is reflected in the membership of the committee. While current legislation makes provision for Departments other than the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to consult the committee on matters related to the collection and quality of general statistical information, this facility has not been widely used.
A committee appointed by the Department of Finance and Personnel will retain the statutory functions as currently detailed in the legislation relating to business statistics, and it will act in an independent advisory capacity to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency - an agency of the Department of Finance and Personnel. Given the agency's position as the host body for all Northern Ireland Civil Service statisticians and its role in quality-assuring their work, it is appropriate for the new committee to develop its role beyond pure statistics or business statistics. Therefore, its remit will span the statistical material of all Departments, as well as covering more fundamental issues such as quality assurance, a statistics code of practice and national statistics.
Fifthly, article 6 of the Order transfers certain functions under the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993 from the Department for Social Development to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. This relates to the payment of contributions when an employer becomes insolvent. As those payments are infrequent, it has only recently come to light that in consequence of earlier legislation on the consolidation of pensions, the function is more appropriate to - and should have been transferred to - the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
My sixth point deals with article 7 of the Order, which carries some minor transfer from the Department of Education to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. This relates to library and recreational matters consistent with the transfer of library services, recreation and cultural activity functions from the Department of Education to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the principal 1999 Order.
Finally, article 11 of the Order makes legislative changes consequential upon the transfers. The Order has been scrutinised by the Committee of the Centre and the Examiner of Statutory Rules. All Ministers concerned in these transfers have been consulted and are content. I hope that Members will support these measures.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Gibson):
The Committee of the Centre considered this Statutory Rule at Consultation Stage and Statutory Rule Stage. The junior Minister has outlined in detail the various transfers of functions from one Department to another. The Order was presented to us as a tidying-up exercise following the creation of the 11 new Departments and the establishment of devolution.
As outlined earlier by the junior Minister, the area of greatest concern to the Committee was the transfer of the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. We were told that this was to allow for greater independence. Currently the Department of the Environment has statutory responsibility for the Planning Appeals Commission, and the four most senior planning appeals commissioners comprise the Water Appeals Commission. Therefore, the appellate bodies were examining the decisions of the Department that had the statutory responsibility for them. While we were assured that they acted independently in that arrangement, this transfer creates a more open and accountable form of impartiality.
The Committee questioned whether these important appeal bodies would have been better set up outside the central Government structure to provide them with even more independence and impartiality. However, the Government had already announced a review of public administration, and the Committee decided that this matter should be taken on board in that review. All forms of appeals in our administrative system should be seen not only as apparently independent, but as very obviously independent.
The junior Minister dealt with the 11 transfer functions which relate to Departments other than the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The Committee of the Centre consulted with the other relevant Assembly Committees and got assurances on the points of concern that were raised. The junior Ministers attended the Committee of the Centre and positively answered the questions that had caused concern. Therefore, the Committee of the Centre is fairly and reasonably satisfied that it can recommend that this Statutory Rule be accepted and affirmed.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received no further indication of Members who would like to speak.
I welcome Mr Gibson's comment that he is fairly and reasonably satisfied. If anyone says to anyone else here that he is fairly and reasonably satisfied, that can be taken as a commendation. Mr Gibson rightly said, as did I at the outset, that the main thrust of this transfer of functions is to deal with the Planning Appeals Commission and the Water Appeals Commission. There are others coming through as well.
While satisfied that both commissions are entirely independent and impartial, this provides a greater outward display of that impartiality. It remains for me to thank Mr Gibson on behalf of the Committee that he represents for his words of support. I ask that the motion to approve these provisions be supported.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) (SR 229/2001) 2001 be approved.
The sitting was suspended at 1.11pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -
During Question Time last week a Minister was asked questions about matters that were not his responsibility. They were occasioned less by their appropriateness as questions to that Minister than by the events of the recent elections. As the Deputy Speaker ruled at that time, such questions are out of order. They should not be put, and, if put, the Minister should not be required to respond.
The Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada, the hon Peter Milliken, and several of his parliamentary Colleagues have visited us today, and some Members have had an opportunity to meet them. It is an honour for the Assembly not only to receive distinguished parliamentarians, but, for the first time since it decided to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), to be visited by parliamentarians from a CPA legislature. On the Assembly's behalf, I extend a hearty welcome to Speaker Milliken and his Colleagues.
The Minister is in his place, unlike some Members who have tabled questions. I will call Members, but if they are not in the Chamber they may not put their questions and, unfortunately, Members will not be able to ask supplementary questions. Mr John Kelly, Mr McHugh, Mrs Iris Robinson and Mr Conor Murphy are not in their places. However, Mr Gibson is present.
Ever ready, ever sure, Mr Speaker.
Post-Primary Education Review
asked the Minister of Education to detail the current timescale for completion of the post-primary education review.
All-inclusive Post-Primary Schools
asked the Minister of Education, in the light of favourable research into comprehensive schools in Great Britain, if he will provide an assurance to give the concept of all-inclusive, all-ability post-primary schools his full consideration.
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):
With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 5 and 9 together.
The independent review body on post-primary education is due to report at the end of October. After its findings and recommendations have been consulted, I intend to make proposals for change at the earliest opportunity.
Will the Minister assure the Assembly that, irrespective of any structures for post-primary education proposed in the Burns Report, the primary importance of any review is to ensure an increasing standard in educational provision? What criteria have been given to the Burns team to ensure increasing academic success for every pupil in this age range?
Mr M McGuinness:
The purpose of the Burns review body is to put in place a strengthened and enhanced education system. The review body's terms of reference were to consider research and other relevant information on the impact of selection on pupils, parents, teachers, the economy and society, and to undertake widespread consultation. The purpose of the consultation was to identify and consider key issues arising from the current selective system of post-primary education, and to assess the extent to which the current arrangements for post- primary education meet the needs and aspirations of children and their parents and the requirements of the economy and society.
The terms of reference also state that the review body should report its conclusions and recommendations on the future arrangements for post-primary education to the Minister of Education, and address specifically: the most appropriate structures for post-primary education, including the age or ages at which transfer should occur; the administrative arrangements for transfer; the implications for the curriculum at primary and post-primary levels; the implications for current school structures; the implications for further and higher education and training; the anticipated impact of any proposed new arrangements on the economy; the cost of any revised arrangements; and the timing and phasing of any new proposed arrangements.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given that research carried out after 1998 in Britain - Members will note that I say "Britain", not "Great Britain" - at the University of York shows that some comprehensive schools do better than grammar schools and secondary moderns in progressing children from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4, and that research carried out in Cardiff shows similar success, will the Minister tell the House how extensive the review body's consultation has been?
Mr M McGuinness:
This consultation has been the biggest by far on any education issue in recent years. The review body has held over 25 public meetings, two open days to receive oral evidence and meetings with representatives of business and commerce, and it has received over 1,000 written submissions. There has been huge public interest in the work of the review body, and there have been approximately 250,000 hits on the official web site. Barry McElduff is a member of the Education Committee, and it is important that that Committee submit its views as a matter of urgency so that they can also be considered.
Has the Minister noted the recent comments made by the former chief press secretary to the Prime Minister, Alastair Campbell, who said that the days of the bog-standard comprehensive school were over? Does the Minister agree that there is little point in copying an experiment in England that experts agreed failed between 1971 and 1999?
Mr M McGuinness:
I noted those comments when they were made. The Department of Education has put in place a wide-ranging review. The Gallagher and Smith Report provided information on education in England, Scotland and some European countries. The review body and the panel of education advisors have substantial knowledge of these matters. The review body has undertaken study visits to the South, Scotland, the Netherlands and Austria to experience their systems at first hand.
It would be a serious mistake to pre-empt the outcome of the review body's deliberations. An extensive consultation is taking place, and, as a result of the information that I have received from the review body and its trips abroad, I am certain that it is taking a broad view of all this.
Does the Minister agree that when considering comprehensive education he would do well to examine the concept of community schools that exists in the Republic of Ireland? Not only are they comprehensive, but they are open to the whole community, thereby promoting lifelong learning.
Mr M McGuinness:
The review body undoubtedly had extensive discussions with education authorities in Dublin during its recent visit there and became fully appraised of the community schools.
Members are trying to glean some indication as to how all this will turn out, but I do not know how it will turn out, because the review body is independent. It has been involved in in-depth discussions on many education systems, and I am as keenly interested as Mr Dallat in the outcome of its deliberations.
Common Funding Formula for Schools
asked the Minister of Education to detail how the responses to the consultation on a common funding formula for schools will be weighted.
Mr M McGuinness:
There will be no formal weighting allocated to any response. I will decide on the common formula in the light of my consideration on all the views expressed and after further consultation with Colleagues on the Executive and the Education Committee.
I do not regard the Minister's answer as satisfactory. Does he agree that the official responses given by the schools affected by these proposals are the most significant responses he will receive? They should be given greater consideration than responses from individuals, which can always be input in large numbers in order to distort the apparent balance of opinion on the matters being discussed. Therefore, can he assure us that he will be giving full and proper weight to the responses received from the schools affected by the proposals?
Mr M McGuinness:
I am particularly interested to hear what representational bodies have to say about the proposals. However, this is a consultation; it is not a referendum. Decisions will have to be made taking into account the various views expressed, the policy context and, most importantly, what is judged as being best for schools. I understand the Member's point, but we need to remember that this is a consultation exercise. There is a particular interest in hearing what the representational bodies have to say.
Question 7, in the name of Ms Sue Ramsey, has been withdrawn.
Local Management of Schools
asked the Minister of Education to detail the representations he has received to extend the consultation period for the review of the local management of schools funding formula.
Mr M McGuinness:
Representations to extend the consultation period have been received from the Assembly Education Committee, the general purposes and finance committee of the Belfast Education and Library Board, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Governing Bodies Association of Voluntary Grammar Schools, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and a Member of the Assembly, Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton. In the light of the concerns expressed, I have reviewed the timetable for consultation and extended the closing date to 21 September 2001.
I welcome the extension of the consultation period. Given the extension and the need for primary legislation if the proposals are implemented, will the Minister concede that, because of the representations made to him, the implementation date of April 2002 is no longer realistic?
Mr M McGuinness:
There is some concern about that. In considering the extension of the deadline until later in the year, we were very conscious of the ongoing intention in the Department to put this in place as early as possible at the beginning of next year. Any delay would be highly detrimental, as we are dealing with the sense of unfairness and inequities perceived by many people in the education system.
I regard this as an urgent priority - an objective to be achieved as quickly as possible. This has put people under pressure. It has put many officials in my Department under pressure, and by extending the period of consultation I have made their lives much more difficult. We are determined to complete this process by early next year.
Pupil Admissions Criteria
asked the Minister of Education if he will introduce new guidelines for schools in respect of the criteria for pupil admission.
Post-Primary Schools' Admission Criteria
Mr J Kelly
asked the Minister of Education if, following recent concerns by the Human Rights Commission relating to post-primary schools' admission criteria, he will ensure that the human rights of pupils and their families are guaranteed in the transfer to post-primary school.
Mr M McGuinness:
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 10 and 1 together.
In publishing its recent report, the Human Rights Commission acknowledged that the report is the work of Laura Lundy, senior law lecturer at Queen's University. No specific human rights issues have been identified. Under my Department's New TSN action plan, a working group was established some time ago to consider the promotion of access to schools by disadvantaged groups, with particular reference to the operation of admissions criteria.
Laura Lundy is a member of that group. Its report will issue from the Department to schools in late August as specific advice for the review of admissions criteria. My Department will also be undertaking an equality impact assessment of the open enrolment policy in 2002-03 under its statutory equality scheme. The whole system of post- primary provision is currently under review.
My Department is aware of these important issues and is taking appropriate action. I should also stress that admissions criteria are statutorily matters for boards of governors, and their legality is a matter for the courts.
I thank the Minister for his response, although I am surprised that he said that there were no specific human rights issues identified in the commission's report. Given that this matter is urgent and accepting that it is for boards of governors to implement, can the Minister say how quickly he expects to issue any revised guidance in the light of that report? Will he be taking any further action so that the admission of pupils who are neither Catholic nor Protestant to integrated schools is treated more fairly than at present?
Mr M McGuinness:
As I said earlier, we intend to issue advice to the boards of governors in late August, and that will help to settle these matters. We should not exaggerate the extent of the problems we face. Generally, boards of governors take great care in drawing up and applying their criteria, and they exercise their responsibilities very conscientiously. We must ensure that any problems identified are resolved in the future, and that includes the problem with integrated schools. We are monitoring the situation carefully, but we must keep the problems in perspective and in context.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, to the Minister and to the Assembly for not being present when my question was called.
Do I take it from the Minister's answer that he is concerned about the problems in the system?
Mr M McGuinness:
I would be concerned if there were a perception that our approach or that of schools and boards of governors left something to be desired. These are important issues, and doubtless many Members receive communications from their constituents, particularly in the aftermath of the results of the 11-plus examinations. We have tried to deal with the problem by establishing the working party. That was a positive development, and we await the outcome of it. The advice will issue to schools in August, and I hope that we can overcome many of the difficulties as a result.
Bullying and Discipline in Schools
asked the Minister of Education when he intends to introduce legislation to address the problem of bullying and discipline in schools.
Mr M McGuinness:
Every school is required to have a written discipline policy that must promote self- discipline, good behaviour and respect for others among pupils. Bullying behaviour is unacceptable and should be addressed by schools as part of their existing discipline policies. On a voluntary basis, many schools have developed a separate anti-bullying policy. I intend to strengthen that position by taking the next legislative opportunity to make it mandatory for every school to have an anti-bullying policy in place and to implement it.
I thank the Minister for confirming that he is going to address bullying in schools. Will he also agree that it is unacceptable for others to bully a pupil's parents? When will he and the Republican community end their so-called punishment attacks and decommission their weapons -
Order. The Member knows that the question is out of order. I will not permit the Minister to respond.
asked the Minister of Education to confirm that he will not approve the establishment of a new school in an area where there is already a surplus of places available in existing schools.
Mr M McGuinness:
As the establishment of new schools involves substantial public expenditure, their eligibility for grant-aid must be assessed against a range of criteria to ensure that they are robust and educationally effective. The criteria include viability, availability of suitable alternative provision, impact on other schools, quality of current education provision and the level of objections to any grant-aid proposal.
How does the Minister's answer sit with the Government's policy of open enrolment? Is it now policy to further curtail parental choice?
Mr M McGuinness:
When I first came to the Department of Education, I stressed the importance of parental choice and of ensuring that we allow for the demand for education in relation to particular sections of the community, whether in the integrated, Irish-medium or any other sector. We said that we would do everything in our power, as long as people came forward with robust proposals. On the specific issue of applications for the establishment of new schools, we have been at pains to ensure that there has been no favouritism for anybody and that people's rights have been protected. At all times the Department has ensured that it adhered rigidly to its criteria for the establishment of new schools or the continuation of schools that were under threat.
As there are no further questions, we must leave questions to the Minister of Education at this point.
I am aware that Members' minds may, for various reasons, be on matters outside the Chamber, but it is a matter of more than mere regret that many Members whose names were down to ask questions were not in the Chamber when their time came. In addition, any Members who may have wished to ask supplementary questions were denied the opportunity to do so. Although that may be a discourtesy and a disadvantage to the House, it is also a discourtesy to the Minister and his civil servants, who have taken substantial time to prepare responses to the questions. Frankly, that is not the way in which the House should be treating those who are servants of the House and of the Executive.
At this point, according to the agreement previously reached through the usual channels, the House will, by leave, suspend and resume at 3.00 pm with questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The sitting was suspended at 2.52 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -
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