Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 1 July 2002 (continued)

Mr Morrow:

Could the Housing Executive borrow money for building new homes in the same way as housing associations?

Mr Dodds:

The position on the borrowing of money is interesting. It is not the case that the Housing Executive cannot borrow money. The difficulty is that the Housing Executive's expenditure, regardless of the source of income, scores as public expenditure.

4.00 pm

It is far more effective for housing associations to build new homes in Northern Ireland. They can lever in private finance, which does not score for the purposes of public expenditure. The Minister of Finance and Personnel, who is in the Chamber, would surely concur with me. He will have listened to the Member's comments, and I am sure that he will do all that he can to change the system.

First-time Buyers
(South Down Area)



Mr M Murphy

asked the Minister for Social Development for his assessment of the difficulties faced by young couples purchasing their first home in south Down, particularly in areas such as Rostrevor.

(AQO 1688/01)

Mr Dodds:

I am aware that increases in house prices have created difficulties for first-time buyers in some parts of Northern Ireland. The problem tends to prevail in popular areas such as Rostrevor. However, affordability is not a problem in Northern Ireland because of the healthy state of our economy and our low interest rates. In general, first-time buyers can still acquire suitable homes.

Mr Speaker:

I regret that we have come to the end of Question Time, so Mr Murphy will not be able to ask his supplementary question.

Draft Births, Deaths and Marriages
(Fees) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren):

I beg to move

That the draft Births, Deaths and Marriages (Fees) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 be approved.

The Order is intended to provide for new registration and marriage fees, and it includes a proposed date for their introduction. The proposed fees reflect the increase in the cost of providing those public services since the enactment of the last fees Order in 1998.

Under the current law, fees are not charged for registering births, deaths and marriages, in accordance with statutory requirements, or for providing one copy of a birth entry at the time of registration. There is no intention to change those statutory provisions. However, fees are chargeable for the provision of marriage and death certificates, and for any further certified copies of registration events, including, where necessary, the searching of indexes and the retrieval of the record involved. Fees are charged for carrying out the preliminaries to marriage, such as giving notice, and the solemnisation of marriage. Under Government accounting rules, the cost of such chargeable services is recovered by means of a fees order, as provided for in the relevant legislation.

It is in that context that the Order comes before the Assembly. The General Register Office and register offices in each of the 26 district councils produce more than 140,000 certified copies of entries each year, for which a fee is chargeable. As the General Register Office holds in excess of 8·5 million register entries - the majority in bound paper format - the process requires significant administrative input. It involves receiving moneys, searching indexes, retrieving entries, producing a certified copy, undertaking the necessary checking, and the subsequent dispatch of the requested certified copy. The General Register Office's efficiency has increased and is programmed to continue to do so in the forthcoming years. Further major improvements will depend on the development of plans to electronically capture the actual register entries, thus creating a fully computerised system.

Since the last fees Order, the General Register Office has improved significantly the options for delivering registration services by introducing new facilities. The public are no longer restricted to applying for certified copies during office hours; they can now order certificates on the Internet or by using a programmed 24-hour telephone answering service. Customers can also pay online using a credit card. In recognition of that and other developments, the General Register Office was awarded Charter Mark status in 2000. Current customer satisfaction surveys indicate that the office has achieved a satisfaction rate of 98%, and the office has received unsolicited letters in praise of the service.

To develop the service still further, it is planned shortly to undertake a comprehensive review of registration. An important part of that review will be the issue of a public consultation document. That will invite views on what the public expect from the registration service of the future. The planned consultation document will pose questions on a wide range of issues, from alternative means of registering vital events and provision of possible new services - for example, providing the facility for the reaffirmation of marriage vows for those who have married by civil ceremony - to the opening up of historic records for genealogical purposes.

As I mentioned, the General Register Office is required to cover the cost of chargeable services, including those provided by local register offices based in each district council area. The last fees Order was in 1998, and increases are now necessary, though these are comparable with increases in other public service provisions. The cost of each fee has been calculated individually using work study analysis and takes into account the full range of costs involved, including staffing, ancillary services and other costs such as rent and maintenance.

A similar cost recovery system also operates in Scotland, and in England and Wales. Passage of the Order will ensure, as has been the case here and in GB, that the cost of producing chargeable certificates is borne by the parties requiring such certificates and not by the public purse as would otherwise be the case. However, Members will wish to note that the new levels of fees in Northern Ireland for certificates issued from the General Register Office are lower than the corresponding fees for certificates issued centrally by the General Register Office in England and Wales, and from all offices in Scotland.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel has considered the Order, and no objections have been raised. Therefore I commend the Order to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Births, Deaths and Marriages (Fees) (No. 2) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 be approved.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
(Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002


The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Leslie):

I beg to move

That the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 (SR 183/2002) be affirmed.

I want to outline the background to the Order and the reasons for introducing it to the Assembly. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000. The Act's main purpose is to ensure that the relevant investigatory powers are used in accordance with human rights. It updates the law on the interception of communications to take account of technological change, such as the growth of the Internet. It also puts other intrusive investigative techniques on a statutory footing for the first time. It provides new powers to help combat the threat posed by the rising criminal use of strong encryption and ensures that there is independent judicial oversight of the powers in the Act.

Part II of the Act, governing the use of covert surveillance, was brought into force to ensure that current surveillance operations are properly regulated and fully compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998, which came fully into force on 2 October 2000. Part II of the Act regulates activities such as the use of agents or informants, which have been used for many years by the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies. This part of the Act also provides a legal basis for the surveillance activities presently carried out by a wide range of Departments in pursuance of their duties. Up until now, these activities have been authorised on a non-statutory basis. However, the Human Rights Act 1998 now requires there to be a legal framework in place for these activities.

Section 31 of the Act gives the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister an enabling power to make an Order under section 30 for the purposes of granting authorisations for conducting covert surveillance activities and/or the use of sources in Northern Ireland. It is by virtue of that power that this Statutory Rule has been prepared.

This Statutory Rule will list the public authorities in Northern Ireland that will be authorised to use covert surveillance, meaning the use of human intelligence sources under section 29 of the Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and/or the use of direct surveillance under section 28 of the Investigatory Powers Act 2000, as part of their normal work. It will then be necessary to prepare a second Statutory Rule that will list the rank or position of the official designated to authorise the surveillance in respect of the organisation. That will be submitted to the Assembly for approval once approval to this Rule has been obtained.

Members may wonder why those measures cannot be combined in a single Order. I am advised that there is a technical reason for that to do with the wording of the enabling provision in the parent Act. However, that will not alter the substance or effect of the provisions.

Surveillance plays a necessary part in modern life. It is used to target criminals, protect the public from harm and prevent crime. The Order will authorise the use of covert surveillance. That type of surveillance should be distinguished from general observation, which forms part of the duties of many law enforcement officers and other public bodies. For example, Customs and Excise officers may covertly observe and visit a shop as part of their enforcement function to verify the supply, or level of supply, of goods or services that may be liable to attacks. Such observation may involve the use of equipment to reinforce normal sensory perception, such as binoculars or a camera, where that does not involve systematic surveillance of an individual.

Such low-level activity will not usually be regulated under the provisions of the Investigatory Powers Act 2000; neither does the provisions of the Act cover the use of overt closed-circuit television surveillance systems. Members of the public are aware that such systems are in use for their protection and to prevent crime. The Order will cover the use of covert surveillance techniques and the use of covert human intelligence sources. The use of agents or informers has never been the subject of statutory control in this country. However, their continued use is essential to the maintenance of law and order and the protection of the public.

We introduce the Order following thorough equality impact assessments, public consultation and scrutiny by the Committee of the Centre. The equality impact assessments were carried out by individual Departments on the public authorities and activities for which they are responsible. While the assessments concluded that some differential impact is likely from the use of covert surveillance, that would not adversely affect equality of opportunity.

A public consultation exercise was carried out between February and April 2001. Over 800 copies of the consultation document were issued, and 19 responses were received, all of which were in favour of the proposal.

In conclusion, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 is needed to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998 on surveillance activities. It does not introduce any new activities but merely puts existing surveillance activities on a statutory footing - activities that are essential for the protection and the continued well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.

I commend the Order to the Assembly.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Gibson):

The Committee of the Centre considered this Statutory Rule several times and, after clarification on a host of areas, is content. As the Minister said, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is an Act of Parliament that received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000. It was enacted before the Human Rights Act 1998 came into effect in October 2000 to ensure that investigatory powers had a basis in law as required by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In autumn the Committee expects to receive another Statutory Rule listing the rank and position of the officials who will be able to authorise the use of surveillance by each of the bodies listed in the Order. The Committee considered the reasons the bodies listed needed to be able to carry out surveillance and use covert human intelligence sources. We were careful to scrutinise the Department's work on equality impact assessments, given the impact on human rights.

4.15 pm

The Committee considered the draft Statutory Rule on Wednesday 26 June. When taken together with the Examiner of Statutory Rules' report, the Committee is satisfied.

Mr Molloy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have concerns about the human rights aspect. Has the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had an input? Has it examined that draft Statutory Rule and given an opinion on its effect on the legislation?

Statutory Rules can look well on paper, but their implementation, and the way that they have been abused in the past, is a matter for concern. It is not only about the right to conduct covert operations, it is a question of how those covert operations are used, who they are targeted against, and how authority can be misused, as we have seen time and time again.

Concerns arise over who will implement the various Regulations, and whether they are being directed against one section of the community or the other. Who will regulate and oversee the Regulations? Who ensures that there is proper scrutiny? I am concerned that the entire issue of covert operations, and the cloak-and-dagger operations that we have seen in the past, put us on dangerous ground.

I would have thought that this legislation was outside of the power of the Assembly, because it encroaches on the issue of security, over which we do not have any control. In examining how we shall implement the Regulation, we must have some sort of guarantee that the human rights legislation has been complied with, that there has been proper scrutiny and that we ensure that the Regulation, if passed by the Assembly, is properly monitored.

Mr Leslie:

I thank Members for their contributions, and in particular, the Committee of the Centre for its support in introducing the Regulation. I shall deal with the points raised by Mr Molloy; however, as he almost acknowledged in his remarks, the points that he made are not relevant to this Regulation. We are regulating the activities of the devolved Administration. Seven of the 11 Departments can envisage that they might use powers covered by the Regulation. Other Departments could not see any circumstances in which they would.

The circumstances in which the Regulation would come into force are easy enough to imagine: the Social Security Agency may check suspected benefit fraud; the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety may check suspected prescription fraud; and in the field of environmental health, officers are engaged in surveillance of the supply of unfit meat. Those are the type of uses that it is envisaged the Regulation will cover. The Human Rights Commission was consulted but made no response.

The question of when a commission and a tribunal will be established will be examined as soon as possible. That tribunal will have relevant functions of monitoring and reviewing the use of the powers in the Orders and considering complaints about the use of those powers. If safeguards are required, they will be in addition to the normal avenues of legal challenge that are being made available.

I hope that I have assured the Assembly that the Order is neither a snooper's charter nor the beginnings of a "Big Brother" state. Equally, it is not an impediment to the lawful, necessary and proportionate use of surveillance for the public good. It is a necessary step: a measure that will place surveillance on a proper statutory footing; a measure that will ensure proper controlled monitoring and review of the use of surveillance; and a measure that will facilitate the effective use of law enforcement for the good of society, while protecting the rights of the individual.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2002 be affirmed.

Draft Fair Employment (Monitoring)
(Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002


The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Haughey):

I beg to move

That the draft Fair Employment (Monitoring) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 be approved.

I am pleased to bring these technical but important Regulations before the Assembly. Their purpose is to ensure that the Administration has up-to-date information that is compatible with other statistical information and which will enable trends in employment to be better identified.

Most employers in Northern Ireland are required by law to submit monitoring returns to the Equality Commission annually. Part of that process involves providing workforce information on the basis of nine occupational groups ranging from managerial to elementary occupations. These groups are based on the 1990 Standard Occupational Classification, which has recently been reviewed and updated by the Office for National Statistics.

These Regulations will amend the Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 to ensure that information on the profile of each workforce is provided on the basis of the new occupational groups. That means that employers will be monitoring information on a basis that is compatible with and comparable to other statistical sources of data such as the 2001 census or the labour force survey. The Regulations will take effect from January 2004. In other words, monitoring returns submitted on or after that date will have to provide information on the basis of the revised occupational groups.

Since monitoring information in relation to applicants, appointments, promotions and leavers relates to the 12-month period before the date of the return, employers will have to start gathering information from January 2003 onwards on the basis of the new categories. Making the Regulations now will allow enough time for the Equality Commission to prepare employers for the necessary change.

To assist employers in reclassifying their workforces a revised index for classifying job titles will be provided at no cost to the employers. The index lists about 10,000 occupations and will enable employers to identify the appropriate grouping code accorded to the various occupations among their workforce.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has commissioned research on the likely cost of implementing the Regulations, and the research indicates that the change will have a minimal financial impact on employers. There will be a small initial cost because of the need to reclassify existing employees according to the new groupings, but thereafter there will be no recurring expense. A regulatory impact assessment has been completed on the Regulations and copies have been placed in the Assembly Library.

Employer representative bodies, the trade unions and the Equality Commission have been consulted and are supportive. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has scrutinised the Regulations and he has said that there is nothing of any importance that needs to be brought to the attention of the House.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Gibson):

The Committee considered the Statutory Rule. It amends the standard occupational classifications which employers use to make the monitoring returns under fair employment legislation. The Committee considered the rule at its policy development stage several times and deferred its decision until the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had consulted with employers on the proposals and on the additional cost to them in reclassifying employees.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has informed the Committee that there will be a one-off cost of approximately £127 million for the private sector and £102 million for the public sector. Employers have said that they are generally supportive of the proposal, which is surprising. The Committee considered the Statutory Rule on 26 June 2002 together with a report from the Examiner of Statutory Rules. Therefore I confirm that the Committee is satisfied.

Mr Ford:

As Mr Haughey said on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and Mr Gibson confirmed on behalf of the Committee of the Centre, the Regulations deal with updating employment categories in accordance with the Office for National Statistics requirements. How long do Ministers expect the updating of categories to have effect?

In 1975, fair employment was introduced; there was also the Fair Employment Agency, the Fair Employment Commission and the Equality Commission. In the mid 1970s, procedures were needed to ensure fairness of employment and to monitor how employment operated to ensure that a balance was being struck. However, the assumptions of the 1970s are being extended to today's processes in a way that is becoming untenable. A quarter of a century ago, we could have said that people were Catholics or Protestants; if they were not Catholics they were Protestants, whether Hindu Protestants, Jewish Protestants or agnostic Protestants. However, society has changed significantly. One of the previous categorisations of religious balance was the question of the primary school one attended, but integrated education is now having an effect on that.

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

The increasing number of ethnic minority citizens in Northern Ireland is also bringing a change in minority religious backgrounds, which disturbs the traditional pattern. The undoubted increase in secularisation is making categorisation on the basis of religious belief dubious. Society has changed in all those respects.

In the 1970s, fair employment had to be fought for against violent opposition from many Unionists; it was seen as a Nationalist campaign against Unionists. However, that has also changed significantly. Fair employment is now the presumption in the public sector and in the private sector, and it is seen as the way in which people move forward and the necessary way to ensure that balance is maintained and that fairness and equality are provided to all citizens in their work.

However, the Regulations do not merely produce categorisation of types of employment; they produce categorisation of types of people. They perpetuate divisions; they stick people into pigeonholes, which may or may not be appropriate; and they continue to divide society. I thought the aim of the Good Friday Agreement - which the Assembly has been seeking to achieve for four years - was to unite to produce a new society moving forward in a different way.

I would like to ask two simple questions. First, as a matter of record, if the categories are straightforward and simple, will the Ministers explain what category police officers fall into? Unfortunately, they are recruited on a sectarian headcount and not by appointing the best person for the job. Secondly, if the implementation date for the Regulations is January 2004, how much longer does the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister think it will be necessary to divide up people in Northern Ireland rather than starting to build a united society?

The Junior Minister (The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Haughey):

I thank Mr Gibson, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, for his remarks. He may have overstated the costs involved in making the changes. The average additional staff cost for the public sector is estimated at £127, not £127 million.

That is compared to £102 for the private sector. Within the private sector, the average additional staff cost ranges from £52 for small businesses to £185 for large businesses. Mr Gibson was correct if you take the million out of his remarks and change it to £125, £52 and £107.

4.30 pm

With regard to categorisation according to religion, I draw Mr Ford's attention to schedule 1 of the Fair Employment (Monitoring) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999, where it is allowed that people may be categorised

"(i) as Protestant;

(ii) as Roman Catholic;

(iii) as if the community to which they belong cannot be determined".

There is a third category for people who do not wish to be seen, or who cannot be seen, as belonging to either of those categories.

Mr Ford:

I was once required to fill in a monitoring form for a public appointment that gave the options as something described as "the Protestant community", "the Catholic community" or "neither" with the caveat, "Do not use the last one because we will find out what you are anyway" - I paraphrase, but that was the implicit direction. Can the junior Minister confirm that it is acceptable that those who do not wish to be categorised may in all circumstances ask to be regarded as "other"?

Mr Haughey:

I cannot comment on a form that I have not seen that the Member may have filled in, or seen, in the past. The Regulations that we are currently dealing with allow for a categorisation of people under the definition, "as if the community to which they belong cannot be determined", and that is how it stands. It has been examined by the Examiner of Statutory Rules, who stated that there is nothing in it that requires to be drawn to the attention of the Assembly.

Mr Ford made some more general remarks about how long this type of categorisation will be needed. It will be needed as long as there is unease or prejudice in the community that causes difficulties in fair employment. If at some stage in the future, because of the measures that we take in the name of fair employment, the general feeling in the community is that there are no longer any grounds for apprehension about fair employment procedures, these rules may be relaxed. However, that is a matter for the future. I doubt that Mr Ford would dispute the fact that there is unease in both sections of the community. [Interruption].

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Mr Haughey:

There is unease in the community about whether employment procedures are fair, and that applies to both the private and public sectors. As long as the apprehension and fear persists, we will have need for Regulations of this kind.

The monitoring that we have carried out under fair employment legislation has had an effect on ensuring equality of opportunity. One has only to look at employment figures, particularly in the public service and the Civil Service, to see the effect of fair employment legislation. Consultation on the single equality Bill will provide an opportunity to look at those matters afresh.

Mr Ford mentioned the categorisation of police officers. I do not have the 10,000 categories in front of me, and I am sure Mr Ford would not expect me to. However, I will write to him to indicate where they are placed in the categorisation. I commend the Regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Fair Employment (Monitoring) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 be approved.

Change of Committee Membership


Madam Deputy Speaker:

I propose, by leave of the House, to put the Questions on these motions en bloc.

Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development


That Mr Pat Doherty shall replace Mr Mick Murphy on the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure


That Mr Mick Murphy shall replace Ms Mary Nelis on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee for Education


That Mr Mitchel McLaughlin shall replace Mr Barry McElduff on the Committee for Education. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee for Employment and Learning


That Mr Barry McElduff shall replace Mr John Kelly on the Committee for Employment and Learning. - [Mr Maskey.]


That Ms Michelle Gildernew shall replace Ms Mary Nelis on the Committee for Employment and Learning. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee for the Environment


That Ms Mary Nelis shall replace Mr Mick Murphy on the Committee for the Environment. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee for Social Development


That Ms Mary Nelis shall replace Ms Michelle Gildernew on the Committee for Social Development. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee of the Centre


That Mr Pat McNamee shall replace Mr Alex Maskey on the Committee of the Centre. - [Mr Maskey.]


That Dr Dara O'Hagan shall replace Mr Conor Murphy on the Committee of the Centre. - [Mr Maskey.]

Business Committee


That Ms Sue Ramsey shall replace Mr Alex Maskey on the Business Committee. - [Mr Maskey.]

Committee on Standards and Privileges


That Mr Mick Murphy shall replace Mr Pat McNamee on the Committee on Standards and Privileges. - [Mr Maskey.]

Public Accounts Committee


That Mr Conor Murphy shall replace Ms Sue Ramsey on the Public Accounts Committee. - [Mr Maskey.]

Private Notice Question -
'Developing Better Services'


Madam Deputy Speaker:

I have received notice of a private notice question under Standing Order 20 to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I do not see the Minister in the Chamber.

Mr Molloy:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister has been in the Chamber twice. She has been contacted and is on her way. I suggest a few minutes' delay to let her get to the Chamber.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Minister is aware that timings have been inaccurate. However, she is now in her place.

Mr Byrne

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, in relation to her proposals 'Developing Better Services', to outline (a) the status of her proposals and whether they have Executive approval; (b) the extent of formal negotiations with her counterpart in the Irish Government on the provision of acute hospital services in the border areas in conjunction with the health authorities in the Irish Republic; and (c) if she would consider extending the consultation period on her proposals to allow sufficient time for all concerned parties to make a formal submission to her Department; and to make a statement.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

Rinne an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin plé ar na moltaí in 'Seirbhísí Níos Fearr a Fhorbairt' ag a gcruinniú ar 18 Márta, 24 Aibreán agus 29 Bealtaine nuair a chinn an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin gur chóir an páipéar a fhoilsiú le haghaidh comhairliúcháin.

Bunaíodh grúpa seirbhísí na-ospidéal réigiúnach Thuaidh/Theas, fo-ghrúpa de chuid na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas, i 2000 le feiceáil arbh fhéidir páirtíochtaí a fhorbairt agus réimsí seirbhíse a aithint ina mbeadh comhthairbhe trasteorann nó uile-oileáin i gceist. Leanfaidh seo ar aghaidh. Labhair mé fosta leis an Aire Sláinte agus Leanaí sa Deisceart roinnt uaireanta faoi na moltaí atá agamsa le seirbhísí ospidéil anseo a nuachóiriú, agus d'aontaigh muid teacht le chéile le tuilleadh plé a dhéanamh ar na hábhair seo. Bhí caibidil ag an bhuan-rúnaí agus ag an rúnaí ginearálta agus bhí comhfhreagras eatarthu ar an ábhar.

Thoisigh an tréimhse chomhairliúcháin ar 12 Meitheamh agus leanfaidh sí ar aghaidh go dtí 30 Meán Fómhair. Sin sé seachtainí déag ach sa bheag, agus ba chóir do dhaoine a gcuid freagraí a sheoladh chuig an Roinn faoin dáta seo. Mar sin féin, coinneoidh mé an dáta deiridh faoi athbhreithniú.

The proposals that were set out in 'Developing Better Services' were discussed by the Executive at meetings on 18 March, 24 April and 29 May 2002, at which time the Executive agreed that the paper should be issued for consultation.

The regional hospitals group, a subgroup of the North/South Ministerial Council, was established in 2000 to consider the opportunities for developing partnerships and identifying service areas where cross-border or all-island co-operation can be of mutual benefit. That work will continue.

I have spoken on several occasions to the Minister for Health and Children in the South about my proposals for modernising hospital services here. We have agreed to meet to discuss further those matters. In addition, the permanent secretary of my Department and the secretary general of the Department of Health and Children have had discussions and exchanged correspondence on the matter.

The consultation period began on 12 June and will continue until 30 September, giving almost 16 weeks for consultation. People should aim to have their responses with the Department by that date. However, I will keep the end date under review.

Mr Byrne:

Although I thank the Minister for her answer, I am disappointed by its tone and content. Does she agree that if her proposals are implemented, Omagh will be left with a cottage hospital that is tantamount to a glorified health centre? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that the people of west Tyrone, like all other citizens in Northern Ireland, are entitled to good-quality, hospital-based acute services? That must happen if equality is to be real and relevant.

Will the Minister confirm that her Department has been reluctant and slow to develop meaningful cross-border co-operation on providing hospital-based health services? That would be very important and practical for all communities in the border zone, from Derry to Newry. Does the Minister agree that if her current proposals are implemented my constituents will feel that devolution is not giving them a very good deal?

Ms de Brún:

I have already answered in great detail all the matters raised in the supplementary questions, during the last Question Time in which I participated and in my reports on North/South Ministerial Council meetings. I reiterate, therefore, that my proposals will give the people of Tyrone and Fermanagh access to acute hospital services. Services will be decentralised where possible and centralised where necessary to ensure that people have high-quality health and social services for the twenty-first century.

In keeping with reports that I have given, the Department and I have worked tirelessly to ensure that all avenues are open through the North/South Ministerial Council - and through bilateral ministerial talks, when the First Minister did not nominate me to attend the Council - to ensure meaningful co-operation with the South.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Madam Deputy Speaker.]


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