Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 24 September 2001 (continued)

The Deputy Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mrs Nelis):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister outline any developments or plans by his Department in regard to the reopening of the Navan Fort heritage centre?

Mr McGimpsey:

The problem at Navan has been well rehearsed. It is owned by a board of trustees, which has appointed a board of directors to run the centre for it. It is not in the ownership, or under the control, of the Department. We have made strenuous efforts in the past months to ensure continuity and, since the centre's closure, to ensure that it reopens.

I am confident that the Navan Fort heritage centre will reopen. Navan Fort is an archaeological exhibit of enormous importance. It is one of the most important artefacts on the island of Ireland and, therefore, access to it needs to be restored and enhanced.

The trustees currently, through their board of directors, have advertised for expressions of interest. When they are in a position to give us further information, they will do so. I will be happy to write to Mrs Nelis on the latest position when I hear what the developments are. There has been interest from some bodies and if some of that comes to fruition it will enhance the Navan experience for the visitor and make an important contribution to our cultural life.

Mr Hilditch:

Is the Minister aware of the difficulties facing Carrickfergus Borough Council in securing a contract with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board? It could stop progress in establishing in the town a museum for the mid-Antrim region - a scheme that we are confident will obtain lottery funding soon. If he is not aware of the difficulties would he investigate them?

Mr McGimpsey:

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is the responsibility of another Department and I cannot answer for it. I will enquire about Carrickfergus and the situation there. I will write to Mr Hilditch in due course.

Ancient and Royal Heritage of Ulster and of Ireland


Dr Adamson

asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the steps he is taking to promote the ancient and royal heritage of Ulster and of Ireland, particularly concerning the British imperium and the fundamental rights of the Brytenwalda.

(AQO 125/01)

Mr McGimpsey:

The Bretwalda - or Brytenwalda as they are less commonly known - were Saxon kings who claimed, and were acknowledged to be, over-kings of the southern English kingdoms. They had no formal connection with Ireland. The British imperium refers to the concept of the Bretwalda having the right to rule not only over their own local areas but also, by extension, to have influence over a much wider area. As part of its major programme, The People's Story, national museums and galleries in Northern Ireland are dealing with all aspects of the history of Ulster and of Ireland. This brief includes the ancient Ulster kings and the relationship, where such existed, between Ireland and the British monarchy to the present day. The Making of Ireland is a display sub-programme of The People's Story. Its object is to communicate The People's Story through a major long term exhibition that will deal with the evolution of the landscape and environment and development of industry. Nevertheless the Bretwalda does not appear to be appropriate to The People's Story and therefore does not form part of the programme.

Dr Adamson:

My reading of the Brytenwalda is that it was also the right of the old Pictish or Cruithin kings to rule not only in Scotland but in Ireland. Are there any plans in the Columba initiative to bring this fact to the fore?

Mr McGimpsey:

Without wishing to develop an academic argument in the Chamber, my understanding is that Bretwalda relates specifically to the Heptarchy, which were the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and were not in that respect a part of either Pictish or Celtic life. That would be the official academic inter­pretation of Bretwalda. However, I am happy to raise the issue of the initiative that Dr Adamson has referred to, because it could be that there is another side to the story that we could all be benefit from if it is retold.

Mr Speaker:

I have received no requests from any other Members to query the questions from Dr Adamson nor the answers from the Minister.

European City of Culture


Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail what progress has been made in formulating the application for Belfast to be the European City of Culture for 2008.

(AQO 132/01)

Mr McGimpsey:

Belfast City Council is responsible for pursuing the bid to be European City of Culture 2008. In June 2000, the council established what is now an independent company limited by guarantee. The company, Imagine Belfast 2008, has been set up with the support of my Department to develop Belfast's bid, and I have secured £500,000 to help with the preparation of the bid. The company brings together key partners from the public and private sectors and the aim is to prepare an inclusive bid that will reflect a broad and creative interpretation of culture. To date, Imagine Belfast 2008 has delivered a large number of presentations and briefings to individuals, groups and organisations to raise awareness, gather ideas and encourage creative thinking in regard to the bid. A significant bank of ideas has now been amassed and the content of the bid will cover four core areas: culture and arts, design and environ­ment, community and society, and media and entertainment.

As the bid is drawn together over the next six months, Imagine Belfast 2008 is planning a series of demonstration projects to promote awareness of the bid and to ensure that when it is submitted it is the result of a creative process that has widespread support. MLAs may wish to know that, on 13 November in Parliament Buildings, I will be hosting a presentation on Belfast's bid to become the European Capital of Culture. I pay tribute to the work undertaken so far and hope that it leads to a successful result.

3.30 pm

Mr McCarthy:

Does the threat from the Minister's party to withdraw from the Executive in the near future and potentially collapse the Assembly not seriously jeopardise -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member is not only out of time; he is also out of order. The answer to that question is not the responsibility of the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is well wide of the original question by the Member.

Local Museums and Heritage Review


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail his assessment of the Local Museums and Heritage Review document; and to make a statement.

(AQO 129/01)

Mr McGimpsey:

The Member will be aware that my Department and that of my ministerial Colleague, Mr Foster, commissioned the Local Museums and Heritage Review. The report of the review steering group was distributed at the beginning of July. Officials from both Departments are preparing a draft response to the report, and we propose to consult widely on the response when it has been completed. I am conscious that the response will not be available -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Minister's time is up. Can the balance of the Minister's answer be provided to Mr McGrady in the form of a written answer? I regret that the time is up and that Mr McGrady is not able to ask a supplementary question.

Agriculture and Rural Development

Regional Status


Mr Poots

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the progress in having regional status applied to beef exports since May 2001.

(AQO 142/01)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

Since May 2001, I have kept the EU political situation regarding BSE under review to assess whether the climate is right to rekindle our case with the EU. One of the cornerstones of our case is the low incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland. Since May, we have been engaged in a number of surveys of different categories of cattle with the aim of verifying the true incidence of the disease in them. Those surveys are still in the early stages, but the initial results are encouraging. However, it is likely to be a few months before comparative results are available in the rest of the EU. Until they are available, it is unlikely that we will be able to persuade other EU countries of the strength of our case. As I have said on a number of occasions to the Assembly, I remain fully committed to having the export ban in Northern Ireland relaxed, and I will raise the case as soon as the conditions are right.

Mr Poots:

We often hear that everyone should have equality in Europe, so it seems strange to farmers here, where there is a much lower incidence of BSE than in the Republic of Ireland, Portugal and other EU countries, that Northern Ireland is still not allowed to export beef. Clearly the iron was not struck when it was hot last year, and we do not want to make the same mistake this year. We want to see progress made on this issue, and we want to know what the Minister is doing to make progess.

Ms Rodgers:

I thought that I had explained that, but I will reiterate it. As the Member is aware, since I became Minister I have worked hard to get low-incidence status for Northern Ireland. However, I have no control over events in Europe, and events have worked to my disadvantage and to the disadvantage of the industry. Because of the panic in Europe over the incidence of BSE in various European countries some time ago, I was advised by the commissioner, and others in Europe, that it would be better not to press the case at that time. I explained that to the House. At present, since there is a screening operation going on across Europe, there is no possibility of the European Union considering our case until the exact figures and the results of our screening tests are known. That will not be until the end of the year, as it will take six months to do the necessary screening. At that point the other European countries will have finished their screening, and it will then be possible to make a comparison to see where we stand. Those matters are not within my influence to change. As soon as the time is right, and as soon as we have a good case to make, I will be making it.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Mr Savage

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her proposals for the protection of rare breeds of cattle, pigs and poultry in the event of a further outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

(AQO 123/01)

Ms Rodgers:

My Department stands ready, in the event of any further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland, to reactivate the measures it took earlier this year. These are designed to protect all susceptible species, and by their very nature they protect rare breeds of cattle and pigs. However, if the disease were to manifest itself in or near a rare breed herd, I would have to take the advice of my Chief Veterinary Officer as to what action needed to be taken with that herd to prevent the wider spread of the disease. That might include slaughter.

Mr Savage:

There are other diseases, such as TB and brucellosis. Should there be another outbreak of any such diseases, rare breeds of animals will need protection. What action will the Department take to ensure that these animals do not become endangered species?

Ms Rodgers:

I have to be guided by veterinary advice. My priority is the prevention of the spread of foot-and- mouth disease to a wider area of Northern Ireland. I accept the concerns that the Member has expressed in respect of rare breeds, but I cannot deal with hypothetical questions. I hope that we will not be put in that position. I ask everyone to do everything in their power to ensure, by taking all precautions, that we do not go back to that position. It is a matter of taking the advice of the vets at the time.

Mr Kane:

Will the Minister comment on the likely impact of the declaration of Europe's highest court that the French import ban on United Kingdom beef is illegal?

The Speaker:

It appears that the Minister is as puzzled as I am as to the connection between the supple­mentary question and the original question. I leave it to the Minister.

Ms Rodgers:

Will the Member repeat the question? I do not think that it has anything to do with the matter in hand.

The Speaker:

That was my view as well, and I did hear it. I will ask the Member to repeat his question, so that it can be considered again.

Mr Kane:

Will the Minister comment on the likely impact of the declaration of Europe's highest court that the French import ban on United Kingdom beef is illegal?

Ms Rodgers:

That matter is for the European Commission, not for me.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In regard to further outbreaks, the present compensation situation is that there is more profit return to farmers from foot-and-mouth disease than there is from ordinary farming methods. Is it possible that that could contribute to further outbreaks here, or that it contributed to the recent oubtbreaks in Britain?

Ms Rodgers:

I am baffled by the suggestion that there is more profit for farmers in further outbreaks. It is my understanding that the outbreak hurt very much the farming community, the agriculture industry and the wider world. The question is not particularly relevant, nor is it rational.

Rural Development Strategy


Mr McMenamin

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail when she expects to publish the rural development strategy.

(AQO 138/01)

Ms Rodgers:

The Northern Ireland rural development programme strategy for 2001-06 was published on 1 December 2000. The strategy aims to build on the good work done under the 1994-99 rural development programme and to provide a flexible framework that can support a wide range of rural regeneration opportunities.

The implementation of the strategy will be supported by the European Union through the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme, Peace II and LEADER+. The strategy has been developed following extensive consultation with rural interests.

Mr McMenamin:

Can the Minister tell us what the strategy will do?

Ms Rodgers:

The strategy aims to build on the good work done under the previous rural development programme 1994-99 and to provide a flexible framework that can support a wide range of rural regeneration opportunities. Key elements of the strategy will include capacity building, which is the strengthening of the fabric of rural communities, sectoral development projects and programmes, local regeneration projects and programmes, micro-business development and natural resource tourism. Those are the main elements in the strategy, and we will also be targeting, in particular, groups such as women, the unemployed and farm families. There are four focus groups - I cannot remember what the fourth one is.

Mr Speaker:

Perhaps the Minister could respond in writing with respect to the fourth group.

Ms Rodgers:

I will.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I recognise that the Minister has had many difficulties during the past months with foot- and-mouth disease and also with the BSE crisis. Will the Minister not agree with me that if we are going to have rural development and a revolution in the rural society, we must find a way whereby people in the farming community can exit from farming and those who wish to commence farming could enter the farming community. If that issue is not tackled, we cannot expect a regeneration of the rural community.

Ms Rodgers:

Mr Paisley may know that I am aware of the need for restructuring of the industry, and I hope to have next week the report of the vision group that I set up when I became Minister. We will be consulting on that. I do not yet know what is in it, but there may be proposals for restructuring.

I had commissioned a study of the impact of early retirement and new entrant schemes in other countries of Europe. However, the results of that consultation, which was based on a desk study, were inconclusive. Since then I have commissioned wider research, which is being undertaken by Queen's University, Belfast and University College Dublin. This will give me information upon which I can make a judgement as to the feasibility of an early retirement scheme or a new entrant scheme. I am also interested to see what the vision group has to say about restructuring of the industry. I take Dr Paisley's point entirely.

Rural Proofing


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to make a statement on the rural proofing of Government policy.

(AQO 143/01)

Ms Rodgers:

My Executive Colleagues and I remain fully committed to the principle of rural proofing - the process whereby all the interests and aspirations of those people living in the rural area of Northern Ireland will be fully taken into account in the development of policies across the whole range of Executive responsibility.

Because of the need to divert resources to address the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, progress on rural proofing has been slower than I would have liked. I hope to be in a position to put specific proposals to my Executive Colleagues shortly. In the meantime, arrange­ments to recruit a rural-proofing co-ordinator in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are well advanced, and I anticipate that the post will be filled very soon. Moreover, since the advent of devolution, my officials have been members of many interdepartmental groups and committees and have ensured that the rural and agricultural perspective has not been overlooked.

Mr Neeson:

Bearing in mind the increasing levels of poverty in the countryside, will the Minister make greater efforts with the Executive, particularly with regard to the Programme for Government, to ensure that rural proofing becomes a priority? Does the Minister agree that much greater emphasis needs to be put on access to hospitals and public transport in rural areas?

Ms Rodgers:

Yes, I entirely agree. The reason for introducing the concept of rural proofing in the last Programme for Government was to ensure that the rural communities were not disadvantaged as they have been by lack of transport and difficulty of access to hospitals and other facilities.

It is hoped that the process to implement rural proofing will be in place as soon as possible. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be able to proceed when an official is appointed. I shall put my proposals to the Executive very soon.

I accept Mr Neeson's point that rural communities must be considered when departmental policies are being decided.

3.45 pm

Mr Beggs:

Has the Minister made a rural proofing assessment on the current pre-school funding criteria, which favour large groups or nursery groups that rarely exist in the rural community? Does the Minister agree that an education policy that removes all funding from a rural community has not been satisfactorily rural-proofed? Is the Minister concerned when groups that have recently received glowing inspection reports from the Department of Education, and that have sustainable numbers for 2002-03, may close because of a shortfall of one pupil in the immediate pre-school year?

Ms Rodgers:

I have not yet signed off on the rural proofing policy, therefore I cannot do what the Member has asked. However, I accept what he has said. The issues that he has raised are the responsibility of the Department of Education; until then my Department signs off on the rural proofing policy. For reasons beyond my control, the Department's rural proofing policy has not yet been put in place.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Does the Minister agree that rural proofing has not only become a throwaway phrase but also a throwaway concept? It has been thrown away. Rural proofing has not been implemented since its introduction in the Assembly through the Programme for Government. That is not a failure of the Minister's Department but of the Executive, which failed to get together to agree a rural proofing strategy to bring farmers and the rural community together. Will the Minister fully commit to rural-proofing and ensure that the Executive deliver on one of their key promises.

Ms Rodgers:

I have already explained the reasons for the delay to the House, which were beyond my control. It would be helpful if the Member could persuade his party Colleagues to join the Executive so that all Ministers could get together to decide policies. They could sit around a table and ask questions rather than correspond through papers. It would be more useful if all Ministers could get together to discuss those issues.

Silent Valley: Ban on Grazing


Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline what discussions have taken place with the Minister for Regional Development concerning the termination of the ban on grazing rights of farmers in the Silent Valley area; and to make a statement.

(AQO 128/01)

Ms Rodgers:

I discussed that with the Minister for Regional Development in February. We agreed that our Departments would work together to explore ways to reduce the impact of the Silent Valley grazing ban on local farmers. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease shortly thereafter required the full attention of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and even though my officials have met with officials from the Department for Regional Development it has not been possible to conclude the consideration of the Silent Valley position. When that is done I intend to meet with the Minister for Regional Development to review the position and to discuss the way forward.

Mr McGrady:

The grazing ban imposed on 114 farmers in the Silent Valley and the lack of availabile grazing land has placed them at an extreme disadvantage, particularly at a time when farmers are suffering from the effects of foot-and-mouth disease. Does the Minister agree that such a ban has an enormous impact on local farmers and that the ban should be removed? Will the Minister have urgent talks with the Minister for Regional Development and impress upon him the economic consequences of that ban on those 114 farmers and on the local community? The matter must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Ms Rodgers:

I agree with Mr McGrady that there is little doubt that the grazing ban has put the farmers concerned at a disadvantage since they have been obliged to make alternative arrangements for both the land itself and the feeding. The impact of this varies according to individual circumstances.

I cannot comment on the possible removal of the ban, as that decision rests with the Minister for Regional Development, other than to say that we all recognise that the ban was imposed because of the risk to public health, a consideration that is paramount when its removal is being considered. I plan to have a meeting with the Minister as soon as possible. My officials have been in discussions, and this will take place as soon as it is practical.

Forestry Strategy


Mr Byrne

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail when she hopes to bring forward the new forestry strategy.

(AQO 136/01)

Ms Rodgers:

Following informal consultation I intend, by spring 2002, to publish a formal paper outlining proposals for the future of forestry.

Mr Byrne:

In my constituency of West Tyrone, the Castlederg/Drumquin area had a lot of land used for forestation some years ago. Will the Minster try to ensure that more resources will be earmarked for forestry development in such areas, and can she say what areas the new strategy will cover?

Ms Rodgers:

I cannot deal with individual areas at this point. It is for people to make proposals. Regarding the areas to be covered, forests influence many areas of our lives, including climate change, the economy, the environment and the opportunity for recreational and other activities. Forests occupy only a small part of Northern Ireland, and a policy will focus on the areas that are of most importance to us.

As a guiding principle, we should try to get as much value out of the existing forests as possible to get an acceptable return on the investment of our parents' generation. However, at the same time we should make proper provision to hand on an adequate area of forest to meet the needs of our children.

The review will address fundamental questions, including the amount of forestry we need, where a new forest should be planted, and what kind of forest we should plant as existing forests are replaced. We have to determine how we want to achieve this and how we will pay for it.

Mr Shannon:

Will the Minister confirm that her Department will make the same strategy available to all of Northern Ireland - I think specifically of my constituency of Strangford? The Minister spoke about new forests being planted. Will the farmers and landowners in the Strangford area also be able to take advantage of this new forestry strategy?

Ms Rodgers:

As I have said, the review will address all the questions, including that which has been raised by the Member. It will address where forests should be planted and what kind of forests they should be. At this point I cannot comment on any specific part of Northern Ireland. Their location will be determined by what is best for the future of the industry, and I cannot say anything more at this stage.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her plans for an inquiry into foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland; and to make a statement.

(AQO 145/01)

Ms Rodgers:

I have already announced my intention to hold an investigation in Northern Ireland, and I am considering the best way to do so. There are to be three inquiries in Great Britain, and we will take account of what they have to say.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for her response, but I am afraid that it does not take us much further forward from the position that we were in some weeks ago.

The Minister has stated that three internal inquiries are proposed by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in Great Britain. The Minister is well aware that they do not have the confidence of the agriculture community there, as they will be internal, closed inquiries.

Will the Minister assure us that the Northern Ireland inquiry will be independent, open, accountable and that it will fully cover the issues? Those issues include how foot-and-mouth disease was dealt with here; how it arrived in the first place, with particular reference to port controls; and how we will ensure that foot-and-mouth disease does not get to Northern Ireland again, even should it recur in Great Britain.

Ms Rodgers:

The Member will accept that in dealing with the foot-and-mouth epidemic, I have tried to be as open and as accessible as possible, and I intend to continue on that vein. The investigation will be as open as possible. It will look at all aspects of the disease and how it entered Northern Ireland. It will involve consultation with the public and the industry and it will welcome all contributors.

Mr ONeill:

I thank the Minister for her reply and for the openness and transparency of the report. Will the inquiry take the Republic of Ireland's position into account?

Ms Rodgers:

I am still considering what form the investigation will take, but it will have to cover factors such as how the disease occurred in Northern Ireland, how we handled the outbreak, and what lessons can be learned from our experience. Any investigation will have to take account of the circumstances in the Republic of Ireland, as well as in Great Britain. I have discussed the matter with Joe Walsh, and my officials have been in touch with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. I expect that we will be making an input into their investigations and vice versa.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I welcome the Minister's statement concerning the openness and accountability of the inquiry. I would press the Minister on a point that Mr Ford raised. Surely the independence of the inquiry will give it credibility?

Ms Rodgers:

I have not come to any conclusion on the makeup of the inquiry. It would not make much sense to have an internal departmental investigation. I take the Member's point. I will make my intentions clear to the Assembly and to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development when I come to a decision.

Marketing of Beef


Mr Bradley

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her assessment regarding the current marketing advantages, if any, that beef produced in the Republic of Ireland has over beef produced in the UK.

(AQO 140/01)

Ms Rodgers:

Beef produced in the Republic of Ireland is currently available for sale on the GB market at a lower price than comparable beef produced in the UK. It is marketed and labelled as Irish beef and provides the consumer with a choice against beef produced in the UK or from other countries. UK-produced beef accounts for the largest proportion of beef on sale.

Mr Bradley:

I thank the Minister for her answer. Can beef from Northern Ireland be labelled as Irish beef?

Ms Rodgers:

Under the compulsory beef labelling rules, which came into effect throughout the EU on 1 December 2000, beef can only be labelled as "Irish" if the animal from which it was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland. Non-compulsory additional details may be included on labels, provided that the information is not misleading and that the terms used have been approved by my Department and are capable of verification by an independent verifier. Terms such as "Produce of Northern Ireland", "Sourced in Northern Ireland", and "Northern Irish Reared" have been approved by my Department. It is a matter for the industry to decide on the basis of its own marketing strategies.

Mr Speaker:

Mr Close does not appear to be in the Chamber.

Rural Recovery Strategy


Mr Gibson

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her plans for a rural recovery strategy to assist the rural community of west Tyrone.

(AQO 124/01)

Mr Rodgers:

I assume that the Member is thinking about the specific issue of recovery from the foot-and- mouth disease outbreak. I confirm that my officials are fully engaged with colleagues from other Departments within the forum of the economic impact task force under the chairman­ship of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

4.00 pm

My Department continues to monitor the economic impact of foot-and-mouth disease. We provide support and advice to farmers and rural communities, with the aim of promoting the long-term sustainability of businesses and communities affected by foot-and-mouth disease. In addition, the Department ensures that community re­generation and capacity building continues to respond to the needs of all communities, including those affected by foot-and-mouth disease. The new rural development programme will be launched shortly, and I am confident that it will also make a valuable contribution to the rural economy.

Mr Gibson:

When the proposed rural recovery programme strategy is published, will there be a consultation period so that people will have the opportunity to make suggestions, amendments and improvements?

Ms Rodgers:

It was not the fault of the Member speaking, but I could not hear the question. It might be because of the acoustics in the Chamber.

Mr Speaker:

It is the fault of Members, because they are not speaking out clearly. Members do not have much difficulty hearing what I say, and there are several Members in the far corner whom we have no difficulty hearing - they are always clear. Members who are asking questions of Ministers must be clear and forthright and put their head back and their shoulders forward.

Mr Gibson:

When the proposed rural recovery programme strategy is published, will there be a consultation period so that people will have the opportunity to make suggestions, amendments and improvements?

Ms Rodgers:

There will be consultation on the rural development programme, which will be launched soon.

Vision Group


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail when she expects the vision group to report and the estimated length of the consultation period.

(AQO 139/01)

Ms Rodgers:

I expect to receive the vision group's report on 4 October. I will then begin an appropriate con­sultation period of at least three months. The consultation will include a conference, to which all the major stake­holders will be invited. Once the consultation period ends, I will issue an action plan.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Minister's time is up. The Minister should make the balance of her answer directly to the Member, who will not have an opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

Assembly Commission

Parliament Buildings: Provision for People with Disabilities


Ms Lewsley

asked the Assembly Commission to give an update on plans to provide access to services and facilities for people with disabilities in Parliament Buildings.

(AQO 148/01)

Rev Robert Coulter:

Since the Member last asked the question, on 22 January 2001, several measures have been implemented. Inside Parliament Buildings, portable induction loops have been installed at the east, west and main entrance reception desks, the post office, the gift shop, the basement and visitors' restaurants and the Library. Two additional portable induction loops are available for meetings. Four text phones are being installed to enable profoundly deaf people to make contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly. A hearing helper education pack, which includes six receivers with headphones, is available for use by Assembly tour guides to assist visitors who have hearing difficulties.

An extensive staff training programme on deaf and hard-of-hearing awareness and signing communication tactics has been completed. It will enable staff who deal with members of the public to communicate effectively. Doorkeepers have been given fire warden training, with particular emphasis on dealing with visitors who have varying degrees of ability.

The appointed health and safety specialist has proposed an extensive list of projects to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The Assembly Commission is considering the following programme of works: provision of disabled access at the front of the Building and in the reception area; improvements to the facilities in the basement restaurant; fixed induction loop systems in the Long Gallery, Senate Chamber and Committee rooms to assist persons with hearing difficulties; improvements to signage and visibility at staircases; improvements to passenger lifts; improved access to the basement restaurant; and chairlifts to the staircases leading to the Public Galleries of the Assembly Chamber.

It is hoped that the programme of works will be approved and implemented over a 12-to-18-month period. The Building will then be as fully equipped as possible, given its listed status, to meet the needs of both visitors and staff with disabilities. The Assembly Commission is very aware of its responsibilities to ensure that all users of the Building, whether they be able- bodied or have some form of disability, have access to all parts of Parliament Buildings. Finally, I emphasise that the Assembly Commission is mindful that the third tranche of duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 come into force in 2004.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the improvements that have already taken place. I would like some more detail on the timescale for outstanding issues, particularly access. While there is an induction loop system in the shop, it is still not accessible, either from the front or side doors, for anybody who is physically disabled. What is the timescale for that and what, if any, further training will be given to staff?

Rev Robert Coulter:

The Commission is very keen to continue with the work. I cannot give a timescale at present, but I will write to the Member when I have consulted with the officials.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I welcome the efforts made by the Commission, but perhaps the Commission's repre­sentative will bear in mind the accommodation of Committees. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, of which I am Chairperson, has met for more hours than any other Committee. The Committee is unable to meet this Friday, and no room with the necessary facilities is available to allow the Committee to meet on Thursday. Will the Member take that back to the Commission and look at the arrangements for when a Committee wants to change its meeting for just one day because of certain business that all members of the Committee have to attend to?

Rev Robert Coulter:

I will take it back to the Commission, which continues to consider the accommodation requirements in the Building. The issue will be discussed at an early date.

Mr Speaker:

There are no further questions to the Commission.


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