NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 27 May 2008
Private Members’ Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill
Mr Speaker: The Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill received Royal Assent on Friday 23 May 2008, and it will be known as the Commission for Victims and Survivors Act (Northern Ireland) 2008.
Mr Speaker: The Local Government (Boundaries) Bill received Royal Assent on Friday 23 May 2008, and it will be known as the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008.
Mr Speaker: I have been advised that a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format will be held on 28 May 2008 and that a meeting of the Council in health and food-safety sectoral format will be held on the same day. Copies of the letters that set out the agendas for those meetings and the names of the Ministers who will attend have been placed in the Library.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that she wishes to make a statement on environmental governance.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): As Members are aware, the Department of the Environment (DOE) has a broad remit that includes matters such as local government and planning. At the heart of that remit is the responsibility to protect and enhance our built and natural environment. In order to do that, we need effective systems of governance and regulation.
I have thought carefully about my approach to those systems, taking account of the independent review of environmental governance (REGNI), which was led by Professor Tom Burke, and the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland’s (CJINI) report on enforcement in the DOE. Those reviews were carried out under direct rule, but I have considered their recommendations in the context of the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive.
To help me to develop my ideas, I listened to the views of Members and of stakeholders in the business, farming and environmental sectors. I sought advice from my counterpart in the Scottish Government, and I took account of the wider policy and financial considerations.
I am therefore pleased to be able set out today my goals for the future of environmental governance. Those goals have a particular focus on my agenda for better regulation.
The restoration of the Assembly and our devolved institutions, including the Executive, has meant the restoration of local responsibility and accountability. Our governance system has fundamentally changed. I, as Minister, am accountable to the Assembly and to the electorate. The Committee for the Environment scrutinises my Department’s performance.
Arrangements for accountability are much more effective than existed under direct rule. I am satisfied that those arrangements have provided the clarity and transparency that was previously lacking, and the absence of which was the subject of much criticism from Professor Burke and his colleagues.
Decisions that I have taken as Minister will help to determine the future shape and nature of our system of local environmental governance. My recent announcement on the review of public administration (RPA) will mean greater local responsibility and accountability, with the transfer of significant functions from Departments to the 11 new councils in 2011.
Major planning responsibilities will transfer, including development control and enforcement. Councils will draw up local development plans for their respective areas, ensuring that local people have a say in how those plans are shaped. My fundamental review of the planning system will streamline the planning process, making it more effective and better prepared for the RPA transition. I will take my emerging proposals to the Executive soon.
We have already made significant improvements to the planning system. The introduction of pre-application discussions with planners means that developers know exactly what information is required before they submit applications. Streamlined consultation with the city council in Londonderry means that approvals for minor applications are issued in 20 working days. Having assumed responsibility for planning policy statement 5 (PPS 5), PPS 12, PPS 13, PPS 14 and PPS 20 from the Department for Regional Development (DRD), my Department is now responsible for all planning policy statements.
The review of environmental governance’s central recommendations involved organisational change. The review team proposed the transfer of environment-related responsibilities from other Departments to mine. It also suggested that an environmental protection agency be created by merging the responsibilities of DOE’s Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) with those of the Rivers Agency and the Loughs Agency in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and some Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) functions.
Although there may be arguments for moving all environment-related functions to DOE, strong arguments also exist for leaving them exactly where they are. The Minister for Regional Development, the Minster of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure have all set out practical, and even constitutional, reasons why the transfer of functions is not appropriate at this time. As the Assembly knows, the Programme for Government commits us to a review of Departments by 2011. It seems obvious that that is the proper context in which to consider any fundamental restructuring of departmental responsibilities.
My record, and that of my Department, demonstrates my commitment to working co-operatively across the Executive at all levels, and I will continue to do that. My priority is to build a modern, risk-based approach to regulation. We will make a fresh start, with our sights firmly fixed on regulation.
EHS — indeed, the wider Department — already has an impressive pool of intellectual capacity and practical ability, as well as a determination to get things done. That is a valuable and irreplaceable resource of which we can be proud, and we must deploy it wisely in order to achieve our objectives.
EHS has the necessary expertise and capability. I will retain and reorganise it as a DOE executive agency, and launch it on Tuesday 1 July as the “Northern Ireland Environment Agency”. Its mission will be to protect our built heritage and natural environment. The new agency will carry out EHS functions and build on its successes. Last year, EHS supported the maintenance of 97 listed buildings, and its funding of 19 biodiversity officers resulted in district councils declaring seven new nature reserves. In total, EHS has declared 257 areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs), and those cover 94,400 hectares. That important work is the backbone of environmental protection.
I appreciate that some people will be disappointed by the decision not to make EHS an independent agency, as the Burke Report recommended. I say to those people that I, and my party, take the role of environmental governance too seriously to externalise the organisation. The return of devolution resulted in the appointment of local Ministers to make decisions.
I am opposed to the setting up of yet another quango in which unelected people will take decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. I am Minister of the Environment, and it is I, along with my Executive colleagues, who will take the decisions that will be scrutinised by the House and by the Committee for the Environment.
My decision today will result in certainty in environmental governance, both for staff in my Department and in the wider community. It means that we can get on with the job of better governance for the people of Northern Ireland. My environment agency will develop a new, more focused approach to environmental regulation, and on that the EHS has already made an excellent start.
On 29 May, I will convene the first meeting of our better regulation board. Its members will be leaders in the agriculture, construction, water and business sectors. In speaking directly to opinion-formers at that level, my aim is to inject environmental concerns into the lifeblood of industry. I want to inspire action, not just because it is the right thing, but because it makes sound economic sense. For example, responsible waste management can shave up to 25% off construction costs. The board will be about dialogue. I want to hear directly from industry what its needs are. I want to learn how the Department can help businesses to help themselves to improve their compliance. The board will meet twice a year and will kick-start action.
Also on 29 May, I will formally issue our ‘Better Regulation for a Better Environment’ document. Through that programme of action, we will modernise and simplify our approach to regulation. By working in partnership with the better regulation board, we will maximise environmental benefit and minimise the cost to business. Our programme reflects European and UK better regulation principles. It is risk-based, with the most robust action focused on the most damaging activities; accountable, with regulatory actions explained and decisions justified on the basis of public standards and criteria; consistent, in that rules and standards are applied fairly; transparent, with rules that are simple and user-friendly and policies that are clearly explained; and targeted, both on the problem and on delivery of the desired outcome.
Through the better regulation programme, the environment agency will help businesses to comply by giving them clear guidance that will take the guesswork out of compliance and provide tools to help them improve their environmental performance. It will streamline the process of granting permits by introducing on-line application and payment systems. In the longer term, there will be standard permits, simpler registration, management agreements and codes of good practice for lower-risk activities. The agency will also change the way compliance is assessed, so that more resources are targeted on activities and sites that pose greatest environmental risk. In the longer term, site visits will move beyond ensuring compliance: they will consider overall environmental performance and opportunities for savings.
The Northern Ireland environment agency will not have to start from scratch. NetRegs already provides online regulatory information and advice that benefits small businesses. The better regulation and simplification review will reduce the regulatory burden on the agrifood industry: EHS has already taken steps to rationalise its activities in relation to water-discharge consents, packaging regulations and inspection for cross-compliance in relation to single farm payments. All those examples show how, within current arrangements, we are already finding opportunities for modernisation and acting upon them. Future action will build on those early steps.
Environmental crime is not just bad news for the environment; it is also anti-competitive. The responsible businesses that comply are undercut by the rogues and criminals who do not. The environment agency will have to act, and be seen to act, to stop criminals and reassure legitimate businesses. It must hit perpetrators where it hurts most — in their pockets. Illegal waste activities present EHS with a serious challenge, and its response has been equally serious. Since formation in 2003, its environmental crime team has investigated 5,779 incidents of illegal waste activities. It has secured 299 convictions, which have resulted in more than £670,000 in court fines, 13 prison sentences and four confiscation orders.
Recent developments mean that future action will be more effective than before. The Serious Crime Act 2007 classified the most serious environmental crimes alongside armed robbery and money-laundering and introduced new powers to deal with them.
Assets recovery is more effective than are court fines as a punishment and a deterrent. During the past financial year, the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA), in association with the EHS, obtained orders to confiscate assets worth more than £833,000 in four cases following prosecutions involving the illegal dumping of waste. In one such instance, the owner of an illegal dump received a confiscation order for £100,000 and, at the Crown Court, an 18-month suspended sentence following a guilty plea to breaches of waste management and water pollution legislation.
The EHS has a team of financial investigators who are fully trained and accredited in line with the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. They work with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and the PSNI, and they are investigating illegal dumping with a view to confiscating perpetrators’ illegal earnings.
In April 2007, Northern Ireland Water took over DRD’s water supply and sewerage duties and improved the regulatory and enforcement landscape. Unlike DRD, Northern Ireland Water does not enjoy Crown immunity from prosecution. It is, therefore, subject to the full range of the EHS’s enforcement powers. The EHS has brought two successful prosecutions against Northern Ireland Water for water pollution, the most recent of which was earlier this month and which resulted in a £5,000 fine. A number of potential enforcement cases are under consideration.
To increase the speed and improve the effectiveness of enforcement action, I will implement an agency-wide environmental crime unit — as recommended by the review of environmental governance for Northern Ireland and the Criminal Justice Inspection — which will build on the success of the existing waste environmental crime unit.
A wider range of sanctions and penalties is also required. The use of stop notices, voluntary undertakings and fixed penalties would empower the EHS to work with businesses to ensure rapid and effective change. They would also free up more resources to deal with the most serious offenders.
Some £0·77 million will be invested in better regulation and the environmental crime team in 2008-09, and that will rise to £1·98 million in 2010-11. That investment will allow the creation of 40 new posts. The EHS and the planning and environmental policy group have grown to meet myriad demands and requirements. Their focus has been on getting the job done, and it is right that that is the case. My officials need to examine closely the balance of responsibility and the relationship between those two parts of my Department. I want to see clear blue water between the role of the core Department as policy-maker and legislator and the role of the environment agency as protector, regulator and enforcer. Together, the Department and the environment agency must share the objective of fulfilling our European obligations, and we must ensure that those are matched by the talent and resources available to us. I am convinced of the need for transparency and openness in decision-making.
In order to achieve that, I will recruit two independent members to the board of the Northern Ireland environment agency. Those members will have a broad perspective that has been gained from experience elsewhere, and they will be independent thinkers who will bring a fresh perspective to the business needs of the agency. At the same time, they will have the ability to challenge constructively and to act as critical friends.
The EHS publishes the minutes of its board meetings, team briefs, corporate and business plans, performance data, accounts and other essential information on its website. Furthermore, it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the environmental information regulations. The Committee for the Environment scrutinises its work, and Assembly Members question me on it. I am keen to make decision-making even more transparent, and I have decided that the environment agency’s board meetings should be open to the public.
As part of the RPA and planning reform programme, I will also ensure that the environment agency becomes a statutory consultee in the planning process, and with that will come the requirement to comment on planning applications within a specified time.
There are three statutory advisory councils: the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside; the Historic Buildings Council; and the Historic Monuments Council. Professor Burke and his team proposed that they should be amalgamated. Each council has a distinct and necessary role that is enshrined in legislation, and membership comprises volunteers who bring expertise and experience, and they do an excellent job.
Members of those councils do not believe that amalgamation will bring any additional benefit, and nor do I. Their chairpersons are in regular contact with each other, and the councils co-operate as they see fit to fulfil their objectives. The Historic Buildings Council and the Historic Monuments Council work together on the joint committee for industrial heritage on projects such as advising my Department on the Titanic Quarter.
I encourage the councils to work in partnership, but I will not change their status. I appointed Patrick Casement as chairperson of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside recently. Next spring, I will reconstitute both that council and the Historic Monuments Council, and recruitment for that will commence this autumn. Indeed, preparations for that work are already in hand.
Professor Burke said that:
“Accurate, rigorous and timely data as to the state of the environment is essential to good environmental governance.”
I could not agree more. On 9 April, our first state of the environment report was published. It sets out 30 baseline indicators in six environmental policy areas. Those indicators are robust figures that allow comparison with the rest of the UK and with the Republic of Ireland. We will revise the state of the environment report every year so that we can keep track of developments.
That is not the only way in which we share data and knowledge. In April alone, three significant conferences were held that the DOE supported: the environment forum; the EHS research conference; and the marine and coastal forum conference. On 20 May, which was just last week, we held our major conference on the built heritage.
I have described how we will increase openness and transparency in our regulatory system. We also need to present our policies and plans — and the European obligations that drive them — more openly and transparently. European environmental legislation is notoriously complex, and there is an awful lot of it. That means that our policy framework is also voluminous and complex. The challenge for us is to ensure that it is better articulated. That is why I am commissioning Northern Ireland’s first White Paper on the environment, which will be published during the lifetime of this Assembly.
The White Paper will identify our major objectives on waste management, climate change, biodiversity, water, landscape and the built heritage. It will map out our commitments and demonstrate how we will work with other Departments to protect and enhance the environment by fulfilling our European obligations and by implementing effective and complementary initiatives of our own. It will refer to the state of the environment report and will link the Programme for Government, the sustainable development strategy and individual policies and strategies. It will look ahead to 2025 and, in particular, will focus on the next Budget period, which will cover the years 2011-14.
I am confident that the reforms that I announced today will deliver better environmental governance in Northern Ireland. However, to ensure that effective regulation is being delivered, I believe that in 2011 there should be an independent review of the policy, of legislative development in the Department of the Environment, and of the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland environment agency as a protector, regulator and enforcer.
As I said, I want better regulation for a better environment, and that is what we will deliver. We will do that by clarifying and simplifying the existing system, by deploying our talents and resources where they are most needed and by working in partnership with others. We will prioritise and focus on the real problems, which we will solve.
Mr Speaker: Given the importance of the Minister’s statement, I am aware that some Members may feel that they also want to make a statement. I warn the House that it is vital that only questions are posed in response to the Minister’s statement. Of course, Committee Chairpersons are allowed some latitude before asking their questions.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given the nature of the Minister’s announcement, it is inevitable that there will be more questions. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be answered.
I thank the Minister for her statement, to which the Committee for the Environment will formulate its response in due course. Indeed, several specific issues have cropped up during meetings of the Committee for the Environment.
In October 2007, the Criminal Justice Inspection NI published a report on enforcement in the DOE. Conclusion 2.3 of that report refers to the EHS as an agency whose operational activities are:
“fragmented, encouraging a ‘silo’ approach to its enforcement activities with little integration of methods, systems or effort.”
It also states that there is:
“a lack of communication and interaction between the various units.”
Subsequent to that report, the Committee wrote to the Department. We received a response advising that the detail of the Department’s response was inextricably linked to the outcome of the review on which the Minister has made a statement today. The Committee would like some appraisal of that and of how certain methods highlighted in that report have been changed to bring us to the point where we are today.
The Minister’s statement today — and specifically the wide range of sanctions and penalties needed — was also discussed at Thursday’s Environment Committee meeting. Indeed, members were very anxious to establish whether representation had been made to the Public Prosecution Service or the courts, either by the Minister or on behalf of the Minister, in relation to these matters. I am sure that that would be of interest to the whole House.
These are the issues that I would like to raise on behalf of the Committee. Speaking as an MLA, I wish to refer to ‘Foundations for the Future: The Review of Environmental Governance’ — specifically chapter 5, which deals with environmental regulation. What is the view of the Minister or her Department on how the regulatory responsibility for functions can or should be transferred to the new agency in an independent capacity in relation to pollution prevention and control; waste management; the protection of species and habitats; sustainable water management; the built heritage, including archaeology; sustainable inland fisheries; and the like? There were also recommendations that the Planning and Water Appeals Commissions should be restructured and developed to create a new environmental tribunal for Northern Ireland. What is the Minister’s view on that? There were also issues —
Mr Speaker: Order. I really must insist that the Member comes to the close of his question.
Mr McGlone: Sorry; I was asking questions and trying to elicit information. I was not making a speech. I will be brief, as I have only a few more points to make. [Laughter.]
Shortcomings were highlighted with respect to legal specialisms and the in-house lawyer specialisms. The environmental protection department should have a sufficient mass of expertise in science, economics and law. The report also stated that the arguments for a non-departmental body, a non-ministerial Department, or a transfer of enforcement powers to local government were not convincing. Instead, it called for an independent body. I am anxious to hear why the Minister has not taken this independent course in light of the recommendations contained in the report and from other bodies external to the Assembly.
Mr Speaker: Minister, before you answer those questions, it is obvious that there might be multiple questions from Members for the Minister today. If Members insist on asking multiple questions, the Minister may decide to answer any or none of them. Members must realise that. If Members ask multiple questions, it is very difficult for a Minister to answer them all. In fact, it is almost impossible.
The Minister of the Environment: So I have multiple-choice questions —
Mr Weir: The answer is c.
The Minister of the Environment: OK.
I thank the Chairman for his many points in relation to the statement this morning. The first point was in relation to the CJINI report of last year. He will recall that that report called for a more joined-up way of dealing with enforcement. In my statement today I stipulated that there would be an agency-wide enforcement unit. This shows that I am taking on board the CJINI recommendation in relation to that issue. Therefore, we are having effective waste management not just in environmental protection but right across the agency, be that in water management or, indeed, in wildlife crime or illegal waste. We are dealing with all the issues through what I believe to be a very good model, worked up in respect of waste enforcement.
The review will also deal with the issue of a need for sanctions and penalties. Proportionate regulation is required, so the environment agency must have a wide range of sanctions available. I believe in that strategy, which places education before — respectively — regulation and enforcement. It is important that the environment agency has that under its wing, because education is vital to many businesses. For example, the Environment Agency of England and Wales uses education as a tool in much of its work with various sectors. I am keen to emulate that through my new environment agency.
As I said, the review of environmental governance was commissioned under direct rule by the then Minister with responsibility for the environment, Jeff Rooker. In June 2007, the REGNI report’s authors presented me with their findings. However, much of the report was set in a direct-rule context, so I then had to assess it in the context of devolution. That is part of the reason why we have decided not to establish an independent environment agency.
The Chairperson of the Committee also asked whether representations had been made to the judiciary about fines. As he knows, the REGNI report contains a section on environmental justice. I felt, therefore, that it was appropriate that I send a copy of the report to the Lord Chief Justice. In his response, the Lord Chief Justice took issue with the report’s comments on sentencing in environmental cases. He said:
“The report does not provide evidence to support this statement. The very least one might have expected would have been for the group to have sought my views before making this bold statement.”
It is regrettable that the report’s authors did not take the opportunity to speak to the Lord Chief Justice on environmental regulation.
The formal response to the CJINI report will be published in July. Moreover, as the Member is aware, the Planning Appeals Commission is within the remit of OFMDFM, which has no plans to amalgamate it with DOE.
Finally, I address the Chairperson in his capacity as an SDLP Member. I have received many calls during the review of draft PPS 14 to increase the number of single houses in the countryside. That contradicts the call for an independent environmental protection agency to be established. The Member, and others who call for more single houses in the countryside, cannot have it both ways. Some Members need to start participating in joined-up government.
Mr Weir: I welcome the Minister’s statement, which advocates efficient and effective environmental protection rather than bureaucratic burden. This morning, as is a Member’s role I tabled to various Ministers and Departments several questions that focus on the pollution of our beaches, which is an important issue. Will the Minister assure Members that, rather than abdicating responsibility for environmental protection and subcontracting it to an arm’s-length body, her proposals will ensure that proper accountability remains with the House?
The Minister of the Environment: That is why I felt that environmental governance needed to be kept within the Department of the Environment’s remit. Although I recognise that a need to reorganise EHS and change its culture existed, my proposals will result in better regulation for a better environment.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I hope that the Minister was not referring to me when she mentioned PPS 14.
Although I thank the Minister for her statement, I am disappointed because she has missed a good opportunity to introduce an independent environmental protection agency (EPA). The Minister mentioned some positive aspects about EHS; however, it has a bad record when it comes to planning and illegal dumping, particularly in border areas.
How will the Minister ensure that the service offered will be effective and efficient? Furthermore, bearing in mind how border areas are affected by the dumping of illegal waste, what consultation did she have with her counterpart in the South in making her decision? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware of a road map that was drawn up with John Gormley, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and his team in the Republic of Ireland to address the issue of the illegal dumping of waste. I was so concerned about that issue that I wrote to Mr Gormley earlier this year to try to bring some degree of urgency to the issue of the repatriation of waste from two sites in particular — one in Fermanagh and one in Tyrone. My aim was to ensure that the repatriation was conducted in a more effective and efficient manner. Dialogue about the illegal dumping of waste between me and Mr Gormley is ongoing.
I said in my statement, and I make no apology for it, that the issue of the illegal dumping of waste is challenging. It not simply an issue of people deciding to throw a couple of bags of rubbish over a hedge; it is big business, and large amounts of money are involved. That is why I believe that an agency-wide approach to the issue is required.
A lot more powers are now available to address such issues, not least the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the Serious Crime Act 2007. Those powers will enable us to take effective action, not relying simply on fines, but using confiscation orders for those who break the law and who are benefiting from a great deal of money. I want to tackle such issues personally. I have taken a close interest in the work of the illegal dumping unit in the Department of the Environment, and I will continue to do so.
Mr Gardiner: I am disappointed with the Minister’s statement. I now understand why no members of her own party even bothered to attend the meeting in the Park Avenue Hotel about the setting up of an environmental protection agency.
Will the Minister explain why she feels that Northern Ireland should be the only part of the United Kingdom not to have an environmental protection agency? Is she prepared to create a local version of an environmental protection agency that would take account of the concerns of farmers and rural dwellers, especially given that agriculture is a bigger part of Northern Ireland’s economy than is the case in other parts of the United Kingdom?
The Minister of the Environment: It is interesting that the Member has recognised that farming is a huge issue in Northern Ireland, especially given that I saw a statement of his over the weekend that singularly failed to recognise that.
Some 85% of land in Northern Ireland is owned and managed by farmers. Therefore, farmers are key stakeholders in environmental management. That is why I want to work with farmers and with the business sector to bring about education that will lead to better regulation. If such education does not work, we will move to the regulation of environmental governance, and, if that does not work, we will move to enforcement. That is a clear way in which to address the issue of environmental governance in the future. I have every confidence that that will work.
I note the Member’s disappointment with my statement and with my efforts to address environmental governance and to tackle environmental crime. It is worth noting that when members of his party were in my position, nothing was done about better regulation and better governance for the future. In fact, it was the then Minister of the Environment, Mr Dermot Nesbitt, who created the sewerage hotspots in Northern Ireland that nearly resulted in our being fined by the European Court of Justice for the first time. Therefore, I will take no lectures from the Ulster Unionist Party about environmental governance and better regulation for the country for the future.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her statement. Given that representatives of three of the Executive parties have expressed concerns about the Minister’s statement, will she clarify whether it is agreed Executive policy or a solo run? On a more substantive point — [Interruption.]
That was a question.
In her lengthy statement, the Minister failed to address the recent High Court ruling on the issue of independent environmental advice to the Planning Service, although she did refer to the EHS becoming a statutory consultee. Given that she referred to “my environment agency”, how can the Minister possibly persuade either people in Northern Ireland or the courts in Europe that that agency will be adequately independent?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his questions. I took this matter to the Executive Committee last Thursday. It is not a cross-cutting issue, and therefore I did not seek the support of Executive members. I brought the statement to the Executive out of courtesy, so that they knew what would be in my statement today.
The Member knows full well that that High Court ruling is being appealed, and therefore I cannot answer his questions. I am somewhat surprised that he asked such questions, given the fact that that matter is before appeal in the High Court.
Mr Ross: I find it quite staggering that the parties in the Assembly that wanted devolution in order to have local accountability now want to give powers away to an independent agency that is not accountable to this Assembly or to the Environment Committee.
Will the Minister outline the cost of setting up an independent EPA, including running costs on a yearly basis? Will she also outline how successful independent EPAs have been in other jurisdictions?
The Minister of the Environment: It was disappointing that the REGNI report did not fulfil its terms of reference and provide the estimated costs of an environmental protection agency. It has taken some time to try and guesstimate the amount of money that it would take to do what the REGNI report envisaged.
From an administrative point of view, it would cost at least £2·5 million to set up an independent environment protection agency. It would also cost an additional £600,000 per year to run such an agency. That does not take into account the diseconomies of scale that would be involved in having an independent environmental protection agency, because such an agency would have to buy in expertise. The Chairman of the Environment Committee talked about the agency having the appropriate expertise — an independent environment protection agency would have to buy in that expertise. From time to time, this House hears about how much is spent on consultants, and we all know that the public does not like those high costs.
The Member also asked whether other jurisdictions that have independent protection agencies have a better record than Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has an independent agency, as does the rest of the UK. Both those countries have been infracted by the European Commission for breaches of environmental governance.
Having an independent protection agency would not make a difference: I want to make a difference in relation to better governance and better regulation. I listened to the Friends of the Earth spokesman this morning, and I listened to others. I look forward to the day when those people put themselves up against me for election; to see what the people of Northern Ireland believe is the best way to achieve better regulation and better governance.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. It is an understatement to say that her announcement will be met with disgust and dismay by the entire environmental sector and the majority of this Assembly. The EHS record of protecting the environment is clearly abysmal, and the review of environmental governance was correct to recommend that an EPA should be independent of Government, while remaining accountable to the Assembly through the chairperson of the agency.
I agree with the Minister that farmers are key stakeholders in protecting the environment. Will the Minister admit that she has punished the environment sector by not trying to address the concerns of some people in the agriculture sector?
The Minister of the Environment: I am absolutely amazed by the Member’s comments. I wonder whether the Member was in the Chamber to hear what I am doing to achieve better regulation and a better environment in the future.
The Member said that the entire environment sector will be opposed to what I said today; he is wrong.
I will tell Members why he is wrong. The built-heritage sector had grave concerns about what was said in the REGNI report, and the Member knows it. It is remiss of Members to misrepresent the stated opinion of Government environmental agencies on environmental governance.
The REGNI report came to me after a period of direct rule. The Member is on the Committee for the Environment. Is he happy to hand away his scrutiny of what goes on in environmental governance and regulation? I am disappointed about that. I thought that, after recent instances, he would find himself to be the guardian of the environment and would want to take on board current environmental regulation and governance concerns. I wrote to two of his ministerial colleagues about transferring powers from DARD and DRD; however, they did not want to transfer those powers to the DOE and have it deal with them. The Member should speak to his ministerial colleagues about the transfer of regulations to DOE.
Mr T Clarke: When does the Minister hope to set up the working group with businesses on environmental governance, and who will be on that working group?
The Minister of the Environment: The better regulation board will have its first board meeting on Thursday this week, and it will be made up of members from the environmental, water, construction and farming sectors. Bringing together all of those sectors will be a good body with a better understanding of what better regulation means for Northern Ireland.
Mr Elliott: In her statement, the Minister said that EHS already has an impressive pool of intellectual capacity, practical ability and determination to get things done. When were those people appointed? It must have happened quite recently because, as yet, I have failed to meet them.
Does the Minister accept that EHS has been successful in clamping down on small businesses and individuals and, due to its focus on those minor discrepancies, has failed to clamp down on the major offenders in environmental issues in Northern Ireland?
The Minister of the Environment: It is a sign of weakness when Members have to attack civil servants to get their points across. It is pathetic of the Member to ask questions about the intellectual capacity of EHS staff, who have a proven record on their scientific abilities. I am interested to hear the Member’s views, and whether he is in favour of an independent environmental projection agency. At the Balmoral Show two weeks ago, he told us how he was working with the farmers for better regulation.
With regard to hitting small business and over-regulation, I thought that that was quite a good argument for not having an independent environmental protection agency. However, the Member can make those arguments as well as I can; he is constrained only by where he sits today.
We are engaged in a risk-based system —
Mr Kennedy: It is always easy to change party, is it not?
Mr Speaker: Order.
The Minister of the Environment: We are engaged in a risk-based approach to environmental regulation. Perhaps the Member was listening earlier when I talked about working with the farming and business communities and having education and better regulation, and then, if necessary, having better enforcement. We want to have better regulation for everyone in Northern Ireland, and I hoped that the Member would agree with that. However, that depends on where he sits today.
Mr Gallagher: We have all waited with great interest for a statement from the Minister, and we got that this morning.
It is a great pity that the Minister came to the Assembly with such a poor response to the biggest single issue facing everyone on the planet: how to regulate the environment. The Minister has merely repackaged the EHS, which is akin to moving the chairs around as the Titanic went under.
The Minister mentioned a better regulation board. The document, ‘Foundations for the Future: The Review of Environmental Governance’, which has wide public support, recommended the establishment of a board, but stressed that is should be a strong and focused regulator. How will the Minister’s better regulation board meet key principles such as being representative, accountable and open?
The Minister of the Environment: The better regulation board is specifically intended to be representative. It will include people from the water industry, construction, the farming industry and environmental organisations. The new Northern Ireland environment agency will be responsible for four main elements of better regulation.
First, compliance assistance will provide direct support and guidance to companies, using web tools, such as the NetRegs that I mentioned in my statement. Better regulation will streamline the permits system by introducing online application and payment, and that will also facilitate easier compliance with environmental regulations. Compliance assessment will use proven, accredited management schemes and risk-based audit, and the final element will be effective enforcement.
Today, I have set out a clear road map for environmental governance. People who do not take the first hint to comply will move to the next stage of the process, further non-compliance will move them to the next stage, and ultimately they will be punished by the courts.
Mr I McCrea: I welcome the Minister’s statement. I do not want to disappoint the Minister. She may have thought that Mr McKay might want to make a difference or that he was saddened by the thought of no Committee scrutiny, but he rarely attends its meetings. [Interruption.]
Mr Paisley Jnr: How can he represent the farmers in his constituency?
Mr I McCrea: Exactly; I am sure that he has barely considered the farmers in his constituency. Will the Minister outline in more detail how her proposals will lead to more scrutiny and what will be the benefits to the environment?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his question. Essentially, the proposals aim to ensure better regulation and, importantly, accountability, which is why Members have been elected to this place. Recently, I spoke to someone about a new independent environmental protection agency, and his parting question concerned the point of electing me to Stormont if I was going to hand over half of my Department to someone who is not accountable to the House.
That question rang in my ears for some time. Members have been elected to the House to be accountable, and they can express their concerns about regulation in written questions and debates. They can also do so through oral questions, and I will doubtless face some later today. I find it strange that some Members would be happier for an outside agency to take decisions on environmental governance and regulation. The Assembly should keep its eye firmly on the ball.
Mr Wells: The Minister mentioned that her decision will cause disappointment — indeed, I would say intense disappointment — to many of Northern Ireland’s environmental non-governmental organisations. However, her statement also referred to a review of environmental issues in 2011. Will she confirm that that review will be all-encompassing and that the Assembly will be able to revisit the possibility of establishing an independent environmental protection agency in 2011? [Interruption.]
The Minister of the Environment: I remind those Members who are making a racket that empty vessels make the most noise.
I say to Members who have made points in the debate that I have the greatest respect for the Member who asked the question, my honourable friend Jim Wells. He is a true environmentalist who knows what he is talking about — unlike many of the other Members in the House, it has to be said — when he speaks about environmental governance and environmental regulation.
I say to the Member that the review that I have mentioned, which will take place in 2011, will be an independent review. It will look at all aspects of the proposals that I have announced today, and therefore it will look again at the possibility of, and the need for, an independent EPA. However, I do not believe that that will be necessary at that time —and I hope the Member shares my view on that — because I have every confidence that what I am doing today will bring about better regulation for a better environment. Therefore, I do not believe that there will be a need for such an agency; however, there may be, and the opportunity will be there in 2011 to revisit the matter.
Mr B McCrea: I thank the Minister for her gentle stroll through the environmental policies. It is always good to have a nice ramble in the country; a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Will the Minister tell me if she agrees with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), that the Environmental Heritage Service is underfunded, and therefore unable to perform its duties? Will she explain why there is a significant lack of detail in her proposals with regard to costs? I note that the written answer she gave me earlier is twice as long as the actual amount of money in her statement. Will she further explain why, having said that she is not in favour of quangos, she has failed to tackle three such quangos? Finally, will the Minister assure the House that her proposals amount to more than just a halfway house, designed to give the DUP time to do a U-turn ahead of the next election?
The Minister of the Environment: I find it interesting that the Member should ask me about doing a U-turn before the next election, because the DUP is the only party that did not say that it would establish an independent EPA. In fact, the Member’s party was, for some considerable time — between 2000 and 2002 — in a position to establish one. Of course, the Member was not around at that time.
A Member: Tell us what party you were in.
The Minister of the Environment: Do not remind me, please. It is a bad nightmare; it was a long time ago.
In relation to the CBI’s view about an independent environmental protection agency, I refer the Member to the briefing note from the CBI on that issue, which states that:
“There is not universal support within the CBI membership for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)”.
The Member should get his facts right before he comes to this House. One swallow does not make a summer, and one member of the CBI does not represent the entire CBI. The Member should know that.
In relation to advisory councils, they are not quangos; they are statutory advisory agencies. However, I do not expect that the Member will understand that, so he may wish to check up on those bodies. The staff are not paid; they are volunteers, and they do an excellent job. The Member should have another look at those statutory advisory councils, and, indeed, apologise to them for calling them quangos, because they are not.
Mr Dallat: Given the effusive praise that the Minister has heaped on her officials, and her assertion that she takes environmental governance too seriously to externalise it to an outside agency, how does she answer the charge that she has been captured by her civil servants? Devolution is surely supposed to make a difference, yet, whether in relation to the need for an independent environmental protection agency, the issues surrounding PPS 14, or even the Giant’s Causeway debacle, is it not true that the officials are calling the shots, and that the message is that there is no change at the DOE?
Finally, given that the proposed new agency will be launched on 1 July, the historic anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, surely it is more likely to be the sham fight at Scarborough — [Interruption.]
The Minister of the Environment: I am sure that the members of the Royal Black Institution would welcome the Member to Scarva for the sham fight on 13 July.
In relation to the charge that I have been captured by my civil servants, quite frankly, that is ludicrous.
Mr Dallat made a lot of noise when I came before the House with a decision about the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre. At that time, his charge was that I had ignored my civil servants. He cannot have it both ways. He must understand that the Department is trying to create better regulation. It is easy for him to make as many allegations as he likes against civil servants in EHS because, of course, they cannot answer him.
The good body of men and women in EHS stand ready to take up the challenge of the changes that have been brought about in order to create the environment agency. I believe that the agency will work. As I told Mr Wells, I am confident that the changes will be effective. However, an independent review will be conducted in 2011. If the agency does not work, I am quite sure that Mr Dallat will tell me that I got it wrong.
Mr S Wilson: Unlike the Member for Lagan Valley Mr McCrea, I will not take a quiet ramble through the countryside. However, he has plenty of time to do that now that he is not a member of his party’s executive.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has not caved in to the frenzied demands of Friends of the Earth and the Coalition for Environmental Protection, which have admitted that to introduce an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland would be too costly an exercise. I also welcome the fact that she has recognised that, for example, the Scottish National Party has admitted that the independent Scottish Environment Protection Agency has been a disaster — it is unaccountable, remote and out of control.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member come to his question?
Mr S Wilson: Yes, Mr Speaker, I will come to the question now.
Can the Minister assure Northern Ireland’s tourism, construction and manufacturing industries that the frustration that they experience in trying to secure planning permission and in ensuring Northern Ireland’s economic development will be allayed and alleviated by the changes that she has made in setting up the new body; and that those changes will lead to faster planning decisions and will remove the delays that are often caused by the Environment and Heritage Service?
The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for his question. The Member is, of course, correct — I do not react well to threats. Earlier, some such comments were made about my being taken before the European Commission. Of course, that is not the first time that I have heard such threats, and I doubt that it will be the last.
There are only 1·7 million people in Northern Ireland. The devolved Administration is in place to deal with all the relevant issues, and I believe that that represents the proper forum in which to deal with better regulation and governance for the environment.
The Member asked whether I believe that the reforms that I have announced will help to speed up planning applications and whether they will deal more efficiently with responses to consultations with EHS. The new body, the Northern Ireland environment agency, will respond to planning applications within a specified time. I wish to be clear about that. It will also relate neatly to my planning reforms, the proposals for which I hope to bring to the Executive in the near future — in any event, before the summer recess.
The new agency will sit well with planning reform and will deal effectively with the issues that the Member has raised. During the past several years, there have been difficulties with planning, such as perceptions of delay, and so forth. The Department has tried to deal with those through planning reform. I hope that the introduction of the environment agency will bring about better and more proportionate regulation for everyone involved, whether they are in business, tourism, agriculture, etc.
Dr Farry: It is not contradictory to work for the economy and to protect the environment. Bearing in mind that the Minister has outlined the quite minimal costs that are involved in setting up an environmental protection agency — £2·5 million, and then £600,000 a year — can she explain the actual and potential financial, economic and environmental costs of not setting up such an independent agency?
I was under the impression that the St Andrews Agreement was supposed to stop solo runs by a Minister. However, according to today’s ministerial statement, this issue touches on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and, no doubt, every other aspect of governance here, so how can the Minister say that it is not a cross-cutting issue?
The Minister of the Environment: To take the Member up on his last point, it would have been a cross-cutting issue had I been taking functions away from those Departments, but I am not. My Department and I are dealing with environmental governance. Therefore, this is not a cross-cutting issue and it does not need the support of the Executive Committee.
Mr B McCrea: What about education?
The Minister of the Environment: Does the Member really want me to answer that? It is foolish to ask me about education when I am dealing with environmental issues. It shows where that Member’s priority lies; he is not really interested in environmental governance, instead he wants to talk about education during the debate.
I want to return to the issue about solo runs. I am not on a solo run; I am dealing with environmental governance and the restructuring of my Department. That is why I felt it was necessary to inform the Executive of my decision. No support was sought, nor was it given.
Dr Farry is absolutely right about business and environmental governance not being mutually exclusive. That is why I have invited leaders from the business sector, as well as the agriculture, construction and water sectors, to sit on the better regulation board, so that we can work together to improve regulation.
Dr Farry also talked about the minimal costs of setting up and running an independent environmental protection agency. My Department’s budget would not be able to finance the additional cost of that at present; money would have to be found. There is concern among some sections of the community that if an independent agency got off the ground, it would increase the cost of regulation, which would increase the burden on the — already strapped — business and agriculture communities. That would be a mistake.
I have taken the decision in the round. Cost was not the only factor in my decision. I believe in accountability and, therefore, that the House is the proper place to look after regulation.
Mr Hamilton: I welcome the Minister’s statement and her extremely sensible decision.
We, like the Minister, know that the cost of an independent environmental protection agency would be pinned on the ratepayers of Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Minister is as surprised as me that certain Members, including Dr Farry, who cried for years about re-establishing devolution and bringing accountability back to Northern Ireland, would want to cede control of a matter as important as environmental protection to an independent, unaccountable quango.
What consideration was given to the argument, which has been made, that Northern Ireland, with a population of 1·7 million, is simply too small for an independent EPA?
The Minister of the Environment: That was certainly part of my considerations. I felt that the money would be better spent on improving regulation instead of investing in another quango and creating a layer of bureaucracy.
People will be able to see what happens on the ground more quickly. EHS has demonstrated that with its designations of ASSIs. We have a challenging target to meet in 2016 in relation to that. We want to get on with the job, and that is what we will do under the Northern Ireland environment agency.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her statement to the Assembly this morning, in which she said:
“In the longer term, site visits will move beyond ensuring compliance: they will consider overall environmental performance and opportunities for savings.”
What assistance will be given to businesses so that they can comply with and gain the overall environmental performance standards sought by the Department?
My colleague Sammy Wilson mentioned EHS and the planning process, which does seem to take an extraordinarily long time. Will the Minister again confirm that a timescale for planning applications will be put in place to which the Northern Ireland environment agency must adhere?
The Minister of the Environment: There will be a time limit for the new agency to respond to planning applications as a consultee.
As regards compliance visits, I have been impressed by some businesses that have strongly addressed environmental issues recently. They have seen the benefits of doing so; not only because it helps the environment, which is a good enough reason in itself, but because it saves them money.
I attended a recent event in the Long Gallery at which the Quarry Products Association gave an excellent presentation on its environmental strategy for all its members. I was impressed by that presentation, and the outworkings of that will be seen.
Northern Ireland Strategy for 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on Northern Ireland’s strategy for the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I wish to inform Members of the plans and ambitions for Northern Ireland to participate in and benefit from the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, and to set out how we will ensure delivery.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
The UK has committed to delivering Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2012 that aim to be an inspirational world sporting event for athletes and the viewing public. Potentially far-reaching benefits will arise from the games, not only for sport, but in respect of the economic boost from increased investment, training and jobs that will benefit the whole of the UK. The Cultural Olympiad will ensure participation in a range of cultural and educational opportunities.
The games will have a big impact on raising community and national pride and will help to raise the international profile of Northern Ireland and the UK. Having the games on our doorstep presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us. The extent to which Northern Ireland benefits from that opportunity depends entirely on the level of our engagement.
My Department’s vision for Northern Ireland’s participation is to get more young people involved in sport and physical activity at domestic and international levels; to increase our success at major world-class events; to create better sporting infrastructure through facilities, coaching and development; and to maximise the economic and social impact for Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the strategy is about leaving a legacy from the games for future generations.
Some challenging targets have been set. We want Northern Ireland to host part of the torch relay for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and we will work to ensure that at least 10 Olympic or Paralympic teams come to pre-games training camps. We will also deliver on the other important elements of Northern Ireland’s strategy for 2012. My Department has worked in partnership with lead organisations across central and local government to develop a strategy to deliver benefits for Northern Ireland across a number of key themes.
The cultural theme of the Northern Ireland 2012 strategy is underpinned by the plan to host a four-year cultural celebration across the UK, which will be known as the Cultural Olympiad. That project will be launched over the weekend of 26 September 2008, and will comprise local and regional projects and events; large-scale signature projects, which were included in the London 2012 bid; the mandatory opening and closing ceremonies; and other ceremonies.
Northern Ireland projects will be considered for inclusion in the Cultural Olympiad, and they can apply for inclusion through the DCAL 2012 unit. Although new funds are limited, some moneys have been allocated to support cultural activity. Northern Ireland expects to gain an additional £1·31 million through Legacy Trust UK to support local Northern Ireland projects that bring together culture, education and sports. There are also opportunities for local communities and grass-roots organisations to get involved and to use the gold dust of the Olympics to raise the profile of their sector.
Another key theme is business, and an electronic brokerage system has been specially designed to support UK business in bidding for contracts for 2012. That system, CompeteFor, was launched on 8 April 2008 in Belfast by Invest NI and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). To date, 216 companies from Northern Ireland have registered, and an agreed target is in place of 300 registrations a year for Northern Ireland.
The 2012 games will result in a growth in international leisure tourism to the UK. An additional total of 500,000 visitors is forecast for 2012.
Hosting the Olympics can boost inbound tourism for a decade, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board will wish to maximise its share of additional visitors to the UK by supporting the Cultural Olympiad and maximising public-relations and destination-marketing opportunities that are associated with London 2012. Given that 2012 will mark the Titanic’s centenary, the Titanic brand will also offer potential to attract visitors around that date. We must use the Olympic Games to promote Northern Ireland as a destination of choice for major international and world-class events.
Volunteering is a fundamental part of Northern Ireland’s 2012 Olympic strategy, and the Volunteer Development Agency is taking the lead on that theme. The 2012 games should inspire existing volunteers to volunteer during the games and encourage the involvement of those who have not yet had volunteering experience. Sustaining that volunteering contribution will be challenging; however, an even greater challenge is to envisage how that contribution might be increased in order to build further capacity in the sector. Nevertheless, the unique attraction of being a volunteer during games time — being part of that world event — should add value.
The Personal Best programme — a new programme that is inspired by the games — is an excellent example of that, and its objective is to ensure that marginalised and socially-excluded people have the opportunity to participate in London 2012 activities. The programme uses the excitement generated by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to engage socially-excluded people, and it will encourage them into, and support them in, further accredited training, volunteering and paid employment. Participants will experience volunteering — perhaps for the first time — and develop skills in areas such as event management, health and safety and business.
Successful graduates from the programme will be guaranteed an interview with LOCOG to be considered as a games volunteer. In coming months, the programme will be implemented throughout the UK, and the Department for Employment and Learning, in conjunction with the sector skills councils, is considering how we might participate and derive benefits from that excellent opportunity.
Such skills will not only benefit London. Northern Ireland successfully bid to host the World Police and Fire Games in 2013, when we will welcome more than 25,000 visitors, including athletes and their support personnel. In order to support that major event, 5,000 volunteers will be required, and people with training, and possibly even experience from the London games, will be of huge value then and beyond.
Opportunities in education are still being developed. However, the games will provide a unique opportunity to inspire young people to greater participation in cultural activities and sport and to develop their knowledge and skills. Young people and their teachers and schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK will have access to films and other education resources and materials, such as, from June, an interactive website that will enable students to learn about the Olympics and Paralympics. The Paralympic Games handover will take place on 17 September, and its theme will be education.
Aspirations to maximise the sporting opportunities provided by London 2012 are fully aligned with my Department’s draft strategy for sport and physical recreation, which focuses on participation, performance and places. Its aims are to increase participation by 2014; to provide every child over the age of eight with the opportunity to participate in at least two hours a week of extra-curricular sport and physical recreation; to secure, by 2017, a 3% increase in adult participation in sport and physical recreation, a 6% increase by women and a 6% increase by people with a disability. With regard to increasing performance, by 2017, we want 100 medallists at Commonwealth, European, World or Olympic level, and, with regard to places, we aim to complete the elite facilities programme.
Sport Northern Ireland intends to invest in 100 multi-skill coaches; 80 community coaches and physical activity leaders; 22 disability and women’s sports officers; 60 talent coaches; six performer development centres; and 24 high-performance coaches and performance directors.
With regard to pre-games training camps, Northern Ireland has been successful in having 27 sports facilities included in the pre-games training camp guide for London 2012. The guide will be launched at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing this summer. Furthermore, eight of our sporting venues are included in the London 2012 guide for pre-games training camps for paralympic sports.
Inclusion in the guide is the first stage, but that does not guarantee success. We must work hard to secure the sports to ensure that our facilities are used by athletes. That will present opportunities for the young and for local communities to be inspired further by seeing Olympians live, work and train in their area.
There is also scope to expand our plans and activities for 2012, and to include additional themes, such as health and the environment. Engagement with the relevant organisations is already well under way. Although much more work remains to be done on taking forward Northern Ireland’s plans for 2012, it is worth recognising that steady progress has been made. It is crucial to continue to work in partnership and to engage across all sectors to ensure delivery.
Northern Ireland is a full part of the London 2012 structure for the Games — it is represented on the organising committee’s nations and regions group at a senior level, along with the nine English regions and the other two devolved Administrations. We are working closely with our colleagues in Scotland and Wales to ensure that we learn from and share best practice.
Being part of the London 2012 structure will ensure that we are kept informed of key developments across the themes of our strategy and that we feed into the wider Government policy objectives for creating a lasting and valuable legacy.
I presented the plans to the Executive Committee on 22 May 2008, and they agreed to the establishment of an inter-agency steering group — chaired by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure — to provide strategic oversight of Northern Ireland’s contribution to the 2012 games. The Executive also agreed to embed 2012 opportunities into respective departmental plans and, where appropriate, include those plans as part of the normal in-year monitoring and budgetary process.
That demonstrates the Northern Ireland Government’s commitment to capitalising on the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2012. The eyes of the world will transfer from China to the UK on 24 August 2008, when the spotlight moves from the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing to London and the UK. It is essential that Northern Ireland plays its part fully to ensure that we gain the maximum benefit for Northern Ireland — for our businesses, communities and our young people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we are well placed to deliver on it.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. What opportunities will the vision for business that he referred to present for the hard-pressed construction industry — for example, in helping to build the Olympics infrastructure for 2012? Is the Minister’s refusal to reach a decision on the location of the multi-sports stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site tantamount to the throwing away of opportunities to host major sporting events ahead of and during 2012? Are we losing out on major sporting opportunities because of the dithering in arriving at a decision on the multi-sports stadium?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Member has raised a couple of issues; the first relates to business. Lloyds TSB has estimated a potential £400 million of business for companies in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the Olympics. That is a significant target, and Invest NI believes that it is a very challenging one. However, if targets do not present a challenge, they are not worth setting. It is better to set challenging targets in the first instance.
I wish to challenge businesses to get involved in CompeteFor. Invest NI has already held a launch event and will be visiting regional towns to encourage local businesses to get involved. I have no doubt that many of our companies will attract business as a consequence of the London Olympics. A number of firms have already won sub-contracts with some of the companies that have received the more significant awards for construction of Olympic facilities, and they will be well placed to further cement those relationships.
The Member knows well that the decision on the stadium — and all that goes with it — is not one to be made by myself alone; rather, it is for the Executive as a whole. It is a cross-cutting issue, and I am, therefore, not in a position to make a decision on it without the full support of the Executive. Further work must be done on the matter before we can reach a conclusion, and I trust that a decision will be made sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, the matter is not exclusively in my hands.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his statement. He outlined clearly a vision for involving young people in sport and physical activity, for creating a better sporting infrastructure and for leaving a lasting legacy. With that in mind, I want to ask about target sports, which is one of the sectors in which Northern Ireland has excelled over the years, whether it be clay-pigeon shooting or shooting with shotguns, rifles or pistols. We have brought gold, silver and bronze medals home with a regularity that has astounded the rest of the world. What is being done to ensure that target sports are getting the help that they clearly need, especially where the provision of suitable grounds, training and elite facilities are concerned?
In particular, what opportunities will young people have to participate in target sports? The vision mentions the need for more young people to get involved in sport and physical activity, and that is important. Target sports are good for discipline, personality and character. We have great talent in this country and the potential to win some gold and silver medals.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I am aware that target-sports bodies submitted several applications to stage one of the elite facilities programme. Unfortunately, they did not meet the requirements and failed to proceed to the next stage. I am also aware that there are facilities in Northern Ireland that are of a very high standard, some of which have opened just recently. I am also aware that the target-sports sector has enjoyed great success in the past. I would have encouraged the organisers of the London Olympics to hold target-sports events in Northern Ireland, but, unfortunately, facilities in London have already been secured, meaning that those in Northern Ireland will not be required.
I am also aware that young people’s participation in target sports here is subject to an age restriction that does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Department would certainly support a change in the regulations that would allow young people to participate — under proper supervision — in target sports from an earlier age.
Mr McNarry: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I recognise that it is built on plans and ambitions. I note the line:
“Having the games take place on our own doorstep presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us all”.
In the recent past, the Minister talked — if not boasted — of bringing Olympic soccer teams here for Olympic competitions. Is that an ambition, or is there an actual plan to bring Olympic soccer to Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: That ambition could be delivered if we had fit-for-purpose premises. Ultimately, delivery of that ambition depended on our proceeding with plans for a multi-sports stadium. However, until we make a decision on whether to proceed with the stadium, we cannot pursue any plans for Olympic soccer competitions.
Mr P Ramsey: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I share his optimism and hope for the future. It is important to showcase Northern Ireland in a wider context and to increase pride in all communities in Northern Ireland.
Can the Minister outline his commitment to equality of access in the three Ps that he described — participation, performance and places — to ensure that there is a proper geographical balance across the regions and all areas and that there is a true sporting legacy for all young people? I frame my question with the North West Regional Sports Campus in mind. Has the Minister had any discussions with the new Irish Government Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism about cross-border elements of pre-training and about elite facilities?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The elite facilities are going to an outline business case at present. There is a shortlist of 15 potential sites, none of which happens to be in the west of the Province. That has come about as a result of the quality of the bids that were submitted and not on the basis of excluding any particular area. As a consequence, we are where we are.
I am aware of the facilities in Londonderry to which the Member for Foyle Mr Ramsey has referred. Meetings were held to discuss that issue, and an alternative source of funding, albeit with less money, was identified to help to support that project. I look forward to meeting again those people who want to deliver that project in order to see what progress has been made and how the Department’s offer of assistance can be turned into action.
Dr Farry: I welcome the Minister’s statement and acknowledge his commitment to the development of sport in Northern Ireland. I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council. Will the Minister assure the House that the finite capital resources that are available for the development of elite facilities will be concentrated, as necessary, to ensure that a number of those facilities become a reality? The flagship project that is earmarked for Bangor is the aquatic centre. Will the Minister update the House on the current outline business case for that project?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: We have less than the £53 million for elite facilities that was originally referred to by David Hanson, the then Minister with responsibility for culture, arts and leisure, and I will seek to make up the shortfall in other ways. However, I want to sweat the money that has been allocated for elite facilities and get as much match funding as possible from the deliverers of the projects. I will, therefore, be encouraging those who are making bids to do so on the basis of value for money as well as on all the other conditions in the bid applications.
North Down has two bids: one for a swimming pool and one for marina facilities. I am sure that the people of north Down would not want all the money to go into one project, with the result that the other project had no possibility of being funded. Later today, I will be speaking to the chief executive of North Down Borough Council and to the council’s director of leisure services, and I hope that we can reach a conclusion quickly and get that 50-metre-pool project off the ground and under way as soon as possible.
Lord Browne: I also welcome the Minister’s statement and am pleased that steps are being taken to ensure that the Olympic Games will have a sustainable impact on sport in Northern Ireland.
The Minister’s statement referred to increased participation, performance and places, adding that:
“The aim is to increase participation by 2014 to provide every child in Northern Ireland over the age of eight with the opportunity to participate in at least two hours per week of extra-curricular sport and physical recreation”.
Will those proposed additional two hours be compulsory or voluntary?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My Department is wholly reliant on the collaboration and co-operation of other Departments in delivering the proposals, which is why a cross-departmental working group has been established. The group has already met, and I appreciate the co-operation that has so far been shown.
The delivery of the additional two hours’ extra-curricular activity for children over the age of eight is dependent on the co-operation of the Department of Education (DE). I will be looking to the Department of Education for advice on the proposals.
However, I am not sure whether we can make extra-curricular activity compulsory. In fact, for many years — even in recent times — some schools offered no extra-curricular activities. Therefore, we must ensure that every school offers such activities, particularly in sport. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), among others, will reap the benefits in years to come.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his answers. I note his commitment to balanced regional development in the upgrading of sports facilities throughout the North. I also note the emphasis that he placed on inspiring people to become volunteers, especially for the 2012 Olympic Games, not to mention the World Police and Fire Games, which will follow in Belfast in 2013. I am sure that the Minister is aware that Belfast City Council premised its bid to host those games on the fact that there would be a multi-sports stadium at the Long Kesh site. That site is listed as one of 27 sports facilities that will be used for the 2012 Olympic Games. However, if a stadium is not built on that site, what impact will that have on the entire volunteering project?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: It will certainly set a challenge for us. More than 25,000 visitors, including participants and their support teams, will attend the World Police and Fire Games. At present, we do not have a facility to cater for that number of people at the opening and closing events. However, we are considering several options, and I have always said that I am prepared to consider all feasible options. Ultimately, we must have delivered a facility of that scale by 2013. Therefore, a decision must be made on whether the facility be sited at the Maze/Long Kesh or at another site. That decision is not for me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to take, but one that the entire Executive must take.
Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for his statement. I, too, recognise the massive potential that exists not only for sport but for business in Northern Ireland.
The Minister mentioned volunteers. I have been involved in hosting tournaments in various sports clubs, so I recognise the massive contribution that volunteering makes to hosting sports events or training camps. What steps have been taken to ensure that we have enough volunteers and that we encourage people to become involved in the Olympic Games in that capacity?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: We have held meetings with the Department for Social Development and the Volunteer Development Agency, both of which will assist the cross-departmental working group. Therefore, we are working closely with those who are charged with the delivery of volunteering in Northern Ireland.
The biggest issue may not be whether we get sufficient volunteers to go to the London Olympics but whether we receive a fair allocation. The organisers of the Olympic Games are looking for 70,000 volunteers. There will be greater capacity in London and the home counties to fill those 70,000 places, but we want a quota of those places for volunteers from Northern Ireland.
However, there are other issues to consider. For example, it will be a challenge to identify how we might financially support volunteers in order to enable them to travel to London and pay for their accommodation. Ultimately, we will seek sponsorship from private-sector organisations. Lloyds TSB, which is the Olympic Games’ main sponsor, is not based in Northern Ireland — although other sponsors are — so that will present us with a further challenge. The problem will not be getting volunteers; rather, it will be obtaining enough places for those people who wish to volunteer at the London Olympics.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Fáiltím roimh an ráiteas seo, agus gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as. Fáiltím fosta roimh na deiseanna spóirt, oideachais agus cultúir a thiocfas as na cluichí oilimpeacha agus parailimpeacha.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and, in particular, the opportunities that will be available to sport, education and culture through the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Will the Minister help to ensure that films and other educational resources will be available in the Irish language? Given that the Irish language is a central part of our culture, and that we have a vibrant Irish-medium education sector that should have access to such resources in the Irish language, will the Minister ensure that the Irish-language film industry will have access to the funding? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My statement did not mention films, and, therefore, I do not understand to what the Member for Newry and Armagh refers. However, the various TV companies that have acquired broadcasting rights will be responsible for coverage of the Olympics. I am sure that those companies would — if there was sufficient demand — be prepared to broadcast in the Irish language. However, if there is no demand, those companies will take a commercial decision not to do so. If the Member has sufficient evidence to support the broadcasting of the Olympics in the Irish language, he should, perhaps, approach those TV companies.
Mr Gallagher: I welcome the Minister’s statement and, in particular, the possibility of situating pre-Olympic training camps across Northern Ireland. Does he consider a quality centre such as the Necarne Equestrian Centre to be the type of facility that could be used for that purpose? If so, is there any work that such centres can conduct in the meantime?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Necarne Equestrian Centre is one of the 27 venues identified by LOCOG; I hope that Fermanagh District Council will support the marketing of that facility to ensure that Olympic equestrians can participate in Northern Ireland.
Mesothelioma, etc., Bill
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
The Bill is an important piece of legislation, which will establish provision in Northern Ireland that corresponds to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is expected to receive Royal Assent at Westminster soon.
The Mesothelioma, etc., Bill is a compassionate piece of legislation designed to help those who need it when they need it. Social security Bills are, by definition, exceptional. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 — which established the Assembly and is the basis for its legislative competence — recognises the unique position of social security, child support and pensions. Under Section 87, I have a statutory duty to consult with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with a view to maintaining single systems of social security, pensions and child support in the United Kingdom. Section 87 recognises the long-established principle of parity in social security issues between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s social security system is not self-financing.
The cost of paying benefits in Northern Ireland is very heavily subsidised by Great Britain. In 2006-07, for example, the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund needed a transfer of £630 million from the Great Britain fund to meet its benefit obligations. In the same period, expenditure on non-contributory benefits, which are demand-led and financed out of taxation revenue, was in excess of £2·29 billion. That means that in 2006-07, the amount we received from Great Britain to fund our social security system was approximately £3 billion. That funding is predicated on the maintenance of parity.
The Bill introduces a new scheme to make a lump-sum payment to a person with diffuse mesothelioma, or a payment to his or her dependant if that person has, sadly, passed on. The aim is to provide faster compensation to all those people diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma by providing upfront financial support to those people who were exposed to asbestos in or outside the workplace, while they can still benefit from it.
Diffuse mesothelioma is an asbestos-related cancer of the lung or abdominal linings. It has a long latency and is rapidly progressive and, invariably, fatal, with death normally occurring within nine months of diagnosis. Mesothelioma causes up to 50 deaths each year in Northern Ireland. The very short life expectancy from diagnosis often means that the sufferers die before compensation is paid. The provisions of the Bill are highly beneficial to those suffering from this devastating and fatal disease.
The Bill also provides for lump-sum payments under the new scheme and the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 to be recoverable from subsequent civil compensation. Any moneys recovered will be ploughed back into the scheme with the aim of funding higher payments in future. The amount payable is expected initially to be set at around £6,000. As money starts to be recovered from civil compensation, it is hoped that the payment will increase to match the amount payable under the 1979 Order for those people who can establish an occupational link, which is currently around £18,000.
In order to ensure that the proposals in the Bill are implemented at the same time as in Great Britain, the necessary powers must be available as soon as possible. I have discussed the provisions of the Bill with the Committee for Social Development, and, in accordance with Standing Order 40(3), I have explained the reasons for my request for accelerated passage. I believe that the Committee shares my view that the Bill should be implemented as soon as possible. In fact, I recently received a letter of support from the Committee for accelerated passage of the Bill.
In accordance with Standing Order 40(4), I will now explain the reasons for seeking accelerated passage. The Department for Work and Pensions proposes to make the first payments under the corresponding Westminster Bill by October 2008. If we were to use the normal Bill procedure, it would not be possible to maintain parity of timing with Great Britain. That would mean that sufferers in Northern Ireland would not be allowed compensation from the same date as sufferers in Great Britain. On this occasion, the use of accelerated passage is unavoidable if we are to maintain parity of timing with Great Britain.
Given that death normally occurs within months of diagnosis, I am sure that Members will agree that it is vital that the scheme is operative from as early a date as possible. The aim is to have the scheme up and running by October 2008. Members will appreciate that I do not seek accelerated passage lightly. However, if we do not use the accelerated passage procedure, the implementation of these beneficial measures in Northern Ireland will be delayed for several months, and people will be denied the extra financial security that this Bill offers during the final months of their lives.
Surely that cannot be right.
As I said, recently I had a very useful discussion with the Committee for Social Development on the future handling of parity Bills in the field of social security. The Committee acknowledged the imperatives underlining parity, and the inevitable tensions in relation to the parity of timing that are inherent in a single system of social security in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although, I intend to use the full legislative procedure where possible, it is inevitable that there will be occasions — such as the introduction of this Bill — on which I must seek accelerated passage.
For the reasons given, I am sure that Members will wish to support the motion for accelerated passage to ensure that Northern Ireland sufferers of that terrible, pernicious disease can receive payments, under the scheme, from the same date as can sufferers in Great Britain. Accelerated passage means that there will not be a formal Committee Stage. However, Members will have opportunities to make their views known and to discuss the issues fully at the Second, Consideration and Further Consideration Stages.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): At its meeting on 17 April 2008, the Committee for Social Development received a briefing from departmental officials on the background and policy objectives of the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill. On 15 May, Minister Ritchie attended a meeting of the Committee to explain her reasons for requesting accelerated passage for the Bill, and she outlined — as she has just done for the Assembly — the consequences of it not being granted.
Mesothelioma has a long incubation period. It may not be diagnosed for many years after exposure; however, as soon as the symptoms manifest themselves and a diagnosis is made, the sufferer’s life expectancy is very limited. The Bill will ensure that, once diagnosed, every sufferer will receive a payment in six weeks of making a claim. Ensuring that sufferers receive a lump-sum payment when they can still benefit from it is of the utmost importance. It is hoped that it will give them greater financial security in the final months of their lives.
As the Minister said, the Bill is a parity measure. It is crucial that sufferers of that terrible disease in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged in any way whatsoever with regard to the timing of the payment of the lump sums.
In conclusion, the Committee for Social Development supports the Minister’s request that the Bill be granted accelerated passage.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I agree with Minister Ritchie’s argument that the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill, in particular, warrants accelerated passage, due to the nature of the condition and the relatively short period between diagnosis and the sufferer’s death. I welcome the fact that the Bill encompasses spouses who develop the condition as a result of having washed clothing that had been in contact with asbestos.
The Minister discussed accelerated passage and parity legislation with the Committee for Social Development. Although, each Bill will be examined on its merits, this particular legislation warrants accelerated passage. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs M Bradley: I welcome the Bill’s introduction in the House today. There can be no doubt that it is compassionate legislation, and it will be welcomed by all mesothelioma support groups in Northern Ireland. It will ensure that benefits will reach the sufferers quickly.
The Bill removes the need for a test to establish how the disease was contracted. Members will have heard the stories of their constituents who have that horrible disease. Wives contracted the disease from washing their husband’s clothes, and some children have it because they played with their dads when they came home from work with asbestos dust on their clothes. It is a horrible, filthy disease.
I am delighted about the Bill’s accelerated passage because it will ensure that people in Northern Ireland receive their benefit as quickly as people in GB.
Ms Lo: The Alliance Party supports the accelerated passage of the Bill in order to maintain parity of timing and to get the scheme up and running in October 2008, the same time as in Britain, so that people who suffer from this terrible disease will receive compensation and not be left behind.
The Minister for Social Development: I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Social Development for his remarks. I agree that mesothelioma has a long incubation period and results in limited life expectancy, which is one reason that I am asking for accelerated passage in order to ensure that there is parity in making the payments at the same time as the legislation is enacted in GB.
I thank Mr Brady, Mrs Bradley and Ms Lo for their comments and for their support and endorsement of the accelerated passage procedure. The detail of the Bill will be discussed during Second Stage, subject to the approval of accelerated passage by the Assembly, and I look forward to that discussion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill [NIA 16/07] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Mesothelioma, etc., Bill [NIA 16/07] be agreed.
As Second Stage follows immediately after the motion for accelerated passage, there will inevitably be an element of déjà vu in what other Members and I say, but I hope that Members will bear with me.
The Bill makes provisions that correspond to those contained in the Westminster Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill; it is, therefore, a parity measure. In seeking accelerated passage for the Bill, I have outlined the arguments in favour of maintaining this long-standing policy, not least of which are the financial realities. I trust that all Members accept the benefits of parity and that the Bill is a compassionate piece of legislation, which, if enacted, will enable people in Northern Ireland who suffer from mesothelioma to benefit financially.
During the accelerated passage debate, I briefly described the contents of the Bill; I will now address the Bill’s proposals in greater detail. Under current provisions, a sufferer of the disease may receive compensation from one or more sources. First, a civil claim for damages can be made against the company or companies responsible for negligently exposing people to asbestos, in breach of their statutory duty. Secondly, people may be entitled to claim through the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme, which is administered by my Department. Thirdly, for those unable to pursue a civil claim against an employer, a lump-sum payment can be made under the scheme set up by the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which is now administered by my Department.
Making a civil claim can be difficult; for example, the employer’s company may have ceased to exist, making its insurer difficult to trace. Eligibility for industrial injuries disablement benefit or a payment under the 1979 scheme is dependent on asbestos exposure having occurred during the course of employment.
Therefore, those who contract mesothelioma from any other type of exposure, and those who cannot establish an employment link, are ineligible for such payments.
It can often take some time for an entitled claim to be processed, particularly if it involves tracing relevant employment records. Sadly, the poor life expectancy associated with mesothelioma — on average, around nine months from diagnosis — means that sufferers often die before compensation is paid. Therefore, quick receipt of compensation — while they can still benefit from it — is important to sufferers and their dependants.
The Bill provides for lump-sum payments to be made to those suffering from diffuse mesothelioma without the need to establish an occupational or, indeed, a causal link. Mesothelioma is a particularly terrible disease, with a very long latency period and a very short life expectancy from diagnosis.
The Bill’s aim is to provide payment to sufferers within a matter of weeks of diagnosis, while they can still benefit from it. If a person dies before a payment is made, that person’s dependants can claim a payment under the scheme. The scheme will benefit, in particular, people who currently cannot claim compensation, such as women who have been exposed to asbestos when washing their partner’s clothes; those who were self-employed; and those who cannot establish any occupational or causal link. Everyone who contracts mesothelioma will be eligible for an upfront lump-sum payment within weeks of diagnosis of this devastating disease.
The Bill will amend the Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 to enable payments made under the new scheme, and the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, to be recovered if a person proceeds to receive compensation from a civil claim. Payments recovered from civil compensation will be used to fund future payments made under the scheme.
The amount payable under the scheme is expected to be set initially at around £6,000. As money starts to be recovered from civil compensation, it is hoped that the payment will increase in coming years to match the amount payable under the 1979 scheme, which is currently around £18,000. To avoid double provision, a person who has already received compensation — such as a payment under the 1979 scheme or civil compensation — will not be eligible for a further lump-sum payment under the Bill.
The Bill also provides for the appeals system — which applies to social security benefits — to apply to the determination of claims by the Department. That gives a claimant a right of appeal to an appeal tribunal and a subsequent right of appeal to a commissioner on a point of law.
In short, the Bill will ensure that people suffering from diffuse mesothelioma receive compensation more quickly. It will provide upfront financial support within a matter of weeks to those who were exposed to asbestos inside or outside the workplace. The Bill is beneficial and will provide significant financial support at a time when it can be of most use. It will provide additional financial security during what must be a very difficult time for sufferers and their families. No amount of money can adequately compensate a person facing death as a result of this terrible disease, but I hope that the speedy payment of a lump sum under this proposed legislation will assist sufferers in the final months of their lives.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): The Minister has outlined the background and policy objectives of the Bill in some detail. I will not go over all of the same ground; however, I will highlight a couple of points.
Under the scheme, all sufferers of mesothelioma, or their dependants, will receive a lump sum quickly, without having to establish an occupational link.
In practical terms, payment under the scheme will be made to certain groups, including those who have been exposed to asbestos indirectly, for example, from a relative, those who have been exposed environmentally, and the self-employed. The Minister has already given specific examples of those who are covered by the Bill.
At present, people suffering from mesothelioma may receive payment as the result of a civil claim or compensation under the Pneumoconiosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979. However, payment under that Order is dependent on an occupational link. Therefore, under the Order, those who contract mesothelioma from any type of exposure other than through their occupations are ineligible.
Furthermore, a civil claim may take a considerable time to process, especially if it involves tracing employment records from many years ago. Unfortunately, and as has been mentioned already, the poor life expectancy that is associated with mesothelioma often means that sufferers die before compensation is paid.
It is important to sufferers and their dependants that they receive compensation while they can benefit from it. Although no amount of money can compensate for the misery and suffering that are caused by this terrible disease, the quick payment of a lump sum should offer at least some assistance.
On behalf of the Social Development Committee, I thank the Minister and her officials for briefing the Committee on the principles and details of the legislation. The Committee supports the Bill.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I have no wish to repeat what has been said, and I have only one point to make. The Minister mentioned that sufferers will be able to appeal. I hope that that will not be a major feature of the outworkings of the legislation, because a sufferer may die before their appeal is heard, and we know that appeals can take a long time. In general terms, however, Sinn Féin supports the Bill. Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Lo: I, too, have no wish to repeat the many points that have been made. I endorse the Bill warmly: it fills the gap that has been left by the 1979 Order. Without stipulating the need for an occupational link, the Bill will compensate those who have contracted this terrible illness either directly or indirectly. That goes a long way towards being fair to everyone who suffers from the illness. I support speedy payment, which should be made in a matter of weeks, to those who suffer as a result of the disease. As other Members said, no amount of money can compensate for suffering or for loss of life. However, material compensation will help sufferers and will make their lives easier.
The Minister said that the scheme will start by paying lump sums of £6,000. However, she said that she hopes that it will eventually match levels of payment that are provided for by the 1979 Order, under which maximum sums of £18,000 were paid. The Department for Social Development must work hard, using the benefit-recovery legislation, to recoup money. Indeed, the whole scheme depends on that recoupment: we can increase the size of payments only if we recoup enough money from insurers. Taxpayers should not have to pay for the liability of employers. Where an employer is ordered to pay compensation to an employee, the employer’s insurer may go to court and ask that the level of compensation be reduced on the ground that the employee has been compensated by the state already. It is therefore important that we work hard to recover the full amount from employers’ insurers.
The Minister for Social Development: I have listened carefully to Members’ comments, and I trust that I will be able to address their concerns. I thank the Chairman and members of the Committee for Social Development for supporting the expeditious passage of the Bill. It is necessary, because it concerns people who are enduring great suffering and misery as a result of that pernicious disease, mesothelioma.
I cannot disagree with what Mr Brady said about appeals. Any appeals that are received must be dealt with expeditiously, because of the low life expectancy of mesothelioma sufferers. We want people to benefit from the compensation scheme when they are alive. That is preferable to the family’s receiving the compensation following the victim’s death.
Ms Lo mentioned the levels of compensation payment. We have arranged to pool the money that has been recovered from civil compensation claims with Great Britain. That recovered money comes from the employer’s insurer, and not from the person who is being compensated.
I listened carefully to Mr Brady’s comments, and I agree that there will be few appeals. However, as I said already, it is hoped that the appeals will be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. In our past lives, Mr Brady and I experienced the appeals structure, and we know that, sometimes, appeals can impose further misery on applicants and — due to the possible delays — place an inordinate burden on them.
The Department for Social Development has the power to reconsider a decision, perhaps in cases where a new fact comes to light, or where a mistake has been made. In such cases, the Department will be happy to examine the matter. We are in no doubt that this is a matter of grave concern to the sufferers, their dependants and their families. We want to deal with the problem in the most conciliatory, sensitive and sympathetic manner possible.
I hope that I have addressed all of the concerns that were raised. I will read the Hansard report, and if a Member has raised a matter that I have failed to address, or that needs to be dealt with in more detail, I will write to the Member.
I am happy to commend the Bill to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Mesothelioma, etc, Bill [NIA 16/07] be agreed.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I beg to move
That the Libraries Bill [NIA 5/07] do now pass.
The decision to establish a new body to manage and deliver a unified library service was taken last year by the Executive, following a period of public consultation. Since then, the Bill has undergone an important period of scrutiny by the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. Now, at the Bill’s Final Stage, the Assembly can have its say.
The service provided by public libraries has a vital role in today’s society. Libraries are an undervalued asset in our communities, and their existence is sometimes taken for granted. However, libraries are rich resources that provide open access to books and information for knowledge, enlightenment and entertainment. Furthermore, there is the bonus of knowledgeable staff who provide advice, direction and assistance. The Library Service is imbued with a philosophical approach that emphasises the value of books, information and cultural assets; and the egalitarian right of everyone to be helped to access them.
The Library Service is committed to the importance of self-discovery, in helping people realise their potential. It is also committed to the need for access to quality materials and advice and assistance in using them. Libraries can, and do, help citizens achieve an improved quality of life, and they nurture vibrant communities. A society that puts efforts into achieving the best structures for the management and delivery of libraries is one that cares for such values.
In the past two years or more, significant effort has gone into considering how best to provide a library service for Northern Ireland. I remind Members that, during the consultation on the review of public administration proposals, the future of the Library Service was genuinely open to debate. There was no previously determined solution — options were proposed and consulted on. I am, therefore, confident that, together, we have achieved not only a sound and sensible solution but an exciting and innovative one.
I strongly believe that the model that proposes a unified library service for all of Northern Ireland that is delivered and managed by a new body — the library authority — is the best option for achieving a high-quality public-library service.
There are several reasons why that is the case. The library authority, as a separate body, will deal solely with the public-library service and will, therefore, place a dedicated focus on libraries. In some respects, that is something that, to date, has been lacking. A single library service for the whole of Northern Ireland will provide improved quality of service by facilitating the sharing of best practice and by bringing all parts of the service up to the same level as that achieved by the best providers. It will ensure parity across Northern Ireland. A single service will also ensure coherent planning across the region for the service as a whole, and will, as a result, ensure the most effective use of resources.
By providing a single focus for library services, the library authority will be best placed to develop partnerships with other services — such as in education or health — to deliver programmes to targeted groups. Combining five library services into one is a streamlining measure that will produce efficiencies by ending the duplication of administration and of the functions that are currently provided by Library Service headquarters. It will also achieve greater transparency in accounting for public funds.
Moreover, as a service of central Government that is accountable to the Executive and the Assembly, the library authority will be well placed to ensure that library services support a wide range of Government priorities. Those priorities include promoting literacy and lifelong learning, and addressing social inclusion. Libraries are concerned with informal learning and offer an especially significant opportunity for those who have missed out on learning or who feel uncomfortable in formal learning situations.
Many people have helped the Bill to reach its Final Stage, when the Assembly gives final consideration to the Bill’s proposed restructuring of the delivery of public-library services. In particular, I thank the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, which considered the Bill between September 2007 and January 2008. The Committee agreed the model of a unified service led by the library authority, but, in scrutinising the legislation, it raised several important issues, some of which have been incorporated in the Bill.
One of the Committee’s main concerns was that there should be local engagement with the Library Service to ensure that any new service reflected local needs. Plans are now in place to secure local engagement in two ways: first, by giving library-authority managers responsibility for a particular area, which is to be located in the area where they serve; and, secondly, through consultative arrangements that the library authority will establish. Those consultative arrangements will involve local government and other statutory and voluntary agencies, and they will apply until district councils’ community-planning responsibilities are in place.
The legislation represents an innovative model for library services. Moreover, it is a model that has been tailored in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland. It is a unique model that has provoked a great deal of interest from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland.
Over the next few years, I look forward to seeing restructuring leading to the establishment of a unified library service that will deliver service improvement and parity across Northern Ireland, as well as a major capital-investment programme’s being put in place to develop and improve the library estate for the twenty-first century. In that way, the library authority will be able to deliver on the Department’s vision of flexible and responsive library services that provide a dynamic focal point in the community and assist people in fulfilling their potential.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately on the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next contribution will come from the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr Barry McElduff.
The sitting was suspended at 12.49 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to address the House in my capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. Cultúir, Ealaíon agus Fóillíochta.
The Libraries Bill was referred to the Committee on 19 June 2007 and was considered at 16 Committee meetings. I thank all the individuals and organisations who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee. I also thank the officials who, over several meetings, took the Committee through the detailed provisions of the Bill. I commend all Committee members for the work that they did in considering the details of the Bill, and I also thank the Assembly and Committee staff for the support that they gave to the Committee.
In Committee, the Bill was scrutinised clause by clause. The Committee concluded that it was content to support all the provisions of the Bill, with the exception of aspects of clause 2, schedule 1 and schedule 3. I am happy to report that all the amendments have now been agreed between the Department and the Committee. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee, I thank the Minister for agreeing to include its suggested amendments. The Committee welcomes the amendments to the Libraries Bill, and I commend them to the House.
Mr Shannon: I concur with the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. I also thank all the staff for the considerable effort, help and assistance that they provided to the Committee during its scrutiny of the Bill. Members have tried to bring legislation to the Chamber to deal with certain issues, and the Libraries Bill is an example of one such piece of legislation. Committee members supported the Bill unanimously, which is good news.
Given that we are now making progress, will the Minister tell us the timescale within which the library authority will be established in shadow form? Will he also indicate when staff will be set aside for that particular job and when all the necessary resources will be made available?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I thank the Members who contributed to the passage of the Bill, especially the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for its assistance in bringing us to this significant milestone in the development of the public library service in Northern Ireland. We have also reached a significant milestone in the review of public administration, which is something on which we hope to make progress.
Northern Ireland will have a high-quality and dynamic public library service that remains free at the point of delivery. Staff contracts of employment will be protected under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) , and existing pension arrangements will be honoured. Equality considerations will also be taken into account where the location of headquarters and any changes in policy delivery are concerned.
We will also embark on a substantial capital programme to meet needs across Northern Ireland for new and improved library premises. In addition, we will have a dedicated board of members with corporate responsibility to ensure that the public get the best quality library service. That board will include interested and suitably experienced people who are drawn from the general population. Importantly, district councillors, who are elected representatives, will also be members of the board. Therefore, the board will bring together different people with different qualities who have the single goal of improving front-line service provision for all.
To conclude, the dedication of the staff in the public library service has been superb, and I thank them all for that. The new library service will be established in April 2009, and the shadow board and the chief executive designate will be appointed in autumn 2008. Therefore, as we move into that new era, we will seek to deliver on the promises that have been made to create a more efficient, accountable library service in Northern Ireland. That new service will save the taxpayer money in administration costs but will, hopefully, not reduce front-line services in any way.
That is the commitment that we are making to the House on the delivery of a single library authority.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Libraries Bill (NIA 5/07) do now pass.
Standing Committee Membership
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion on the membership of a Standing Committee. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Jim Wells replace Mr Ian McCrea as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. — [Lord Morrow.]
Regulation of the Pharmacy Profession
Mr Deputy 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 wish to speak will have five minutes each.
Mrs I Robinson: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the work of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland in regulating the pharmacy profession over the last eighty years; supports the conclusions of the ‘Future of Pharmacy Registration, Regulation and Representation in Northern Ireland’ document; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to update the society’s statutory framework accordingly.
It is a pleasure to propose the motion.
The role of pharmacists is evolving, and professional leadership is essential. Pharmacists operate in various settings — high streets, hospitals, health centres, GPs’ surgeries, universities, laboratories and in industry. People who work in the healthcare environment — increasingly in the role of clinical practitioners — have different responsibilities to those who are at the cutting edge of industry and technology in multinational companies.
The Westminster Government have committed to ensuring the independent regulation of the broader healthcare profession. A recent White Paper described the need to separate the regulation and professional leadership functions for pharmacy. Current proposals for the mainland include the formation of a general pharmaceutical council analogous to the General Medical Council (GMC) and a new separate representative body — possibly a royal college for pharmacy. The public needs to be assured of excellence in governance arrangements, and the separate body would ensure excellence in clinical practice, innovation and leadership.
The safe and effective prescribing and dispensing of medicines is becoming more complex, and greater clinical responsibilities are being placed on the pharmacy profession. The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has been regulating the pharmacy profession for more than 80 years since it was established by the Pharmacy and Poisons Act (Northern Ireland) 1925. The society maintains a register of more than 1,800 pharmacists and 500 premises in the Province. It is a legally recognised body with powers and duties conferred to it under the Pharmacy (Northern Ireland) Order 1976.
In Northern Ireland, we have the potential to operate the maximum devolved control over professional regulation. Other devolved regions would love the extra freedom that we have been offered; for example, there are plans in Scotland to establish a Scottish pharmacy body.
Pharmacy should be guided by the same professional principles throughout the United Kingdom on regulations and the development of pharmacy. However, now that we have finally secured stable devolution, our devolved Minister should exert the maximum possible influence to meet the requirements of the profession and patients in the Province. Our local body should remain separate and distinct from its counterpart organisation in GB. Replacing the local regulatory and professional functions with a centralised UK-wide system would inhibit the ability of the devolved Administration to develop in a manner that reflects the overall strategy for healthcare in Northern Ireland.
Pharmacies should not be semi-detached from the rest of the developing Health Service in Northern Ireland. We should be able to play a full role as a devolved region within the United Kingdom. The uniqueness of the system in Northern Ireland — with the inspection role separated from the Pharmaceutical Society — was recognised and complimented by Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman Inquiry report.
Northern Ireland has a leading-edge inspectorate, and it would be foolhardy to dispense with its experience. It should retain responsibility for inspecting the practice of pharmacists, investigating complaints against pharmacists, and inspecting premises.
Pharmacies in Northern Ireland face their own challenges, which are distinct from those faced in other parts of the United Kingdom. We are unique in the United Kingdom in that we share a land border with another European Union country. That creates challenges and opportunities. The registration of non-UK pharmacists is an important factor to consider. Issues, for example, of temporary registration of qualified pharmacists as occasional workers have greater relevance for Northern Ireland.
The recent European Commission’s reasoned opinion to the UK Government — and the resultant changes that have been proposed to enable a UK pharmacist to dispense a prescription written by a doctor or a dentist registered in another European state — will have a greater impact on pharmacies in Northern Ireland, due to our proximity to the Republic of Ireland. That will affect regulatory activities, particularly in border areas.
In future, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland could follow two good existing examples: the Law Society of Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council. Both bodies operate within UK-wide frameworks, but with significant local autonomy.
A reformed Pharmaceutical Society would be governed by a council or executive board, which would comprise an appropriate number of pharmacists who would be appointed by lay representatives. The council or executive board would be responsible for the registration of pharmacists, technicians and their premises; pre-registration services; the registration examination; continuing professional development and revalidation; professional guidance and standards; and leadership of the profession. It would also look after accreditation for Northern Ireland pharmacy degrees and courses, and fitness-to-practise support.
It is essential that, in any new arrangements, the fully devolved nature of healthcare in the Province is reflected, public confidence in the adjudication process is maximised, and patient and public involvement is strengthened. Arrangements should be more adaptable and future-proofed, which would allow for parallel development with other UK regulators. We should build on the recognised strengths of the inspectorate. A strong local vehicle for stakeholder input and planning must exist, with a strong local voice and identity for pharmacies.
Essentially, we need a structure in which professional development, revalidation and fitness to practice can be delivered in a local context. With those objectives in mind for the leadership of pharmacies in Northern Ireland in future years, I have great privilege in proposing the motion.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Members opposite for tabling this valid motion, which Sinn Féin will support.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety outlined many issues that will probably be addressed during the course of the debate. She said that the Pharmaceutical Society has been in existence since 1925, and, during that time, has carried out its role of regulating, registering and representing the profession in every aspect of its work. In fact, the role of the Pharmaceutical Society has been highly commended for its effectiveness and its uniqueness. The Chairperson also said that our system is separate and distinct in that the inspection role is separate from that of the Pharmaceutical Society.
Discussions are ongoing about the future of the body for pharmacists, which could include the role of the Pharmaceutical Society in the North. However, it is my understanding that the society does not view that as a positive step forward.
Based on the information presented to me, I am led to believe that the current system works well, with which I agree. However, there are some issues. On this island, there is a need for partnership working with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. Although I will not use her words, the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety highlighted the fact that we share a land border with the Twenty-six Counties.
There are numerous concerns about this issue in the border areas. Time and again, the Assembly has debated some of those concerns — for example, that people living in Newry would find it easier to visit a doctor in Dundalk, rather than having to wait weeks to see a doctor in Daisy Hill Hospital.
Some of the issues require a common-sense approach, such as the mutual recognition of qualifications. On one occasion, there was a major incident in Omagh of which we are all deeply aware. A group of doctors and nurses based in and around Dundalk travelled to Omagh and tried to help. However, due to the fact that they were not regulated, they were not able to provide help on the day, which was madness. The uniqueness of the situation here has resulted in an agreement between both societies — a memorandum of understanding has been established.
The society believes that retaining a local regulator will ensure the safeguarding of patient safety, the operation of effective devolution, patient and public confidence, and will ensure the development of the pharmaceutical profession. The society believes that patient safety will be best served by the retention of a local regulator.
The Chairperson mentioned that the arrangement has been praised by Janet Smith in her inquiry into the horrible Shipman murders, and it is something that we should promote. A locally based regulator for the pharmaceutical profession would also help the Executive and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to achieve their ambitions for healthcare. Of all the devolved Administrations, this Assembly has full control over professional regulation in the health sector, which provides the Executive, the Minister, the Department, and the Committee with an opportunity to make new and imaginative uses of Health Service professionals so that positive changes in the sector can be achieved.
Sinn Féin will support the motion proposed by the party opposite. From the outset, it is important to consider what professionals say because they are the experts in the field — we might think that we know everything but we do not. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to the contributions of other Members during the course of the debate. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McCallister: The process of transforming the regulation of the health sector is a necessary and welcome step. In light of the disturbing revelations of the Shipman case in England, the Westminster Government have started a process seeking to achieve the separation of professional representation, regulation and adjudication on fitness-to-practis`e cases from the health regulatory bodies in Great Britain. That will mean that the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain will be separated into a new general pharmaceutical council and a Royal College representative body.
At a time when pharmacists are being given more clinical power to dispense drugs, change is crucial. However, the Health Minister is in the position of being fully in charge of devolved health matters, meaning that he can shape reforms that reflect circumstances in Northern Ireland.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has set public safety and professional standards here for 80 years. It has continually transformed in order to meet developing professional and regulatory standards. In many instances, it has been the model of good practice for other regulators in the UK, exemplified by the independent inspectorate in the Department. The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has made a persuasive case as to why it should remain a separate entity from its counterparts in Great Britain.
There are unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. We have a land border with another EU country, which has ramifications for temporary registration and non-registration of pharmacists. Equally, there are some safety concerns with counterfeit medicine smuggling and cross-border purchasing that require flexibility to co-operate fully with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland also argues that centrally organised regulators may not provide the best form of representation for public and professionals alike. It holds a genuine concern that a move to replace the regulatory and professional functions with a centralised system would significantly inhibit the ability of the Minister and the sector to develop pharmacy at a pace and in a manner that reflects the overall strategy for healthcare in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist Party recognises the Minister’s decision to delay any judgement on the matter until the general pharmaceutical council in Great Britain is up and running. In the meantime, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has proposed a range of changes that seeks to bring it into line with the proposals in the Government’s White Paper and with the regulations in the Health and Social Care Bill.
The proposals represent a positive move in the right direction. The separation between the regulatory body and the new independent statutory committee that will adjudicate in disciplinary matters would be a progressive step. Equally, the proposal to make the council of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland more strategic and board-like, with a requisite number of professionals and lay people, is a correct move.
The Ulster Unionist Party also supports the retention of the departmental inspectorate, and the need for an oversight commissioner or organisation for the independent statutory committee. That model is based on the Law Society of Northern Ireland and is clearly a competent model.
The Minister has deferred any decision on whether the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland should join the new general pharmaceutical council of Great Britain. The general pharmaceutical council will not be up and running until 2011. If we continue with the structures that are in place in the meantime, we will be continuing with a less-than-satisfactory regulatory framework. It is important to consider the changes to the statutory framework of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland to ensure the best outcome for pharmacists and the public.
Although the Ulster Unionist Party recognises the Pharmaceutical Society’s desire to be the body in Northern Ireland, it believes, at this juncture, that the society’s proposals should be investigated further by the Health Minister and the Health Committee. A range of questions comes to mind. Do the proposals go far enough in separating the professional representation and the regulatory roles, which I consider to be the cornerstone recommendation of the Shipman Inquiry? I note that the Government’s White Paper proposes that regulatory councils be brought closer to the accountability of Parliament, and the provisions for that proposal.
Mr Gallagher: I welcome the debate and thank the Members who proposed the motion. I acknowledge the work of the Pharmaceutical Society over the past 80 years — a significant part of which was under direct rule. However, the context has changed in Northern Ireland. As Members know, responsibility rests largely with the Assembly, especially in relation to the health sector, and that brings to the fore some key issues.
First, since we have a devolved Administration and control over our affairs — and, in particular, health — the ability to regulate health matters is important. Pharmacists, like other health professionals, will be involved more in delivering key services here and in taking forward our health strategy. Working together effectively with the other partners in the Health Service will require a local model for regulating the pharmacy profession — a model that meets the needs of the pharmacists and the patients and reflects the political reality in Northern Ireland.
The Pharmaceutical Society supports such a system for Northern Ireland — one that is guided by the same principles that apply in the rest of the United Kingdom yet also recognises the Assembly’s authority over the Health Service.
As was mentioned earlier, Northern Ireland is unique in the UK in that it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, and patients and medicines cross that border daily. The probable increase in that traffic will bring challenges to, and opportunities for, the health sector in Northern Ireland, not least for pharmacists. Therefore, a local regulatory body would be in a much better position than a UK-wide body to support the growing number of cross-border health projects that are under way. Everyone will have heard of the Cooperation and Working Together initiative, which supports several such projects.
As a representative of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I am familiar with the border area, and I regularly see customers from the South visiting pharmacies in the North, and vice versa. Regulations must reflect that reality, and the establishment of a local body is also important for the autonomy of the pharmaceutical profession in Northern Ireland.
Other professions have undergone similar developments. The Law Society of Northern Ireland regulates the legal profession here. Moreover, through the Northern Ireland Social Care Council, social workers subscribe to exactly the same principles as their colleagues throughout the rest of the United Kingdom while remaining regulated by a council in Northern Ireland. The same should apply to the pharmaceutical profession. I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question Time is scheduled to begin with questions to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister at 2.30 pm. Therefore, I propose that Members take their ease until then. The debate will recommence at 4.00 pm, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Kieran McCarthy.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Office Of the first minister and deputy first minister
Funding for Minority Ethnic Communities: CSI Strategy
1. Ms Lo asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans it has for the administration of funding for ethnic minority communities under the new cohesion, sharing and inclusion strategy. (AQO 3673/08)
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On 15 May, the First Minister and I were delighted to announce awards of almost £1 million of funding for 2008-09 under the OFMDFM funding scheme for minority ethnic communities. That represents a very substantial increase on previous years. It comes from the additional funding of almost £7·5 million over the next three years for promoting good relations and good race relations, which was announced in the Budget. Our total investment for the period 2008-2011 to meet the public service agreement target of a shared and better future for all will be almost £29 million. OFMDFM is committed to providing funding to promote good race relations and racial equality.
Proposals for a programme of cohesion, sharing and integration for a shared and better future, which were signalled in the Programme for Government, are now at an advanced stage of development. At the core of those proposals will be action to tackle racism, sectarianism and intolerance. Those proposals, which will be brought forward soon, will include a funding scheme to promote inclusion and integration, particularly at the local level. The programme is being designed to build on some of the excellent work being done, particularly at the local level, to address the challenges that communities face.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. In the past, many ethnic minority organisations have been aggrieved by the fact that they had to compete with some local community organisations for the particular pot of money put aside by OFMDFM for ethnic minority organisations. Given that, will the Minister anticipate putting aside core funding for those ethnic minority organisations, and perhaps making some project funding available to local community organisations, to enable those that wish to engage with local ethnic minority residents in their area to access some kind of one-off project funding in that way?
The deputy First Minister: Obviously, the Member has played a very valuable role in building better relationships within society, and it was one of the better days for the Assembly when she was elected to represent that important constituency. I am always willing to listen to ideas and suggestions concerning how we go forward, but it is important to state that we cannot hope to tackle racism without tackling sectarianism, and vice versa. Both racism and sectarianism have their origins in unacceptable attitudes, and find their outlets in unacceptable behaviours. We should not kid ourselves that we can tackle one without tackling the other, nor should anyone imagine that they can take refuge in tackling racism because they find it uncomfortable to tackle sectarianism, or vice versa. Those twin evils feed off and, indeed, sustain each other. Of course, there can be no place whatsoever for intolerance or hatred, however it manifests itself, and whoever it chooses as a victim.
Real progress has been made. Substantial funding is being put aside, and, obviously, it is very important to ensure, as we go forward, that the issue is dealt with in an holistic way.
Mr Shannon: I welcome the £29 million funding that the deputy First Minister mentioned. Ethnic minority organisations and communities are not specific to one part of the Province, they are found in all parts of the Province. The area that I represent has a great number of people from the ethnic minorities, who make a great and significant contribution to the areas in which they live, in Strangford and elsewhere. My question concerns the £29 million to which the deputy First Minister referred. Will that be distributed and allocated per capita for each constituency? I would like to ensure that we in Strangford get our share of that money.
The deputy First Minister: We all recognise that racism and sectarianism are not peculiar to any one area of the North and that we have been afflicted by them for many years. It is important that difficulties are dealt with as they are identified and that support is given to the groups that do fantastic work at grass-roots level to provide leadership and to complement the Assembly’s work.
It is hugely important to recognise and face up to the plagues of racism and sectarianism — wherever they exist in society — without preferential treatment being given to any particular geographical area. We must recognise and face up to problems, rather than run away from them. Hopefully, that will encourage local communities. There is strong evidence that, throughout the North, people on all sides of the different debates on racism and sectarianism increasingly stand up to and challenge the bigots and racists in society.
Obviously, as the matter is progressed, the Department must make judgements on how best to direct its limited resources. Fortunately, because there has been a substantial increase in investment in the matter, I believe that we will be well able to manage the challenges that lie ahead.
Mr Gardiner: Will the deputy First Minister indicate what steps his office has taken under its remits for children and young people and community relations to ensure the full integration in society of children from ethnic-minority communities — including familiarisation with the English language — particularly in areas where there are large immigrant populations?
The deputy First Minister: Obviously, those issues represent huge challenges for all Departments, not just for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Since the start of the decade, when I was the Education Minister, the Department of Education has been conscious of the needs of children from ethnic minorities. The Member has raised an important argument, for which I have tremendous sympathy. If we fail those children due to a lack of response on the essential support that they require — given the massive difficulties that they and their parents face — we will also have failed society.
Devolution of Policing and Justice
2. Dr Farry asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what discussions it has had with the Northern Ireland Office on the devolution of policing and justice. (AQO 3674/08)
6. Mr Ford asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide an update on the devolution of policing and justice; and what discussions it has had with the Northern Ireland Office on this matter. (AQO 3676/08)
The deputy First Minister: With your permission, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will answer questions 2 and 6 together.
It is for the Assembly to request the devolution of policing and justice powers. Its report, which was submitted in March 2008 to the Secretary of State in accordance with section 18 of the St Andrews Agreement Act 2006, recommended that political parties commit to further discussions as to when such a request might be made. The issue is currently being discussed by political parties. Neither the First Minister nor I have entered into discussions with the NIO. However, prudent preparatory work to plan for the administrative and resource implications of devolution in the event that there is political agreement to proceed has been undertaken by OFMDFM officials and has involved engagement with NIO officials.
Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for his answer. As he is aware, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee has finished its report, and the 1 May deadline for devolution has passed. Rather than simply having informal discussions between political parties, can the Minister assure the House that a formal, structured process will be implemented to progress discussions with the Northern Ireland Office, and that, under that framework, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will adopt a joint approach?
The deputy First Minister: Obviously, important recommendations emerged from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee’s report on the devolution of policing and justice. Recommendation 21 states that:
“preparations for the appointment of an Attorney General … should be taken forward by the First Minister and deputy First Minister before the devolution of policing and justice matters.”
We are well aware of that recommendation and of the statutory obligation that section 22 of the Justice Act 2002 places on OFMDFM about the appointment of an attorney general.
However, agreement between the political parties remains the key determinant before detailed steps can be taken to implement devolution of justice.
Recommendation 38 proposes that the NIO and OFMDFM should take forward work to ensure that existing North/South agreements on policing and justice remain in place at the point of devolution. Work on that matter will form part of the ongoing preparatory engagement between OFMDFM and officials.
We are all conscious that this issue has been widely discussed in recent times. We also know that there is a responsibility on the political parties to resolve it. I hope that it can be resolved. I hope that we can move forward to see the Assembly deal with policing and justice, which are matters of critical importance to all people, as well as other matters of importance, such as health, environment and agriculture. I hope that in the period ahead, we will see that resolved.
Mr Ford: I thank the deputy First Minister for his response to my colleague’s question. He specifically mentioned resource issues; will he give us an update as to what progress has been made on the budget for policing and justice? Are there any proposals for ring-fencing that budget if or when devolution happens?
The deputy First Minister: The Member will be aware that the issue has been in the public domain recently. OFMDFM is in agreement that, in the context of powers being transferred to a local Executive and Assembly, there is a duty and a responsibility on the British Government to ensure that such a transition is adequately funded and that appropriate structures and policies are put in place to ensure that the essential funding we require can be put to good use in combating crime and criminals in society.
As we go forward, I have no doubt whatsoever that in the context of the ongoing debate, both publicly and privately, that issue will feature strongly. The First Minister and I, in all our engagements with the British Prime Minister and Secretary of State, have made it clear that we expect extra financial support from the British Government.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the deputy First Minister for his earlier reply. Any potential devolution of policing and justice will involve other matters, including the possible transfer of ownership of former military bases such as the Lisanelly site in Omagh. Will the deputy First Minister give his up-to-date assessment of any progress his officials have made in their discussions with the Prime Minister’s office on that issue?
The deputy First Minister: The issue of redundant military sites is one that featured in discussions with the Prime Minister during his last visit to the North for the US/NI investment conference. The First Minister and I took the opportunity to highlight to the British Prime Minister the need to gift those sites to the Executive and Assembly. I understand from some comments made by the Prime Minister recently that that matter is being given some consideration.
Mr Campbell: Given the political reality that devolution of policing and justice will not materialise in the foreseeable future, would it not be more productive for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the Assembly in its entirety, to look at projects that are within their remit in the lifetime of the present Assembly?
The deputy First Minister: During the discussions at St Andrews, both Governments outlined the commitments that they expected: that all parties would deliver during a process that led to the devolution of policing and justice to the North.
The issue must be resolved. We have to approach it sensibly and recognise the strong argument that, if politicians have the intellect and ability to deal with other matters of governance in the North, they surely have the ability, wit and intelligence to deal with policing and justice. The political parties will either resolve or not resolve the issue, but I hope that it will be resolved.
Transfer of MOD Sites
3. Mr O’Loan asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to confirm whether the delay in making a decision on the regeneration of the Maze/Long Kesh site will affect further transfers of former military sites owned by the Ministry of Defence. (AQO 3612/08)
The deputy First Minister: As the Member is aware, a development of the size and importance of the Maze/Long Kesh site takes time to prepare. The First Minister and I will submit a paper to the Executive on the proposed development of that site. In order to allow the Executive to make an informed decision on the issue, the paper will consider the outline business case and the outcome of the competitive dialogue-bidding process with private-sector developers. We are mindful that the Secretary of State said recently that lack of development at the Maze/Long Kesh site could weaken our hand in future discussions about the gifting of sites.
Not only has a huge amount of work been done to prepare for the development of all the sites that are in our care, but some real progress has been made. The action that has been taken at the sites on, for example, the Malone Road and the Crumlin Road in Belfast are indications of successes in the area. The proceeds of the sale of the Army base at Windsor Park have been ring-fenced for the redevelopment of the Crumlin Road jail, which is in one of Belfast’s poorest wards. A master plan is currently under consideration for the development of that area.
Furthermore, we are about to finalise the sale of the Army barracks in Magherafelt in County Derry for a new school campus to be built by the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Plans for the development of a former military barracks at Ebrington in Derry are already under way. On 1 May 2008, the junior Ministers visited the site to show their support for the development, where an iconic footbridge will be built, linking the two sides of the city to become a central and powerfully symbolic feature of the regeneration of the city. Therefore, we have a robust track record of developing those key assets, and we look forward to a successful conclusion to our bid for further gifting.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the deputy First Minister, and I note his response and his earlier answer to Mr Kennedy. Does he accept that the delay with, and negative signals about, the Maze project are causing questions to be asked about the gifting of former military sites? Furthermore, can he give a specific answer on the progress — or lack of progress — on the gifting of the Lisanelly site?
The deputy First Minister: As many Members are aware, the issue has exercised the Assembly, particularly MLAs from West Tyrone, who have been vocal about what they want the sites at Lisanelly and St Lucia in the Omagh area to be used for. There appears to be a growing consensus that the proposed project, which is mainly educational, is of huge symbolic importance because it has the ability to bring together on the one campus schoolchildren of different political and religious persuasions. That case has been made to the Secretary of State and the British Government.
People are intrigued by the opportunity that the project presents, and the debate on the matter continues. As I said in my earlier answer, the First Minister, Ian Paisley, and I took the opportunity to speak with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, about the matter when he came here. I am sufficiently encouraged to believe that the project is under serious consideration at least. It remains to be seen whether it comes to anything, but powerful arguments about the project have been made.
In spite of the difficulties with the Maze/Long Kesh site, a compelling case for it remains to be made. We have made such a case, and, hopefully, we will get the answer that we deserve.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Have the Executive ruled out building a multi-sports stadium on the Maze/Long Kesh site?
The deputy First Minister: All of that is a matter for the Executive to consider. In recent days, we have received the Department of Finance and Personnel’s view on the value-for-money aspect of the business case, which the Executive must consider. An OFMDFM paper will address the matter further as well as assessing the outcomes of developers’ bids for the site, including the construction of Government projects.
It is important to note that the business case deals with estimated costs for a number of development options, whereas, the private-sector bids deal with actual negotiated costs. Therefore, an Executive decision will not be based on the business case alone, but on consideration of the private-sector developers’ bids. Media reports in recent days have quoted figures ranging from £307 million to £379 million. However, such costs are based on the business case and, hence, they are estimates. By contrast, bidders’ costs are fixed and have been priced, tendered or negotiated.
Mr McNarry: I was interested to hear the deputy First Minister’s response to Mr O’Loan’s question. In light of that, would the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister include steps to establish a Maze development corporation designed to drive forward the overall regeneration of the Maze site? That would be irrespective of the pending outcome of his Department walking away from the Maze stadium option and would create forward momentum after what I hope the deputy First Minister would accept has been an indefensible delay in managing this important site.
The deputy First Minister: I heard that suggestion made by the Ulster Unionist Party — or, more accurately, by the Member — in the media last week. I suppose people are entitled to their opinions about the best way forward. The situation is that the Department of Finance and Personnel has assessed the business case, and that assessment has been distributed to members of the Executive who must now consider it. The First Minister and I will also be submitting a paper to the Executive. The outcome of the Executive’s deliberations should not be pre-empted.
Lisanelly Site, Omagh
4. Mr Doherty asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what lobbying it had undertaken for the transfer of the former Lisanelly site, Omagh, including any contact with the office of the Prime Minister. (AQO 3680/08)
The deputy First Minister: I confirm that we have both raised the matter regularly with the British Government, and we are awaiting a decision from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about the gifting of that military site and others. In addition to official meetings on the subject, we are taking every opportunity to raise this important matter with the Prime Minister; and, as I said in my earlier answer, the most recent occasion was at Hillsborough on Thursday 18 May 2008, at which the First Minister and I pressed the Prime Minister on the subject.
The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, recently visited the Omagh site to ascertain at first hand what might be achieved and to be briefed on the significant potential prospects. We trust that that will assist the British Government in considering our request. I assure the Member that we expressed, in the clearest terms, why we consider any decision other than gifting to be a retraction from the position adopted by the British and Irish Governments in April 2003 in the joint declaration.
Given that development costs for the proposal outlined for Lisanelly will be considerable, we are pressing for a favourable response; and, if achieved, gifting could ease the burden on the Executive. We will keep Members informed about the outcome of our discussions with the Prime Minister.
We take this opportunity to commend the Member, and we recognise that he has been at the forefront of efforts to promote the Lisanelly education campus. I confirm that I will visit the area to meet several groups — including the Omagh Educational Campus Group — that have expressed interest in developing sites in the region, and I anticipate that that visit will take place early next month.
Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. Will he outline how Gordon Brown’s recent announcement of an increase of £2·2 million in the sale of assets will impact on the case?
The deputy First Minister: The gifting of former military lands is a separate and distinct issue to that of the sales of public assets. We are seeking progress in discussions on the gifting issue with the Prime Minister. He confirmed in a recent BBC interview that discussions on the gifting issue are still continuing.
Mr Buchanan: This matter has been the subject of considerable discussion in the Chamber. In the joint declaration, a governmental commitment was made to allow such lands to come into the hands of the Executive. The deputy First Minister has said today — and in answer to previous questions — that the Government are giving this matter serious consideration. What response has been received from the Government?
The deputy First Minister: I agree absolutely and wholeheartedly with the first part of what the Member said. The response of the British Government makes it obvious to me that this is a subject for considerable discussion. Many people have been exercised about the project. Shaun Woodward has visited the site; discussions with the British Prime Minister have been ongoing; and Owen Paterson, the shadow Secretary of State for the North, has also been to Omagh to discuss the issue. That clearly demonstrates that this item is very high on the political agenda.
I hope that this matter will be successfully concluded, because it is a hugely worthwhile project — no one in the Chamber would disagree with that assertion. A number of schools in the Omagh area are experiencing difficulties in respect of their buildings — some of them require new builds. There is a fantastic opportunity to bring different schools together on one campus. That would make a massive contribution towards the process of integration of our young people, which is, as we all know, absolutely vital. The situation is still under consideration — I would have hoped that we would have received an answer long before now, but the fact that the situation is still being considered is encouraging.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an LeasChéad-Aire as a fhreagra, agus tá súil agam go leanfaidh sé de bheith ag déanamh a dhíchill chun suíomh Lios an Eallaigh ar an Ómaigh a aimsiú don phobal ansin.
I thank the deputy First Minster for his answer to the question about the Lisanelly site. I encourage him to redouble his efforts to ensure that that valuable asset becomes part of the educational infrastructure in Omagh.
What lobbying has OFMDFM engaged in on the gifting of the Forkhill barracks site? Does the deputy First Minister agree that the scheme that has been advanced by a local development company in Forkhill would represent an ideal peace dividend for that area? That deserves the support of his office and the Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.
The deputy First Minister: I, the First Minister, and other Executive Ministers have lobbied extensively to ensure that all of those sites are utilised for the benefit of local communities. The fact that those sites have recently been vacated has sent a very powerful message throughout the community about the political transformation that has taken place.
The big question concerns how to use those sites in the future. Some of them have been gifted, and the Ministry of Defence is seeking substantial funding for other sites. That debate is ongoing. As the Member for West Tyrone Mr Buchanan said, a promise was made in the joint declaration by the two Governments that those sites would be gifted. We want the British Government to keep their word, and in keeping their word, to empower local communities to develop the sites in a way that can add to the economic prosperity of communities.
1. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of the Environment what steps she is taking to free up the planning system to allow for more wind farms. (AQO 3660/08)
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): My Department has recently consulted on draft planning policy statement 18 (PPS 18), which sets out updated planning policy for proposals to develop renewable sources of energy, including energy from wind. Draft PPS 18’s primary aim is to encourage and facilitate the provision and siting of renewable-energy-generating facilities in appropriate locations across Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, I am currently consulting on draft supplementary planning guidance (SPG) that relates specifically to wind-energy development and its impact on the landscape. The draft SPG provides amplification for wind-energy proposals assessed under policy RE 1 of draft PPS 18. That guidance is intended to assist developers in identifying sites for wind-energy development, as well as defining the types of development that may be most suitable visually and for the landscape.
Northern Ireland has a target of 12% — 400 MW — energy consumption from renewable sources by 2012. Although that target includes 15% from non-wind technologies, as of 14 May 2008, the Planning Service has granted planning permission for wind farms that have a combined generating capacity of more than 400 MW.
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Minister for her response. She will be well aware of the unfortunate criticisms that not enough wind-farm applications are moving through the system and that those that are do not move quickly enough. To date, how many applications have been granted, and how many are currently with the Planning Service?
The Minister of the Environment: To date, planning permission has been granted for 31 wind farms, incorporating some 272 turbines, with a generating capacity of more than 400 MW. A further 47 wind-farm applications are in the system, and those propose an additional 472 turbines, with a total capacity of 1,213 MW. The total number of wind turbines proposed and extant is 744, with a potential generating capacity of 1,613 MW. To date, only one application for a wind farm has been refused planning permission. Developers have withdrawn a further three applications.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Committee for the Environment recently heard from the organisation that represents the wind-turbine industry that draft PPS 18 was produced without there being any consultation with the industry. The organisation also said that, had there been consultation, a few — how shall I put it — glitches could have been avoided along the way.
Nevertheless, I understand that, since then, the Minister, having met a representative body from that grouping, has decided to set up a working group. Will the Minister outline that working group’s role and remit? How will it help to develop draft PPS 18?
The Minister of the Environment: I held two recent meetings with representatives from the wind-turbine industry, at which they again alleged that they had not been consulted on draft PPS 18. In fact, they had been consulted. The industry body, the British Wind Energy Association, sat on the draft PPS 18 stakeholder group, which agreed the terms of reference for the draft SPG. That engagement was over and above the current public-consultation process, and I look forward to receiving the wind-energy industry’s consultation responses.
The Member is correct: when I met the wind-energy industry, I was keen for it to continue dialogue with the Department. To that end, a meeting will take place very soon between those in the Department with responsibility for draft PPS 18 and those with responsibility for the draft SPG. I hope that that will prove a fruitful exercise.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her responses to the two previous questions. She said that the SPG would be designed to assist developers. However, does she agree that others have identified problems with the guidance on how the wind-energy industry relates to them? Does she accept that there is a particular problem with suggestions in the guidance about ensuring that turbines be smaller than is now economically viable? That would result in a proliferation of turbines, rather than fewer, more economical ones.
The Minister of the Environment: The Member’s last point is very important, and it is a point that I wanted to take on board in discussion with the two groups that came to see me. Their point is that, under the SPG, smaller turbines can be built; however, more of them will be needed. The problem was that small turbines were no longer produced, only bigger turbines. I welcome such detailed engagement with the industry, and the Department will take on board all SPG-related issues. I am sure that the Member will agree that it is important to have landscape guidance when deciding where to site wind farms.
The Department is trying to provide certainty by making it immediately clear to the industry, simply by consulting the supplementary planning guidance, whether a wind farm can be built in a particular area. That was the drive behind the SPG. However, I take on board the comments of Members, and those from the wind industry.
New Homes in North Down
2. Mr Easton asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the number of new homes required for north Down under BMAP. (AQO 3581/08)
The Minister of the Environment: The potential housing yield in north Down in the draft Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) is approximately 6,000, excluding houses in the countryside. Strategic housing land supply for the plan area was considered at length at the recent public inquiry held by the Planning Appeals Commission. As part of that process, the Planning Service, in January 2007, presented to the inquiry a paper setting out its approach to addressing the housing deficit arising from the uplift in regional housing growth indicators.
In June 2007, the Planning Service published a further paper, which assessed the appropriateness of specific sites that had been the subject of objection with regard to meeting additional housing supply needs. These are now matters for the Planning Appeals Commission to consider, and on which to report back to the Department.
The BMAP public inquiry finished on 2 May 2008, and the Planning Appeals Commission has indicated that it will report back to the Department in early summer 2010. An indication of the final potential housing yield in north Down cannot be given until that time.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for that response. Does the Minister consider that the proposed timescale for the adoption of BMAP is acceptable in the vastly changing environment in which we live?
The Minister of the Environment: That timescale has been given to me by the Planning Appeals Commission. As the Member will appreciate, I have absolutely no control over that. There is, however, sufficient capacity within existing development limits in the north Down area to ensure a supply of housing land over the next five years. It is no secret that the area plan system — be it working or not working, as the case may be — is not fit for purpose. That is why it forms part of my planning reform agenda; and, as I said this morning, I hope to come to the Executive with that White Paper in the near future.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline the number of new homes required for Foyle under the Derry Area Plan 2011?
The Minister of the Environment: I do not have the details to hand, but I am happy write to the Member with them.
Dr Farry: Returning to BMAP, and its relevance to changing circumstances, is the Minister aware of potential increased interest in back-office accommodation in the North Down constituency that tries to address the problem of many people commuting into Belfast, polluting the atmosphere as they go, and spending a lot of time in their cars? How can BMAP respond to that increased interest in office accommodation to ensure that we have a robust —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members are reminded that it is questions, not statements. Therefore, I will ask the Minister to respond to your question.
The Minister of the Environment: As I said in my previous answer, the area plan system, and the current timescales for the preparation of development plans, are certainly not satisfactory. Although I remain committed to delivering the current development plan programme as quickly as possible, I have become increasingly concerned about the time that it takes to prepare development plans in the current framework, and the inability, as the Member suggested in his question, to be flexible.
Issues change when different plans come forward, and there is no flexibility in the current structure to deal with those issues; that is why they are part of the planning reform agenda. I am sure that the Member will look forward to seeing what we intend to do about that issue when it arises.
Sanctions for Polluting Waterways
3. Mr Burns asked the Minister of the Environment what plans she has to increase the severity of sanctions imposed on individuals or businesses that repeatedly pollute rivers or other waterways. (AQO 3613/08)
The Minister of the Environment: The sanctions imposed for causing environmental damage are entirely a matter for the courts. However, taking into account the independence of the judiciary, on three occasions since 1996 the Department has taken up with the Northern Ireland Court Service the level of fines being imposed and the fact that some fines do not reflect the severity of an incident.
To date, the maximum fine of £20,000, under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, has not been imposed, with the average fine imposed in 2007 being less than £2,000. However, the steps that the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) is taking on better regulation will provide more protection than might otherwise be achieved by raising the limit on fines. The proposed establishment of an EHS-wide environmental crime unit is part of the programme of better regulation, and it will provide a greater focus on serious or repeat offenders. Technical or minor offences will be dealt with through a wider range of administrative penalties and sanctions.
Mr Burns: I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the frequency with which the Glenavy River is polluted. Does the Minister agree that fining large companies a few thousand pounds for repeatedly polluting our waterways is nothing more than a slap on the wrist, which they simply ignore?
The Minister of the Environment: As I said, the level of fines imposed is essentially a matter for the judiciary, and I am sure that everyone in the House respects its independence. However, with my better regulation agenda and the establishment of the new agency, we will have an agency-wide environmental crime unit. We will look at ways in which to deal with that issue in the agenda of environmental crime, including education visits, compliance visits, having better regulation, and, if necessary, taking enforcement action. As the unit will be risk-based, it will deal with polluters who are failing to comply with the regulations and how they should be held to account. Acting proportionately and having education first will bring about the understanding and respect for the environment that is needed in Northern Ireland.
Mr Buchanan: An EHS-wide environmental crime unit sounds good, but will it target people who deliberately pollute our environment?
The Minister of the Environment: Since its formation in 2003, the Environment and Heritage Service’s waste environmental crime team has investigated 5,779 incidents of illegal waste activities. The team has secured 299 convictions, resulting in more than £670,000 in court fines, 13 prison sentences and four confiscation orders, totalling £832,000.
The Environment and Heritage Service’s water management unit has investigated 13,967 reports of water pollution. Members are becoming increasingly concerned that water pollution is not being addressed effectively. An agency-wide environmental crime unit will raise the importance of the issue to the same level as that of waste environmental crime issues. The agency-wide environmental crime unit will provide a better solution to our problems, particularly in relation to water management. We can build on the success of the existing waste environmental crime unit.
Mr Cree: Many people agree that penalties are inadequate — they are much lower than in Europe. In Turkey, for example, a repeat offence means that the fine is doubled; if the offender repeats the offence a further time within a five-year period, a multiplier effect applies. Will the Minister examine the Turkish model, with a view to imposing a more rigorous enforcement regime here?
The Minister of the Environment: We are considering introducing proportionate regulation for repeat offences. I am happy to consider the Turkish model, but the Member must understand that there is something in this country called due process. Therefore, when the EHS, or the environment agency as it will be known from 1 July 2008, takes a case to court it is then a matter for the courts to decide how to deal with the issue. Many Members would support more effective fines; however, that is, essentially, a matter for the judiciary.
4. Mr McKay asked the Minister of the Environment what steps she will take to reduce the use of plastic bags. (AQO 3641/08)
The Minister of the Environment: In March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined that, if there has been insufficient voluntary progress, he will introduce legislation to impose a charge on single-use carrier bags. The UK Climate Change Bill will include enabling powers to impose a charge on the use of plastic bags.
My officials have liaised closely with their counterparts in GB on the initial details of that legislation and the possible implications for Northern Ireland. Although it is too soon to gauge what will transpire as a result of the Chancellor’s statement, it is an important development that the Department is monitoring closely.
In the meantime, my Department continues to support voluntary initiatives that aim to reduce the use of plastic bags. The UK-wide agreement with major retailers is the main ongoing initiative and aims to reduce the overall environmental impact of carrier bags — paper and plastic — by 25% by the end of 2008.
Furthermore, schemes such as Bags for Life and the Do You Really Need a Bag? poster campaign — introduced by major supermarket chains to reduce plastic-bag usage — are good examples of how consumer behaviour can be changed to decrease the use of plastic bags.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Recently, the French Government outlined their target to eradicate the use of plastic bags; does the Minister agree with such a measure? If the finalised Climate Change Bill does not include a tax on plastic bags, will the Minister take appropriate action?
The Minister of the Environment: As indicated in my initial answer, the Bill will grant an enabling power, which allows us to decide how to progress. However, the legislation is at an early stage. Last week, I had an interesting conversation with Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, about plastic bags. He outlined that, if plastic-bag use is banned, the problem is simply displaced to other types of container.
In the Republic of Ireland, sales of plastic kitchen-bin liners increased after the introduction of the plastic-bag tax. We must consider that issue in the round and examine plastic, paper and cardboard waste in order to ensure that the problem is not simply displaced.
Mr Gardiner: Plastic-bag taxes have been imposed in cities around the world such as San Francisco, Dakar and Dubai. Current estimates suggest that more than 13 billion bags are in circulation in the United Kingdom. As usual, neither the Minister nor her Department have released any statistics for Northern Ireland. What is the point of raising awareness of plastic-bag problems through a film if no specific action has been taken? Will the Minister consider that situation urgently and introduce relevant legislation?
The Minister of the Environment: As I have already indicated, the Climate Change Bill will introduce an enabling power, which the Department will use to decide how to progress. I am sure that the Member wants us to deal with the entire issue of waste and not concentrate simply on small supermarket plastic bags.
The levy in the Republic of Ireland was introduced to change consumer behaviour and tackle plastic-bag litter; it was heralded as a tremendous success. However, as I have already stated, the sale of plastic kitchen-bin liners and the usage of paper bags has increased. Therefore, there is no point in getting het up about the use of plastic bags if the result will be displacement of the problem. We must adopt a balanced, sensible approach.
Mr Gallagher: Despite the problem with bin liners, does the Minister agree that the initiative in the Republic of Ireland was a resounding success? Although the Climate Change Bill is at an early stage, can the Minister outline a date on which the public can expect an end to the use of plastic bags?
The Minister of the Environment: The Courtauld commitment, to which I referred in my initial answer, deals with plastic bags. Many people are now using bags for life or are being asked whether they need a bag, and such voluntary contributions are worthwhile. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in Scotland in 2006, after detailed consideration, it was decided not to go for a plastic bag tax. The reason that Scotland did not impose a bag tax was, as I have already outlined, because of the displacement that occurred in the Republic of Ireland. The Member said that the initiative in the Republic of Ireland had been a success, albeit that it resulted in a move towards larger plastic bin liners. I do not see any benefit in getting rid of small plastic bags only to end up with bigger plastic bags lying along the hedgerows of our countryside. The issue must be dealt with in a sensible and holistic manner.
Review of Road Safety
5. Mr McCartney asked the Minister of the Environment when the review of road safety will be completed and made public. (AQO 3643/08)
The Minister of the Environment: Three reports on progress on road safety are being prepared before the planned introduction of a new road safety strategy in 2010. An annual report for 2006 is largely complete. It examines progress during 2006 against objectives, including the targets and action measures in the current road safety strategy. I anticipate that that report will be available in early July.
A review of the first four years of the road safety strategy, from 2003 to 2006, is also being prepared. That review examines in detail casualties by road user group, causation factors and casualty trends. Such a report has not been produced before and has required significant work. I anticipate completion of that review over the summer.
Most important will be a review up to and including 2007. Supported by additional new research, it will be important in preparing a new strategy, indicating the key issues that must be addressed. Unfortunately, we faced delays in receiving the validated casualty statistics for 2007. My Department does not expect to receive those data before the autumn, although that could change. It may be the end of the year before the report can be completed.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer, and I look forward to the completion and publication of the road safety strategy. What contacts has she or her officials had with the Southern road safety authorities to inform her strategy?
The Minister of the Environment: We met Noel Dempsey, the Minister of Transport, at last week’s North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on transport and had a discussion about road safety, and, particularly, the mutual recognition of disqualification between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which continues to be a difficulty. We will continue to press that issue. The tragic road deaths in Donegal at the weekend of two people from Toome show again that we must continue to co-operate with the Republic of Ireland on road safety. Most people will welcome that co-operation, and the fact that this year, the road safety strategy in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland has resulted in a lower death rate in both jurisdictions than at this time last year.
Mr Beggs: In developing the road safety review, what discussions did the Minister have with relevant groups, particularly about the importance of speed reduction in the prevention of accidents? Is she satisfied with the current level of interest from schools through her Department’s educational road safety officers and other schemes to improve road safety, such as the Safe Routes to Schools project?
The Minister of the Environment: The Member will know that speed reduction is not a matter for my Department; it is a matter for the Department for Regional Development. However, we have a good relationship with that Department. We recently responded to its consultation on road speed, and we will continue to do so. The Minister for Regional Development and I sit on the road safety working group alongside the Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI, and we have asked the Ambulance Service and the Fire and Rescue Service to send representatives. That group works closely together, and that is the proper way to do things. As everyone knows, a death on our roads affects a great many agencies, and it is right to take that matter forward.
The education programme in schools is going very well indeed. Our education officers could visit many more schools if we had the resources to do so. The education officers do an excellent job, and they are very well received by the schoolchildren.
Mr P J Bradley: Will the Minister confirm that, in the interest of road safety throughout Ireland, the review will examine the introduction of metric speed limits in Northern Ireland?
The Minister of the Environment: Again, as that is a speed-related issue, it is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development, and the Member may wish to direct his question to that Minister. However, if it is helpful, I understand that any decision on setting a date for conversion to metric units of measurement would be made on a United Kingdom-wide basis, and no decision has been taken yet on that matter.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.
Driving Test Centres
7. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of the Environment what steps she has taken to ensure the conformity of all MOT test centres to a common and comparable standard. (AQO 3600/08)
The Minister of the Environment: The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) examiners are all skilled and technically qualified motor mechanics. All new entrants to the vehicle examiner’s role undergo four weeks’ intensive training, combined with weekly checks to ensure that they have gained the necessary understanding. The training course is devised to ensure that all staff are provided with the knowledge and skills to work effectively in the role. The course has been externally accredited by the Institute of the Motor Industry. Successful trainees shadow a more experienced colleague for a further week before being fully programmed to test vehicles.
Examiners are accompanied in the live test environment and assessed against key criteria. Trained auditors from the agency’s quality unit conduct quality checks on all vehicle examiners, and line managers also conduct quality checks on the vehicle examiners in their own centres.
In addition, the agency has retained its ISO 9001:2000 accreditation for the administration, supervision and delivery of practical driving test and vehicle inspection activities for all classes of vehicles and supporting functions. DVA is the only provider of vehicle inspections in the UK to hold that accreditation.
Mr Kennedy: Is the Minister prepared to investigate apparent inconsistencies, which have been reported to my constituency office, between testing centres in several key elements of the vehicle test? Will she widen the scope of any such investigation to include all such centres in Northern Ireland, if there appears to be substance to the claims?
The Minister of the Environment: I will investigate any claims that are brought to me by Members. I wait to hear about those claims. They will be investigated rigorously and thoroughly. The various centres all seem to have pass rates of around 80%. However, if the Member wishes to refer specific incidents to me, I will be more than happy to take them up.
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her earlier comments. The House and the business community were extremely disappointed by many aspects of the Varney Report. However, Sir David Varney said that some services, including vehicle testing, could be more productively run in the private sector. Does the Minister have any plans with regard to that recommendation?
The Minister of the Environment: The Member is absolutely right; the recent Varney Report questioned whether some services that are currently delivered by the public sector would be more productive if they were in the private sector. One such service was vehicle testing. However, the Executive must consider the Varney Report before any decision is made on the way forward. In the meantime, DVA will continue to seek ways of improving its productivity and quality of service to customers. I am sure that discussion of that issue will take place around the Executive table.
Mrs M Bradley: Does the Minister plan to publish annually the results of all driving centres and the results of car tests?
The Minister of the Environment: I have the statistics to which the Member referred, and I will give them to her in writing after the House rises today.
Locally Produced Banknotes
1. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what representations the Executive has made to the UK Treasury in relation to locally produced banknotes. (AQO 3640/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): The Executive have made no representations to the UK Treasury in relation to locally produced banknotes. Currency — that is coinage, legal tender and banknotes — is an excepted matter under schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and thus it falls within the supervisory and regulatory framework provided by HM Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority.
Under the present legislation, commercial banks have to cover their commercial note issue by making lodgements with the Bank of England for only part of any given week. That provides those banks with a commercial advantage as they have access to funds for reinvestment in short-term money markets that are equivalent to the surplus between the value of their note issue and the sums that they have lodged with the Bank of England.
The problem with that arrangement is that it exposes the holder of such commercial bank notes, as creditors of the banks, to the risk of losing the face value of the notes if the relevant bank was to become insolvent, as there could be insufficient funds lodged with the Bank of England to cover the value of the notes issued.
A consultation exercise, on proposals to enhance the protection afforded to the holders of such banknotes, concluded recently. However, it is an excepted matter, and there is no compelling reason to engage in that process at this stage.
Mr Hamilton: The Consumer Council, in its recent investigation into banking charges, revealed that the cost benefit to local banks was not necessarily passed on to local consumers. Has the Minister derived any benefit for local consumers in the local banks issuing their own banknotes?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: There would be no advantage per se to the Northern Ireland citizen. There could be a benefit to the customer of a bank if that bank were to use the profits that it makes from the advantage created by the issuing of its own notes, for the purpose of reducing bank charges, ATM charges, and so on. However, if one compares the charges of Northern Ireland banks with banks in England, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that those profits are being passed on directly to customers.
The more important aspect is to ensure that should a bank become insolvent, there is the required protection for everyone in Northern Ireland who has banknotes — that there is enough value with the Bank of England to cover the face value of those notes.
Mr McClarty: Will the Minister acknowledge that with the introduction of the euro and the demise of the punt in the Irish Republic, the sense of acceptance of locally produced banknotes has increased in Great Britain?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I have had less difficulty using Northern Ireland banknotes in GB than in the past largely because those notes have the word “pound” on them. People recognise that most of the other countries in Europe are using the euro, so it has become less of a problem.
I point out to the Member, however, that English banknotes are not legal tender in Northern Ireland, as many people think they are. The only legal tender in Northern Ireland is UK coinage. English banknotes are not legal tender in Scotland, nor are Scottish or Northern Ireland banknotes legal tender in England or Wales.
Mr Burns: Will the Minister give us his assessment of the large variety of banknotes that are in circulation in Northern Ireland? Would he like to see Northern Bank, Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland and First Trust Bank issue a single, standard version?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: That will not be a matter of my choice or, indeed, the choice of the banks concerned. The consultative paper that is being considered by the banks is likely to lead to them attempting to get a compromise with the Government, who are keen to protect the consumer by having us all use Bank of England notes. A compromise position has already been agreed with the Scottish banks — whether that compromise is accepted by the Treasury is something quite different.
It is to the banks’ financial advantage to produce banknotes because they do not have to cover the full value of the notes with the Bank of England and can use the additional funds in the short-term money markets.
Public Procurement: Fair-Trade Practices
2. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what steps he is taking to ensure that fair-trade practices are included in procurement contracts. (AQO 3665/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Northern Ireland procurement policy applies to all Northern Ireland Departments, their agencies, non-departmental public bodies and public corporations. In March 2006, my Department issued a policy guidance note on the procurement of Fairtrade products by Northern Ireland Departments. That guidance defines fair and ethical trade and details a range of products currently recognised as Fairtrade products. It also provided contracting authorities with advice and guidance on the actions that they can take — under EU procurement rules and procurement policy — to ensure that fair-trade practices are included in procurement contracts. That is set in the context of existing UK and Northern Ireland sustainable development policies.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. What is the Minister doing to encourage the use of Fairtrade products in his Department and other Departments in the Executive?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: That question is, perhaps, more relevant to procurement contracts for catering services and supplies, which provide the greatest opportunity to procure such products. All recently renewed catering service contracts specify that Fairtrade products must be used for internal meetings and official hospitality, and that such products should be available as an option for staff to purchase in tuck shops and staff restaurants. However, the latter requirement is demand-led and, therefore, has commercial implications for the suppliers should staff not wish to purchase such products.
EU law prevents procurement practitioners from taking certain actions. For example, they cannot frame contract specifications on the basis of fair or ethical trade requirements. EU procurement rules require that social labels do not define the end product in terms of characteristics or performance.
Lord Browne: Will the Minister indicate whether any steps can be taken to encourage the procurement of locally produced food?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: My officials and officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have developed guidance to encourage the procurement of locally produced food. That guidance provides procurement practitioners with practical advice on developing procurement specifications that will deliver fresh seasonal produce and encourage healthy eating. Local producers will be able to compete to supply food and catering services.
Due to EU procurement rules, we cannot specify Northern Ireland-grown products. However, specifying freshness, and so on, can help local producers to compete better. We have regular meetings with local producers to organise awareness sessions, which are targeted, particularly, at agrifood businesses that can compete for contracts that are due in the following 18 months.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Does the Minister acknowledge that sustainability is the core feature of fair trade? What action has he taken to increase traceability and sustainability requirements, which would also assist local producers in tendering for Government contracts?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Member is correct and, indeed, sustainability, equality and economic factors are at the centre of our procurement policy. The Procurement Board takes all those issues into consideration and its membership is fully signed up to ensuring that we get the best value for money.
Public Procurement: Social Objectives
3. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel how his Department is pursuing social objectives through its public procurement policies. (AQO 3668/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Northern Ireland procurement policy, which was agreed by the Executive in 2002, commits to the delivery of best value for money. The definition of “best value for money” allows for the integration — individually or collectively, as appropriate — within the procurement process, of social, economic and environmental objectives, which are the three pillars of sustainable development.
The Procurement Board, which I chair, has produced guidance that is aimed at policy-makers and procurement professionals across the public sector on how to integrate equality and sustainable-development considerations more effectively into the procurement process.
The guidance will be launched on 29 May and will be supported by appropriate training.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Bearing in mind what the Minister has said about procurement roles, and his reference to the three pillars of sustainable development, can the Minister confirm that the procurement guidelines will be mainstreamed across the board, and that a specific methodology will be applied to ensure that social requirements in procurement contracts are utilized when procuring, for example, services, hardware or even office space?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am aware of the Member’s interest in this subject, and she has questioned me on this issue in the past. Although her question is good, her timing somewhat sucks, because the guidelines will be launched on 29 May. I will ensure that she gets a copy.
Professor Chris McCrudden is a member of the Procurement Board. He is regarded as something of a champion in that area of activity, and he has published on the matter. He is outspoken and capable. I know from chairing a meeting of the Procurement Board that this matter is of great concern to him. Therefore, there is someone at the heart of the process who will push forward those issues. If the Member wants to learn more about him and the issues that he has raised, she can purchase a copy of his book ‘Buying Social Justice: Equality, Government Procurement, and Legal Change’.
Mr A Maginness: The Minister’s answer was interesting. I know that guidelines will be produced on 29 May, but have there been discussions with the social sector in respect of procurement? Is there anything in the guidelines that will assist procurement in that sector?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: There has been widespread consultation. The guidelines have been approved by the Executive, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will launch them. The Northern Ireland Executive spend about £2 billion a year, and it is only right that they get the best value for that money. The Executive and the Assembly have adopted a Programme for Government that sets out a number of cross-cutting themes, including the issues that have been referred to: equality, the economy, and others. If we can advance our agenda through procurement, we should do so. There are many ways in which the Executive can advance their overall objectives by using procurement as a lever.
Dr Farry: Is the Minister aware of concern among local small and medium-sized enterprises about the difficulties of accessing local procurement contracts? EU competition rules should be respected, but can a review be carried out to ensure a level playing field for both local businesses and international competition?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am aware of that problem. Companies that are based in my constituency frequently tell me of products that they believe are as good as, if not superior to, those purchased through the existing system. However, because they are small or medium-sized businesses, they find it hard to compete for the scale of the available contracts.
Those meetings allow potential suppliers to team up with others to make partnership bids in such areas. However, the situation must be examined closely, and we must question whether some of the contracts should be broken down to make the business area more accessible to small businesses.
Representation in Civil Service Recruitment
4. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what groups have been identified as being under-represented in applications and appointments to each grade in the Civil Service, in the past two years. (AQO 3580/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Northern Ireland Civil Service has taken steps to encourage applications from Protestants for administrative and junior management grades; from females for senior management grades and some professional and technical disciplines; and from people with disabilities and ethnic minority communities for all grades. Initial analysis shows that some progress has been made, but my officials plan to carry out further in-depth analysis of recent recruitment competitions later this year.
Mr Campbell: I thank the Minister for his response. It is hoped that his response, which will now be in the Hansard report, will be studied by all those who try to fly in the face of the reality that we see in the Civil Service year in, year out. The Minister said that the competition results will be known later in the year. Is that likely to be late autumn? Subsequent to the publication of the competition outcomes, what consideration is likely to take place?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Member for East Londonderry is known to be an enthusiastic campaigner on those issues. It is likely that the outcome of the current recruitment competitions will be known in the autumn. Therefore it will not be possible to carry out a full analysis until then. It is hoped that the Member will be encouraged by the 10% increase in applications for administrative assistant (AA) and administrative officer (AO) grades from the Protestant community, which shows that the mechanisms put in place have encouraged greater uptake. However, the big question is whether the percentage of appointments will be relative to the number of applications made. In the past, they have, but we will only know whether that has followed in this recruitment competition when we are able to analyse the outcome in the autumn.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that women and Catholics continue to be under-represented in the senior grades in the Civil Service? Will he detail what measures he has taken to rectify that situation? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: That question could have been put with more force some years ago, because the under-representation has been addressed. There is still a disproportionate number of Protestants in the senior ranks of the Civil Service, but it has reduced markedly to a level that is within tolerances that cause less concern. Furthermore, it is not within the range that occurs in favour of Roman Catholic applicants for AA and AO grades in particular.
Mr Beggs: Will the Minister state what he is doing to address demographic trends in the age community balance, which are already concerning some Departments in how they deal with community balance? How will he encourage the students from Northern Ireland who have decided to study in GB to apply for Civil Service jobs?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I did not catch the beginning of the Member’s question, so I hope that I have gleaned enough from the latter part. The creation of a more stable and peaceful society is playing an important role in attracting back the skilled people who want to join the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
The public sector in Northern Ireland is, by and large, better paid than the private sector — a factor that was highlighted by Sir David Varney in his recent review. That imbalance is causing difficulties for the recruitment policies in the private sector.
The House will be aware that, in parallel with Workplace 2010, we have been considering the dispersal of public-sector jobs. That issue is now being considered by Sir George Bain’s review team. That may allow us to locate jobs elsewhere in the Province, which would have an impact on other issues, such as religious balance and the territorial demographics of Northern Ireland.
Review of Public Administration: Job Locations
5. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline how the changes associated with the Review of Public Administration will be taken into consideration in the current review of civil service job locations. (AQO 3663/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The implementation of the review of public administration could potentially result in the relocation of some public-sector jobs. The recognition of that fact created the momentum for the work that is under way, which involves reviewing the policy on location. The changes resulting from the RPA are being considered by the independent review that is being chaired by Professor Sir George Bain, who, I understand, has met representatives of all Departments concerned. Therefore, I expect his report to take account of recent developments and their implications for public-sector employment.
However, I should make it clear that although the RPA is an important part of the review, the review’s terms of reference are much wider and relate to the public sector as a whole. That said, the recommendations made by the Bain team are likely to refer to the RPA, and if its report is accepted by the Executive, it will provide an opportunity to influence the final decisions about the RPA bodies, as and when those decisions are made.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply. The Minister has acknowledged that many Civil Service jobs and work practices have been, and will be, centralised, and that many major towns in Northern Ireland may see a reduction in public-sector jobs as a result of the RPA. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that public-sector jobs are, and will be, retained in my constituency of Newry and Armagh?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: There is nothing that concerns me more than keeping up the number of jobs in the Member’s constituency. He will have to recognise that, when the review team considers the matter, it will examine the balance across Northern Ireland as a whole. The review team will recognise that we are dealing with the whole of the public sector, not just Civil Service jobs, which probably make up only about 10% of the public sector.
The new bodies that will be established as a result of the RPA will create opportunities to consider locations throughout the whole Province. However, I am aware that all Members have a particular interest in a constituency or in parts thereof. Therefore, I warn Members that if we resort to bidding for the jobs on a constituency basis, we will end up with Members from 17 constituencies being unhappy and Members from one constituency being pleased. We must consider an overall strategy, which is what the review team is doing. The Member can keep praying for Newry and Armagh, and we will see what Sir George Bain produces.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his reply. He rightly referred to the opportunity to consider the location of the new bodies that will be created as a result of the review of public administration, which will, hopefully, not be located only in the Belfast area.
However, as the Minister mentioned, the wider issue of the centralisation of the existing Civil Service must also be tackled. Workplace 2010 is an opportunity for a shake-up that can lead to a redistribution of jobs. When considering the requirements for a central location in Belfast, will the Minister ensure that the Stormont estate will be the starting point for those considerations? Any job in a Department that does not need to be located on the Stormont estate could potentially be located anywhere else.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I do not wish to pre-empt the review panel’s recommendations, but a strong argument exists that Belfast, as our capital city, should be where Departments’ headquarters are sited. Departmental headquarters sit more appropriately in a capital city.
The Member should remember that we are talking about a very small percentage of public-sector jobs overall. I recall an occasion on which a Member rose to his feet to call for more public-sector jobs for Omagh and it was pointed out that Omagh, per economically active person, had more jobs than anywhere else in Northern Ireland. We are looking at public-sector jobs, and Belfast does not have the highest per capita representation.
However, I do recognise that opportunities do exist. I am particularly mindful of that, because if Northern Ireland does achieve economic growth in areas in which we are hoping for growth — namely, financial and business services and IT — firms are more likely to come to the east of the Province. They will probably set up either in the Newry corridor or the Belfast area. Therefore, if more jobs are created in those places, a stronger case can be made for the centre and west of the Province’s benefiting from some of the jobs that may be displaced.
Sir George Bain will no doubt consider all the strong arguments. I expect there to be a full discussion in the Executive and in the House when his report becomes available.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I join Mr Kennedy in praying for Newry and Armagh. Will the Minister ensure that important factors such as building the regional economy, tackling social disadvantage and ensuring equality of opportunity will be central to the review of the relocation of Civil Service jobs?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I wish Mr Brady and Mr Kennedy every success with their prayer meeting, whenever and wherever it should take place. We shall see whether the Lord answers their prayers in due course.
The factors to which the Member referred must be considered, because they are important. However, many more factors must also be considered, and we set out those factors in the remit that we gave to Sir George Bain and his panel. Those other factors include the need to consider value for money; the need to place staff where they are of greatest benefit; a recognition that skills for certain jobs must be available; and the need for a place to have a certain mass of population to deal with certain office sizes. All those factors go into the mix, but I reiterate that the factors that the Member outlined are indeed important.
Maze Project: Economic Appraisal
6. Mr T Clarke asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel when he will make a determination on the affordability and value for money of the Maze project. (AQO 3614/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I have now shared with Executive colleagues my Department’s analysis of, and conclusions on, the value for money and affordability of the Maze project. I have also provided them with my views on the present proposals. I have invited them to consider those views alongside other additional material when we come to consider the issue in the Executive.
Mr T Clarke: Can the Minister indicate how much had been set aside in the Budget to fund the Maze project, and whether that money can be used for any other projects?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: My recollection is that we set aside £70 million for stadiums. I do not believe that we identified any particular project for which that Budget allocation was to be used, so it is available for the Maze project should the Executive decide to proceed with it. Equally, it would be available for other stadiums should the Executive pass a business case for them.
Regulation of Pharmacy Profession
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes the work of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland in regulating the pharmacy profession over the last eighty years; supports the conclusions of the “Future of Pharmacy Registration, Regulation and Representation in Northern Ireland” document; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to update the society’s statutory framework accordingly.
Mr McCarthy: I welcome the opportunity to offer the Alliance Party’s support for the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland in regulating the pharmacy profession’s work over the past 80 years. That work has served the community in Northern Ireland extremely well over the years, and the Alliance Party has every confidence that the years ahead will also be well served if the conclusions in ‘Future of Pharmacy registration, regulation and representation in Northern Ireland’ are accepted. I expect the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to agree to update the Pharmaceutical Society’s statutory framework in the near future.
The document makes a strong case for the superiority of the Northern Ireland regulatory model over its equivalent across the water because of the separation of the inspection function. If it were not for the initial start-up costs, Northern Ireland’s system could have been implemented in Britain.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Therefore, the practical implications of pharmacy regulation in Northern Ireland require — to some extent — a Northern Irish solution. That is why the Alliance Party has always promoted and supported devolution for Northern Ireland. We are concerned about how the guiding principles for the rest of Britain will apply in Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the different regulatory framework there. However, it will be down to the Minister — who I am glad is present — the Health Committee and the House to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry is properly regulated and supported.
We should be thankful that the system in Northern Ireland has worked well since the early 1900s. We should continue to build on the strengths of that system, and the Alliance Party strongly supports the retention of the departmental inspectorate — we see no need for another independent body.
The Alliance Party calls for clear procedures for the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and will work with other UK healthcare regulators, as well as those in the Republic. We also urge the Minister to keep this issue under review.
Recently, as part of the Building Bridges campaign, I had the pleasure of joining staff behind the counter of Gabbies pharmacy in Killyleagh and helped to supply people from a busy population with their prescriptions and many other healthcare requirements. I assure Members that a pharmacist’s work is extremely demanding, and I congratulate all those pharmacists who contribute to a good Health Service for all in Northern Ireland. I encourage all Members to get behind the counter of their local pharmacy to see the work that is done. A pharmacy is not just, as it used to be called, the local chemist — it provides a wide range of valuable services within the Health Service. I support the motion.
Mr Buchanan: Over the past 80 years, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has been successful in regulating the pharmacy profession. Established by the Pharmacy and Poisons Act (Northern Ireland) 1925, the society maintains a register of over 1,800 pharmacists and over 500 registered premises in Northern Ireland. It is a legal entity and, under the Pharmacy (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, has powers to deal with any matters that arise.
However, the future of pharmacy in Great Britain, as outlined in the White Paper and the Health and Social Care Bill, is a matter of grave concern and does not represent a positive way forward for the continuation of the good pharmacy practice that we have enjoyed in Northern Ireland for many years.
Suggestions to change the model in Northern Ireland, which is separate and distinct from that of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, are ludicrous when all other areas of health have been devolved and are overseen by a Health Minister. Any move to replace the local regulatory and professional functions with a centralised system would significantly inhibit the Minister’s ability to develop pharmacy at a pace and manner that not only reflects the overall strategy for healthcare in Northern Ireland, but meets the requirements of the profession and the patients.
It is wise to take note that the effectiveness and uniqueness of the system in Northern Ireland has been acknowledged and complimented by Dame Janet Smith. In her report of the inquiry into the Shipman murders, she stated:
“It seems to me that there is much to be said for an inspectorate, like that in Northern Ireland”.
That speaks for itself. It is clear that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland is already strides ahead and is at the cutting edge of pharmacy inspectorates in comparison to its counterparts in the UK. Such exemplary inspectorate arrangements must be retained and enhanced while maintaining pharmacy regulation and registration in Northern Ireland. That would continue to safeguard patient safety, the operation of effective devolution, patient and public involvement and confidence and the continuous development of the pharmacy profession.
Although I welcome the Minister’s delay until the system, as proposed in the White Paper for GB, is up and running, I am concerned by the stance adopted by the UUP as outlined by John McCallister in the House today. It is time that John declared where he really stands on this particular matter. It is too important an issue to be fudged. The current system must be maintained in Northern Ireland.
I call on the Minister to confirm his intention of retaining pharmacy regulation and representation in Northern Ireland, and to update the legislative framework of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland accordingly. Until legislative change is implemented, important enhancements that are required to be made by the society cannot take place.
I support the motion, and I call on the Minister to inform us when he intends to update the legislative framework.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and my party colleague Sue Ramsey has already said that Sinn Féin fully supports the motion. Many points have been made, and I do not intend to repeat them.
I received a document from the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland, which was valuable in informing me about the debate. I assume that other Members also received the document, which notes that — and this point has already been made — the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland works with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. That is a valuable engagement. One issue that they address together is counterfeit medicine smuggling. Perhaps a more important and valuable issue that they work together on is the mutual recognition of qualifications and prescriptions. That kind of engagement between the societies is priceless, and it is well articulated in the document presented to us.
The document proposes a model that includes parallel structures, and outlines the relationship between the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the adjudication process. The adjudication process is particularly important; it is linked to fitness to practice and how issues of concern would be addressed.
The society perhaps needs to be a bit clearer about what it finally wants implemented. My reading of the document was that it has not totally established what is required from the adjudication process. I may, though, have read that incorrectly. However, the bones of what would be a valuable structure are outlined in the document.
That document was certainly valuable in aiding my understanding of the issue.
I will finish by referring to the last three bullet points of the summary of the key benefits of the model:
“It provides a strong local vehicle for stakeholder input and planning;
It maintains a strong local voice and identity for pharmacy;
It provides for a structure whereby professional development, revalidation and fitness to practise can be delivered in a local context reflecting local needs”.
What I particularly liked about those three points was the emphasis on the words “local” and “strong”. I support the proposals, certainly on the strength of those last three bullet points, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Shannon: The Pharmaceutical Societie O’ Norlin Airlan leuks aboot mair nor 1,800 chemists an mair nor 500 shaps the length o’ the province. They hae gien a dual heftin an’ owre seein’ role fer mair nor 80 yeirs an hae done sae tae a heigh stannart — a stannart at wus remairked oan bae Dame Janet Smith wha allooed i hir speirin intae report hoo hit wud bae a benefit tae the hale United Kangdom gif the cost o’ bringin’ hit in wusnae sae heigh.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland represents over 1,800 pharmacists and over 500 premises across the Province. It has provided a duel support and inspectorate role for over 80 years, and has done so to an exemplary standard — a standard that was recognised by Dame Janet Smith. In her inquiry report, she said that that standard would be beneficial to the entire United Kingdom if the cost of implementing it were not so prohibitive.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland does not claim that everything is perfect, nor that no changes are needed. It recognises that there should be a distinct difference between those who offer support and those who evaluate and process difficulties and adjudication. The proposals that the society has made reflect the spirit of the White Paper. However, those proposals also retain the strengths for which the system in Northern Ireland is renowned.
The proposals separate the adjudication and inspection roles, and allow for clear leadership while providing a voice for the profession and the public. For that reason, the proposals advocate the setting up of an independent statutory committee that would oversee the inspectorate and establish the needed dividing lines. That would ensure that the society would always be accountable to the Minister and to his Department.
This issue must be legislated for in a way that ensures that local problems are handled locally by people who understand the people and the needs that are peculiar to Northern Ireland. Although it is an integral part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is a distinct entity, with needs that differ from the other countries in the United Kingdom. In the same way that our essential needs are the same, the approach taken in some areas must be different from that taken in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Take, for example, a patient with diabetes. The patient must be treated — that is correct — but not only must it be determined which type of diabetes the patient has, and whether treatment must be a control of diet or insulin injections, the dosage will also differ from patient to patient. It is the same concerning the regulation of the pharmacy profession — Northern Ireland has different needs to those of the mainland. It is my reasoned consideration that the recommendations of the society be taken on board by the Health Minister.
The proposals argue for a council or board that will consist of pharmacy registrants and lay representatives — that is vastly important. As I have said, it is crucial that the local voice be heard. In all probability, that would be severely muted if Northern Ireland were to amalgamate with the mainland in this circumstance.
It is clear that the devolution process gave accountability back to the people of Northern Ireland. It is imperative that it be kept there. It seems prudent that something that has the capacity to affect the health of so many — and the provision of health services — should remain firmly in the hands of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the Province.
The old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, comes to mind when considering this situation. It is clear that the Minister must consider carefully what is best for the patients and the profession in the Province before he implements any changes. He must also recognise the changes that the society proposes to implement in order to ensure that we have the most efficient and effective system possible.
In the same way that the Bain report on legal services in Northern Ireland recommended that the Law Society of Northern Ireland should remain separate from the rest of the UK due to the distinct system here, the structure employed in that situation would also be beneficial to the pharmacy profession in the Province.
The report is well reasoned and well structured, and gives clear reasons for the Province’s not taking on board the recommendations of the White Paper. Our system is already superior to that of GB — a fact that is universally acknowledged. Unlike his Executive colleague Caitríona Ruane, I ask the Minister not to eradicate something that has worked well for years, when a couple of adjustments would do the job. Furthermore, I ask him to listen to those who have been doing their jobs well for the past 80 years. The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland should be allowed to do what it does best, which is to ensure that our healthcare professionals and patients receive the best advice, medication and help available. That will be done by employing the society’s recommendations and not those in the White Paper. I support the motion.
Dr McDonnell: I support the motion. Pharmacists, and the pharmacy profession generally, are key components of our healthcare system. Having worked with pharmacy colleagues for many years, I vouch for the fact that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland sets a very high standard. It also sets expectations that those standards will be lifted to a still higher level. Given half a chance, the society will make an even greater contribution to our healthcare system than it has done in the past.
Many minor investigations and checks — such as blood pressure — could be carried out at pharmacy level, or perhaps mechanically, as people seek more personal involvement in their healthcare. Aside from simple tests, pharmacists are in an excellent position to provide advice and education for patients and the general public.
I echo what my friend from Strangford Mr Shannon said: if it is not broken, we should not try to fix it. The Minister may have good reason to look at the situation, and he is right. However, he will forgive us for urging him not to be too keen to fix something that is not broken. I see no reason why the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland could not continue to work in close partnership with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. However, I question whether the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland needs to be entirely submerged in the proposed general pharmaceutical council. Local regulation has worked well for 80 years, and we should not be over-enthusiastic about that invitation.
The current independent position of our pharmacy profession should remain. It allows tremendous ability to use the best of our resources in the most flexible way. Responsibility for healthcare — and for all that pharmacists deal with — is devolved, and we can make that work better. The Minister and his Department should involve pharmacists and the pharmacy profession more in our healthcare.
Public safety is of a high standard and has always been guarded by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have been on the other side of the fence, and I know how tough the society can be. Time and time again, some of my pharmacist colleagues have fallen foul for one minor reason or another, and, time and time again, the Pharmaceutical Society is down on them like a ton of bricks. I am not sure whether any general pharmaceutical council could do better — in fact, it might do worse, because it would be 300-odd miles away. A pharmaceutical society, properly structured and organised, and based in University Street, knows everything that is going on in the bounds of Northern Ireland.
As someone who sat on the opposite side of the table at times, I am in a position to speak highly of the society’s competence, efficiency and professionalism. With a little effort, patient and public involvement could be increased and public confidence in the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland could be improved.
Much potential exists to provide more locally enhanced services, and the Assembly can take many such initiatives. I paid close attention to the point that was made by my learned friend from West Tyrone Mr Buchanan. He quoted Dame Janet Smith as saying that the Shipman case could never have happened in Northern Ireland because of the high level of organisation in the pharmaceutical industry here.
Before you interrupt me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I strongly support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Recently, I met representatives of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland, and I listened with interest to their proposals for the future regulation of pharmacy in Northern Ireland. Some 520 pharmacies are registered with the society, of which approximately 40% are branches of multiple outlets. Of almost 2,000 registered pharmacists, 400 are employed by hospital trusts, health boards and Government.
Over the past 80 years, pharmacy has changed radically, and pharmacists are in a particularly responsible position. In addition to supplying medicines, they have key roles in advising the public on the safe and effective use of medication, and supporting other health professionals in improving the management of medicines. In Northern Ireland, they dispense some 29 million prescriptions per annum, at a total cost of approximately £400 million, and a further £100 million is spent in hospital practices.
Medicines are, therefore, an ever-present technology in the Health Service. They are potent substances with the potential to cure and kill; some 25% of health-related litigation concerns medicines. Given that medicines are highly regulated, those who prescribe and dispense them must also be appropriately regulated. I have a public duty to ensure patient safety, and the public has a right to expect that the regulatory processes are free from professional interest or possible interference.
When I met representatives of the society, they were keen to address any concerns that I had about their proposals, and I acknowledge the effort that went into their paper ‘Future of Pharmacy registration, regulation and representation in Northern Ireland’.
I want to clarify from the outset that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has two responsibilities: professional regulation and professional leadership. In any modern regulatory body, that represents a conflict of interest, as clearly set out in the White Paper ‘Trust, Assurance and Safety — the Regulation of Health Professionals in the 21st Century’. I am, therefore, left with two concerns.
First, I find it difficult to see how the public interest would be independently served by the society’s proposal that the same organisation retain the regulatory and leadership functions. The conflict of interest was recognised by other health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, dentists, other allied health professionals, and so forth. They separated the leadership and regulatory functions, and they will maintain that separation so that they can concentrate on one or the other. Furthermore, my colleague John McCallister recognised that the society’s proposals do not go far enough in separating the functions of regulation and leadership.
Secondly, the society suggested that local regulation by the society would be better than UK-wide regulation, but offered no substantive evidence to support its view. Indeed, the evidence from other health professionals, who operate on a UK-wide basis, suggests the opposite. Doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, radiographers, dieticians and so forth, opted for UK-wide regulation. It is important that a regulatory body sets standards for the profession in the interests of the public. To allow a local body to do that while articulating its own interests would compromise public protection.
I am awaiting the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence’s independent review of the society’s performance. The council believes that separating regulatory and professional leadership functions is fundamental. I expect that if that separation is to occur, the report will recommend the need for a substantial overhaul of the society’s arrangements.
It must be remembered that the need to modernise professional health regulation has arisen as a result of several high-profile cases in which the public were let down either by existing disciplinary processes or by the lack of controls to prevent abuse. We are all aware of the Shipman case; indeed, several Members mentioned Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry and the conclusions that she reached. It is important to reflect that she complimented the Department — or rather, she complimented the Department’s inspectorate system — rather than the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland.
As public representatives, we recognise that a fundamental principle is involved. The regulation of all healthcare professions has been the focus of attention in the aftermath of the Shipman case, and the Government White Paper ‘Trust, Assurance and Safety — The Regulation of Health Professionals in the 21st Century’ focused heavily on how to improve patient and public confidence in our health professionals, particularly where safety and public risk are concerned. Several of that White Paper’s recommendations are being implemented in the Health and Social Care Bill, which has reached its Committee Stage in the Lords. That Bill was debated in this House in January 2008 when I moved a legislative consent motion, which was agreed to unanimously.
In dealing with the regulation of healthcare professionals, the Health and Social Care Bill provides for independent adjudication and the application of standards for fitness to practise. In future, the councils of healthcare regulatory bodies will comprise lay majorities. The civil burden of proof will be used; responsible officers will be appointed to handle certain issues; a stronger, more independent role will be provided in expert advice and professional regulation; and for pharmacy, a general pharmaceutical council will be established. The professional body for pharmacists here — the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland — and its Great Britain equivalent have regulatory and leadership roles. England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have all opted to separate those functions in favour of first, a general pharmaceutical council for regulation and secondly, a college-like body for professional leadership. The basis of that separation is to support the safety of the public so that there is no conflict in providing public protection and advocating professional interest.
Although the society here has lobbied to be preserved as a regulatory and professional body, Members may be interested to know that such an opinion is not the unanimous view of those in the profession. Some in the profession have encouraged me to choose a UK-wide regulatory arrangement and to support a more focused, professional leadership role for the society in Northern Ireland. With the increasing presence of national multiples in pharmacy in Northern Ireland, a common regulatory approach makes sense, given that pharmacists move around the four home countries.
There are compelling attractions to that approach. It would create a robust regulatory system that operates across these islands and through which we can all benefit from combined expertise and resources. At the same time, it would allow the society here to evolve into a new professional leadership body that is better equipped to play its part in the development of policy and services to suit our population in the twenty-first century. Such an approach creates a clear opportunity to preserve the interests and identity of Northern Ireland.
An oversight group to establish the general pharmaceutical council has been set up. Having received an update on the formation of the proposed council, I have decided that it would be premature to make any decisions before it has been formed and has established its protocols to deal with devolved matters. The chairman of the oversight group has made it clear to me that devolved matters must be addressed in any new arrangements. The group has also determined that a general pharmaceutical council would report to each of the devolved Administrations that it covered and would have a presence in those countries. In developing new arrangements for the future, my Department will continue to work with the society and other relevant bodies to ensure that patients and the public are protected fully at all times.
Although future regulatory arrangements are my ministerial responsibility, I am conscious that the profession must address important professional leadership matters. This is, therefore, an important time for the pharmaceutical profession, which I want to see develop a strong leadership, advocacy and representative body in Northern Ireland that plays a full part in support of the delivery of an important and challenging health and social care agenda.
I emphasise that I will delay a final decision until the general pharmaceutical council in Great Britain has been formed. The Assembly has already given its unanimous approval to include the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland, should I so decide. I am grateful for its support. The separation of regulatory and leadership roles in the public interest is crucial. I am acutely conscious of my responsibility to ensure public safety.
Finally, professional leadership will be critical to the entire process. I am conscious that the pharmaceutical profession is not as one on the matter; some of its members prefer preservation of the status quo, while others prefer a UK-wide model. I have, therefore, afforded further space for that debate to take place in the profession. I want to ensure that Northern Ireland has a strong voice and representation in any future arrangements. I continue to provide the opportunity for my Department and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland to work together towards a positive solution.
Mr Easton: I wish to apologise on behalf of my colleague Mrs Robinson, who has had to leave the Chamber unexpectedly due to family circumstances beyond her control.
It is interesting to note that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has existed since 1925. It was in operation when the new state of Northern Ireland and its devolved Parliament were in their infancy, and, indeed, for a considerable time before the construction of Parliament Buildings at Stormont. During changing times, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland has always been a positive and professional body.
The Province is privileged to have outstanding pharmacy services. It is vital, therefore, that, as the Assembly begins to discuss future arrangements, it puts firmly on record the debt that is owed to several generations of pharmaceutical professionals, who, throughout many years, have served the Province’s people in an exemplary, dedicated and professional manner.
In normal circumstances, I would be happy to support any action that strengthens east-west links with other parts of the United Kingdom. However, it is important to judge each case on its merits and to seek the best way forward for all of Northern Ireland’s people. The great advantage of having a local pharmaceutical society is that it can respond directly and quickly to local needs, using all the skills and experience of local people, who have given years of service in a unique setting. Northern Ireland’s system is excellent. The Assembly should be reluctant to take action that may not represent a positive way forward for Northern Ireland.
In past discussions, Assembly Members have requested that consideration be given to why something that is not broken should be fixed. The devolved Assembly has a significant advantage in that it can collectively design a system under the direction and guidance of the local Minister. That should ensure that the regulation, restrictions and representations of Northern Ireland pharmacies will be best served by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s system has always been separate from that of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, which inspects, regulates and represents pharmacists on the mainland. The system is more effective because of the unique way in which its inspection role is separate from the society. That great advantage was acknowledged by Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman Inquiry report, which has been mentioned by other Members during the debate.
Northern Ireland is different because it shares a land border with another European state. That brings particular challenges that require sensitive solutions under local control. I am persuaded by the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland paper that states that any move to replace its local regulatory and professional functions with centralised systems would not be in the devolved Administration’s best interest as it seeks to develop pharmacy at a pace and manner that reflects the overall healthcare strategy for Northern Ireland.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland’s proposals indicate a confidence that to achieve both the spirit of the White Paper and to deliver effective devolution we need a model for the pharmaceutical profession that mirrors and reflects the needs and political realities of Northern Ireland.
The model that it proposes separates the adjudication, inspection and investigation roles while creating clear leadership for the profession and providing a strong, clear voice for patients and public.
The Law Society of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council are examples of where that model has been successfully applied, and both cases support the view that solutions tailored to local conditions offer the best way forward.
In conclusion, I reiterate my support for an independent Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland that will safeguard patient safety, deliver effective devolution, inspire continued patient and public confidence and enable the continued professional development of pharmacists.
There has been quite a bit of comment from Members on the issue, most of whom seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. My colleague Iris Robinson said that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland offered excellence in governance, provided more freedom and should remain separate from the rest of the UK. She said that it would be foolhardy to do away with the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland in its local context.
Sue Ramsey said that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland safeguarded patient safety and would help the Executive; she also said that we should take on board what professionals say.
It is hard to tell what John McCallister was saying. He said that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland was a role model for the rest of the UK and that the Health Minister needed to investigate further any proposals for change. It seems that Mr McCallister was sitting on the fence, which is hardly surprising — the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Health Committee usually sits on the fence.
Tommy Gallagher said that the devolved institutions are an important model that reflects the realities of Northern Ireland. He mentioned that we have a land border with the Republic of Ireland and that a local body is better than a UK-wide body.
Kieran McCarthy said that the Northern Ireland model is superior to any other.
My colleague Tom Buchanan said that there are more than 1,800 pharmacies and more than 500 premises operating as pharmacies across Northern Ireland. He said that the Northern Ireland system was strides ahead of other systems.
Claire McGill said that she wanted to see closer co-operation with the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland.
My colleague Jim Shannon praised the standard of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and mentioned the number of pharmacies and premises.
Alasdair McDonnell said that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland was a key component of the Health Service in Northern Ireland and that it could make a greater contribution in future if left alone.
The message of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, was also reiterated by Jim Shannon.
The Minister said that he had met the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and that the regulation and leadership functions are a conflict of interest for it. He said that the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland’s proposals did not go far enough. He talked about a centralised system and maintaining identities; there seems to be confusion over how he intends to achieve those. He said that he will delay his decision and will await further reports. The Health Committee will be waiting to hear what he comes up with.
Most Members have a clear position on that, and I hope that the Health Minister will take that position on board before he makes a final decision.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the work of the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland in regulating the pharmacy profession over the last eighty years; supports the conclusions of the ‘Future of Pharmacy Registration, Regulation and Representation in Northern Ireland’ document; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to update the society’s statutory framework accordingly.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Neighbourhood Renewal in Foyle
Mr Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately seven minutes.
Mr Durkan: This Adjournment debate is timely because it comes shortly after many community groups in Derry have been notified about their standing with funding in the new period of neighbourhood renewal. The SDLP recognises that much good hard work has gone into preparing for the further development of neighbourhood renewal. Good hard work has been done by the North West Development Office and by people in various neighbourhood partnership boards who have had to prepare and peruse documents in preparation for this phase of neighbourhood renewal. Good work has been done by many groups that continue to provide good-quality services on the ground, often in hard-pressed areas with ill-resourced means. Those groups have been trying to prepare their case for the future funding framework for neighbourhood renewal.
However, many people are frustrated and disappointed with the outcomes and how they affect their group. It should be recognised that the funding framework at least gives many groups the opportunity to go forward with a guarantee of three-year funding. That allows groups to be able to plan their future on a strategic basis, and it means that projects have been put forward that are based on well-discussed and fully agreed local priorities. Those priorities have been brokered by a variety of groups that are working together locally in area partnerships, and they also involve the statutory sector. There is much good in the thinking behind bringing long-term planning and funding stability through neighbourhood renewal.
However, many groups are disappointed because they have not qualified in the decisions that have been made for the guarantee of three-year funding. A number of groups have been promised one year’s funding in the hope that they can make other arrangements in the meantime. A number of groups fall into a third category in which funding will continue until August 2008. People want to know exactly what took place when the decisions were made about those three categories. They want to know whether the decisions were taken locally at the level of the North West Development Office and the local area partnerships. If those partnerships are to be given a strategic mandate, people want to know how far they are in control of the decisions that are meant to reflect their agreed local priorities and purposes.
Suggestions have been made in some of the local media that the Minister for Social Development has decided to cut funding in certain areas or for certain groups. People want to know the level at which decisions were made and the full background to those decisions. I touched on that when I mentioned the long-standing work that has taken place in planning for neighbourhood renewal.
Many of the groups that have been given indications that they will receive one-year funding are so-called city-wide groups. On a number of occasions, the SDLP has raised the issue of so-called city-wide groups not only during devolution but during direct rule, when many such issues started to appear. The work of quite a number of groups, charities, service providers and others is not conducted on a locality-specific basis that ties them neatly into one particular neighbourhood partnership. We have long made the case that neighbourhood renewal is a welcome policy with real strategic focus. When the Government produced the policy of neighbourhood renewal in 2003, all parties welcomed it, but they did not believe that it should be the only show in town for future Government funding and support for the community and voluntary sector.
Consequently, while people wanted a targeted, strategic approach in areas of most deprivation, they also wanted to be assured that other funding support would be available for work that took place with target groups of Government policy outside of those areas.
Many groups were told that they had one year’s funding; however, although relieved not to face the immediate difficulties that others face, they must now ask themselves longer-term questions, such as whether it is viable for them to secure alternative funding sources within a year. They are beginning to realise that the circumstances that led to current decisions are a consequence of other Departments not coming through on policy and funding commitments.
In the same way that neighbourhood renewal should not have been the only show in town; the Department for Social Development’s policy should not be a stand-alone one, and it should not be funded alone either. If neighbourhood renewal is to work, it requires traction and engagement from a variety of statutory agencies in several Departments that are meant to work for people living in areas of deprivation. Throughout the neighbourhood renewal process, an emphasis was placed on the need for other statutory agencies to become involved and for other Departments to play their part. However, when it comes to the bit, we find that many of those other Departments have not followed through on their funding commitments or with the complementary packages that are required to make neighbourhood renewal work. Although that is currently more apparent in Derry, in the future, it will become apparent in one location after another. Therefore, this matter should interest people other than those in Foyle.
I understand the pressures on other Departments, and Members know why some of those Departments have not made good on their neighbourhood renewal contributions — they are facing budgetary squeezes. The comprehensive spending review is predicated on 3% efficiency savings, and, as the SDLP predicted at the time of the Budget, many Departments are delivering their so-called efficiency savings in the form of cuts in support to the community and voluntary sector.
Furthermore, trusts that existed previously are disappearing as a result of the review of public administration. Many that had developed regular funding lines to the community and voluntary sector in local areas — often, for instance, using slippage money during the year — and had established many service-level agreements with providers of key services are disappearing as a result of streamlining. Consequently, when people are told that money is not available from DSD’s share of neighbourhood renewal, they do not have those other doors on which to knock.
While I expressed those concerns on behalf of groups that have been told that funding is available for a year and are unsure about what will come after that, the ones who are experiencing the most disappointment are those that have been informed that they have only five month’s more funding. Many of those groups were told — in good faith — that they would have funding for at least a year. That information was based on the assumption that funding would be found from other Departments or agencies that would pay their share to help to make neighbourhood renewal work. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
People want to know why that situation came about. What was the timescale between people being told — albeit by word of mouth, and in good faith — that they would be OK and being gunked by the outcome that they would not be OK? Furthermore, although I am not sure whether the other Departments and agencies indicated that they would not be making good on the money to the local partnerships or to the development office, when did those outcomes become known to the Department and the Minister?
People want to know why they were being told one thing by the neighbourhood partnerships, and possibly by the development office, and yet something else happened. They want to know at what point the system was alerted to the fact that things were not working out as intended. If the groups in the third category are not now being funded by the Department for Social Development because other Departments did not providing their share of the funding, then the issue arises as to whether the notional amount being made available on behalf of DSD for the groups is still available. Has the money been reallocated elsewhere or is it available for further allocation now?
As the overall outcome is being considered, it can be seen that a lot of the groups in category three deal with children, women, youth and community measures. If that is the unintentional fallout from neighbourhood renewal, is there any means of remedying the situation? Are there resources available that can be used in a play-off way to try and make good the situation and mitigate the impact of decisions in those areas?
Has the geographical impact been fully assessed? I hope that the outcome will be proofed to see whether more needs to be done to improve particular areas — not least the Galliagh area, which has had a lot of media coverage. Many groups there have a good track record, but Galliagh is not the only location where people are feeling the pressure — I have heard from people in Creggan and from other groups also. Is the overall outcome going to be proofed to see if its impact matches the policies, targets and principles espoused for neighbourhood renewal?
The Minister has already indicated her vision for neighbourhood renewal — that it will be administered and determined at local government level. Does she have any further thoughts or plans about that? People want to know that neighbourhood renewal is not just going to be good for the groups that are guaranteed three years’ funding; they want to know that it is going to be robust and reliable. Will the Minister tell us whether she will be making efforts to secure more commitment from her ministerial colleagues and their Departments? Although neighbourhood renewal has been embraced as a cross-cutting programme in the Programme for Government that everyone would support; that support has not been evident in the decisions and allocations that have been seen in Derry.
I have mentioned the impact of RPA and the Budget; however, there is also the absence of Executive programme funds, the non-departmental cross-cutting funds that were used by the previous Executive to support the community and voluntary sector when it faced the crisis of gap funding. When the women’s sector in Northern Ireland faced particular difficulties, Executive programme funds were used — those means no longer exist and cannot be used now.
Will the Minister state whether she will be using the interdepartmental group that is meant to be working on neighbourhood renewal to challenge the other Departments on their lack of follow-through in the north-west area and to see if that is their intended pattern when it comes to neighbourhood renewal elsewhere? If it is, then joined-up Government is not working, and the promises and commitments made in the Programme for Government are sounding very hollow.
The Programme for Government stated that children and young people would be a priority, and yet we are seeing here, as we have seen elsewhere, that there is an absence of real funding for real services. The Department of Education has not been able to continue the extended schools programme, even though the Assembly was told, at the time of the Budget, that the Department was being given the money to do so. It is clear that the Department for Social Development has inadequate funding for neighbourhood renewal and inadequate commitment from its fellow Departments.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Mark Durkan as an cheist thábhachtach seo a thógáil sa Tionól inniu.
I preface my remarks by thanking Mark Durkan for bringing this important topic to the Assembly, and I acknowledge the Minister’s presence in the Chamber.
Sinn Féin has long advocated, lobbied for, and supported neighbourhood renewal. For a variety of reasons, over the past few years, the process of rolling out neighbourhood-renewal schemes has been one of uncertainty, delay, fragmentation, and, at times, some confusion. To be fair to the Minister, she has inherited most of those problems, but we have now had a year to put certainty, decisiveness and clarity into neighbourhood renewal. Although there has been some movement in the past week or so, one cannot yet say that certainty and clarity are the order of the day.
The neighbourhood-renewal boards have worked tirelessly to provide such certainty and clarity, but, at times, their efforts have not been matched by those of the Department. However, there have been notable exceptions, and some officials deserve not only praise, but support, for their efforts.
The neighbourhood-renewal boards are due to outline their collective position to the scrutiny Committee in the coming weeks. They will state that the Department has had insufficient drive to steer the matter through Government. They will also seek to meet the other scrutiny Committees to see how they intend to pursue their responsibilities for the neighbourhood-renewal schemes.
The Minister’s decisions of the past week or so about the groups in Derry can be described, at best, as a mixed bag. For the groups that are concerned, her decision has meant the removal of support in areas where need is greatest, whether that involves early years or pre-school provision in Ballymagroarty or Creggan, or services for older citizens and women in Galliagh. Indeed, we are all aware of the publicity surrounding the Good Morning North West project. All those groups have been told that their funding will cease in August.
I know that the Minister will argue — correctly — that the Department for Social Development does not have sole responsibility for many of those services. That view has support in the neighbourhood-renewal boards and with the affected groups. However, the Minister should take the opportunity today to outline first, the steps that she has taken to date to bring this matter before the Executive and secondly, her intentions for the future. As far as the groups are concerned, if the services are deemed to be vital, the Department should have informed them of the progress that has been made with the other Departments, which are not accepting responsibility. The groups will seek an explanation from the Department as to why that was not the case.
The groups have made it known to the public — and this is their view — that the Department told them that they were no longer eligible for funding, end of story. To offset that today, the Minister should ask the Department to do what was outlined to me at a meeting that was held in Derry last Thursday night. The Minister should explain to the groups, in writing, why each individual group is not the responsibility of the Department under the neighbourhood-renewal programme. Furthermore, she should let them know which Department she considers to be the lead Department and provide a progress report of the contact that she has had with other Departments. That will allow the groups to start dialogue with the relevant Departments, and it will bring transparency to the decision-making process and allow for better planning and better usage of resources in the future. To facilitate that process, I ask the Minister to provide funding for the groups concerned until March 2009, which is an extension of seven months. Crucially, that will allow sufficient time for dialogue between the individual groups, the community and the lead Departments to find a strategic plan for the way forward. The Minister should announce her decision publicly and as soon as possible.
I read Mark Durkan’s comments in today’s ‘Derry Journal’ article. I urge him not to adopt the mantra that this problem is not the SDLP’s fault, but everybody else’s. However, I accept that his remarks in the House today were far more measured than those that appeared in the article. In the past few weeks, Sinn Féin has not fallen into the trap of making the simplistic argument that this situation is all the Minister’s fault. That would be easy, convenient and perhaps even have some credibility with the public, but that is not the route to ensuring the continued provision of those essential services. I will not allow myself to fall into that trap, but I believe that it is appropriate that Mark should lift the trap so that in future, none of us points the finger and says that the problems is everyone else’s fault but our own. Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I thank Mark Durkan for securing the topic for debate today. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an issue that has caused so much concern in our constituency.
I remind Mark Durkan that it was he who once advised us all not to fix the blame, but to fix the problem. Mindful of those words of wisdom, I was intrigued that the Member spent several days blatantly ignoring his own advice. Rather than getting on with addressing the problem that faces neighbourhood renewal, the Member has insisted, as my colleague Raymond McCartney said, on telling everyone who would listen that it was not his fault but everyone else’s. It might be said that the Member has been “Durkan and diving”.
Sinn Féin stands ready to help to resolve the issue. My party is committed to neighbourhood renewal. We know the devastation that DSD’s decision to withdraw funding will have in areas such as Derry, and, as Mark has said, in others. In an area of high deprivation, the loss of vital community infrastructure is a blow from which we might never recover. If it is to be successful, neighbourhood renewal must be a genuinely cross-departmental programme.
Neighbourhood renewal is not the responsibility of DSD alone. Nevertheless, the Minister cannot simply wash her hands of those groups and services that are deemed by her to fall under the remit of another Department. What is needed from the Minister is leadership. She should launch a comprehensive process of engagement between herself, community groups and relevant Departments. She should seek to create the type of buy-in from other Departments that would allow neighbourhood renewal to continue. Such a buy-in is essential, and is what joined-up Government means. The Minister must take the lead in that process, and it is my understanding that the various neighbourhood renewal boards feel that that is what has been sorely lacking.
Meanwhile, I urge the Minister to provide extended funding to the affected groups until next year, as my colleague Raymond McCartney said. That will give those groups the breathing space to work out that process of dialogue and engagement, which will, hopefully, lead to a strategic way forward in which all departmental Ministers and others play their part.
Many of those groups were originally told that they would have a year’s grace before the funding cuts came into effect. In a reply to one of the five questions that I submitted after meeting many of the groups last week, the Minister told me today that the Department agreed to continue to fund, for up to one year, groups that deliver neighbourhood renewal services and activities that fall under another Department’s statutory responsibility, while officials seek clarification with the relevant statutory bodies on long-term funding.
Many groups and organisations interpreted “for up to one year” as “a year”. Therefore, getting only three months’ funding has sent shock and awe across the community and voluntary sector. The correspondence that those groups received last week effectively slashed that deadline, and many vital organisations and services were told that, as of 31 August, they were on their own. That was a death warrant for those groups, and it is a death warrant for many essential community services such as preschool provision and services for women and the elderly. Perhaps that is why the media — and who are we in Derry to judge — dubbed the Minister the Grim Reaper. I do not want to go down that road, because, as my colleague Raymond McCartney has said, I have no doubt that the Minister, like all of us in this Chamber, does not want to see those groups and services being lost to already disadvantaged communities.
Therefore, I urge the Minister to rethink this decision, to provide the extension of funding, to enable all the work that is being done, and to help us all to work together to fix the problem. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mrs M Bradley: Neighbourhood renewal was seen as a life-enhancing tool to boost community spirit, to give a new lease of life and to aid improvement in health and welfare. The past few weeks have seen intense media interest in the changes to DSD funding strategies. That has been no surprise, because, for some time, the consensus among community groups in their requests for funding has been that funding should be streamlined and, as a general rule, issued for longer periods than an annual allocation.
I must stress, however, that there is a need for pressure to be brought on all Departments, to shoulder the responsibility of delivering funding to the community groups that are suffering because they do not meet the criteria as laid down by DSD.
In the run-up to today’s debate, it has been almost impossible to miss the outcry by the various groups that will effectively close their doors on 31 August 2008. There are stories about pensioners who will miss their daily telephone calls, and I, and my party, will fight to bring about a more intense service for older people. The reduction in funding is the result of a Programme for Government that is delivering the opposite to what it was supposed to deliver. The Programme for Government and the Budget are clearly unfit for purpose. Incidentally, the SDLP voted against the Programme for Government and the Budget and was lambasted for doing so.
Thus far, the funding reduction is attracting attention for stinting services; however, the four chairpersons of the neighbourhood partnership boards issued a joint statement welcoming the essence of the approach. Those groups, whose operations do not directly relate to the criteria, must be given the right and an open pathway to apply to other Departments that have responsibility pertaining to their activity.
I call on the Executive to reassess their approach and to ensure that all Departments with an area of responsibility should be instructed to access and deliver the appropriate level of funding. Without apology, I call on the junior Ministers to ensure the reinstatement of the children’s fund, which my party leader, in his capacity as Finance Minister, set up.
Some of the groups that are suffering under the current strategy are child-orientated and naturally fall within the remits of the Education and Health Departments. Last week, we debated a motion on the extended schools funding, and we were told that the education budget would be all-inclusive. Yet, one of the most fundamental benefits to schools is about to be extinguished at the Minister’s behest.
Things must change, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel must take note of the issue. Departmental Ministers should be more than aware of the poisoned chalice that has been offered to the third sector.
On behalf of the many worthwhile groups in Derry and elsewhere, I urge the Executive to take a fresh look at the way in which they do their business, to make the most of the grass-roots-up approach that has served us all so well and could continue to do so in the future.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank Mr Durkan for securing the Adjournment debate. The debate has been on the cards for some months now — it did not simply happen as a result of the press coverage in recent days. Mr Durkan was concerned that the issue around funding for neighbourhood renewal schemes needed to be resolved.
Community groups in Derry have been doing a superb job for many decades, and they have brought enormous benefit to our communities. They bring great benefit to people of all ages, from many backgrounds. The groups have been a lifeline to people in the most disadvantaged circumstances. They have delivered services that, in advanced societies, would be mainstreamed and delivered by Government.
The job of providing the necessary services to rebuild communities and to provide individuals and families with various kinds of support has been carried out by community groups, led by committed community workers. However, many of those workers now feel that they are being abandoned. They see revenue streams drying up, and they are faced with the prospect of closing their doors on the communities that they have been serving so well for so long.
There has been a great deal of publicity around the Good Morning Galliagh project, which is one of the many projects that have been unsuccessful in their bid for funding. The Naíscoil na Rinne project provides important educational programmes to parents and children in the Irish-speaking community in Derry, but it has also been unsuccessful in its bid. That project should be funded, as it has a social and educational development remit. It delivers value for money, but, once again, there are no Executive programme funds and no children’s fund to which they can apply.
We always knew that, as various European funding was being redirected and reprioritised, things would become more difficult for community groups.
Community groups had, naturally, hoped that many programmes would be funded by our own Exchequer. Given the services provided by those groups, such an expectation was not unreasonable. Various Departments were supposed to fund neighbourhood renewal programmes; in many cases, that has not happened. Although the Budget was meant to eclipse all other Budgets, that money was not provided. At that time, the SDLP warned that those programmes would destroy community development; although that view was rubbished, it is now clear that we were correct.
The SDLP — as Mary Bradley and Mark Durkan outlined — wants the Executive to re-establish the Executive programme funds and the children’s fund. The SDLP set up those schemes through its previous Executive mandate. However, after restoration of the Assembly, the largest parties withdrew those programmes. We want all Departments — not solely the Department for Social Development — to use moneys from the neighbourhood renewal fund.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the politicking and the major propaganda programme conducted in the Chamber by a particular party. By voting in favour of the Programme for Government and the Budget, that party voted to eradicate the Executive programme funds and the children’s fund. That party supported the priorities, and this is the effect of that decision. Furthermore, that same party now blames everyone else for the resulting mess. It should stand by its decision and the aftermath or admit its mistakes. All the money that is available through the neighbourhood renewal fund, particularly in Derry, will be spent on the community sector. The SDLP said, at that time, that hardship would arise from the Budget and that Government priorities were wrong — we were right, and that is a tragedy for the community sector and the people it serves.
Sinn Féin talked about a “death warrant” and labelled the Minister for Social Development the Grim Reaper. Neighbourhood partnerships have been established to consider benchmarking, protocols and priorities strategically, and it was those groups that established them. A collective, cross-departmental response is required to ensure acknowledgement of the valuable work conducted by thousands of people in the community sector, particularly in the Foyle constituency, which has helped people to cope during difficult times.
The Executive, and other Departments, must make a commitment to help those groups. Moreover, everyone involved in politics must strive to improve people’s quality of life. Several projects have ceased because other Departments have not committed fully to neighbourhood renewal.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank my party leader, Mark Durkan, the MP for Foyle, for giving the Assembly the opportunity to discuss the implementation of neighbourhood renewal in Foyle. I thank the other Members for their contributions. However, some contributions were more constructive than others; some were realistic, down to earth and recognised the real issues, whereas others simply attempted to duck the issues.
In 2003, all Departments signed up to neighbourhood renewal, a strategy that aimed to close the gap between the quality of life for people in the most disadvantaged areas and the rest of society. The Executive — all four parties — continued to support neighbourhood renewal as their flagship programme for tackling deprivation. Mark Durkan, Pat Ramsey and Mary Bradley highlighted the fact that other Departments and statutory agencies have not committed to the programme. Again, I urge them to make that commitment.
Furthermore, I sent letters to ministerial colleagues some months ago urging them to buy into the neighbourhood renewal programme. A ministerial subcommittee, led by me, which comprises senior representatives from other Departments, has already been established, and I have, verbally, requested that commitment. A further meeting of that subcommittee will ensure that financial commitment to neighbourhood renewal is translated across all Departments.
The neighbourhood renewal strategy identified the need to move away from an ad hoc, project-by-project approach to tackling disadvantage towards a more planned, long-term and integrated method. Just about everyone agreed that we could not go on endlessly extending the life of projects, regardless of whether they were hitting the spot, at the expense of supporting new and more focused community endeavours.
I agreed to a policy of refocusing in order to get more impact from our interventions. I was determined, however, that if we were to go down that road, it would be essential that actual funding decisions should involve other Departments that share executive responsibility for the strategy. Perhaps, more importantly, I was also determined that decisions would be taken locally and would reflect the localised strategic priorities that the neighbourhood-renewal partnerships identified. For that reason, I stayed out of individual decisions and delegated that work to officials in the Derry office, in close consultation with the four neighbourhood-renewal partnerships in the city. Therefore, they were involved in the decisions.
Mr McCartney: Will the Minister give way?
The Minister for Social Development: No. I have little time, and I wish to continue.
As a result of that work, those projects that tackle the core causes of disadvantage in neighbourhood-renewal areas will now, for the first time ever, be offered three-year funding contracts. I know that that announcement has been well received by many in the wider community sector. Others, unfortunately, have been disappointed to learn that their projects, for which funding has already been extended on an ad hoc basis at least once, will not receive funding beyond August 2008. I want to emphasise the point, however, that they will have other opportunities to offer new projects.
There was also an intermediate project category, for which Departments such as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning will normally play the lead role. Where those Departments indicated a willingness to fund projects in the medium term, my Department was prepared to extend funding for a further year. Where Departments indicated no strategic interest in such projects, funding from my Department would again end after August 2008.
I know that decisions on projects in that category have caused some disappointment, particularly as they have had a disproportionate impact in certain parts of Derry. Quite a lot has been said and written, some of it highly exaggerated and dramatised. However, the fact remains that the prioritisation of the projects has the support of the relevant neighbourhood-renewal partnerships because they were directly involved.
I was particularly pleased to see that the chairpersons of the four neighbourhood-renewal partnerships in Derry issued a press release last week that supported my Department’s approach and acknowledged that local partnerships are now influencing decisions about the delivery of key services. Those representatives of the local community also highlighted the vital need for the entire Executive to embrace the neighbourhood renewal strategy.
I ask other Members — namely, Mr McCartney and Ms Anderson, both of whom contributed to the debate — to ask their Sinn Féin ministerial colleagues to buy into the neighbourhood renewal strategy, because funding is required from the Department of Education and the Department for Regional Development. I will ask my Ulster Unionist ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for Employment and Learning to buy into neighbourhood renewal, and I will ask the same of my DUP ministerial colleagues, because a collective approach is required to pump-prime and help communities and to alleviate disadvantage and deprivation.
I reiterate the point that my officials have engaged with other public bodies over time to explore how they might provide long-term support for community-based services relevant to priorities identified under neighbourhood renewal. I assure all my colleagues in the Chamber that funding is not being withdrawn from neighbourhood renewal in Derry, nor is it being cut back. The tighter focus on supporting services that deal with priority needs means that funds will now be released to support new projects that better address the core causes of disadvantage.
My colleague Mark Durkan asked whether money would be taken out of Derry as a result of that decision. I wish to reassure him that Derry will not lose out as a result of the refocusing of funding. That funding will be used for projects in Derry.
In the run-up to this discussion, Mr Durkan requested a meeting with me — he and Mr Pat Ramsey and Mrs Mary Bradley were the only MLAs who did so — and he asked me to proof the outcomes from the refocusing exercise against the strategic objectives that were identified in the neighbourhood renewal areas. I am happy to give that commitment.
Mr McCartney: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister named three Members as the only people who asked her for a meeting. I submitted a letter to her Department requesting a meeting, and I want the Minister to acknowledge that.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order; it is a point of clarification.
The Minister for Social Development: I am happy to clarify that. Mr McCartney’s request related to the first phase, when I extended funding at the end of June 2007. I acknowledge —
Mr McCartney: I sent you a letter a week ago, Margaret.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. All remarks must be made through the Chair.
The Minister for Social Development: I accept what Mr McCartney said. That letter has yet to be drawn to my attention, but no doubt it will be, and I hope to be able to respond to it.
I emphasise that much more work must be done. I will continue to challenge other Departments to put the alleviation of poverty at the top of their agendas. I expect every Member of the Assembly to do the same, because the purpose of neighbourhood renewal is to tackle disadvantage and deprivation and, in so doing, build communities. However, that requires everybody’s support, endorsement and pump-priming. I will continue to address the needs of those born into disadvantage.
My only desire in this area is to ensure that neighbourhood-renewal spending will have the maximum impact on deprivation in Derry. I wish to strengthen the local element in decision-making for the future. My colleague Mr Durkan referred to neighbourhood renewal in the context of the review of public administration. As Members will know, all funding of that kind — and I wish to emphasise that — will transfer to local government under the review of public administration.
I have already said that I wish to build on the relationship with local government and to use partnering arrangements to better engage existing councils in neighbourhood renewal before the implementation of the reform of public administration in 2011. Therefore, I will be creating pathways in the interim, and I wish to engage councils in pilot projects whereby they will be able to implement neighbourhood-renewal projects and area-based regeneration at the best level, namely that of local government. That means that the work will be done by local authorities, and the Department will give them the budget to do it.
I am committed to developing Derry — its housing, its regeneration and its community sector. I fully acknowledge the role that the voluntary and community sector in Derry has played over many difficult decades.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister must draw her remarks to a close.
The Minister for Social Development: I assure the House that I will always give Derry its fair share.
Adjourned at 5.24 pm.