Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 14 April 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr McCausland: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the debate on the bill of rights in the House on 8 April, a Member was asked to give way and refused, and said so in English. On at least two occasions, in response to Alastair Ross and Roy Beggs, the Member addressed them in a few words of Irish, which I understand to mean “sit down”. First, is it in order for a Member who is speaking to tell another Member to sit down? Is it not the role of the Speaker to tell a Member to resume his seat?
Secondly, is it not the convention that if a Member speaks in Irish or in any other language, that they should provide a translation of what has been said, which was not done in this case? Considering that the people whom the Member was telling in Irish to sit down do not speak Irish, it was pointless for her to do so: they would not have had a clue what she was saying.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. It is the job of the Chair to indicate to Members to sit down. I have said to Members that whatever language they decide to speak in, it is vitally important that it is translated into English after they speak.
Ms Anderson: I have noted that point, and in future I will speak in English as well as in Irish. On a further point of order: will the Speaker clarify whether the comments made by Gregory Campbell during the debate on the lack of investment in the Derry railway line, when Mr Mark Durkan and Mr Campbell were covering each other’s backs, are in line with parliamentary language?
In response to an intervention by Mark Durkan, Mr Campbell said:
“I thank the Member for the intervention. I can confirm that I did not work under any restrictions”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p174, col 2].
The Member must have been asleep. He went on to say:
“Anyone who declares that I did is blatantly telling lies, but that would not be the first time, nor would it be the first crime that they had committed.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p174, col 2].
Minister Conor Murphy gave an accurate account supporting what I had said and was not challenged by the MPs who are now desperately trying to cover each other’s backs. Given that I did speak the truth, is Mr Campbell afforded protection by this Chamber when wrongly accusing me when he is blatantly covering his back?
Mr Speaker: As the Member will know, I dealt with that issue at the time. I have looked at the Hansard report, and Mr Campbell used the words:
“Anyone who declares that I did is blatantly telling lies, but that would not be the first time, nor would it be the first crime that they had committed.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p174, col 2].
The comments did not refer to one specific Member. I refer the Member to the Hansard report.
I remind Members that it is unparliamentary to accuse other Members of telling lies. I dealt with the matter at the time, and I could not have been any clearer. I have considered the report of the debate, and I do not consider that anything unparliamentary was said. No further action is necessary. However, I ask Members, again, to look at the Hansard report. It is a different issue, however, if a Member deliberately accuses another Member of telling lies.
Draft Special Educational Needs and Disability (2005 Order) (Amendment)
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): I beg to move
That the Draft Special Educational Needs and Disability (2005 Order) (Amendment) (General Qualifications Bodies) (Alteration of Premises and Enforcement) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The regulations are being made under the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Order) 2005, which is commonly referred to as SENDO.
A Cheann Comhairle, tá forálacha san Ordú a dhéanann é mídhleathach do fhorais cáilíochtaí ginearálta — nó forais dámhachtana mar a thugtar orthu in amanna — leatrom a dhéanamh ar iarrthóirí atá faoi mhíchumas agus iad ag dámhachtain cáilíochtaí.
SENDO contains provisions that make it illegal for general qualification bodies — or awarding bodies, as they are sometimes known — to discriminate against candidates with a disability when awarding qualifications.
A separate, but linked, set of regulations with a complex title — the Special Educational Needs and Disability (General Qualification Bodies) (Relevant Qualifications, Reasonable Steps and Physical Features) Regulations 2008 — has also been made. Those regulations were subject to the negative resolution procedure and came into operation from 1 April.
I appreciate that the proposed regulations are technical in nature and that a limited time has been allocated for their debate, but they are important. They provide another opportunity for the Assembly to demonstrate its commitment to promoting equality for all — in this case, for young people who have disabilities.
Mar is eol do Chomhaltaí, i gcroílár na físe atá agam don oideachas tá tiomantas don chomhionnanas agus don chothroime agus rún daingean a chinntiú go bhfuil an deis chéana ag ár n-aos óg uile éirí sa saol agus a barr a gcumais a bhaint amach.
As Members will know, my vision for education has, at its core, a commitment to equality and fairness and a determination to make sure that all young people have the same opportunity to succeed and to reach their potential. The regulations cover the enforcement mechanisms and procedures for making claims, and they require awarding bodies to make reasonable adjustments to leased premises. The latter issue was included to maintain consistency with the regulations for bodies that award professional or trade qualifications. In the main, it is procedural, because most general qualifications are taken in centres such as schools, colleges or other community-based venues.
The regulations will mean that the enforcement of claims against general qualifications bodies will be available through the county court system. Other disability legislation in respect of employment and professional and trade qualifications is enforceable through employment tribunals, but the nature of general qualifications means that it is more appropriate to enforce those rights through the county court system.
Ní rachfar i gcionn an fhorfheidhmithe seo ach mar rogha dheiridh, agus ní dócha go mbainfear feidhm as na cumhachtaí seo ró-mhinic. Oibríonn forais cáilíochtaí ginearálta go crua le cothrom na Féinne a chur ar fáil do gach mac léinn, agus ní dhéanfaidh na rialacháin seo ach cur leis an dea-chleachtas atá ann cheana féin.
That form of enforcement is a last resort and I do not expect to see those powers used very often. General qualification bodies already work hard to provide fair opportunities to all students and these regulations will serve to underscore the good practice that has already developed. The local qualifications body, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, which is also known as CCEA, has advised that it is already fully compliant with the draft regulations.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the qualification bodies, has set up a resolution procedure with the aim of settling disputes at an early stage. I am pleased to report that the Equality Commission will extend its disability conciliation service to cover complaints against general qualification bodies once the draft regulations come into operation. Members will appreciate that there are a number of avenues available to people with disabilities before having to seek redress through the courts.
The Equality Commission will also be producing guidance for qualification bodies, and officials from the Department have met with representatives from the Commission and explained how the regulations are designed to promote equality for people with disabilities.
Following a constructive meeting the Commission indicated its support for the regulations being made; and I am very grateful for the assistance that the Commission provided to the Department during the development of the regulations. I am also grateful to my officials, who also worked very hard on the regulations, bringing them to the Education Committee and issuing them for public consultation.
Tá mé cinnte go dtacóidh Comhaltaí leis na rialacháin seo, nó féachann siad le mic léinn a chosaint ar an leatrom anseo agus le reachtaíocht míchumais atá ann cheana féin a neartú.
I am sure that Members will support the introduction of these regulations as they seek to protect students against discrimination and strengthen disability legislation that is already in place.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion, which follows on from an important debate that took place in the House last week concerning the provision of courses for young people in the further education sector. The motion closes the loophole that exists within SENDO, in relation to qualification bodies.
Will the Minister assure us that her Department and departmental officials will be working closely with the Equality Commission and the various qualifying bodies to ensure that no young person is discriminated against as regards the awarding of qualifications? Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin, a Phóil. Thank you for that question, Paul. The Department believes firmly in equality for everybody with a disability. To even the playing field, I am delighted to say that departmental officials have been working very closely with the Equality Commission on this issue and many others, and with the qualifying bodies. The qualifying bodies have already —
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ruane: I will finish what I am saying. The Member had an opportunity to put his name forward. Cuir d’ainm síos.
The CCEA was ahead of the game here and is operating under procedures that are very fair.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Draft Special Educational Needs and Disability (2005 Order) (Amendment) (General Qualifications Bodies) (Alteration of Premises and Enforcement) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion to appoint a Member to the Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe. As with similar motions this will be treated as a business motion; therefore there will be no debate.
That this Assembly appoints Mr Sean Neeson as its nominee to the Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe. — [Lord Morrow]
Locally Produced Food
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Elliott: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to bring forward plans to increase the Northern Ireland public sector’s procurement of locally produced food.
I thank the Business Office for accepting the motion. Food sourcing in Northern Ireland has been the subject of much debate in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. The past year has allowed the Committee to use its power and influence to reach out to the main retailers in Northern Ireland with a view to encouraging them to source food locally rather than importing produce from South America and mainland Europe, or from our next-door neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.
Undoubtedly, we have experienced some success in our attempts to encourage local sourcing. For example, Sainsbury’s recently announced that, from the end of March 2008, 100% of fresh beef sold in its stores in Northern Ireland would be locally sourced, processed and packed. On Wednesday 9 April, I was delighted to read that Asda is committing its support to the Good Food is in Our Nature campaign, which is being run by Food Promotion Northern Ireland through an in-store promotional campaign to encourage people to buy local produce across Northern Ireland. The campaign will take the form of 20 new pieces of point-of-sale signage across the 13 Asda stores here.
I am pleased to say that the Ulster Unionist Party supports the SDLP amendment on the labelling of local produce. That, in itself, is progress. Thanks to the work of many people, not least Food Promotion Northern Ireland, retailers are increasingly thinking about stocking locally sourced food that is supplied from Northern Ireland-based agriculture businesses.
I have always been of the opinion that it is vital to make retailers recognise the quality of produce that is available in Northern Ireland if any sort of impetus was to return to the agriculture industry. I am delighted with the progress that is evident through the examples that I have given. Although that is a reasonable start, there is no doubt that much more must to be done and that work must continue to encourage retailers to build locally sourced stock.
We must also broaden our outlook and increase the current focus on developing interdepartmental connections among the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) — which is responsible for processors in Northern Ireland — and the other Departments with a view to increasing the amount of local food that is used by public bodies. That could produce real benefits for the agricultural community in addition to ensuring that local people receive the healthiest and finest-quality food in hospitals, schools, training colleges and other public facilities in Northern Ireland.
Each day, thousands of people work in, or attend, such public facilities. Those are maintained by various Departments in the Province. In a single day, expenditure by those people at mealtimes runs to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. If the food that is sold in the cafeterias of public institutions throughout the country was all locally sourced, it would have a monumental impact on the sales of the local agriculture markets. It would also give a further boost to the local economy, particularly the agriculture industry. In addition, the public would know that the food that they were eating was produced by local hands and was of a high standard. The food would also bring advantageous health benefits because it would be likely to be higher in quality and fresher than anything that we import into the Province. Furthermore, increased local produce would bring the advantage that fewer vehicles would be needed to transfer produce from one place to another, resulting in a reduction in fuel emissions and a lower carbon footprint. I am sure that Members will agree that those are highly credible benefits.
The agrifood industry demands a high standard of food production from farmers in Northern Ireland. DARD has an extremely rigorous regime for maintaining produce quality and standards. Unfortunately, Departments appear to be happy to purchase products from countries that do not adhere to such standards.
Members may be interested to know the situation in other United Kingdom regions. The Westminster Government aim to provide a sustainably built and sustainably managed central Government estate that minimises carbon emissions, waste consumption and water consumption and that increases energy efficiency.
In May 2004, the Scottish Executive adopted a report that included a priority to support local and regional economies’ food procurement. In Wales, members of Value Wales (Procurement) have piloted new approaches to encourage local supply chains and to improve nutrition.
The majority of Members will be aware that Northern Ireland’s public procurement policy is set by the procurement board, which is chaired by the Minister of Finance and Personnel and comprises the permanent secretaries of the 11 Northern Ireland Departments, the Treasury Officer of Accounts, the director of Central Procurement Directorate, an observer from both the Strategic Investment Board and the Northern Ireland Audit Office, and external experts.
Central Procurement Directorate (CPD), which sits in the Department of Finance and Personnel, facilitates the procurement board’s work. Its role is to support the board in developing and reviewing procurement policy and to execute the procurement of supplies, services and works for the public sector.
At present, Northern Ireland does not have a specific food-procurement policy. Central Procurement Directorate, in its submission to the review of environmental governance, stated:
“The overarching concept in NI public procurement policy is that of achieving ‘best value for money’ which is defined as ‘the optimum combination of whole life cost and quality (or fitness for purpose) to meet the customers requirement’.”
That aim could best be achieved by increasing our focus on developing local sourcing among public bodies. To do so would demonstrate the Assembly’s willingness to learn from the examples of Scotland and Wales, both of which have been in the same position.
DFP officials are working with the Departments of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS)and the Department of Education — the two largest food-procuring Departments in Northern Ireland — to develop awareness sessions on those contracts that are due for renewal in the near future. The main objectives will be to raise awareness of upcoming contracts, to explain the procurement process and to encourage more local companies to tender. Events, which will be targeted at small and medium-sized producers and processors, could increase local sourcing among those two Departments’ public bodies to unprecedented levels. I sincerely welcome that, and long may it continue.
I am aware that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and her Department have already done some work on food sourcing. DARD staff provide technical support and advice to individual farmers or processors, to large and small producer groups and to co-operatives to help them to obtain public-sector contracts.
Furthermore, under the draft rural development programme for 2007-13, the processing and marketing scheme assists the agrifood sector to improve its competitiveness and to enable it to compete for contracts. I am pleased to learn about that valuable work.
Last November, DARD, in conjunction with the Department of Education and DHSSPS, announced plans for closer co-operation on local sourcing in order to explore the promotion of local foods in facilities that those Departments run.
I am concerned that no foods from Northern Ireland are included in the EU protected food names scheme. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must promote that scheme in a more proactive fashion. I ask the House to support the motion and the SDLP amendment.
Mr Doherty: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after ‘plans’ and insert
“that encourage and assist local food producers to compete for Public Sector Procurement contracts.”
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The intent of the motion should find widespread support in the House. However, it places the responsibility for procurement on the wrong Minister. I am sure that the proposers of the motion are aware that the responsibility for public procurement falls with Peter Robinson, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and his Department’s Central Procurement Directorate. Therefore, to ask DARD to introduce plans to increase local procurement is slightly misleading. It would be much more sensible to propose a motion requesting the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to introduce plans to help local producers to compete for public-sector contracts.
One of the main barriers facing small and medium-sized local producers is the fear that those contracts are beyond them. They may also be concerned that they might not be able to deliver on such a large scale. In addition to the Central Procurement Directorate adjusting its policy to attract local producers, it is vital, therefore, that those local producers are given the skills and the confidence to bid for contracts.
I am sure that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development will outline the efforts that she has made to assist our farmers and others to get a better foothold on the public procurement ladder. It is undoubtedly the case that Departments have their role to play in assisting our industry through the way that they spend their budgets. We must find creative ways, within EU rules, to allow Departments to give priority to our local producers when it comes to purchasing food.
The application of an expanded local procurement policy to big-spending Departments, such as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education, could, for example, go a long way towards reducing the difficulties currently faced by the pig sector. Although the motion is well intended, the amendment puts it on a more appropriate footing for the Minister at whom it should be directed. I urge the proposers of the motion and the House, in the interests of the agriculture industry, to support amendment No 1.
Mr P J Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 2: At end insert
“; and to promote country of origin labelling on menus in hotels and restaurants.”
I thank Tom Elliott and John McCallister for securing the debate, although it is regrettable that after nine months of governing ourselves, the tabling of such a motion remains a necessity. Bearing in mind the manner in which the Assembly carries out its business, only one Minister is present — the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development — to inform us of what her Department is doing to increase the procurement of locally produced food. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about DARD’s efforts as regards local procurement. Perhaps when she addresses the motion she will update the House on any meetings that she has had in the past nine months with the other Departments about purchasing local produce. There may be a success story there that we are not aware of.
I wish to slightly amend the motion to include a measure that the Minister will be able to enforce. I could have taken my amendment further by asking that she deals immediately with country of origin labelling on food sold in supermarkets, but as that might be a trifle complicated to achieve, I resisted doing so.
It is relatively simple for the Minister to implement legislation that demands that the country of origin of foods be displayed on menus in hotels and restaurants. On March 13, during the red meat sector seminar held in the Long Gallery, many stakeholders in the industry expressed views that are reflected in the motion and in my amendment. The procurement of local produce by Government and their agencies was referred to in the reports delivered from the workshops held on the day.
There was considerable concern about the inadequacy of our labelling demands, and views were expressed that the labels that many processors apply leave a lot to be desired. Indeed, some went so far as to say that some labels were designed to confuse the consumer deliberately. If one looks at the information on many of those labels, it is easy to understand why that point was made.
Once again, I remind the Minister that the crisis in the agriculture sector is not being overstated; it is as real as it gets. On taking office, the Minister declared that she planned to be the champion of the farmer. I can tell the Minister that the farmers — and being from South Down, I also include the fishermen — are still awaiting her first real supportive moves.
Procurement of local produce by all Departments and giving full information on the menus referred to will not alone save the industries. However, that would at least be an indication that the problems are being addressed by those responsible. Who knows; even at this late stage, a recovery plan could be created to address the uncertainties that are being lived out on our family farms.
At first glance, Sinn Féin’s amendment appeared to be worthy of inclusion in the motion. However, on closer examination, it calls on local food producers — that is the farmers — to compete for public-sector contracts. Is that not the role of DARD or those who process food? I am also concerned that the amendment calls for farmers to enter the world of commercial contracting, a request that can only add to the bureaucracy that is already crippling our farming community.
I thank the proposers of the motion for accepting the additional few words that the SDLP added to the motion. I also thank again the Members for tabling the motion.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I open my remarks by congratulating Mr Elliott and his colleagues for bringing the motion before the House. It is a worthy motion and one that certainly deserves our support. I also agree wholeheartedly with amendment No 2, which stands in the name of Mr Bradley and his colleagues.
Speaking personally, I find amendment No 1 strange. Mr Doherty said that it would be somewhat misleading to ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to undertake work such as this. Given the recent debate on the Forkhill military site, I find that to be a strange comment, because during that debate, it seemed that the Minister had a wide range of responsibilities; it was almost as though she was working on matters that fall under the remit of all the other Departments. Therefore, perhaps it would not be difficult to ask her to be responsible for something that is within her remit; on the other hand, however, it might be that that is more difficult.
My reasons for opposing amendment No 1 are the same as those of Mr P J Bradley. Placing the burden of responsibility on the farmer is too much at a time when the farming community is facing difficult challenges, with farmers feeling that they are often left to their own devices. I feel that in many ways amendment No 1 adds insult to injury.
The motion stems from the efforts that the Committee has made on this matter, and I congratulate Committee members for their genuine efforts in attempting to get the main retailers to source local produce. We have had some success in that, and I am delighted in particular with Sainsbury’s achievements.
I recently attended the opening of the new ASDA store in Ballyclare, and I was greatly impressed by the local produce in that store and by the very clear labelling on products. That labelling not only denoted the fact that the item was from Northern Ireland, but it actually gave the name of the producer. Labelling produce in that manner is exciting and visionary, and it should be encouraged throughout the retail sector.
The efforts of the Committee are producing some results, and we have made a reasonable start. However, we need to impress further on our departmental officials and public bodies the need for them to take the lead in this matter.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can take the lead and tell other Departments that it is not good enough for them not to lead by example — be that the Department of Education in schools or the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in hospitals. Those two Departments should provide the best possible produce to children in schools and patients in hospitals — what else should people in hospital get but the best possible standards of hygiene and produce? I am concerned that low-level products from foreign countries could be served in our hospitals.
Farmers have gallantly faced the challenges before them: for example, the issues raised in the red meat task force report, which acknowledges that there is a problem; and the nightmare currently faced by the pig sector. Many years ago, farmers in the pig sector were told that there would be financial rewards if they produced quality-assured produce. However, those promises were not kept. Farmers sweat and toil to produce the highest-quality produce, and they must be given a proper price. Departments must clearly tell those farmers that they will purchase their produce. There should be proper labelling in hotels and restaurants so that consumers know that they are buying Northern Ireland produce.
Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?
Dr W McCrea: No; I have only three seconds left.
There must be proper labelling that highlights the country of origin. Northern Ireland produce must be identifiable. It is of the highest quality and should be purchased by the public sector.
Mr Bresland: I congratulate the Members who brought the motion to the House and those who proposed amendment No 2.
For a number of years, the agriculture sector in Northern Ireland has faced many challenges. The problems faced by the beef and sheep sector are well documented in the Red Meat Industry Task Force report that was published recently. Regrettably, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has failed to respond positively to the problems faced by our beef and lamb industry. The Minister’s only prescription is diversification, and the response from many farmers — particularly our suckler-cow farmers — is to downsize. That worrying trend is highlighted in the most recent census.
The Northern Ireland pig and poultry industries also face considerable challenges due to increases in the price of grain. In the past 12 months, the dairy sector has witnessed increases in the price of milk. However, that sector also faces many challenges: one look at Saturday’s edition of ‘Farming Life’ will show the number of dairy farmers who are dispersing their livestock and getting out of the milk industry.
Fishermen have also faced many challenges and, like the farmers, find themselves tied up in European red tape and bureaucracy. Undoubtedly, the Minister will wring her hands and say that little that can be done and that she must work within the procurement rules of the European Union. However, she should be proactive in encouraging Departments and Government agencies to procure Northern Ireland products.
All parts of the public sector, which includes schools, colleges, hospitals, prisons, police and the Civil Service, procure food. It is vital that the Minister explores ways for the Northern Ireland agrifood industry to secure those valuable contracts. The Minister will seek to hide behind European Union procurement regulations, but DARD must be more proactive in working with farmers, processors and the Livestock Marketing Commission for Northern Ireland to ensure that the public sector purchases Northern Ireland’s excellent food products.
In recent years, DARD has introduced a supply awareness programme that has targeted over 1,000 farmers, along with processors and retail outlets. However, it has failed to engage with the Northern Ireland public sector, which — collectively — is a large buyer of food products.
That is also an issue for the Assembly Commission, because of the food sold in the Assembly restaurant and cafeteria. Northern Ireland food products must be on the menu. It should be known whether the bacon comes from Denmark or Castlederg; the beef in the shepherd’s pie from Argentina or Newtownstewart; the lamb chops from New Zealand or the Sperrins.
Those are the choices that we must all make if we are to maintain a sustainable farming industry in Northern Ireland. I support the motion and amendment No 2.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support amendment No 1, and I welcome this debate. I put on record that procurement by Government Departments of local produce is essential in any society and an issue on which I have been intensively lobbying the Minister. I have met Government procurement officials — the director of the CPD and its head of policy and planning. Both assured me that the CPD is seeking innovative ways to put local suppliers in a position to win Government contracts, within EU constraints.
They also inform me that the Minister has been to the forefront of providing local food producers with greater access to Government procurement procedures. CPD is keen to develop the local supplier base so that they are better placed to bid for contracts. They pointed to InterTradeIreland’s Go Tender programme as an example of what can be done. Under that scheme, small and medium-sized suppliers are invited to meet the buyer to get a rundown of what is needed to win Government contracts.
However, under the EU treaty and procurement directives, it is illegal for public bodies to discriminate in favour of domestic producers. The key principles of the treaty relevant to public procurement are those around the free movement of goods and services, transparency and non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality. Public bodies cannot specify in their contracts that catering contractors and suppliers open up their supply chains to only small and local producers, but are allowed to make fresh produce a requirement. With such significant buying power, the public sector could, by changing its buying habits, make a great deal of difference by creating a large market for more sustainable products and ways of procuring those products.
Irish produce is among the best in the world, and the Assembly must take a public lead in encouraging buying locally. It is important in all public-sector activities that a policy can be shown to benefit the local community. How food is served, prepared, purchased and produced can have a major impact on the health of individuals, communities and their environments. Local produce is essential to the well-being of all communities, and procuring it close to home helps promote good health.
Factors that could act as a catalyst in supporting our agriculture and fishing industry through the public procurement process include having access to healthy food; supporting the local economy by buying food from as close by as possible; and eating food in season. On top of that, encouragement should be given to sustainable farming through setting high environmental standards and reducing energy consumption; promoting animal welfare and valuing nature and biodiversity; and establishing fair prices, fair trade and ethical employment in Ireland and overseas.
Local food procurement allows the healthy eating, economic and environmental agendas to be combined and acted on, which gives Government an opportunity to take the lead in a field that truly makes a difference to local communities. The Executive should use every avenue to promote procurement of local produce. They must think creatively and produce clear objectives and procurement guidelines to ensure that locally produced food is used locally. The Executive need to apply existing procurement rules as robustly and favourably as possible throughout the public sector.
It is contradictory for the EU to prioritise the environment and yet constrain so tightly the extent to which environmental objectives can influence procurement. The procurement process must take into account the carbon, as well as monetary, cost of goods. Research published in 2002 by Morgan and Morley found that Italy, France and some Scandinavian countries adhere to “buy-local” policies in all but name.
These allow policy makers —
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr W Clarke: I have very little time. I will give way if I am given some extra time.
Mr Speaker: It is really for the Member to decide whether he wishes to give way.
Mr W Clarke: “Buy-local” policies allow policy makers to support local sourcing and to provide advice about what is legal and acceptable. Such policies also address supply issues; consumer education issues; ways in which local food could legitimately be specified within procurement rules, including buying fresh food, short delivery times and minimal packaging; specifying that milk is delivered in bulk rather than in cartons; and considering the issue of organic food. Those issues all favour local producers.
The organic sector remains fragmented, and there appears to be less competition for organic contracts from large remote businesses. A shift towards more temperate varieties creates opportunities for domestic growers, and a return to seasonal consumption patterns creates an opportunity —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Members who tabled the motion, and, as a farmer, I declare an interest.
The issue of increasing the public sector’s procurement of local food has long been a key priority for the farming industry. Indeed, it was a key part of the UFU’s document, ‘Five steps to a better future’. Many factors point realistically to local procurement being good for the farmer, the consumer and the environment, and the Assembly has a duty of care to each of those areas.
It is often said that Northern Ireland is kept financially stable due to the large numbers of people employed in the public sector. Indeed, it is reported to count for 63% of the economy. However, the phrase “financially stable” would not apply equally to our resilient, yet stressed, farming industry.
Farming is the largest industry in Northern Ireland. The productivity and economic viability of our agrifood industry would rise if the public-sector procurement of local food were increased. From a consumer point of view, locally sourced produce is proven to be healthier and fresher than imported produce, as it spends little time in transit. We must consider the food that is in transit for many thousands of miles by sea, air and land. Moreover, we must consider the problem of cheap, imported meat products and the devastating effect that those are having on our farming industry.
Mr T Clarke: Amendment No 1 suggests that farmers compete for public procurement, therefore, asking them to compete even further. Surely the competition will be unfair, as other countries will not have the same stringent rules as we have about produce coming into the country. Therefore, we are being asked to compete unfairly and to cheapen the market value of our produce.
Mr Irwin: I agree. The EU regulations on procurement of food are complicated; however, they allow for consideration of environmental and social issues when making awards. I am keen to enquire whether full consideration is given to those areas so that it is not simply a case of the cheapest tender getting the contract, as cheap is not always best value.
The public sector is a massive consumer base. Therefore, there is no reason why our locally sourced produce should not be procured in high volumes for the public sector while still remaining within the terms of EU directives.
In previous debates, reference was made to the Central Procurement Directorate. I am keen to enquire about the technicalities and length of the tendering process. The Minister previously stated that DARD provides assistance on tendering, and that is appreciated; however, there is a real need to make our producers more aware of the process and to ensure that they are competitive.
In the Scottish Parliament, the issue of tendering was raised as a potential stumbling block for smaller producers, as — almost immediately — the complicated nature of the process often rules out smaller producers. There is strong evidence that increased local procurement can help to sustain the local industry. Using Scotland as an example, the East Ayrshire Project witnessed school meals transformed and a commendable 70% of local food making up the menu in local schools. We can learn lessons from that study.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must promote country-of-origin labelling, and it must encourage retailers to participate in that and take it on board. We could and must do a lot more to assist local food producers. We must remember that we are trying to encourage the local farming and agrifood industry in what is a very difficult marketplace. I support amendment No 2.
Mr Ford: I support the motion standing in the names of Mr Elliott and Mr McCallister, and the amendment standing in the names of Mr P J Bradley and his colleagues, because they appear to address the fundamental needs of farmers in Northern Ireland and to advocate the building of the type of partnership that is necessary between the public sector and producers. I fear that amendment No 1, on the other hand, weakens the motion, and places too much of the onus back on the producers, rather than on developing a partnership.
This morning, I attended a follow-up to a fair-trade event that was held at the beginning of March by Antrim Borough Council, of which I am a member. The March event included a cookery competition for local schools, and today we awarded Parkhall High School for having won. Part of reason for the council’s efforts to promote fair trade was the impetus created by aspects of international development: fair trade for producers of primary produce in the Third World and seeking to access Fairtrade tea, coffee, bananas, and a variety of other items, just as the Assembly does. The council has also been concerned with the issue of fair trade for local producers. I am delighted that Dale Farm, for example, as the leading trading arm of the local milk producers’ co-operative, was a co-sponsor of the event in March, and that other local food producers attended that event.
Fairness and justice must apply to a tea producer in Sri Lanka or a milk producer in County Antrim. We must ensure that we secure those types of benefits. The public sector in Northern Ireland is significantly behind the position of a number of local authorities in Great Britain in particular, as Mr Irwin has highlighted.
If a county council in GB can ensure that its schools operate a local procurement policy whereby the significant majority of the food that it buys comes from local producers, why is that not the case for the Department of Education and the five education and library boards here? Our farmers are in every bit as much need as farmers in GB. By the same token, I have grave difficulties with the type of catering contract that exists, for example, for the former United Hospitals Trust area in Antrim. Why is it that food is served to patients there on a cook-and-chill basis, and brought in from Scotland, yet staff and visitors can go to a canteen to get food, locally produced in some cases — though not enough — and freshly cooked on the premises?
We must change the mindsets of those who administer catering contracts across the public sector from striving for the cheapest to striving for the best. There is no doubt that fresh, locally produced food has been shown to be better than food that is mass-produced several hundred miles away and kept for a period of time. That food may be acceptable, but it is not of the highest-possible quality. Surely, our schoolchildren and hospital patients — and anyone else who depends on the public sector — have a right to expect the highest quality of food. That would directly benefit local producers.
There is no doubt that there are, in some cases, difficulties with European regulations, which require appropriate terms and conditions in contracts. However, there is also no doubt that those problems can be tackled. Bureaucrats in this part of the world have an unfortunate habit of sometimes seeking to gold-plate EU regulations, whereas our neighbours in England, Scotland, and particularly the Republic seem to find creative ways to make the most of the regulations. The simplistic response on this estate from those who administer those types of contract is too often to gold-plate the regulations in order to show how good we are. Let us show that we are good European citizens who also support our local producers, because that can be done, and we have plenty of examples from other parts of these islands where that is being done.
The one slight concern that I have with the motion is that it calls on DARD to take action. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to make a response in that respect. However, it seems to me that, if there is to be any real effort to implement the thrust of the motion, it is not just the Agriculture Minister who should be present. She must speak to other Ministers — particularly the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education, and the Minister for Employment and Learning — to examine the opportunities to shift local contracts and to see that our producers receive the benefits.
Mr Savage: This is an important debate, and it could not have come at a better time because, in a few weeks’ time, Northern Ireland will have a chance to showcase its agricultural produce and promote its wares to the public at the Balmoral Show.
I may be slightly biased in my opinion of our produce, but I believe that our standards for quality, traceability and animal welfare are higher than they are elsewhere. Indeed, our products are produced to a higher standard than that required by EU regulations. In conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Assembly must help farmers to attract a better price for their product and to appeal to more customers in this fast and ever more competitive market. It is pointless for farmers to produce a good product if that product does not appeal to the consumer.
The big supermarkets could do much more to help the farming industry, but, sadly, the only people who are promoting local produce are the farmers themselves. There is no easy or cheap way to produce quality food. If one is to produce healthy food, one cannot afford to take short cuts. The farmers deserve a fair and decent return for their product. We must bear in mind that farmers lose more and more of their profit margin because of sharp rises in the costs of feed and fuel each month.
We must never forget that agriculture is the backbone of industry in Northern Ireland, as many Members have said. Currently, Northern Ireland has 28,500 farms that employ some 80,000 people. On the surface, that sounds good. However, all is not well in the agriculture industry at this time. As I said, farmers are faced with high input costs for feed and fuel. A recent Deloitte report highlighted the fact that many producers are facing an almost 100% rise in feed prices, which lowers farmers’ ability to compete on an EU and global scale. Those higher costs of fuel in the UK mean that other countries are far better off; our costs are spiralling out of control because of this stretch of water around us.
Low farmgate prices are being driven by an imbalance in the profit margin among retailers, processors and primary producers. The UK Government policy on voluntary modulation is such that less grant money is going directly to farmers, thereby putting them at a disadvantage to EU competitors.
Northern Ireland is made up of small-scale farms and processing companies, which can stunt efficiency. However, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s website details its commitment to sustainable development:
“For government, sustainable development means creating policies and making decisions on behalf of the country that equally support our communities, improve our standard of living, and help us to live within environmental limits. For example, in the case of government procurement policy, it means not just buying as cheaply as possible, but seeking to procure so as to generate positive results for the economy, society and environment.”
That is a very welcome statement, and that is the direction in which policy on Government procurement of locally produced produce ought to be headed. However, the Government must do more for the local farmer. The Government of the South of Ireland give overwhelming support to local farmers. I urge the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to take a leaf out of her Southern counterpart’s book and invest properly in our local farming by introducing grant-aided schemes for farm improvements and modernisation. In that way, we can streamline our farming enterprises and compete in a real and challenging world.
A number of clear benefits flow from the procurement of locally produced produce. The Executive can give a strategic lead on the promotion and sustainable development of the local agriculture and food sector, thereby setting an example for the private sector. The local food sector is producing high-quality, healthy and unique products, thereby creating jobs and giving local farmers a source of income.
This sector is the freshest way to buy food and cuts down on transport and reduces the number of people involved.
Mr Shannon: Aa’ wud first o’ vau laek tae kimmenn’ tha proposer o’ this moatshin, an cud aa’ daor tae think that ma’ questyin askin tha Menistar o’ Agricultur en Rural Developmunt tae set oot tha steps that she is takkin tae pit fort Norlin Airlan produce sich as Portavoge prawns, Commer praities, en Glestry ice craem, was tha inspirayshin fer tha moatshin.
Whun aa’ wus gien tha anser tae ma’ questyin aa’ wusnae setisfied that muckle enouch wus bein din that cud be din tae pit fort Norlin Airlan superior products tae tha rest o’ tha United Kindim en farthuer afeil.
I wish to commend the proposer of the motion. May I dare to think that my asking the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the steps that she has taken to promote Northern Ireland products such as Portavogie prawns, Comber potatoes and Glastry Farm ice cream was an inspiration for the motion? When I received the answer to my question, I was not satisfied that all that could be done was being done to promote Northern Ireland’s superior products to the rest of the United Kingdom and further afield.
I support the motion and amendment No 2. We are certainly in an age of prosperity in the Province, and the peace and stability that we have enjoyed of late have done wonders for the profile of Northern Ireland. We have more opportunity for tourism and international investment — something that is to the fore as we think on to the investment conference to be held in May. The profile of the Province has been raised through such means as the Lonely Planet travel guide and other notable recommendations. Now is the time for the Minister to ensure the promotion of the natural beauty of the Province and its investment possibilities — as our counterparts have done — and also to promote its produce, which is second to none.
I will give examples of a few local products that have acquired international renown, yet which have the potential for achieving so much more. Portavogie prawns, for example, are highlighted on the ‘Northern Ireland: Take a Closer Look’ website, and are on menus from the Waterfront Hall to the Quays restaurant in Portavogie. It was a treat, and an encouragement, to read on an expats’ website that among those things missed from the United Kingdom, Portavogie prawns were listed as being the main ingredient in the top five sandwiches that were thought of when abroad. Therefore, those who live in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa clearly say that they miss Portavogie prawns, and that has got to be good news.
There is also the special mention made in the Belfast restaurant guide of the superior quality of —
Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he accept that, while local people may miss Portavogie prawns when they are away from home in the United States, perhaps they could equally miss them when they are working in the Department of Health, the Department of Education, or some other Department here in Northern Ireland, if they are not available in those places?
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention, and we will shortly get guidance on that matter. I agree absolutely, and I believe that the superior quality of the prawns, which are home-grown, is one of the reasons why they are missed when abroad.
Perhaps I may also mention Glastry Farm ice cream. Many have not yet had the opportunity to sample that creamy delight, which is a taste of the peninsula. Many will not have heard of it and yet we see that Jenny Bristow the TV chef repeatedly mentions it as a perfect way to finish “a culinary feast”. Glastry Farm ice cream has also been approved by the training guru and international best-selling author Robin Sharma, who specifically mentions it as being something special — and if he sees it as something special, it is something special. The farmer who took the initiative saw that farming alone could not sustain his business and, therefore, diversified. I understand that he was given financial aid to help with the cost of setting up the factory. Having tasted the ice cream, I know that it will be a worldwide best-seller, especially with the recommendation of so many. The National Trust sells Glastry Farm ice cream at its properties in a Taste of Ulster promotion. That promotion has been a success and proves that, with a little help, diversification can and will work. However, more could be done to promote products such as Glastry Farm ice cream to create worldwide recognition.
The classic example of what home-grown products can achieve is found at the Tayto factory at Tandragee. There was a time when only those from the Province had sampled the best crisps in the world. Now, however, Tayto is an international phenomenon, with Americans and Canadians enjoying what they call “British chips”.
I am aware that the Minister has said that the Department seeks to ensure that local produce is used by Government bodies as much as is permissible under EU regulations. However, more has to be done, and what better than our own produce? I recognise, too, that the Minister and her Department are trying to promote local produce; again, however, more needs to be done. Let us learn from the Tayto factory’s success and ensure that it is repeated across the Province.
What could be nicer than to sit down to a starter of Portavogie prawn cocktail, a main meal of a good Ulster steak and Comber potatoes with Willowbrook Foods vegetables, finished off with hot Armagh apple pie and Glastry Farm ice cream? I know how good it tastes; my waistline indicates that. I urge the Assembly to support the motion. By doing so, it will assist local producers and promote the sweet and satisfying taste of Ulster.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am glad that it is my turn to speak, because having listened to Jim Shannon’s remarks, I am starving and cannot wait to get to the canteen.
At the outset, I want to point out that I assumed that Mr McCallister and Mr Elliott would be aware that responsibility for public procurement lies with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Peter Robinson. His Department’s central procurement directorate is working to bring forward new public-procurement guidance for procurers, which will assist them to develop specifications that will deliver fresh, seasonal produce and for which local producers can compete. I emphasise that although my Department will work through the legislation to do all that it can to encourage more local food companies to tender for contracts, it is up to producers to compete for and win business. Obviously, the Department is obliged to help them; however, it cannot compete and win business on their behalf.
The fact is that, as many Members have pointed out, it is not in my gift to bring forward plans to increase the public sector’s procurement of locally produced food. The EU treaty requires free movement of goods, and fairness and transparency in all procurement. It also states that buyers cannot restrict their purchases to specific locations or suppliers. Therefore, the Department’s challenge is to work with suppliers and to help them to compete more successfully. In the debate, I will concentrate on what I can do and have done in that regard.
I have always believed in local produce. We have access to some of the world’s best and freshest ingredients right on our doorstep. We must not take that for granted. To buy local produce means to vote for fewer food miles and fresher food. It is also a vote of confidence in local food producers, who work day and night to bring their produce to market and to support their families, often in rural communities.
As I mentioned earlier, the Programme for Government incorporates the principles of sustainability and recognises that building a sustainable future is a key requirement for economic, social and environmental policies and programmes. A widely accepted definition of sustainable development is:
“Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Although that sounds grand, to get across what sustainable development is and to show that it is relevant to people’s lives is a challenge for all Departments. In that context, increased local procurement could be a contributor and driver for change.
It would be helpful for Members to note that the total that has been spent on procurement of food across Departments amounts to just over £27 million per annum. That may seem a significant figure to many people. However, to put that into context, the total turnover of the agrifood processing industry is £2·4 billion. Therefore, public procurement accounts for just over 1%.
Although my Department does all that it can to maximise local procurement, Members will realise from the data that I have provided that the industry is heavily dependent on exports outside the North. While not losing sight of the importance of local produce, I must remind the House that exports are the bread and butter of the agrifood industry’s future sustainability. On 10 April, I raised the matter with Nigel Dodds in the Executive that the investment conference is a good opportunity to showcase the best of our produce. I have asked him to ensure that local food produce and the people who supply food for different events are promoted at the conference.
In 2007, when I promoted local produce in the States, I discovered that if a niche product were to tap into 2% of the overall American market, its market would be bigger than the entire market on the island of Ireland. It helps to put that into context. The Department tries to ensure that it exploits the markets that it wants for local products; that it is able to export and to add value to those products; and that it does its best for the industry.
The farming and agrifood industry brings vital employment to rural areas, accounting for some 19,000 jobs in the processing sector and almost 30,000 jobs on farms. That represents 7% of the local workforce.
At a practical level, DARD has been working closely with central procurement directorate officials because the Department feels that getting the guidance right will be the key to increasing the level of local sourcing, thereby helping to imbed more sustainability in rural communities. As a Member alluded to earlier, we had all signed up to the UFU’s five-point plan. Less than a year ago, when the Executive was formed, I raised that issue as one of my first priorities on my first day in the Department.
However, a number of contracts were midway through their term, and we cannot stop a two-year contract that has only been running for six months. We have to work within limitations and ensure that new contracts will result in an increase in the amount of local produce being used. We are working very closely with CPD to achieve that.
The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) already runs well-established education and training programmes to help food producers and processors to take advantage of new opportunities and become more competitive. Indeed, Glastry Farm — one of the businesses mentioned by Mr Shannon — received help from Loughry College. We have helped numerous businesses in that way in the past number of years and have enabled them to hone their product to an excellent standard so that they can compete for different markets. We have helped and supported businesses and products in many areas — the Causeway Cheese Company and Tickety-Moo Super Ice Cream are examples.
DARD also administers the processing and marketing grant for 2007-13, which will provide more than £20 million of new funding to help to improve the competitiveness of the agrifood sector and help it to compete more successfully for business.
George Savage mentioned grant aid to producers. The rural development programme will provide about £10 million of aid for a farm modernisation programme. Everything that the Department does is aimed at helping our industry to improve and become more competitive.
When I was in the United States, I spoke to people from Tayto who told me about their success in entering the American market. They have used the hills and countryside around Tandragee to promote Tayto crisps as an Irish product in the American market and have successfully brought business back to Tandragee. What they have done is exceptional. I want those sorts of companies to fly the flag at the investment conference in Belfast in May and promote their produce to the American delegates in attendance.
A number of Members have mentioned the other Ministers who have responsibility for public procurement. I have met Ministers Ruane and McGimpsey, and, more recently, Minister Robinson, to discuss the procurement of local food products. We were particularly interested in the possibility of rolling out the successful renaissance of Atlantic food authenticity and economic links (RAFAEL) project.
The RAFAEL project — funded by INTERREG and centred on the north-west — aimed to help local food producers and processors to compete for contracts in the health and education sectors. The pilot exercise proved that greater autonomy for smaller organisations allows tenders for smaller lots; therefore, not just helping the big guys but opening up the process to small local companies. The model could also be successful in other areas, and I am proud that my Department has been involved in that over the past number of years. That is the key to enabling small producers and processors to compete for contracts.
I agree fully that patients in hospitals and children in schools must be able to avail themselves of the best local produce. The most vulnerable people in our society need to be getting the best of our produce. We are pushing that message very firmly with the Ministers who have the relevant responsibility. Local produce — with its accruing low air miles — should not be sitting on shelves losing valuable vitamins and minerals. It should be reaching our schools and hospitals, ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society have the best quality of food. We are all speaking with the same voice on that issue.
My officials have been working closely with colleagues in CPD, regional supply services and the education and library boards to take forward work on several fronts. CPD has produced a draft sustainable procurement action plan, which will apply across the public sector, and the policy for that will be tabled at the next meeting of the procurement board, on which all Departments are represented. Furthermore, CPD is preparing draft guidance for practitioners, which will provide practical advice on integrating sustainable-development and healthy-eating objectives into the procurement of food and catering services. That guidance was the subject of consultation with DARD, the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and CPD plans to issue it shortly.
In conjunction with the Health and Education Departments, DARD has committed to organising awareness sessions, targeted at agrifood businesses, on contracts that are due for renewal. The key objective is to raise awareness of the contracts and explain the procurement process, thereby encouraging more tenders from local agrifood companies. DARD is also working to establish a baseline for the amount of local produce that is already in procurement contracts by analysing data from the Health and Education Departments. That baseline will be important for measuring progress against new arrangements. Again, it will help to ensure that our strategy is as effective as it can be. From the information available, I can confirm that the vast majority of suppliers to the health and education sectors and DARD canteens are local.
With regard to promoting country-of-origin labelling on menus in hotels and restaurants, I inform the Assembly that, although I have not ruled out introducing legislation to make such labelling mandatory, I would like to consider the options first, as I do not want to burden businesses unnecessarily with more red tape.
DARD officials are monitoring the approach that has been taken in the South, while a pilot scheme is under way in the North, in consultation with key stakeholders, for country-of-origin labelling for beef in the food-service sector. I wish to consider feedback from that pilot, along with market research findings, before I decide on the best way forward.
I take this opportunity to emphasise that all of us have a role to play in this issue individually and collectively. I encourage everyone, from big corporate businesses to families doing their weekly shop, to support local producers wherever possible. I recognise that we must all live within a budget, whether it is the family budget, or a large, departmental procurement budget; however, we should consider wider value implications as well as absolute cost. I agree with many of the comments that were made today. Yes, although some produce may be slightly cheaper, will it cost us our environment and sustainable rural communities? That is what we must debate.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the prime responsibility for public procurement lies with my colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel. We must work together, and I remind Members that the IFEX exhibition will take place at the end of this month. That exhibition will provide a great opportunity for local producers and processors to showcase their products to the hospitality and retail sectors. I will open that exhibition, and I invite Members to attend it to see the quality of produce that will be on offer.
In the meantime, my Department will continue to contribute positively to the central procurement directorate’s work in developing guidance on the procurement of local food. Moreover, it will continue to work with producers and processors to ensure that they will be in a position to tender for, and win, public procurement contracts. I strongly desire that our collective activities will lead to a win-win situation for the North’s agrifood industry. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr P J Bradley: I must try to decipher my hurried writing.
Mr Speaker: The Member has five minutes.
Mr P J Bradley: First, I thank Tom Elliott and John McCallister for introducing the motion. In his opening remarks, Tom Elliott said that were the health and education sectors immediately to take the lead role in securing local procurement, we would get somewhere. Pat Doherty repeated that sentiment when proposing amendment No 1.
The Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr McCrea, referred to the Committee’s success and to the reaction of Sainsbury’s and Asda to its efforts. Let us hope that other giant retailers follow suit sooner rather than later. Mr Bresland referred to the continuing exodus from farms and the — now commonplace — disposal sales of livestock. That situation should not be allowed to go unnoticed by DARD — or by any Department, for that matter.
To my surprise, Mr Willie Clarke spoke in favour of the motion. Furthermore, he supported amendment No 2. I welcome the fact that he made no reference to farmers taking on the role of tendering. Like Mr Elliott, Mr William Irwin referred to the support and attention that has been given to procurement in Scotland and the benefits that have already been identified there. Mr Ford, speaking on the same subject, also referred to Scotland’s experience, and he highlighted the methods used by county councils in England.
Mr Ford referred to other countries’ failure to implement EU regulations. Members have often discussed how we toe the line when regulations are made, while other countries fail to implement those regulations. Perhaps the House should debate that matter at some stage.
Mr George Savage mentioned the high quality and traceability of our good food, which, for whatever reason, is a message that is difficult to get across. He outlined the support that is given to the industry in the Republic of Ireland. If such support were offered here, perhaps we would not need to debate this issue.
Fellow County Down Member Jim Shannon availed himself of the opportunity to promote Portavogie prawns and Glastry Farm ice cream, which I recently tasted and enjoyed at a recent Ulster Farmers’ Union dinner. I hope that Mr Shannon’s message is heeded because the food industry is important along the County Down coastline.
The Minister spoke in favour of local produce and outlined monetary sums and employment figures. I was surprised to hear the Minister refer to the UFU document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, but I will say no more than that at this stage. The Minister’s speech was informative on current initiatives. However, more emphasis on positive plans for delivery would have been preferable. The House should, perhaps, revisit that issue in a few months’ time. I am disappointed that no plans are in place to identify countries of origin on our hotel and restaurant menus. I thank the proposers of the motion for accepting the amendment.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Amendment No 1 outlines that DARD’s role is not one of procurer. The Minister clarified that she plays an important role in promoting our agricultural produce, and any confusion about which Department deals with procurement would not be beneficial to anyone. Therefore, I strongly support our amendment.
Public bodies are aware of the superior health regime here and, therefore, should be encouraged not only to buy, but to promote the fact that they almost exclusively use our own produce.
The House must consider that, unlike elsewhere, we do not have a specific food-procurement policy. We need to examine general procurement because there are some difficulties with the Public Procurement Board that will become evident in the near future.
The health and education sectors use a large amount of food in schools and hospitals. We must advise those sectors that buying the cheapest produce might not necessarily be a good idea and, in fact, might damage our economy. If farmers lose a market as large as the health and education sectors, they may move away from food production towards the biofuel industry. That would be a very serious situation, which has led to food shortages in other parts of the world — as demonstrated by a recent television programme. Moreover, it is dangerous to consider buying cheaper produce from places such as Brazil an example of good economics. That will, fundamentally, destroy our whole economy. The situation will worsen, and we will be forced to buy increasingly cheap produce because of a lack of money. That is an escalating downward problem.
The House will, undoubtedly, strongly support the intent of the motion. However, it is important to correctly identify whom to approach about procurement. The Minister made that very clear. That places an onus on the farming industry here to be more competitive. Some Members do not like that idea.
However, the point is that if public bodies can be persuaded to procure more food from local producers, the resulting increase in sales will make farmers more competitive — which is similar to the philosophy adopted by Woolworths. The aim must be to push sales and promote locally produced food by being as competitive as possible. As with any cheaper goods that are imported from all over the world, local food producers will always have to compete with cheaper imports. It must be understood that local producers are part of a global economy.
Mr Elliott: Local producers must compete with imports from countries whose standards of produce may be lower than in Northern Ireland. Does the Member accept that that is unfair competition?
Mr Brolly: Absolutely; the competition will continue to be unfair, but that is a matter for regulation. The import of Brazilian beef has been one of the biggest problems for local producers. However, political considerations, associations between nations, an unwillingness to offend friendly nations, and so forth, mean that the authorities here seem reluctant to tackle the issue. The problem should have been knocked on the head much earlier. The authorities are now making an effort to reduce the impact of the import of Brazilian beef. However, its import will continue, and local producers must accept the need to compete.
When Mr Ford said that DARD is not responsible for procurement, I got the impression that he supported Sinn Féin’s amendment. He mentioned the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and other public bodies that procure food.
Mr Ford: I sought to make the point that procurement is not solely DARD’s responsibility and that an Executive-wide discussion is required. The Minister’s appearance here today demonstrates that DARD accepts that it has some level of responsibility
Mr Brolly: The Minister clearly outlined DARD’s position and its responsibilities. However, DARD is not responsible for procurement.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr McCallister: I thank those Members who spoke in support of the UUP’s motion. As my colleagues Mr Elliott and Mr Savage said, the UUP is more than happy to support the SDLP’s amendment.
Mr Elliott clearly outlined the main issues when he opened the debate. The agrifood sector is Northern Ireland’s largest employer. I declare an interest as a dairy farmer and shareholder in the processing company United Dairy Farmers.
Mr Elliott entered the food miles debate when he referred to the high quality of local products and the environmental impact of transporting so much food around the world. That impact is being drawn into sharper focus, particularly given rising fuel prices. I am thankful that more questions are now being asked about why so much food is being shipped into Northern Ireland, when excellent food is produced here. As much locally produced food as possible should be consumed here.
The Minister’s opening remarks were about DFP’s central procurement directorate. Why did she come here today? If she does not want to deal with procurement, the Executive could have put forward the Minister of Finance and Personnel, or any other Minister, to speak in the debate.
Mr Elliott and Mr Ford mentioned that procurement is a cross-cutting issue; DFP and DARD have responsibilities.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education are both massive spenders on food, and other areas of Government — for example, the police — were also mentioned.
Given the benefits that sourcing local produce has for our local farmers, there is an impetus on all parts of Government to source food locally.
When moving the Sinn Féin amendment, Mr Doherty said that the Government have a role to play in prioritising the sourcing of local foods. It was unfortunate that Sinn Féin tabled that amendment, given that it added nothing to the debate, and, judging from the other parties’ lack of support for it, that has been noted.
Mr Bradley rejected the Sinn Féin amendment, saying that it added to the bureaucracy that farmers deal with. Indeed, Dr McCrea made a similar point. That amendment puts too much of the burden on to the already overburdened farming industry, which does not need any more bureaucracy. Dr McCrea also mentioned that the Assembly should encourage the labelling of locally produced foods.
Several speakers mentioned the health benefits of locally produced foods. The Minister herself accepted that the best of our produce should be used to feed the sick and weak in hospital. It is nonsensical that we are not guiding hospitals towards using the best-quality food for people whenever they are at their lowest.
Mr Bresland made several interesting points. He suggested that DARD sometimes puts too much emphasis on diversification. Diversification can have a positive role, but not everyone can diversify into the processing and marketing of their produce. Mr Bresland also mentioned the falling number of suckler cows — certainly, DARD could be doing a lot more to encourage the increase of suckler cow numbers. That is the cornerstone of the quality-beef end of the market. If too many of our suckler cows are lost, the industry will struggle to produce the top-quality beef that Mr Shannon mentioned and that we all look forward to when we go for lunch.
Mr Bresland also mentioned the role of the police and other public-sector bodies, and I include local councils in that. Many of my Assembly colleagues are local councillors, and pressure should be put on councils to support the use of local products. Mr Bresland mentioned different products from his own constituency — from Newtownstewart, Castlederg, and the Sperrins — that are good to know about.
Willie Clarke talked about InterTradeIreland, the movement of goods and public-sector buying power. I accept that the public sector has huge buying power. I want to point out that we are in direct competition with the Republic of Ireland; we do not all work together, so we must remember that. I know that the Member might not like that, but it happens to be true. Mr Clarke tried to shift the debate away from its focusing on the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, and he instead talked about the Executive. However, I want to know whether the Minister has introduced firm proposals about procurement to her Executive colleagues. I hope that she has been very active in drafting the policy for the Central Procurement Directorate.
Mr Irwin, who runs a large dairy farm in County Armagh, spoke of the difficulties that EU rules on procurement create. When making an intervention, Trevor Clarke made an interesting point about competing on a level playing field, and my colleague Mr Elliot made a similar point. Many in our farming industry feel that they are always up against it. Mr Ford mentioned gold plating, and it seems that, in Northern Ireland, we are always implementing and gold plating rules and living up to the highest standards, while others are not meeting all their obligations, or even being forced to meet them. That is an unfair advantage.
Mr Ford talked about fair trade. Fair trade should extend to local producers. Last year, the Ulster Unionist Party published a document on fair play for local farmers that highlighted the importance of fair trade across the world as well as locally.
Mr Ford said that DETI has a huge role to play in this matter, and the Minister talked about exports. DETI has a key role in promoting the agrifood sector, which, outside Government, is Northern Ireland’s largest employer. Therefore, it is a hugely important industry to the economy of Northern Ireland.
Mr Savage mentioned the Balmoral Show and the showcasing of food at that show. To add to Mr Savage’s point, the value of the Balmoral Show and local shows across Northern Ireland in educating the public and particularly young people about where our food comes from is important. Such shows make the link between our food products, how they are produced on farms and how they get to people’s tables.
Mr Shannon lost no time in promoting produce from the Strangford constituency. There were four or five references to Portavogie prawns — I hope that he has some with him today to share around. He mentioned Comber potatoes, and Glastry Farm ice cream also got a fair mention. I do not know whether he is a shareholder in Glastry Farm; perhaps he should be their main marketing man. Mr Shannon made important points about diversification into processing, and talked about Tayto crisps as another fine example of local produce.
The Minister reiterated and addressed a lot of the issues that were raised. Some £27 million worth of food is bought annually by the Central Procurement Directorate. However, when the agrifood industry has a turnover of £2·4 billion, that is a little out of kilter. Therefore, the Government could possibly do more.
Northern Ireland, being so successful at producing, cannot consume all that is produced. Therefore, exports are our bread and butter.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr McCallister: I support the motion.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, I will still put the Question on amendment No 2.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to bring forward plans to increase the Northern Ireland public sector’s procurement of locally produced food; and to promote country of origin labeling on menus in hotels and restaurants.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make the winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes. Two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Doherty: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the United Kingdom Government to transfer lands at the vacated military sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia in Omagh to the Executive, to facilitate the development of the education village as proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I accept amendment No 1, which was proposed by the DUP.
As the MP for West Tyrone and an MLA for the constituency, I have great pleasure in tabling this motion, along with my colleagues Barry McElduff and Claire McGill. I welcome the amendment from my fellow West Tyrone MLAs Tom Buchanan and Alan Bresland.
This motion calls on the British Government to transfer lands at the vacated military sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia in Omagh to the Executive, in order to facilitate the development of the education village as proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group and also to facilitate other social developments.
In West Tyrone, the most strategically important sites in regeneration terms are those at Lisanelly and St Lucia. Both cover an expanse of some 200 acres and are located in close proximity to the centre of Omagh town. Key stakeholders including the Omagh Educational Campus Group and the Lisanelly lands working group — which is a cross-party group of Omagh district councillors — have been working collectively with local and regional government to develop a shared vision for the future use of the site.
The process involved extensive consultation with educationalists, the business community and other interested individuals and groups. In the course of those consultations, a wide and varied number of ideas emerged. Central to those is the innovative regeneration project with the concept of a shared educational campus at its heart. That project has been developed and advanced by the Omagh Educational Campus Group, and its members are represented in the Public Gallery here today.
Those unprecedented proposals involve the collocation of schools from all sectors of the community on a shared educational site. By pooling resources and expertise, the broadest-possible curriculum could be made available to our young people in the most modern and up-to-date facilities. In the longer term, the educational campus will create a specialised and skilled knowledge base that will benefit the wider economy of the region. The proposals are not only unprecedented in educational terms; they are also a practical expression of the collective desire for a shared future.
Coupled with the educational campus proposal, Omagh District Council has expressed interest in developing flood-plain land on the St Lucia site for recreation purposes and has been successful in acquiring funding through Sustrans Connect2 to develop a riverside walk through the site. That would enhance the connectivity of communities that have been physically separated by the huge military garrison. In turn, that will aid regeneration and community cohesion.
Other proposals include social and affordable housing; an enterprise centre; a Tyrone County museum; and the use of listed buildings in the site as a civic centre that would be open to the people of the Omagh district, the wider county, the north-west region and further afield. That would provide an opportunity to celebrate our shared heritage and culture.
In their entirety, the proposals enshrine the aspiration of a shared future. That is the guiding principle of our society as we emerge from decades of conflict and division, and look towards a brighter future.
Key stakeholders, including my own office, have been engaged in extensive meetings and the lobbying of Ministers. Correspondence indicates that the Department for Social Development — which has overall responsibility for regeneration — and the Department of Education are supportive of the proposals. Members will be aware that, in April 2003, a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments indicated that vacated military and police sites might be made available to the regional Administration at Stormont. That is contained in paragraph 10 of annex 1 to the declaration.
The rationale behind that was to help underwrite the peace process and generate a public asset base for communities that had been affected adversely by the conflict and have a high multiple deprivation rating.
However, the most recent proposal for vacated military sites is that in which the Executive, if they wish to acquire all or part of them, must do so at full market value. That Ministry of Defence (MOD) position was articulated by British Defence Minister, Des Browne, during a recent exchange with me in London. The Ministry of Defence’s position runs contrary to the spirit of the joint declaration of April 2003, and the British Government’s failure to fulfil their commitments are obstructing progress on that unprecedented proposal.
The failure of the British Government to fulfil their commitments has caused a delay in developing a master plan for the site. That process would enable the planned development of St Lucia and Lisanelly to move forward in a way that supports the economic and social development of the region. If development of the site is not properly managed and planned, it could not only thwart future regeneration but undermine the excellent regeneration work that has already taken place in Omagh town.
Omagh District Council, in partnership with Departments and key stakeholders, has commissioned a team of specialist consultants to develop an Omagh-2025 vision. That work is at an advanced stage and it will provide a strategic framework for the development of Omagh that contributes to the balanced development of the region.
I ask the Assembly to back the motion unanimously. The Assembly’s support will represent a major boost in our collective efforts to get the British Government to transfer the necessary lands at those vacated military sites and will allow this unique proposal to go ahead. A strong message from this Chamber will help refocus attention on the British Government’s lack of political will on the issue. The location of schools from all sectors to that site will represent an inspirational beacon to the world in respect of conflict transformation. The British Government have it within their gift to make that happen, and they must be made to rise above short-term financial considerations and look at the bigger picture to help facilitate our shared future.
Mr Bresland: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Executive,” and insert
“to be used for the development of the Omagh district, in line with the priorities set by the Programme for Government, Budget and Investment Strategy, including the possible development of the education village proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group.”
St Lucia Barracks has been described as the finest example of a Victorian barracks in the British Commonwealth. It is a listed building, and it has been in military use from the early 1880s until its recent closure. Lisanelly military base was established during the Second World War and was retained as a garrison by the Ministry of Defence until its recent closure. St Lucia and Lisanelly barracks have, over the years, brought considerable economic wealth to Omagh, and the long-term development of those two sites must also bring economic opportunities to the people of Omagh and west Tyrone and that opportunity must not be missed.
The St Lucia and Lisanelly sites offer over 47 hectares of development land in the heart of Omagh and offer the potential of being the largest regeneration site outside Belfast. Any development of those sites must also respect the history of the military barracks, especially in relation to the St Lucia site.
I recognise the need that exists in several local schools — especially Omagh High School — for major capital investment. However, I have reservations about the concept of the education village. The development of an education village, which would attract the enrolment of up to 3,000 children on one site, will require significant investment in infrastructure, including a massive investment in the road infrastructure in the town of Omagh. As with many other towns, Omagh has major traffic problems, and to bring more than 3,000 children on to one site would cause major transport problems for Omagh.
The Lisanelly and St Lucia sites offer great economic opportunities for Omagh and its surrounding area. However, little or no thought has been given to alternative options for the development of those sites. Should the education village develop, it will potentially free up an additional 27 hectares of development land in Omagh town centre. In addition, it is important to factor in the possible impact that the review of public administration might have on sites that are currently occupied in Omagh town by Omagh District Council and the Western Education and Library Board.
I fully support the economic regeneration of Omagh, and there is a need to take a strategic approach to its long-term development. That strategic development should include the St Lucia and Lisanelly sites, along with other potential development sites that may become available as a result of the review of public administration, and any sites that may become available should the establishment of the education village proceed. The Programme for Government, which was agreed earlier this year, commits the Executive to economic regeneration and to building a dynamic and innovative economy. That concept is at the heart of the Programme for Government, and must also be at the heart of the development of the military sites.
The Programme for Government highlights the need to create jobs and attract inward investment. If the town of Omagh and the surrounding area are to prosper, creation of jobs must be the most important factor. Development of the military sites must provide the vehicle for job creation. I fully recognise that the proposals of the Omagh Educational Campus Group are innovative. However, those who support establishment of the education village have ignored alternative options for the sites, including any role that they could offer as a result of the proposed changes to local government. They also fail to develop a business case for the project.
I support the request to transfer both sites from the Ministry of Defence to the Northern Ireland Executive. I firmly believe that the St Lucia and Lisanelly sites should be developed to enhance the economic opportunities of the people of Omagh, in keeping with the commitment to regenerate the economy that is contained in the Programme for Government.
Mr Gallagher: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “village” and insert
“, social and affordable housing and civic facilities, as well as investment in an enterprise centre and the development of the necessary partnerships to realise the economic development potential of the site.”
I thank Pat Doherty, and his party colleagues who represent West Tyrone, for proposing the motion. I also commend the education authorities and educationalists in the area for their foresight, initiative and collaboration on the project so far. That is the type of co-operation that sets a good example for education generally in Northern Ireland, and for other aspects of the governance of Northern Ireland that involve several Departments.
The SDLP does not oppose the motion. We heard Pat Doherty’s contribution. However, the amendment in my party’s name adds to the motion, and points to other developments that can utilise the full potential of that extensive site, which amounts to almost 170 acres. I understand that up to six schools may be involved in the project, and it is very welcome that a special school is included in that number.
As in the utilisation of other developments, the support and co-operation of other key Departments is needed. The SDLP amendment mentions social housing, which would involve the Department for Social Development. For those who do not know the site, I should explain that there was housing there while it was a military barracks. Therefore, as part of any initiative, it makes sense to consider using the site for social and affordable housing.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety could also be involved. If there are to be schools on the sites, important support services, such as occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, could be provided. Those services would help children who attend those schools. Indeed, children from other schools throughout West Tyrone could come to the sites for assessments.
The inclusion of an economic development package would tie in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As the business case is developed, some form of visitor attraction — possibly an enterprise centre or a research and development facility — could serve not only West Tyrone but the entire west and, possibly, the border areas.
None of those projects would detract from the educational plans for the sites, the development of which would offer West Tyrone unique social and economic opportunities. Moreover, such a development would present great possibilities to enhance Tyrone’s county town of Omagh.
When advancing any plans, an integrated approach should be adopted. The development should provide not only a base for the excellent schools to which we have referred but, on the remaining lands, lasting social and economic benefits for the entire area. Such an approach would draw support from at least five or six Departments — possibly more. Their working towards the same objective will strengthen the case for securing the land from the MOD.
As Pat Doherty said, it is important that the Assembly’s view be unanimous. Allan Bresland, the proposer of amendment No 1, said that this opportunity must not be missed. If we take those sentiments on board, we can send a clear message to the MOD that the development plans have the support of the Executive, the Assembly, the people of West Tyrone and, indeed, the entire Northern Ireland community.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Omagh sites, and I could not but be impressed by the facilities and the sites’ potential. Rare will be the opportunities for such large tracts of land to become available for redevelopment so close to a town centre and in such a key position.
I would love those and other sites to come into the Northern Ireland Executive’s ownership, and we have all been attempting to encourage Her Majesty’s Government to do with those sites that which they did with the tranche of military sites that became available on the previous occasion on which the Executive were operating. The potential that such development would afford, not only to West Tyrone but to other places in Northern Ireland where military sites are located, is obvious. Mr Speaker, you will be aware that your home city seeks to develop the potential of such a site. Therefore, the development of former military sites would give Northern Ireland a huge economic boost.
Several Members suggested that the sites in Omagh should be used to build an education village, and further-education provision was highlighted. As Members who represent that area know, we have recently completed a new college, and, consequently, the opportunity to build a college on that site no longer exists. Having said that, the new college is not far away.
The concept of an education wedge in Londonderry that would, Mr Speaker, stretch into parts of your city is being considered, and I am sure that the Members for West Tyrone could be equally creative.
The college was built recently at its current location, and it is a successful and popular institution. Therefore, the question of reinvestment from the further education sector into either of the sites is not a viable option. Had we been starting again, however, I would have been keen to see that happen.
I have visited the two sites and, having seen their potential and discussed it with the local district council, I have no doubt that they offer a magnificent opportunity. I am sure that the use of the sites will not be confined to education, because they comprise large swathes of housing and open land — which, because of the flood plain, is not available for development — that is suitable for recreation and sport. I can think of no other boost that would be as great to the area as the transfer of those sites to the Executive.
The portents have not been good. Government spokespersons have set it aside, and the Conservative Party spokesperson for Northern Ireland said that the sites should be sold and not transferred to the Northern Ireland Executive. All Members must work hard to try to persuade the Prime Minister — who will attend our major economic conference next month — to transfer the sites to the Executive. Some positive announcements have been made in the past couple of days, and it would be fantastic to hear that the sites were to become available to the Northern Ireland Executive.
I would even be content if the sites were transferred through a rolling programme. The sites in west Tyrone are unoccupied, so there is a security cost. They have been offered to various parts of the public sector, and, in no time, they could be sold to developers. Alongside the impending conference, it is hoped that Members will prevail on the Prime Minister to give those sites to the Executive so that they can be developed and the people in west Tyrone will be able to take advantage of them in the most unique opportunity that will come about for many years.
Dr Deeny: I am delighted to speak to the motion, which deals with an issue in my constituency of West Tyrone. I support the motion and the amendments; I do not want to rock the boat, because it is important that the motion goes through in some form. I am worried about the inclusion of the word “possible” in amendment No 1, but I will support it. Amendment No 2 deals with other services, which Tommy Gallagher mentioned, but they may be included in the Programme for Government.
As Sir Reg Empey said, the sites have enormous potential, and they offer an opportunity that must not be missed — not only for west Tyrone but for the whole of Northern Ireland. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it embraces the future and the shared future.
The idea of the campus is inspirational. It is the way forward for the education of children in Northern Ireland. Members should note that the integrated college is not part of the project, because it applied for a site some time ago, and building on that site is well under way. The proposed campus is the future.
The project is supported by everyone across the political divide, Churches, school principals, governors, trustees, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Western Education and Library Board and all the business leaders in the area. It is a collective vision of collaboration and co-operation being enhanced among schools, and it must be commended highly.
Special schools, primary schools, high schools and grammar schools will be located at the site, and the facility provided will be a full service, incorporating health services, social services, adult education, youth provision, sports, arts, recreation, and community regeneration and development. It is unique to have those services on one site.
The matter should be resolved urgently. This is the second time that it has been debated in the House; it was the subject of an Adjournment debate. The people of Omagh are excited about the proposal, which sets a precedent and an example for a shared future.
If the British Government are serious about maintaining peace and prosperity and about promoting a shared future, I agree that they should gift the site to the people of west Tyrone and Northern Ireland. That would be a wonderful gesture from the Northern Ireland Office and the British Government, and it would be a way of stating that they are determined that the peaceful society that we have now will be permanent. That would be a way of putting down a marker that states that they are serious about the future.
I went to the De La Salle school in Downpatrick, which was known as the “red high”. We were on one hill; the Protestant school was located on the other hill and was, ironically, known as the “green high”. We were always jealous of the guys who attended the “green high” because there were girls at their school and not at ours — we did not see girls from one end of the week to the next. I thank God that I was lucky enough to have attended third-level education and to have been involved in sport, because it was through those mediums that I met people from different religions and cultures. If I had stayed at home after leaving school at 18, I would have met few people from different religious backgrounds and cultures.
The proposal for an educational campus at the Lisanelly site is the way forward, and I am excited about it. The campus would be a wonderful flagship project for the Department of Education. I note that the Minister of Education is in the Chamber. The proposal would allow her Department to show the way forward. It is well known that some schools already need newbuilds, and the project would allow that to take place.
The plan is also exciting from a commercial point of view, as it would open up a huge area in central Omagh. The military site can be used for the rebuilding of schools, which is needed anyway. Not only would the future of education be settled, but land would become available in the centre of Omagh. It should be remembered that Omagh is the second-largest centre of population west of the Bann. The development of the site would send a message not only to the people of Northern Ireland, but people further afield, that we are serious about a shared future.
Mr G Robinson: I support the DUP amendment. The two locations that are mentioned in the motion, Lisanelly and St Lucia, are valuable historical and architectural sites for Omagh and its hinterland. The sites are noted as being among the finest architectural examples of Victorian barracks in the world. Due to the importance of the barracks, we all want to know what their long-term future will be. Whether we like it or not, the barracks have played an important role in the history of Omagh. It is of great importance that the history of towns is not rewritten on a political basis and that a true, accurate record is kept. Omagh should be proud of its military history and should remember all those who travelled to fight for their country — regardless of class or creed — from the barracks.
More importantly, I understand that the educational village, which is a worthy proposal, is the only project to have been given serious consideration at the site. Where is the justification for that approach? A strategic view must be taken that considers all possible ramifications when approaching the development of the site. My colleagues Mr Bresland and Mr Buchanan outlined their concerns, and I readily agree with their outlook. Business cases must be presented to ensure that the most viable options, in line with the Programme for Government, the Budget and the local population, can best be met.
Scrutiny of the plans must consider the need to sensibly use the six sites that would become available if the plan were to go ahead. Consideration of how those six vacated sites would be used must form an integral part of the entire proposal.
An ill-thought out application for any one of those six sites has the potential to damage rather than enhance Omagh’s prospects. On scratching the surface of the motion, I am afraid that a few serious concerns emerge that must be addressed before any definite proposal can be approved. If the proposal were to be approved, that would also set a serious precedent for those of us with military sites in our constituencies, whether vacated or soon to be vacated. That is a major concern.
Such vacated sites must be put to best use. That involves the examination of options and a rigorous strategic economic appraisal. That is why I support the DUP amendment and not the motion. Much more must be done before any proposal can be accepted.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I declare an interest as a member of the Western Education and Library Board and as a former teacher. I will speak to the motion, but first, I wish to comment on the DUP amendment. I read the Official Report of 4 March 2008 to determine whether specific mention was made in that day’s Adjournment debate solely on the benefits that might accrue to the Omagh District Council area. However, I was content that Mr Buchanan had included the wider western area in his comments. I welcome the involvement of the DUP in this debate.
In co-sponsoring the motion with my party colleagues, and in calling for cross-party support, which I believe exists in many ways, it is important to highlight the reasons why the education village project proposed by the Omagh educational campus group, is an opportunity that is too good to be lost.
As other Members have said, this pioneering project would see six secondary-level schools from different sectors in Omagh coming together in an education village campus. Each school would have its own independent environment on the campus and retain its own unique ethos. That is important from everyone’s perspective; we want to live together, but we do not want to impose our position on others. However, each school would share state-of-the-art facilities, and excellent potential exists for collaborative working arrangements. That is vitally important in view of the challenges that we face from the entitlement framework and what schools will have to provide on the basis of that framework.
All of this would serve to benefit the quality of education for each and every child on the campus in an environment in which diversity is not only respected, but celebrated. If the education village becomes a reality, it will provide first-class education facilities for more than 3,000 pupils in a way that could not be provided in any stand-alone education unit.
On 4 March 2008, during the Adjournment debate secured by my colleague Barry McElduff, the Minister of Education, who is here today, said that the educational village must be established. As schools face up to the entitlement framework, as I have already said, this visionary project can create a template of best practice for providing state-of-the-art education facilities for our children in the years ahead while ensuring that we can foster genuine reconciliation in a practical and fundamental way.
We talk a great deal about how young people are the future. There is symbolism in that what was once a military site, will, through this visionary proposal, enable young people to share facilities in one place and work out their futures together. That symbolism is important.
This is a visionary project in a space that was used for military purposes, and can now be used in a positive manner. That will provide inspiration to transform other areas where there has been conflict. Opportunities such as this are rare, and the Assembly must join me in calling on the British Government to not only pay lip service to their avowed support for measures that foster true reconciliation, but — using the vernacular — to put their money where their mouths are and transfer the necessary land to make this new beginning happen. Go raibh miath agat.
Mr Elliott: I apologise that I have only just arrived. This is an important issue. No Member will disagree with the sentiments of the motion — that the land should be transferred. The MOD would gladly transfer the land. However, at what cost? I support the transfer of the land for free, which is what the motion calls for. However, I have doubts that that will happen. From discussions that I have had with the MOD, I believe that it will want as much money as it can get for the land, which it is entitled to do.
It is interesting that, last week, Members debated a motion about the military site at Forkhill, which one Department was happy to purchase. However, in this case, the Department concerned is seeking the transfer of the land without charge.
It is great that Mr McElduff is taking an interest in military bases. From his background, I assume that he always took an interest in military bases, but from a different perspective.
Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with the manager of Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He highlighted the significance of the site to the entire Omagh district, and the opportunities that it will bring, such as the education campus. That should be developed. It has been mentioned that, when the headquarters of the new combined council is moved to Fermanagh, a council sub-office could be opened on the site. I support such a move.
There are concerns in the community about how the project will be developed, funded and what will happen to the redundant sites of the schools that move to the proposed education village. Will the six schools that have shown an interest in moving put their existing sites up for sale? The money that is made from such sales would help to progress the project. The schools that have expressed an interest in moving are from the controlled sector and the Catholic-maintained sector. Has there been any exploration with the Western Education and Library Board and the Catholic-maintained sector of whether money from the sale of the schools’ existing sites could be used to develop the project? My and my party’s support for the project is clear.
There is concern about potential traffic problems and the transport arrangements to get to the site. If a large volume of children attend school at the site, Roads Service — in conjunction with the education authorities — will have to provide a collective transport system and structure in the area.
It is interesting that housing has been one of the projects that have been mentioned for the military site. There are quite a few houses already on the site. I do not know whether those houses can be developed in conjunction with the development of an education village. Members may be able to tell me the number of new builds that are on schedule in the Omagh area. There is a proposal for a newbuild school at Carrickmore and a newbuild for a new integrated school at Omagh.
It may be premature to progress with those newbuilds while the project is under way. Indeed, a bigger project should perhaps be considered.
All those questions must be answered. Another important question relates to whether one section of the community would dominate on the campus. I would not like to think that the Catholic maintained sector would dominate simply because there is a smaller unionist population in the Omagh area.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Lisanelly site offers a unique opportunity to the educational community in Omagh to move in a new direction and to embrace the concept of sharing, which is becoming a central theme in the developing educational process. The challenges facing schools require sharing and co-operation to meet the entitlement framework. Sharing of buildings, facilities and staff can help to ensure that a first-class educational estate is available to the young people of the Omagh district, without the unnecessary waste of duplication.
An education village at Lisanelly would make a major contribution to a shared future, by integrating educational provision in the area, with the controlled, maintained and voluntary sectors working in co-operation, collaboration and interdependency.
I welcome the strong buy-in to the proposals from local interests. The scheme has the potential to lead the way and be an example to other areas. Furthermore, the Lisanelly campus fits very well with the policy of area planning, and it will facilitate that process in the Omagh area.
We have heard much about the peace dividend, but, sadly, many of our communities have seen little evidence of it. Once again, we have an opportunity to allow the people of west Tyrone to share in that dividend. We all hope that the suffering that the people of Omagh have had to endure — and still endure — will, in some way, be ameliorated by the development of the scheme.
The joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments of April 2003 promised vacated military sites to local people who have endured decades dominated by the Troubles. The declaration states:
“Many of the vacated military and police sites … might be made available … to ensure that the process of normalisation generates a new public asset base for those communities most directly affected by the security arrangements to date.”
There is no doubt that Omagh is one such place.
During Question Time on 3 March 2008, in response to a question about the Lisanelly site, the First Minister said:
“We will press the issue again shortly — directly with the Prime Minister if need be.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p137, col 1].
During the same Question Time, I put a question to the First Minister — and I am glad to see him in the Chamber — about the Forkhill military site. His response was:
“The principle must first be established that we will benefit, and we must put our hearts and minds to that. The promise that was made by the British Government must be fulfilled, and the people of Northern Ireland must benefit from what happens to those sites.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p137, col 2].
I welcome the commitment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the acquisition of those sites, and I urge them to redouble their efforts to ensure that the sites are available to our people without further delay. I also urge them to meet the Prime Minister as soon as possible to press the case. I commend the Omagh community for its work in developing the proposal.
As public representatives, the least we can do is to provide the resources needed for the community’s vision to become a reality. As I said on a previous occasion, if devolution is to be meaningful to our citizens, we must be seen to deliver on projects such as the one we now discuss.
We have heard much talk about a peace dividend; we must see the evidence of that. Communities that have suffered through decades of conflict deserve recognition, and the project proposed for Omagh fits the bill perfectly in that respect. I call on all the Departments —
Mr Speaker: Time is almost up.
Mr D Bradley: I call on all the Departments concerned — Social Development, Education and Health — to work in co-operation to ensure that all the people of Omagh benefit from the project. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Speaker: Members will be aware that Question Time is due to start at 2.30pm. I propose that the House takes its ease until then. When we resume the debate, the next speaker will be Mr Trevor Lunn
The debate stood suspended.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —
Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Minority Ethnic People in Northern Ireland: Intercultural Education
1. Mr Elliott asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the steps it is taking to promote education in ethnic minority cultures and additionally to promote the education of Northern Irish culture to resident ethnic minorities. (AQO 2884/08)
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): The deputy First Minister and I are committed to promoting social inclusion for new and established minority ethnic communities. In fact, that is one of the targets in our Programme for Government. A key step in promoting social inclusion and integration must be mutual understanding and relationship-building between people of different cultural backgrounds — whether longstanding in Northern Ireland or recently arrived on these shores.
We have just completed the awards process for a new one-year funding scheme for minority ethnic communities. We have substantially increased the amount of money available for that scheme — by 33% — which will mean that more organisations across society will now be funded to promote mutual understanding and good relations between people of different ethnic backgrounds, thereby improving community relations and facilitating integration. However, that must be a two-way process that requires efforts from all involved — host communities and new arrivals.
We are keen to ensure that all people have an awareness of their responsibilities as well as their rights. In partnership with other organisations, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has funded a series of guides to migrant workers’ rights to help new arrivals to integrate into our society. Those guides provide comprehensive information on social security, housing, employment, health and immigration.
Other Departments have a significant role to play; in particular, the Department of Education. Citizenship is a new part of the revised curriculum, being phased in between September 2007 and June 2010. It will be compulsory for all pupils, from year one onwards. Under that part of the curriculum, young people will explore issues such as cultural identity and heritage, diversity, inclusion and promoting respect for others. In doing that, they will look at our indigenous cultures and other cultures, including those of minority ethnic people who live here.
Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister for that comprehensive answer. Thus far, has any work been undertaken with specific employers, in particular those based in the Dungannon and south Tyrone area, where there are a large number of migrant workers? Has any work been carried out with large employers such as Moy Park, Dumbia foods, Linden Foods and Fintec Crushing and Screening Ltd?
The First Minister: The employers are working on the programme of integration. I have no up-to-date information on the specific area that the Member mentioned, but I will write to him about it.
Mr Ford: The First Minister has responded to a question on “Northern Irish culture”. Can he inform us what he considers to be Northern Irish culture?
Given the huge differences in the cultural backgrounds of the people in this region — be they indigenous or more recently arrived — does he agree that the most important part of building a shared future is to recognise that diversity?
The First Minister: In recognising the cultural aspects of that issue, one key objective of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is to protect, nurture and grow cultural capital. In developing cultural capital, the Department promotes social inclusion and the positive economic development of Northern Ireland. Cultural capital manifests itself in four significant ways: in our people; in our products; in our services; and in our infrastructure. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will be able to provide the Member with more detailed information on that matter.
Mr O’Dowd: A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the 33% increase in funding for ethnic minorities. How does the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister propose to promote tolerance and understanding of the traditions of the Travelling community and, indeed, understanding between the Travelling community and the settled community, and vice versa?
The First Minister: Will the Member help me by repeating the first question?
Mr O’Dowd: I apologise, First Minister. I was congratulating the Department on the 33% increase in funding for ethnic minority groups. Will OFMDFM outline how it is promoting better understanding between the Travelling community and the settled community, and vice versa?
The First Minister: Members of the Travelling community have submitted several applications for funding. Those applications will be attended to, and we must wait and see how that will happen.
US Investment Conference
2. Mr Moutray asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the actions it is taking to encourage attendance at the US investment conference. (AQO 2871/08)
The First Minister: The deputy First Minister and I, along with our colleague Nigel Dodds, are heavily involved in efforts to attract senior business executives of US companies and other influential figures from that country to the conference.
We have made four trips to the United States in the past three months — I am just getting back to normal after one such trip. We met chief executive officers to encourage them to attend the conference. We also took our message to President Bush when we met him on 7 December, and the deputy First Minister reiterated that message when he met the President on St Patrick’s Day. I have just returned from a week-long visit to New York and Washington DC, where I presented the Northern Ireland business opportunity to senior executives in the financial services and the investment-funds sectors, as well as to members of the Bush Administration.
I am pleased to report that I had the opportunity to conduct several one-to-one meetings with chief executives, and, as a direct result of those meetings, several such people have finalised their plans to attend the conference. I also used my meeting in Washington DC with the Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs to encourage him to come and see for himself what Northern Ireland business can offer.
Minister Dodds and other Executive colleagues have also recently contacted many businesses and Government organisations in the United States to seek their advice on how best to position Northern Ireland’s economic message and identify potential conference participants. In addition to our meetings with President Bush, we had extensive discussions with the President’s Special Envoy on Northern Ireland; the Secretary of State for Commerce; Michael Bloomberg, who is the Mayor of New York; and Senators Clinton and Kennedy.
Minister Dodds and Invest NI have been liaising closely with the Northern Ireland Bureau business advisory group, which comprises contacts in the US who are working on our behalf to promote the conference and target potential participants.
I am delighted to say that, as a result of those efforts, on my return from the US last week, corporate America’s interest in the conference was at a particularly high level. More than 80 delegates, who represent more than 50 high-profile corporations, have indicated that they plan to attend, and that significantly passes the target of 30 to 40 chief executive officers and senior executives that Minister Dodds announced earlier in 2008. In fact, the number of invitees who have confirmed that they will attend has resulted in the need to readjust planned accommodation arrangements for the duration of the conference.
Finally, I was delighted to attend last week’s unprecedented announcement by New York City Comptroller, William C Thompson Jnr, at which he committed $150 million to a fund that will be used to invest in various projects in Northern Ireland. The New York city pension funds’ investment is a massive vote of confidence in Northern Ireland. It is a substantial endorsement of our key priority of driving economic development and demonstrates that the conference has already produced significant dividends.
Mr Moutray: I want to congratulate the First Minister on the role that he has played during recent visits to America and the job that he has done to attract US investment to Northern Ireland. Can he give details of the role that the US Administration will play in May’s investment conference?
The First Minister: My job was done with the help of many others. Everyone who was involved made strong pleas in the United States of America. As well as politicians’ visits, visits to America from businessmen and others have been helpful. We are moving in the right direction.
I was absolutely flabbergasted by the announcement that was made during our meeting with members of New York’s trade unions. If Members study their history, they will find that although many controversies arose in the past, those have now been overcome. All the people of Northern Ireland will benefit from the freedom of New York’s trade unions to help us in our time of need.
Shortly after that meeting, the deputy First Minister and I also met the New York State Comptroller, who is to attend the conference. I understand that another fund that contains a large sum of money may also come Northern Ireland’s way. We look forward to having a good and successful time and to taking a step towards making Northern Ireland what it should be.
Mr B McCrea: Does the First Minister agree that the Executive’s ability to make quick, decisive and informed decisions will greatly influence the decisions of potential investors in Northern Ireland? Can he assure the House that he has made that point known to potential investors? Does he believe that the delay in making a decision on the Maze project is undermining the process?
Furthermore, does the recent resignation of Tony Whitehead signal a further delay? What steps does the First Minister intend to take in order to deal with that delay?
The First Minister: The first part of the Member’s question is flawed; it is wrong for him to think that the Executive have not made rapid progress in the United States of America.
I have been to the United States many times but I have never witnessed such enthusiasm as I did on my most recent visit. Ten of the principal banks in the United States were represented at one breakfast meeting that I addressed. Those banks will also be represented at the investment conference in Belfast.
We will be inviting — and indeed will have the joy of receiving — to Northern Ireland, people who can help us in this time of need. We should be careful not to criticise them, rather, we should thank them for what they are doing and encourage them to do even more. When those businesspeople come to Northern Ireland, I hope that there will be no controversy among us. We should welcome them as friends and hope that we will receive more help from them.
I did not go to the United States as a beggar, rattling a can and saying that I wanted paper money only. [Laughter.]
I am glad that I have made those men laugh because they had looked very sorrowful — I thought that they were attending a wake when I came into this meeting.
We should be grateful to those businesspeople for what they have done — but they, too, will benefit. My message in the United States was that if businesspeople come with us, we will do them good. We can do them good as they do us good.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Gallagher: I note the demanding schedule of the First Minister’s visit to the United States. We are happy to send him off again right away if he is going to return with another emerald fund. That, of course, goes for the deputy First Minister, too.
Does the First Minister agree that the emerald fund parcel should be examined in advance of the investment conference? Will the $150 million on offer be invested entirely in Northern Ireland, or will half of the fund be invested in New York? Whatever we are getting, what will that amount be in sterling?
The First Minister: How the fund will be used is a matter for the organisation that will be set up; indeed, an organisation has already been set up to handle that money for the unions. It would not do for me to tell that organisation what it must do with the money. However, we can make suggestions about how the money should be spent. Indeed, I hope that everyone will make strong representations to the organisation. The better the case that we make, the more that they will be impressed, and we will win the money.
Disability Discrimination (Transport Vehicles) Regulations 2005
3. Mr Shannon asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the steps being taken to introduce legislation in Northern Ireland similar to the Great Britain Disability Discrimination (Transport Vehicles) Regulations 2005 and if the Minister will confirm that this should be undertaken as soon as possible. (AQO 2855/08)
The First Minister: We can confirm that we intend to bring forward similar regulations for Northern Ireland. That matter also deals with policy issues that fall under the responsibility of the Minister of the Environment and the Minister for Regional Development. Therefore, the deputy First Minister and I have written to those Ministers seeking their support.
Our officials are developing the regulations and are consulting with officials in the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development who have the policy lead.
Although it is not possible to confirm the exact timing for making the regulations, the deputy First Minister and I can confirm that we will ensure that the legislation is introduced as soon as possible, taking into account the processes that we are required to undertake.
I understand that officials will brief the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the regulations at its meeting this week, and we will consult the Committee during the development process.
Mr Shannon: The reason for that question and for my concern is that the OFMDFM Committee, of which I am a member, has been informed that the subcommittee, which consists of officials from DOE, DRD and OFMDFM, has not even met. That subcommittee is the first stage of the process, and, if it has not met, the regulations cannot be developed. Will the First Minister tell the House why that subcommittee has not met and when it intends to do so?
The First Minister: Although there has been some delay on the transport regulations, officials have been working on other disability issues, including the Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 and the publication of guidance on matters to be taken into account in determining questions relating to the definition of disability. In order to bring the guidance into operation, two pieces of legislation were made: the Disability Discrimination (Guidance on the Definition of Disability) (Revocation) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008; and the Disability Discrimination (Guidance on the Definition of Disability) (Appointed Day) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008.
As the transport regulations involve three Departments, an initial meeting of senior officials took place on 19 March 2008. The establishment of an interdepartmental working group was discussed at that meeting, and ministerial approval is being sought from all three Departments to move that work forward.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam don Aire.
Like Mr Shannon, I listened recently to a powerful presentation in the OFMDFM Committee from the Omnibus Partnership, which is based in north Down. That group gave powerful testimonies about the obstacles to accessing public transport that its members face day in, day out. Will the First Minister reassure the Assembly that all possible measures are being taken to provide suitable modification to existing and future public-transport vehicles?
The First Minister: As DOE and DRD have policy responsibility for those matters, it was unclear initially which Department had the powers to make the transport regulations under article 7 of the Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. As the primary legislation team that works on the Order had already progressed considerable work on the public authorities, premises, private clubs and questions regulations, and to avoid any delay in making those regulations, consultation on them was launched in July 2006. In November 2006, OFMDFM received legal advice that it, rather than DOE or DRD, was responsible for making the transport regulations under the Departments (Transfer and Assignment of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 1999.
The required commencement Order was made on 7 November 2007 for article 7 of the Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, entitled the Disability Discrimination (2006 Order) (Commencement No. 4) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. That provided OFMDFM with the power to remove the exemption for the operation of transport services from Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 on 31 December 2007.
Now that the passage is clear, we can go forward. The honourable Member asked me to give him an assurance. To the best of my ability, I assure him that we want to do everything that is necessary to solve that dreadful problem.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given the acknowledged therapeutic value of free public transport for disabled people, what measures will the First Minister take to encourage his Executive colleagues to introduce it? What is he doing to reduce travel costs for people — especially those on low incomes — who use public transport to attend medical appointments?
The First Minister: There is a proposal to introduce free travel for people aged 60 years and over. I cannot say anything further on that matter.
US Investment Conference
4. Mr Hamilton asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in the light of the recent downturn in the economy of the United States of America, if it has received any assurance from the United States Administration that this is an appropriate time for the investment conference. (AQO 2894/08)
The First Minister: The US/Northern Ireland investment conference has been planned for some time. Its purpose is to market the long-term economic product that Northern Ireland has to offer; that is an important message to convey during the early years of the Executive.
We are encouraged by the direct support of the President, the US Secretary of Commerce, the US Secretary of the Treasury and many other influential business figures from that country. Over several months, Ministers have been involved in extensive consultation with representatives of the United States Administration and the business community to develop the event.
The international business community must recognise that the Executive are focused on economic matters and that they are developing a product that will assist our key priority — to build economic prosperity. We have taken extensive advice on the date of the conference. As I outlined in an earlier answer, during my visit to the United States last week, I met senior members of the Bush Administration and discussed the recent performance of the US economy and its potential impact on the conference. A number of points were made in response, including the fact that 50% of corporate American profits derive from overseas operations.
Moreover, US-based companies continually seek to explore new markets. That is an important point, given that 95% of the world’s commerce takes place outside the United States. Against that background, Northern Ireland represents an excellent investment opportunity for US companies because, during periods of economic volatility, such companies will seek new markets in which to invest.
There is a high level of interest in the conference, and attendance levels will be significantly higher than expected. That fact, coupled with the announcement made on Friday 11 April in New York and today’s announcement by the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister for Finance in the Irish Republic on the establishment of an international financial services centre, bears out the position that I have outlined. I welcome the statement made by the Taoiseach-elect of the Irish Republic.
For those reasons, I am convinced that this is the best time to hold the event. It will be a success and will significantly help us to achieve our number one priority, as set out in the Programme for Government: the development of a dynamic and prosperous economy.
Mr Hamilton: I congratulate the First Minister, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and Invest NI officials for their efforts in arranging the event; the number of acceptances is testimony to that. Will the First Minister outline which sectors in the US have been targeted to attend the conference?
The First Minister: We targeted the sectors that were suggested by President Bush’s ambassador. She provided us with the names of the people whom she considered it would be best for us to contact and invite to the conference. It would be foolish for us, sitting in Northern Ireland, to think that we know who should be invited.
The most influential members of the business community in the United States of America have been contacted and invited to meetings at which the programme was put before them. The deputy First Minister and I received a wonderful response. They did not promise to think about it; they are coming to the conference. As has been said, finding sufficient accommodation is difficult. Therefore, if my friend wants to open his home, we may be able to supply some millionaires to occupy it.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.
Rural Development Programme 2007-2013
1. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to confirm that Strathfoyle, Newbuildings and Culmore will be included within the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. (AQO 2928/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Some time ago, I asked my officials to review the status of those three areas in the Derry urban area, as well as some areas in the Belfast metropolitan area. Concerns had been raised by various politicians, groups and individuals in the north-west that the three areas, which are locally preserved as rural, had been excluded from the ‘Rural Development Programme 2007-2013’. My officials worked with NISRA and have completed the review. I am pleased to announce that Strathfoyle, Newbuildings and Culmore are now included in areas that are eligible for rural-development programmes. Also included are four areas in the Belfast metropolitan area: Milltown, Helen’s Bay, Crawfordsburn and Groomsport. I hope that their inclusion will mean that rural dwellers will make good use of the opportunities that the programme provides.
Ms Anderson: I welcome the Minister’s confirmation of the inclusion of those areas, and I thank her for her efforts. Will she outline the potential benefits to the community their inclusion in the ‘Rural Development Programme 2007-2013’?
Ms Gildernew: Now that those areas are eligible for the programme, rural dwellers, farmers, businesses, and community groups will be able to apply through open calls for the measures that come under axis 3: farm diversification; micro-business creation; tourism; village renewal; and conservation of rural heritage. That will create opportunities to build communities and the economy in those areas.
Mr Bresland: Will the Minister outline what progress her Department has made on the implementation of axis 1 of the programme, particularly measure 1.3, which concerns the modernisation of agricultural holdings?
Ms Gildernew: I am not sure what the Member’s question is: I could not quite pick up what he said. I will happily reply to his question in writing.
Mr P Ramsey: I join Martina Anderson in welcoming the Minister’s response to the question on Strathfoyle, Culmore and Newbuildings. Will the Minister tell Members which benchmark was used to assess whether such areas should be included in the ‘Rural Development Programme 2007-2013’? What, if any, consideration was given to the area-based concerns — for example, the traffic problems and resulting high level of fatalities in Culmore — that have been put to other Ministers? Concerns have also been raised about contentious planning applications in the area.
Ms Gildernew: My Department is not responsible for those two issues. We included those communities in the ‘Rural Development Programme 2017-2013’ to promote the opportunities that it offers to those deemed to be outside the urban area in Derry. As a result, an additional 11,500 rural dwellers will be included in the programme. The effect on the overall distribution of funds will be negligible, but more people in rural areas will have an opportunity to benefit from the programme. However, the inclusion of those areas will have little effect on other Departments.
Northern Ireland Agriculture in Europe
2. Mr Doherty asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the issues discussed at her recent meeting with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development and to outline her vision for Northern Ireland having a more influential role in Europe. (AQO 2926/08)
Ms Gildernew: I highlighted the importance of the EU task force in maximising the North’s economic potential at a meeting with Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel on 14 March 2008.
The Member will be aware that that report was published today. I took the opportunity to share our initial thoughts on the CAP health check with the commissioner. In particular, I raised issues of importance to us, such as modulation, simplification of the single farm payment scheme, preparing the dairy sector for a soft landing when quotas are removed in 2015, and the abolition of set-aside.
Furthermore, I raised the issue of the WTO talks, and I stressed to the commissioner the concerns of the local agrifood sector and the need to achieve a balanced outcome to the negotiations, so that they do not have a disproportionate and detrimental impact on agriculture. I also discussed progress with the farm nutrient management scheme, and how the Department and farmers are striving to complete work by the end of December 2008.
Regarding the single farm payment, I relayed to the commissioner the continuing concern here about the penalties that arose in 2005 as a result of duplicate fields. Although the commissioner recognised the difficulty, she was very clear that there was no scope to deviate from the provisions of the legislation that DARD has followed to date.
I shall announce the opening of the countryside management scheme at an event in late spring or early summer.
Finally, I want to build on the work of the EU task force and the positive relationships that already exist with the EU Commission to ensure that our voice is heard, that we make the most of the opportunities available to us, and that we play a full and constructive role in EU affairs.
Mr Doherty: Does the fact that this is still only a regional Assembly present the Minister with any particular difficulties in being taken seriously in Europe by the European commissioners?
Ms Gildernew: I do not think so; the fact that Commission President Barroso saw fit to establish a special EU task force, aimed specifically at strengthening our relationship with Brussels, is clear evidence that we punch well above our weight. On various important issues — for example, rural development or animal health — we have demonstrated that engaging directly with the EU Commission can pay handsome dividends, and I fully intend to continue with such engagement.
Dr W McCrea: The Minister raised important issues with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, one of which was the issue of duplicate fields. Certainly, the resolution of that issue will be of great benefit to many of Northern Ireland’s farmers; however, perhaps the Minister could also resolve the issue within the Department. Many farmers believe that the Department’s resolution of the issue could ultimately become the way in which the EU legislation, which is currently rather strict, is interpreted.
Ms Gildernew: As the Member pointed out, I did raise the issue of duplicate fields with the commissioner, who was concerned that the regulations must be applied in such cases. Obviously, I have discussed that issue with Department officials since taking office. I am keen to emphasise that there is no gold-plating of the regulations — we intend to make the application of the single farm payment process as helpful to the farmers as possible.
I accept that the public perception of the issue may not necessarily fit with that description of it; however, I assure the Member that I have taken every available opportunity to ensure that the issue is resolved to the benefit of the farmer in as many cases as possible. I am obviously not content with the EU situation and will continue to work to resolve it; however, at the moment, I do not receive much succour from the Commission on it.
Mr Elliott: Has the Minister made a submission to the European Union regarding the EU health check? If so, what proposals and suggestions have been included in it?
Ms Gildernew: We are at an early stage of the health check, so our communication involved making the Commission aware of our initial thoughts on it, and the issues affecting Northern Ireland in particular. Therefore, the Commission has an opportunity to take that into account before it publishes its legislative proposals in May. Following that, my Department will conduct a consultation to inform my position for the upcoming negotiations, later this year.
Farmers: Increased Vehicle Excise Duty
3. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what is her assessment of the impact of increased vehicle excise duty on farmers who currently own and use 4x4 vehicles to carry out their daily agricultural business. (AQO 2933/08)
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. DARD has insufficient information about the duty at farm level to make a reliable assessment of the impact that the change will have.
Duties vary according to the level of vehicles’ CO2 emissions. Furthermore, any assessments are further complicated by the fact that farmers often use 4x4 vehicles for business purposes and for personal use. In absolute terms, vehicle excise duty represents a small part of the overall costs of running a farm business. However, I accept that any increase in costs will be unwelcome for farmers.
Mr Gardiner: Does the Minister accept that a more lenient excise duty should apply when the use of 4x4 vehicles is essential?
Ms Gildernew: Taxation and excise duties are excepted matters. Although it would be desirable for the Executive to have more autonomy on fiscal matters, it is not currently in the gift of my Department to make changes in that area. I appreciate that increasing costs are unwelcome for any business, but my hands are tied as far as excise duty is concerned.
Mr Irwin: Given that farmers are required by law to use 4x4 vehicles to tow trailers, does the Minister agree that the increased vehicle excise duty is unfair to them? The legislation was designed to encourage people to downgrade their vehicles. Therefore, why should farmers be forced to pay higher excise duties when they do not have the option of downgrading?
Ms Gildernew: I agree that that is unfair. However, as I said, we did not make the rules. I accept that one of the difficulties in working with a body across the water is that we cannot reach that level of understanding. I recognise that the impetus for the legislation was to try to get people to use vehicles that are more fuel efficient, and I recognise that there is a need for that. However, it is an unfortunate and difficult situation for farmers that is not in our gift to resolve.
Mr O’Loan: My question also concerns fuel. Has the Minister made any arrangements to help the fishing industry to deal with the high prices of diesel? Furthermore, what assessment has she made of the consequences to the industry if those high prices continue?
Ms Gildernew: Most of our fishing fleet trawls for prawns, which requires the consumption of a considerable quantity of fuel. Fishermen, however, benefit from a tax rebate on their fuel, which means that it is about 10p per litre cheaper than the red diesel that is used by farmers.
Farmers: Financial Loss: Alpha-nortestosterone
4. Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her reasons for not accepting the recommendations of both the Assembly and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to compensate farmers who suffered financial loss as a result of scientific advice concerning the presence of alpha-nortestosterone in farm animals. (AQO 2837/08)
Ms Gildernew: When this issue was debated in the Assembly, I outlined the actions that I had taken and why my Department would not pay compensation to the farmers affected. Although many of the events occurred well before I became Minister, I made it a priority to deal with the issue quickly and proactively. I met the farmers involved and apologised for the distress and trauma that was caused by the on-farm searches. I also went beyond my Department’s statutory obligation and authorised a goodwill payment to farmers to cover the cost of condemned animals, which resulted in the payout of over £87,000 to 139 farmers.
Furthermore, I initiated a review of DARD’s handling of the matter to ascertain what lessons could be learned. I accepted that report’s recommendations in full, and those are now being implemented by the Department to improve future handling arrangements.
Legal advice confirmed that, under EU law, DARD must remove from the food chain male cattle that test positive for alpha-nortestosterone, regardless of whether evidence of illegal administration has been found. DARD is also required to carry out appropriate follow-up investigations on the herd of origin. Legal advice was clear that DARD can discharge that responsibility without incurring liability to pay any compensation.
I reiterate my view that that was an honourable and correct approach, which balanced the requirement for DARD to meet its statutory obligation to protect public health and maintain the reputation of the local livestock industry, while ensuring that no one was unfairly or unreasonably treated. Given the unique circumstances that prevailed at that time, I am content that my Department handled that complex and difficult issue in the most reasonable manner possible.
The Ruddock report concluded that the actions taken by DARD were reasonable and complied with legislation. That report also made a number of recommendations on how DARD could improve the handling of similar situations in the future, and I am glad to be able to report that all of those recommendations have now been implemented by the Department.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. Naturally, though, I remain unsatisfied with her lack of real action on the issue. If the Minister in any way doubts my concern or the importance of my continual comments on the issue, is she prepared to accept a non-transferable invitation to visit the farming families that were most affected by the false allegations that were made against them?
Ms Gildernew: I had planned to meet four of the most-affected families before now, but I had to postpone those meetings for a short time due to diary commitments. I have been very proactive in dealing with the families affected — I met them on a number of occasions, and I will be looking at what can be done to ease the hurt.
I reiterate that I was not the Agriculture Minister when that issue arose. Therefore, I can only take so much of the responsibility for what happened. I have made considerable effort to alleviate the financial hardship caused. That remains my position. I hope to meet members of the most-affected families in the next week or two.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on the actions that she took in respect of the alpha-nortestosterone issue. Have the recommendations of the Ruddock review been implemented? Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Gildernew: The Department is in the process of implementing each of the recommendations of that review. Those recommendations should strengthen and improve the procedures of the Department, particularly in relation to faster policy development in light of emerging science, and better communication regarding on-farm searches.
As the review highlighted, meat processors are an important link between the producer and consumer. My Department is committed to involving them more fully — via the representative body NIMEA — in developing contingency plans for the future.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her answer. Even at this late stage, will the Minister accept that, in the handling of this entire matter, some DARD officials made unsubstantiated allegations against a number of farmers? Will the Minister also accept that a number of farmers suffered very severely, both financially and by way of character defamation, due to wrong assumptions that departmental officials made?
Ms Gildernew: I have already said that the Department regrets any disturbance or indignation caused to the families. The actions of the Department were guided by EU law to protect the consumer and the wider beef industry.
Assisting the Fishing Industry
5. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what action she is taking to encourage assistance for the fishing industry through the de minimis scheme. (AQO 2902/08)
11. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what consideration she has given to suspending landing and marketing fees for this coming financial year and to provide an emergency grant to assist the fishing industry. (AQO 2899/08)
Ms Gildernew: With the Speaker’s permission, I will take questions 5 and 11 together.
I have met representatives of the fishing industry about that matter. Others have written to me about the financial difficulties faced by the fishing industry because of high fuel costs. There is every indication that the cost of energy will continue to rise — that will have a knock-on effect for many industries and for domestic consumers.
Trawlers use a great deal of diesel. Therefore, energy costs represent a high proportion of the input costs of fishing businesses. Fish prices have been slow to respond and profit margins have been squeezed. I have listened carefully to proposals made by and on behalf of the fishing industry. I acknowledge that the catching sector has difficulties in coping with high fuel costs, and I applaud the initiatives taken to reduce costs through collective purchasing arrangements. However, many other industries also experience difficulties with high energy costs.
The European Commission’s regulation on de minimis aid, which was adopted in July last year, allows member states to pay up to €30,000 per three-year period per beneficiary. De minimis aid is deemed not to distort competition, and the Spanish Government have opted to pay such aid, reportedly to maintain industry competitiveness.
I have been asked whether de minimis aid could be used to offset charges such as those levied by the Fishery Harbour Authority. In principle, they could, but a longer-term strategic plan is needed to deal with the problems of spiralling fuel costs and low fish prices. That was one of the issues that I discussed with Commissioner Borg when I met him in Brussels on 1 April. He encouraged my Department to develop such a plan.
We must examine options for restructuring the industry to create the right conditions to attract new entrants and encourage investment in newer boats and equipment. The aim should be to have a fleet that is capable of fishing more efficiently and is less vulnerable to changing market conditions.
I want to begin a dialogue about that aim with the industry so that a strategic plan for a profitable and sustainable fishing industry can be jointly developed. In doing so, we should together consider the scope for utilising the €36 million of public investment that is available under the European Investment Fund.
One issue that was raised was the days-at-sea regime. As I said in my statement following the December Council, some flexibility was secured in the way that that could be operated. I decided that the Department should introduce a different arrangement for managing days at sea — one that is known as a kilowatt-day system. Under those arrangements, vessels will be able to fish the same number of days that they were able to in 2007. My officials will consult industry representatives on the detailed implementation arrangements.
I have also asked officials to examine the scope for meeting some of the costs associated with the operation of the satellite vessel-monitoring system here. I will make a full statement to the Assembly in the near future when I have completed my consideration of the various representations that have been made to me.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for visiting Kircubbin last week; it was very much appreciated by the members of the regeneration group. The Minister must know that the fishing industry is dying before our eyes. The fishing personnel are adamant that our Minister can help, either through the de minimis scheme or by other means, and they ask her to act in whatever way she can before it is too late. The Spanish and the French have given grants to help their hard-pressed fishing industries. Why can the Minister not help the Northern Irish fishermen?
Ms Gildernew: Mr McCarthy is correct. The Spanish Government have opted to pay de minimis aid to their fishing industry, reportedly to maintain industry competitiveness. It is my view that a longer-term plan is needed to restructure the industry and to encourage investment in newer boats and equipment so that our fleet can carry on the business of fishing more efficiently and be less vulnerable to changing market conditions. My opinion, which is shared by many people, is that the cost of fuel will continue to increase and that the de minimis aid is likely to be a sticking plaster on a big problem that must be dealt with on a long-term basis.
Mr Shannon: The Minister has spoken to the fishermen’s organisations, and we have all — probably most of the elected representatives here, including the MP for Strangford — written to her on numerous occasions. We have also tried to emphasis clearly where the fishing industry is going if the Minister does not help it.
The Minister said that assistance through the de minimis scheme could not be given as it would be a short-term measure. Nevertheless, will the Minister consider giving help through that scheme in the short term? Will the Minister also consider suspending landing and marketing fees for the fishing industry? If we do not do something in the short term, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will not need a fisheries division as there will be no fishing industry to look after. I urge the Minister to consider seriously that matter. Finally, has she brought the matter to the attention of her fellow Executive members?
Ms Gildernew: I have raised the issue with Executive colleagues. I am considering proposals, and I will make a statement to the House in due course. In relation to the charges for landing and marketing fees, the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority (NIFHA) sets uniform dues and charges for vessels at the three local fishing ports. Over the past three years, landing dues, which are the largest component of the charge paid by active vessels, have not increased and remain at 2·75% of the value of fish landed. Increases in berthing, slipping and various supplies have risen to ensure that NIFHA can deliver a good level of service to the local fishing fleet at all three harbours. I am sympathetic to the issues facing the fishing industry. I am considering proposals and will come back to the Assembly with more details in a few weeks.
Mr McNarry: Following on from the issue of France and Spain providing financial assistance to their fishermen, will the Minister explain to our fishermen why she is failing to respond to their proposals?
Ms Gildernew: I have made the point to the Assembly on several occasions that I have many industries under my Department’s authority that are in severe financial difficulties, including the pig sector, the poultry sector and the red meat industry. The agriculture industry faces serious problems —
Mr McNarry: I am asking only about the fishing industry.
Ms Gildernew: I am putting the matter in context. Unlike France and Spain, we are not a member state, and we do not have the same autonomy as those countries. We will look at what we can do to put together a long-term package of aid for our fishing community. I want to see a viable and sustainable fishing industry, although it is difficult to achieve that now. However, I am mindful of the issues and the high input costs that face some of our other sectors.
I must make across-the-board decisions that attempt to help everybody.
Mr Burns: Has the Minister identified any other agricultural or rural schemes that might benefit from the de minimis policy?
Ms Gildernew: No; I have not considered that possibility, and I am not sure where the Member is going with that question.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.
7. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail (i) how brucellosis is being tackled; and (ii) the progress of her Department’s recent brucellosis initiative. (AQO 2932/08)
Ms Gildernew: Since the outbreaks of brucellosis peaked in 2002, we have made significant progress, and I am determined to press for the eradication of that disease. The cornerstones of my Department’s brucellosis control programme are: the early detection of disease; the removal of diseased animals and animals that have been in contact with them; restrictions on the movement of animals; and advice to herd owners to improve biosecurity. Those measures are important elements of the campaign to remove sources of infection and in preventing the spread of the disease, which will be achieved by early detection through a programme of blood testing, additional surveillance measures, and tracing and investigating contacts between infected and other herds. In addition, farmers are compensated for animals that the Department decides must be culled.
If further progress is to be made in eradicating the disease, genuine partnership with farmers is essential. In March 2008, my Department began discussions with the industry in order to establish a partnership approach with local farmers in the fight against brucellosis. The brucellosis initiative emphasises all the controls that I listed; however, the strengthening of working relationships with local farmers is of particular importance. We have already held successful meetings with farmers in south Armagh and Enniskillen, at which it was agreed to form local liaison groups.
DARD vets met their Southern counterparts to compare the details of their respective disease programmes, additional epidemiological resources have been made available to staff in field offices and arrangements to increase the focus of the programme’s management are being finalised.
Although we have a robust programme, it must be recognised that farmers play a crucial role in the success of the brucellosis programme, and it is particularly important that they take responsibility for good biosecurity on their premises in order to protect their herds from the disease. It is also important that farmers report any suspicions of brucellosis — particularly abortions in cattle — without delay. The earlier the disease is detected, the more likely it is that we will be able to stop it spreading further.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Why is the South of Ireland closer to eradicating brucellosis than the North?
Ms Gildernew: In the South, since disease levels peaked in 1998, there has been a significant reduction in occurrences of brucellosis. We are experiencing a similar pattern in the reduction of disease levels, and there is clear evidence of a significant decline in the incidences of brucellosis since its peak in the North at the start of 2002. The trend of brucellosis outbreaks in the North is about five years behind that in the South, where eradication is a realistic possibility. Given the brucellosis control programme in the North and the disease’s trend in the South, we expect a similar trend to follow here.
My ultimate aim is to eradicate brucellosis from the North completely, and we continue to work towards that end. My Department will continue to liaise closely on brucellosis matters with counterparts in the South, to share best-practice measures and to assess what further measures can be taken to reduce successfully incidences of those diseases here. It is in our shared interests to move as quickly as we can towards an island that is free from that awful disease.
Dr W McCrea: I am sure that the Minister has read the Welsh Assembly’s innovative proposals that are aimed at tackling the serious problem of TB in livestock. Will she update the House about her proposals, and will they be effective? Is the aim of such proposals — whether in relation to TB or brucellosis — to eradicate those scourges rather than to attempt to reduce the number of affected animals?
Ms Gildernew: I have recently received the badger stakeholder group’s report, which I have decided to publish. It makes a good contribution to our deliberations on tackling tuberculosis in badgers in the North. I am keen to study the report’s findings, and, before I come to any decision on the way forward here, I will give full consideration to what the group says.
In recent years, we have made considerable progress on TB. Since peak disease levels in 2002, herd incidence has reduced by nearly 50%. In Wales, the trend inclines sharply the other way.
Evidence that the removal of badgers reduces the instance of TB in cattle is complex; it is not certain that removing badgers will necessarily result in a further decline of TB in cattle across the North. Given that trends in disease levels here have been downward, I want to ensure that any action we initiate will be of clear benefit and, at the very least, will not make things worse by reversing the current positive trend.
The badger is a protected species and, ultimately, any decision to intervene in badger populations will require both my agreement and that of the Environment Minister.
The Deputy Speaker: Mr Sammy Wilson is not in his place to ask question 8. We move to the next question.
Planting Willow Trees
9. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the assistance that is available to farmers wishing to plant willow trees on their land. (AQO 2919/08)
Ms Gildernew: My Department’s Forest Service provides grant aid for the establishment of short-rotation coppice willow for an energy end use. Short-rotation coppice is a specialised form of forestry plantation, involving the growth of high-yielding varieties of willow at close spacing, and harvesting them at regular intervals every two to three years. Under the short rotation coppice (SRC) scheme, the minimum area for planting is three hectares, and applicants must be able to demonstrate an energy end use.
In less-favoured areas, grant is available for up to 50% of the establishment costs, or up to 60% for young farmers. Outside less-favoured areas, the level of grant is up to 40% of establishment costs, or up to 50% for young farmers. The maximum rate of grant is £1,000 per hectare for all applications, and grants are paid in two instalments: 70% after planting and the remaining 30% when cut-back of coppice shoots is completed after the first year of growth.
Short-rotation coppice willow is also eligible for support under the Aid for Energy Crops scheme, which provides aid for the equivalent of €45 per hectare per annum for crops grown on 70% of non-set-aside land that is put to an energy end use.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up.
Proposed Regional Sports Stadium
1. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to confirm that the viability and economic sustainability of the proposed regional sports stadium is dependent upon the involvement of each of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Football Association and Ulster Rugby; and to detail his assessment of the annual spectator attendances and expected revenues that would flow from the involvement of these three sporting bodies. (AQO 2840/08)
The Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): The crucial criterion for the stadium is operational viability. Our business-planning process revealed that the chances of achieving viability and economic sustainability will be much slimmer in the absence of any one of the three sports.
With regard to spectator attendances and expected revenues, the outline business case for the multi-sports stadium, which was intended to demonstrate the minimum commitments consistent with operational viability, estimates annual spectator totals at 45,000 for rugby; for football, 95,000; and for Gaelic games, 150,000. In the context of the 38,500-seater stadium, that translates into annual operating revenues of £464,000 from rugby; £821,000 from football; and £938,000 from Gaelic games.
Those figures are considered to be conservative; nevertheless, they provide for operational viability. There is every expectation that the figures will be much higher; and any staging agreement with the sports will include financial incentives for increased numbers above the minimum committed.
The outline business case is publicly available through my Department’s website.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given the importance of the GAA’s contribution, which is approximately one-and-a-half times that of the other two sports, will the Minister confirm that his Department considers that the best return on the investment of public money may be had from a multi-sports facility, used by all three sports; and that only the involvement of all three sports is consistent with one of the primary goals, namely creating “a shared space” to be used by all communities? That will present a unified and positive image of Northern Ireland to the rest of the world.
Mr Poots: Anyone who reads tomorrow’s Hansard will find out that Mr Bradley’s economic assessment of the figures which I provided does not stack up.
Nonetheless, there has yet to be made an economic case to demonstrate that operational viability can be achieved with one of those sports omitted.
What we have shown is that operational viability can be demonstrated with a multi-sports stadium involving all three sports — whether viability can be demonstrated for less than three sports is so far unproven.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. As the Minister knows, a number of events have been planned for the new multi-sports stadium in relation to the Olympics. The World Police and Fire Games have been secured for 2013, which 15,000 participants will attend and which will generate in the region of £20 million for the local economy.
Does the Minister believe that the delay in making a decision about the location of the multi-sports stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site is endangering the World Police and Fire Games being held here in 2013 and any chance of us hosting any Olympic events in 2012? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Poots: The Olympic events are still four years away. Should those events take place in Northern Ireland, they will involve six football teams participating in one of the qualifying rounds.
The World Police and Fire Games will not take place until 2013. That is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, attracting approximately the same number of participants as the Commonwealth Games. It is a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland.
One has to weigh up the fact that the investment being made is a 50-year investment. Although short-term benefits must be examined, we also have to look at the long-term benefits. It is important that the right decision is made at the appropriate time.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister indicate the level of public investment that would be required to realise the forward independent business plan of the Irish Football Association (IFA), Ulster Rugby and the GAA without reference to the proposed Maze stadium?
Mr Poots: It would cost £19 million to bring existing stadiums up to the most basic standards acceptable to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and other international organisations, without actually carrying out any improvements. If significant refurbishment were to be carried out, leading to stadium extensions, costs would be considerably higher.
The outline business case examined the enhancement of existing stadiums but was not in favour of that. Therefore, if the outline business case that is with the Department of Finance and Personnel is rejected, one would assume that the “do-nothing” option and the option of enhancing existing stadiums would be rejected too. All of those options are in the outline business case and are available for DFP to examine.
New National Stadium
2. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to provide an update on the expected completion date for a new national stadium. (AQO 2881/08)
7. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline (i) the recent discussions he has had with the Department of Finance and Personnel in relation to the proposed sports stadium, and (ii) whether he and the Minister of Finance and Personnel agree that the Maze site is the best option. (AQO 2843/08)
Mr Poots: I will take questions 2 and 7 together. The completion date for the multi-sports stadium will depend on how quickly a decision can be reached on the way forward. The outline business case, if approved, will inform a submission to the Executive on the overall Maze/Long Kesh proposal. As this would be a major investment decision for the Executive, the stadium outline business case, together with that for the overall Maze/Long Kesh site, are necessarily detailed and complex.
My officials are engaged with colleagues in DFP on the stadium outline business case, and it is anticipated that a decision on the way forward will be made in the near future. Decisions will be taken by Ministers when they have the benefit of advice from officials. Although the outline business case concludes that the Maze/Long Kesh option is preferable, all options are being considered at this point.
Mr Lunn: I note the Minister’s response and his answer to Paul Butler on the previous question. Does the Minister agree that, due to the Executive’s dithering, the original target date for completion of a national stadium — in time for the 2012 Olympics — is already rendered impractical and that the Executive are in danger of sending the wrong signals to potential investors, users and sponsors of the stadium?
Mr Poots: I do not agree that the target of 2012 is impossible; we should still aim for that goal. However, as I said in response to Mr Butler’s supplementary question, this is to be a significant investment for the next 50 years. It is more important to get the decision right than to make the wrong decision for the sake of short-term benefits that will have long-term consequences.
Mrs D Kelly: The Minister said that Ministers will make decisions, and I await those with interest, because he has also said that the other options are non-viable. Why has there been a delay in choosing the Maze/Long Kesh site? The Minister says that the business case for the Maze/Long Kesh site is the most favourable option because all others have been rendered impossible. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the business case stacks up in favour of building a stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site?
Mr Poots: PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out its assessments and recommended a multi-sports stadium. The Department of Finance and Personnel will scrutinise that recommendation in some detail. I am sure that DFP will have questions to ask, and it is for that Department to identify whether it agrees with PricewaterhouseCoopers’ assessments. At this stage, it is not for me to say what is viable and what is not. Viability must be demonstrated. PricewaterhouseCoopers has said that a multi-sports stadium is viable, and DFP must come back to my Department on that. It is up to others to demonstrate whether other options are viable.
Mr Burnside: The Minister with responsibility for sport said that all options were being considered. Is that correct, or is it only the three from PricewaterhouseCoopers that are being considered? It would not be the first time that consultants had got advice wrong. They have done it throughout their history; they do not walk on water.
Next month, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who is opposed to the stadium’s being built at the Maze, will become the First Minister of the Assembly. Will the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure therefore call the process to an end and accept what the majority of the people wants — the enhancement of facilities at Windsor Park and Ravenhill, and financing for the GAA — in order to ensure that our sports stadia are improved for the betterment of the sporting public?
Mr Poots: I thank Mr Burnside for his wisdom, and for his insight into the mind of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I am not aware of any quotations that would substantiate Mr Burnside’s comments.
I do not know what conversations Mr Burnside has had with football, rugby or GAA bodies. Last week, Mr McNarry and I had a conversation with one of those bodies. Perhaps Mr McNarry will advise Mr Burnside why that organisation thinks that it could raise £700,000 more per annum and ensure that professional players — some of whom are leaving Northern Ireland to play for other countries — remain in Northern Ireland and play to the best of their abilities for their local team should the stadium be built on the Maze site.
Mr Burnside would do well to talk to the sporting organisations involved, because they would inform him of the benefits of opting for the Maze site. To choose that option would mean the investment of more money into football, rugby and GAA. All those sports would benefit significantly from that option. However, a decision must be made about how much money the Government are prepared to invest in it and whether we are prepared to invest the money that is required to make the project deliverable. We must make that decision, and it will be based on the best financial detail that is put to us.
Mr Beggs: I understand that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is examining the business case for the stadium. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case; when he expects a decision to be taken by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and when that business case will be put into the public domain?
Mr Poots: That is the case: senior officials met last week on that issue. All the top departmental economists participated in the meeting, and those meetings are continuing. I cannot predetermine the outcome of the meetings — I have not got the insight into other people’s minds that Mr Burnside has. When those outcomes are determined, I will advise this House thereafter.
Assisting the Armagh Observatory
3. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the steps he is taking to assist the Armagh Observatory which is facing a £130,000 shortfall in the next financial year, followed by £160,000 in the following year and £190,000 in the year after that. (AQO 2821/08)
Mr Poots: Armagh Observatory is a valued scientific institution in Northern Ireland and is in receipt of funding from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Department recognised the funding difficulties that were faced and provided uplifts of 27% from a baseline for each of the next three years.
The Department will continue to engage with the board of governors of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium in support of their efforts to maintain sustainability. The observatory was tasked with examining all options to reduce the deficit and live within the funding limits available. An options paper has been produced and is being considered by the Department.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Minister for his initial reply. Given that Armagh Observatory is one of the few institutions in Northern Ireland that could be rightly described as world-class and cutting-edge, does the Minister agree that the important research carried out there needs its certainty guaranteed for the foreseeable future? Will he guarantee certainty in funding for the long term?
Mr Poots: As regards certainty, an uplift of 27% over a three-year period is significant. However, I have to ask why the planetarium and observatory, which are governed by one body, decided to allocate 27% funding to the planetarium and 27% to the observatory when there was a clear need for more money for the observatory. That is something that the board of governors need to deal with.
As regards the importance of the institutions, the worst possible thing that they could have done was to go down the route of “save the Armagh Observatory”. The discussion should take place in a rational environment without the message getting out to the wider public that Armagh Observatory is under threat, because the first thing that will happen is that investors in the people who are coming to Armagh Observatory, and organisations with research investments in the work carried out by the observatory, will question whether such investments should be continued. It is foolish to go down that route.
I am committed to ensuring that every opportunity is given to Armagh Observatory to continue operating at its current level, but there are issues that Armagh Observatory itself has to deal with.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In part, the Minister has answered my question. Given the serious tourism benefits involved, I hope that the Minister will look at ways of providing sustainable funding. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: There is nothing for the Minister to answer.
Ms Lo: Given that Queen’s University always has a number of PhD students carrying out research in the observatory, will the shortfall over the next three years be detrimental to research and to much needed development in this field that would bring Northern Ireland a lot of economic gains?
Mr Poots: If that is the case, and if research and development are undermined as a consequence, then that would fall within the remit of the Department for Employment and Learning; it is not a matter for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
If the Department for Employment and Learning wishes to assist us in dealing with that matter — and I am sure that Mr Kennedy has some influence in that Department — I am happy to ensure that it can assist my Department.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Football (Offences) Act 1991
5. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the progress made with the Northern Ireland Office in bringing forward similar legislation to the Football (Offences) Act 1991. (AQO 2873/08)
Mr Poots: I have held a number of meetings with the NIO Criminal Justice Minister, Paul Goggins MP, to discuss the urgent need for public order legislation relating to sports grounds in Northern Ireland. As a result, Minister Goggins has welcomed the broad thrust of my proposals and has agreed to work towards an agreed and effective package of measures. Since then, the NIO has been working on developing proposals for suitable legislation, with assistance from my officials. Work has reached an advanced stage, and I have asked the NIO to urgently consider publishing the proposals for consultation in the near future.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that much good work has been done in recent years to make sporting events, particularly football, more family friendly. I am sure that the Minister will join me in offering particular congratulations to everyone who has worked hard to do that at Northern Ireland international matches. Can the Minister provide details on the current proposals for the legislation? What plans does he have to work with the Assembly on that matter?
Mr Poots: That is a matter for the NIO, but my Department asked it to address the following issues: unauthorised pitch incursion; offensive chanting and missile throwing; bringing bottles, flares and fireworks into grounds; restrictions on the carrying and drinking of alcohol on special public transport on the way to and from designated matches; ticket touting; and a football banning-order regime in Northern Ireland. We can achieve that legislation, and the Assembly can co-operate with the Northern Ireland Office in devising the appropriate legislation for Northern Ireland. That would be a significant boost for local football.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Has the Minister been in contact with the IFA and the PSNI about the disgraceful attack by so-called football fans in Belfast city centre just over two weeks ago? If so, will the IFA take action against the individuals concerned when they are identified? Would a football offences Act deal with that type of criminality?
Mr Poots: First, it must be clearly demonstrated whether football fans, or others who were masquerading as people who had attended a football match, were involved in that truly appalling incident. Therefore, it is wholly appropriate that anyone who has any evidence on that matter takes it to the appropriate authority, which is the PSNI.
Mr McCarthy: Does the Minister recognise that, in the absence of such legislation, hooligans from elsewhere in the UK could be attracted to matches here? That gives such legislation even higher priority.
Mr Poots: That is why my Department continues to press the NIO to take the legislation forward.
Developing Dog Racing
6. Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the action he is taking to ensure the development of dog racing; and to outline the consideration he is giving to the allocation of betting levy monies to the dog racing industry. (AQO 2839/08)
Mr Poots: Dog racing is not a recognised sport, and my Department has no statutory responsibility for it. Therefore, there are no plans to develop greyhound racing in Northern Ireland. The allocation of betting levies to the dog racing industry is not a matter for my Department.
Mr P J Bradley: Given that reply, it is difficult to ask a supplementary question. However, I will not forgo the opportunity to make some comment. Many people consider dog racing a sport, and I ask the Minister to reconsider his position.
Mr Deputy Speaker: You will not be going to the dogs.
Mr Savage: My constituency of Upper Bann includes the town of Lurgan, whose symbol is Master McGrath, a famous racing greyhound. Has the Minister had any contact with the Minister for Social Development on the social impact of gambling in Northern Ireland?
No doubt the Minister supports all sports, but what is he doing to address some of their damaging social impacts?
Mr Poots: That is a matter for the Minister for Social Development. If the Member wants to raise a particular issue about gambling, he should do so with the appropriate Minister — the Minister for Social Development.
Northern Ireland Events Company
8. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for his assessment of the source of responsibility for the overspend of over £1 million by the Northern Ireland Events Company. (AQO 2878/08)
12. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what plans he has to assist organisations and groups that are seeking to access funding to host events while the Northern Ireland Events Company is being wound up. (AQO 2828/08)
Mr Poots: I wish to answer questions 8 and 12 together.
Until the review is complete, it would be inappropriate for me to comment any further on where responsibility for the overspend lies. I have considered in detail the review’s findings and I have issued a written statement on the current position of the Northern Ireland Events Company; it was placed in the Assembly Library on 3 April.
I am committed to having a facility that can provide grant funding to support world-class events and to showcase the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer. Recent examples of grant funding include Tennis Legends in February 2008 and the FIM World and European Motorcycle Trial Championships 2008, which were held in Bangor.
On an interim basis, DCAL will manage the events function. A business plan for Northern Ireland events, including grant funding, has been developed, and on 28 March DCAL launched an event grant-funding programme for events in 2008-09 and for the two funding streams — events-growth funding and major-events funding.
Successful applications will be subject to agreed grant-funding criteria. The closing date for applications is 2 May, and letters of offer and agreements with successful applicants will be signed off by the end of June. I encourage Members to tell their constituents that this funding programme is now open for applications.
Anyone who contacted my Department over the past few months enquiring about grant funding has been told about the launch of the grant-funding programme. Up to 10 April, 41 application packs had been issued. Although the Northern Ireland Events Company will be dissolved, the promotion of events to support Northern Ireland’s image, tourism and economic development will continue. DCAL is actively seeking to facilitate the transition to a new arrangement that will deliver that service.
Mr B McCrea: I understand the Minister’s reluctance to comment in detail on the issue until the review is complete, but when did he first became aware of the overspend, and what steps did he personally take to ensure that such losses were kept to a bare minimum?
Mr Poots: My answers to that are on public record: I have made a public statement in the House and I went to the Committee. Given that the Member has posed only one, generic, question to DCAL in the past year, I know that he does not possess a great depth of knowledge about my Department. I do not see the point in repeating what has already been said in the House.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for his answer. Since the Northern Ireland Events Company (NIEC)was wound up, what arrangements have been made to pay creditors? Does the Minister feel that his Department will be able to give swift responses to those companies and groups that have events planned for the summer and that need urgent replies to their funding applications?
Mr Poots: A total of 112 creditors have been verified and are owed £635,000. That does not include moneys owed to the NIEC by creditors. However, since 14 April, DCAL has paid 102 of the 112 creditors a total of £617,983. The 10 remaining unpaid creditors have yet to return a letter of assignment agreeing to the debt that was owed to them, which would allow that money to be transferred.
We will aim to get our responses to grant-funding applicants — particularly those who have events planned earlier in the year — as quickly as possible. Most decisions will not be taken until the end of June so that the Department can fully judge the applications against the criteria set. However, if an event is planned to take place before then, we will do our best to assist the organisers.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Mrs Mary Bradley is not in her place to ask question 9. I, therefore, call Mr Pat Ramsey.
Developing Football Stadia
10. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail what money is available for the development of soccer stadia for senior football teams; and to detail any joint plans he has with other Departments to consider whether football stadia developments can form part of wider social, health and economic development in local areas. (AQO 2848/08)
Mr Poots: Primary responsibility for making money available for the development of soccer stadia for senior football teams rests with the owners of such venues; the relevant governing body also has a role. The recently announced capital budget for sport is £111·6 million over the next three years. Sport NI, which is responsible for the development of sport, including the distribution of funding, is considering how those funds can be allocated across sport, including funding for soccer stadia for senior football teams.
Recently, I consulted other Departments on the development of a new strategy for sport and physical recreation for Northern Ireland. As part of that process, I presented proposals for implementing the strategy, which will bring together various Departments. Under those proposals, Departments will be expected to consider whether sports stadia developments, including football stadia developments, can play a wider social, health and economic role in their areas.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he will be aware, Derry City Football Club, which is in my constituency, is keen to develop a sports facility that will couple the sporting needs of the football team with the social, educational and economic development of the area surrounding the Brandywell. Bearing in mind that social and economic development around sports stadia requires action by several Departments, will the Minister initiate cross-departmental working to enhance the possibility of success for that project, and will he also outline what is happening on the project’s cross-border aspect?
Mr Poots: I am happy to work with other Departments and with clubs and local authorities that wish to develop better sports facilities in their areas — irrespective of who they may be — to produce feasible proposals that will add up financially. It is more difficult to demonstrate the economic viability of stand-alone football stadia. Several groups that are considering building new stadia are examining how they can develop other amenities alongside the sports facilities, and many are coming up with innovative proposals. That is the best means of achieving sustainability for football stadia.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up. That concludes Question Time.
Former Military Sites
Debate resumed on amendments to motion:
That this Assembly calls on the United Kingdom Government to transfer lands at the vacated military sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia in Omagh to the Executive, to facilitate the development of the education village as proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group. — [Mr Doherty.]
Which amendments were: (1) Leave out all after “Executive,” and insert
“to be used for the development of the Omagh District, in line with the priorities set by the Programme for Government, Budget and Investment Strategy, including the possible development of the education village proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group.” — [Mr Bresland.]
(2) Leave out all after “village” and insert
“, social and affordable housing and civic facilities, as well as investment in an enterprise centre and the development of the necessary partnerships to realise the economic development potential of the site.” — [Mr Gallagher.]
Mr Lunn: My party welcomes the main thrust of the motion, which is to call for the transfer of the lands at Lisanelly and St Lucia to the Executive. I agree with most of the contributors to the debate, particularly my colleague Kieran Deeny. There appears to be unanimity on the matter, not only with regard to the transfer of the lands but, to a greater or lesser degree, on the desirability of the education village.
The proposal by the Omagh educational campus group represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to move education forward in the Omagh area. It embraces a spirit of collaboration, tolerance, inclusion and the promotion of mutual respect, and it meets the aspirations of the concept of a shared future. Many of the points in favour of the proposal have been mentioned by previous contributors, so I will not repeat them all. However, the notion of up to six local schools from the controlled and maintained sectors coming together on one site to a state-of-the-art facility is a far-sighted one, and it also meets the recommendations on sustainability and collaboration in the Bain Report.
I am not from Omagh, but I understand that the proposal is supported by all the school principals in the area, their trustees and governors, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Western Education and Library Board, local businesses and the wider community. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who does not agree with it.
It meets the needs of the schools in Omagh, some of which need to be rebuilt. It will apparently make available up to 27 hectares of land in existing sites for whatever use is deemed appropriate. The opportunity for social interaction and the concentration of educational expertise and specialist teaching is obvious, making this too good an opportunity to miss.
For those and many other reasons, the Alliance Party supports the motion. I hope that the land will be transferred as soon as possible and that detailed work can begin on how to maximise the site’s potential. As well as including the education concept, perhaps work will be done on some of the suggestions that are contained in the amendments.
Although I wish the proposal a fair wind, I hope that it does not become a political football, as has happened with the Maze project. There is no reason why the planned development should be contentious. As I said previously, this is too good an opportunity to miss, and I congratulate the Omagh Educational Campus Group and the people of Omagh for their vision and ambition.
It is entirely appropriate that this proposal should come from Omagh. The people of that area have set an example in showing the way forward during the past 10 years, and I certainly hope that they will be given the opportunity to do so again. I look forward to seeing the proposal come to fruition.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The motion has highlighted the importance of transferring former military bases to the Executive for the provision of an educational village to benefit the community in the Omagh area. This is an exciting concept that is worthy of debate. This is the second debate that we have had on the subject, and I welcome the fact that we are debating it again today. Indeed, the contributions that Members have made today and on previous occasions were positive and helpful.
The Ministry of Defence in Britain is committed to the disposal of the Lisanelly and St Lucia sites. Subject to the satisfactory resolution of several issues, including the terms of transfer, the MOD is fully aware of our interest in the possible acquisition of the sites. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have sought the gifting of the sites with British Government Ministers. The issue was raised some time ago with the British Government and the Executive, but, as yet, there has been no response.
OFMDFM continues to press the British Government strongly about the transfer of Lisanelly, St Lucia and several other military sites to the Executive. The Finance Minister has also written to the chief secretary on the matter. It is important, however, that my Executive colleagues continue to make the case for the transfer of the lands. Individual Members have held numerous meetings on this issue. I pay tribute to them all — particularly to Pat Doherty, the MP for the area — who has been at the forefront of the efforts that have been made.
Caithfidh an pobal anseo tairbhe a bhaint as na láithreáin sin, agus tá sé tábhachtach go n-oibríonn an Tionól le chéile leis an chuspóir sin a bhaint amach.
The community here must benefit from what happens to those sites, and it is important that Assembly Members work together to help to achieve that goal.
The Department for Social Development, with its responsibilities for regeneration, is continuing to work with the MOD on the options that relate to the acquisition.
Bhuail mise le Margaret Ritchie an tseachtain seo caite agus d’aontaigh muid gur chóir forbairt na láithreán a scrúdú, ó tá féidearachtaí forbartha iontu. Tá rún againn an cheist a thógáil leis an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin le gur féidir lenár gcomhghleacaithe aireachta deis a bheith acu an bealach chun tosaigh a phlé chomh luath agus is féidir.
I met with Margaret Ritchie last week, and we agreed on the importance of exploring the development of the sites, given the potential that they present. We are planning to raise the issue jointly with the Executive so that our ministerial colleagues can discuss the way forward at the earliest opportunity.
The availability of funding is obviously an issue in delivering such a significant project. Although the gifting of the sites would remove initial costs, there are also costs involved in securing, maintaining and developing the sites. The costs of site acquisition and maintenance are not affordable in the current educational budget without displacing other priorities, and the extent of the site is such that the land may not all be used solely for educational purposes. I nevertheless believe that this is an important opportunity to create a visionary project that we all should support and work together to make a reality.
The Lisanelly site provides a unique opportunity for education in Omagh. It provides an opportunity to turn a former symbol of conflict into a new source of hope and achievement for future generations of young people and for the town.
There is the prospect of a shared-education campus where schools can co-locate and collaborate. That offers possibilities for new ways of sharing facilities, teaching and learning. That is how we should plan for education in the future. It is an exciting prospect that is shared by many people who are involved in education in Omagh. We have the opportunity to create, plan and develop a vision for the area in a way that involves all sectors that we would not have done before.
Tá an coláiste breisoideachais áitiúil deas don láithreán agus cuirfidh sin le hardcháilíocht an oideachais a fhaigheann páistí agus daoine óga.
The proximity of the local further education college can only enhance the quality of the education experience for children and young people. I welcome Reg Empey’s earlier comments on the site — although he spoke as an MLA, what he said was important, and I agree with much of it. This should be the new way forward for education: take a view on the needs of an area and decide on the most effective way to meet those needs to ensure the quality of education for all.
I met representatives of the Lisanelly schools working group, which comprises representatives from the education sector in Omagh. They were led by co-chairpersons, Reverend Robert Herron and Monsignor Joseph Donnelly, and were accompanied by representatives from the Western Education and Library Board and several schools that have expressed an interest in relocation. They explained their views and aspirations for an education campus at Lisanelly, which has the potential to accommodate the combined enrolment at the six schools, which is over 3,400.
The representatives are keen to be involved in the development of the campus, and, from discussing the issues with them, they are excited at the prospect of working across school sectors. They are enthusiastic about the potential benefits of a proposed campus for Omagh. I pay tribute to group members for coming together to develop a vision for education in Omagh. We should admire their commitment to work together to deliver that vision, and we must support them in their endeavours. As I said earlier, they are working closely with the local MP, Pat Doherty, who has played a tremendous role and will continue to do so.
Ní an earnáil oideachais amháin atá ag tabhairt tacaíochta don champas; tá curaidh eile ag an tionscadal, lena n-áirítear an comhlachtas tráchtála agus an chomhairle. Is tionscadal é seo a bhfuil cách ar aon intinn faoi.
Support for the campus is not confined to those in the education sector: the project is also championed by Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Omagh District Council. There is widespread consensus for the project, and I welcome the contributions that my colleagues across the Floor have made.
Last week, I visited Lisanelly and had the opportunity to visit the extensive site and appreciate its central significance to the future development of the area. I was accompanied by Reverend Herron, Monsignor Donnelly and Martin McColgan, and we discussed the possibilities that the site offers.
Mr T Clarke: The Minister said that she visited Lisanelly last week. I do not know how extensive that visit was, but there is a permanent memorial on one of the buildings for people who were murdered because of work that they did in Lisanelly. If this proposal goes ahead at the Lisanelly site, would the Minister support a permanent memorial to those who worked in Lisanelly barracks and lost their lives?
Ms Ruane: I am not going to get into a debate about memorials or victims — it is not appropriate. Thankfully, we are moving out of a period of conflict in which many people lost their lives. Therefore, rather than creating difficulties for the project, we need to move forward. The best memorial is a shared campus where all the different sectors come together.
Executive endorsement, in principle, for development of the Lisanelly site would be accompanied by the development of a business case examining the options and assessing the overall merits and value for money of the proposal. That would be a necessary step before final commitments could be made and would involve some site-planning work to determine potential usage, identify areas for attention or disposal and examine the quality of the housing stock and other buildings on the site. That could lead to the development of a shared-education campus, a shared-housing scheme and other possible uses compatible with the campus that are linked to nearby Omagh town centre via the St Lucia site.
Chuirfeadh an obair ar ár gcumas roghanna a mheas a chuirfeadh le héifeacht na forbartha. Thiocfadh le forais éagsúla a bheith ag obair le chéile i bpáirtíocht, agus ba chóir dúinn an tsamhail sin a iniúchadh.
The work would allow us to assess options to enhance the overall development and impact. The possibility of a partnership model, involving different bodies working together, should be explored.
All interested schools would need investment in the coming years, and, for some, moving to an alternative site may not be an option. Lisanelly offers the exciting prospect of planning buildings in a more co-ordinated and effective way. There are strong educational, social and economic benefits from jointly pursuing an educational campus. The relocation of existing schools to Lisanelly would eventually free up key regeneration sites in other parts of Omagh.
Mr Elliott asked whether existing schools’ sites would be put up for sale. They would be disposed of as schools move to Lisanelly, with the receipts offsetting some of the cost of acquiring and developing Lisanelly, and replacing the schools.
Such a campus would meet many of our educational objectives. It would deliver modern facilities for teachers and staff and include sharing and collaboration as a central element, which is so important to the future post-primary school system.
It would also underline that there is not a one-size-fits-all system; that joint planning can provide an education facility in which all children enjoy access to a range of high-quality choices at critical junctures in their educational development, the most significant of which is 14. The potential Lisanelly campus provides a wonderful opportunity for education in the greater Omagh area to be shaped in an innovative way, to suit the needs of all young people in the community.
I know that the schools are keen to be involved in planning the project. The area planning groups, which I announced last month, will be looking carefully at ways in which post-primary provision can best meet education needs.
There was cross-party support for the campus when the Lisanelly site was debated in this Chamber last month. Members highlighted the value of pursuing that option and the prize to be gained. There is strong consensus among local political representatives, educational interests and the business and wider community, that the development of the site offers enormous potential to transform Omagh for the better.
Opportunities such as Lisanelly arise only rarely and need to be fully explored. Rather than looking for stumbling blocks, we need to find a way to make it happen. With the prospect of providing a modern campus for the benefit of future generations of children, demonstrating a new approach for education and for our communities, Omagh could set an example for others to follow. Delivering it successfully, however, will require great commitment and goodwill.
There was a question earlier about a business case. I understand that there is a business case being carried out by the Strategic Investment Board, which has approved £30,000 for that purpose. The Western Education and Library Board and Omagh District Council have each approved £10,000 — so let us get on with it and make this a flagship project.
The efforts of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Finance Minister to have the sites gifted to Executive ownership would ease the pressure of meeting site costs, but maintenance and development costs would remain, and we must consider how best to meet them. The question, though, is not whether we can afford the project; more whether we can afford not to go ahead, because the development opportunity embraces more than just education.
Ba mhaith liom go mbeidh páistí sa todhchaí ag baint suilt as a n-oideachas i gcampas roinnte i dtionscadal ina raibh ról ag an Tionól tús a chur leis. Ba chóir dúinn coinneáil linn ag troid ar son aistriú láithreán agus coinneáil linn ag pleanáil do shamhail oideachasúil an-tábhachtach.
I would like to see future generations of children and young people enjoying their education in a shared campus in a project that this Assembly had a role in initiating. Let us continue to fight for the transfer of sites and let us continue to plan for an educational model of major significance. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Gallagher: The SDLP amendment addresses not just the development of an educational facility, but the potential for wider social and economic development in the area.
The Minister of Education referred to her recent visit to the site and to her discussions with the Minister for Social Development. I welcome such co-operation, which can have a powerful influence in moving the initiative forward.
I hope that there will be unanimity on this matter. The issue will be brought before the Executive for discussion. This is about the town of Omagh. In any discussions about Omagh, it is never long before the issue of victims arises, and no doubt that will arise during the discussions of the Executive. We cannot sweep the issue aside, regardless of what side of the community the victims came from. However, I hope that any concerns that were expressed about victims today will be left in the hands of the Executive.
Some Members referred to the need for a robust appraisal, and they are quite right. A major project such as the one under debate deserves, at the very least, that type of appraisal. That would be part and parcel of an outline business case, which is one of the next steps.
I look forward to unanimity in the House, to the matter going before the Executive, and to its being clarified to the Assembly in a statement. I commend amendment No 2 to the House.
Mr Buchanan: I declare an interest as a member of the Lisanelly Lands Working Group of Omagh District Council. The importance of the transfer of MOD sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia to the Northern Ireland Executive cannot be overemphasised. Members must recognise the enormous potential of the sites for social and economic development, not only for Omagh town and district but for the wider western region.
In Mr Gallagher’s winding-up speech, he said that the debate was about Omagh, but it is really about the wider western region around Omagh. That is why we feel that the original motion is too narrow. It should be expanded to ensure that any development on the site is in line with the priorities set in the Programme for Government, the Budget and the investment strategy, including the possible development of an education village, as proposed by Omagh Educational Campus Group. My understanding is that the proposer of the motion has accepted amendment No 1.
I have grave reservations about the SDLP’s amendment, which mentions social and affordable housing, as well as investment and an enterprise centre, yet it completely ignores the Programme for Government, the Budget and the investment strategy. The Department for Social Development carried out a study into social and affordable housing, and it found that it is not an issue on the Lisanelly site. On that basis, I cannot and will not accept anything to do with the SDLP’s amendment. Therefore, it is important that we take a clear, strategic view on the best possible use of the site. The idea of an education campus has much merit, and it would release lands adjacent to Omagh town centre for economic development, retail outlets, council offices, inward investment, the development of infrastructure and the strengthening of the economic core of Omagh.
However, we must recognise the urgent need to develop the schools estate in Omagh. Omagh High School, in particular, needs new accommodation, yet its board of governors has been told to wait for the development of the proposed school campus. Although the proposal to locate a shared school campus is in keeping with the Executive’s commitment to the modernisation agenda, many questions remain about the enthusiasm of all the participants in the process.
In the Adjournment debate of 4 March 2008, the Minister of Education said:
“I believe that this site presents a unique opportunity for education in Omagh … All options can be envisaged — controlled and maintained, grammar and non-grammar and special schools … We have a unique opportunity, and we cannot afford to lose it.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p234, col 2].
Today, the Minister has again said that this is an exciting concept; let us get on with it and make it a flagship project.
However, I am concerned about the Minister of Education’s level of commitment to the project. It is all right to put forward the words for such a proposal and such a concept, but words have to be followed up with commitment. I ask the Minister again, as I did on the day of the Adjournment debate: where is the commitment from her Department? Is funding for this type of campus a priority?
Let us remember that it is down to the Department of Education, and, indeed, to the Department for Regional Development, which would have to construct an entire roads network and infrastructure in order to open up the area. I want some commitment from those Departments about the project. I cannot see where the Minister has made any commitment to the project in the Programme for Government or the Budget. I want the Minister to make some commitment to the House about the project, but none has been forthcoming. It is important to push ahead to secure the future use of the site for the people of Omagh and so that the schools project can progress.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach aon Chomhalta a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht. Níl aon dabht ann: ní bheidh an seans seo againn arís go deo, agus mar sin de caithfimid bogadh gan mhoill. Dúirt Sinn Féin ón tús go mbeimis ag glacadh le leasú an DUP don rún.
I thank Members for their contributions to the debate, and I ask them to support the motion. Sinn Féin is happy to accept the DUP amendment.
Much mention has been made of the fact that this is the second debate on the topic, the first being an Adjournment debate on 4 March. On that occasion, the Minister of Education clearly demonstrated her commitment, which she has also done today by her presence and her words of support; by the fact that she has met the working group; by the fact that senior officials in her Department have been working closely with that group and with the education and library board; and by raising the matter with other Ministers. I appreciate the Minister’s support.
We must clearly establish the principle that we are going to secure the transfer of the site. Once that principle is established, there is no shortage of ideas for uses of the land or the redeployment of these expansive lands vacated by the British Army in Omagh.
Of course, the most developed of those ideas is the plan for an education village. Like other Members, I believe that that project ticks all the boxes as regards the Bain vision for education. Let us revisit the terms of reference of George Bain’s review:
“To examine funding of the education system, in particular the strategic planning and organisation of the schools’ estate, taking account of the curriculum changes, including the wider provision for 14-19 year olds, and also demographic trends.”
There we have it.
I commend the local leadership for their vision. Leadership has been demonstrated by many people, not least by senior officials in the Western Education and Library Board and its chief executive, Mr Barry Mulholland, and by Omagh District Council and its chief executive, Mr Danny McSorley. Business and community representatives have also played an important part, and MP Pat Doherty has had a central role.
Of course, who do Monsignor Joseph Donnelly and Rev Robert Herron represent? Rev Herron represents the transferors in education and Monsignor Donnelly represents the trustees in this matter. That is why Tom Elliott’s fear of domination by the Catholic-maintained sector is way off the mark. His comment was not based on sound evidence and was mischievous.
Political support and goodwill is evident on the part of many Ministers across the political spectrum. The Executive are showing strong support, including the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I particularly welcomed the First Minister’s response to a question that I asked of him in the Assembly on 3 March. He made it clear that he and the deputy First Minister and their Executive colleagues were prepared to go the whole distance in lobbying on this matter. The Department of Education and the Minister of Education have shown support for this project, as have DSD, the Minister for Social Development and the Minister of Finance and Personnel, while Reg Empey recently visited the site. That gives a snapshot of the level of interest and support for this project that is currently emanating from the Executive.
That support is also evident in the Chamber today. People are working together. Of course, there are differences of emphasis, but there is a great deal of consensus and unity of purpose. There is a desire to send a strong, clear message about the unique nature of this project and about how it should be progressed.
Pat Doherty reminded us of the joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments of April 2003. Paragraph 10 of annex 1 supports the transfer of land in areas that have been adversely affected by the conflict. Omagh is certainly an area that has been adversely affected by the conflict. Therefore, the British MOD strategy of trying to get the full market value for the land is contrary to that joint declaration.
Allan Bresland was at pains to point out the architectural economic value of buildings on the site. He and his colleague Tom Buchanan mentioned the particular capital-development requirements of Omagh High School. Like many other schools involved in the project, Omagh High School has capital-development requirements, and efficiency will drive us in the direction of making this project happen on the site as proposed. Mr Bresland also called for a strategic approach and for details on some of the alternatives.
I was grateful to the Member from Fermanagh Tommy Gallagher for reminding us that Omagh is the county town of Tyrone. He mentioned its strategic importance to the entire area west of the Bann and to the north-west of Ireland in general. He said that the proposal would draw in five or six Departments, and that that involvement strengthens the overall case.
Reg Empey was impressed by the facilities and the potential of the site, and he repeated that the proposal offers us a rare opportunity, although he perhaps regrets that Omagh College of Further Education could not be part of it because of its recent newbuild. Again, there would be a complementarity there; the college would not be far away from the campus and there would be strong working relationships between the campus and the further education providers. He said that if we listen to Des Browne, the portents are not good, but I suppose that is the effort that we all must put in. He reminded us that the forthcoming investment conference presents us with an opportunity to lobby Gordon Brown directly on this issue. I certainly want Reg Empey and other leaders to highlight this matter at that conference.
Kieran Deeny stressed that the matter was about the future. He reminded us of the urgency of transferring military sites and said that the issue cannot wait for ever to be resolved. If the British Government are serious, they, too, will contribute to building the peace. He also told us that Omagh is the second-largest population centre west of the Bann.
George Robinson highlighted the architectural excellence of the St Lucia building. He is very proud of the site’s military history. We diverge at that point, because I do not share his benign interpretation of British military history. However, we shall not go there now.
Claire McGill focused on education and the entitlement framework, and on how, by linking the schools estate to curricular provision, a template of best practice is waiting to happen in Omagh. She also spoke about conflict transformation and the role that the British Government can play by transferring the site.
Tom Elliott said that UUP support for the motion was obvious, but that support was less obvious from Tom than it was from his party leader. He said that the issue had implications for infrastructure and roads. Joined-up government is a challenge for the present and the future. Surely the Department for Regional Development, the Department of Education and other Departments can work together. That is what joined-up government is all about. Therefore, one of today’s messages today is: do not be afraid of joined-up government, Tom Elliott. He was also concerned for Dean Maguirc College in Carrickmore; St John’s High School in Dromore; and Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh. The proposal would not swallow up all educational provision in County Tyrone; room would remain for rural development and provision. His fear of domination by Catholic-maintained schools was mischievous and way off the mark.
Dominic Bradley emphasised that Omagh has been leading the way, and that it, too, is entitled to a peace dividend. He reminded us that the First Minister has promised to press the issue again with Gordon Brown when the opportunity presents itself.
Trevor Lunn reminded us that all the Bain Report boxes are ticked. He spoke of the visionary nature of the proposal and of the huge amount of work that has already been done in order to secure the current level of agreement.
I am grateful to the Minister and to her senior officials for the high level of support and interest that they have shown. The Minster said that this is an exciting concept, although one on which a response is still to be received from the British Government about transferring the land. Every opportunity must be taken, at MLA and ministerial level, to pursue the issue. One can but hope that the correct level of thinking is going into this matter and that the boat will not be missed.
The Minister welcomed Reg Empey’s comments and reminded us that the business case is being developed by the Strategic Investment Board, Omagh District Council, and the Western Education and Library Board, which are working together. I call on the Assembly to unite behind the motion and this exciting concept.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will then proceed to put the Question on the motion as amended.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the United Kingdom Government to transfer lands at the vacated military sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia in Omagh to the Executive, to be used for the development of the Omagh District, in line with the priorities set by the Programme for Government, Budget and Investment Strategy, including the possible development of the education village proposed by the Omagh Educational Campus Group.
Adjourned at 4.39 pm.