Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 24 January 2000 (continued)

Mr B Bell:

Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that the road haulage industry in Northern Ireland is finding it very difficult to compete with its Southern counterpart because of the punitive taxation of diesel fuel in this part of the United Kingdom? What measures have the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taken to make the Northern Ireland road haulage industry more competitive?

The Deputy First Minister:

The First Minister and I have met collectively and individually with the Road Haulage Association on this matter. We have had discussions with various people connected with the industry, and two weeks ago there was a meeting on the matter between Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland and the Treasury Minister in Westminster.

I am very aware of the problems facing Northern Ireland retailers as a result of the difference in fuel prices between Northern Ireland and the South. The differential results from the level of fuel excise duty levied in the United Kingdom, which is higher than that in the Republic of Ireland, and also from the strength of sterling against the punt. These matters are outside the control of the Executive Committee and are primarily the responsibility of the Treasury. Nevertheless, as I made clear in a previous answer, the issue has been raised with the Prime Minister, and we will continue to raise the problems that result from this and other matters.

The Northern Ireland Executive Committee continues to explore the options available to mitigate the difficulties faced by Northern Ireland petrol retailers and will continue to keep UK Ministers aware of the problems facing local industry, particularly during the run-up to the next Budget. As someone who lives in a border area, I see the difficulties that the retailers, the haulage industry and many other people who are dependent on them for their livelihood are having daily.

Mr Gallagher:

My question was raised earlier by my Colleague, and a satisfactory answer was given by the Deputy First Minister.

Mr Gibson:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his various answers, which were quite helpful. Is he aware of an essential user's rebate, which is given to organisations such as Ulsterbus? Could a similar rebate be given to the farmers of West Tyrone and those of us who have no other form of transport in rural areas? Is there also a danger that the Exchequer, as has been hinted, will impose an 8% multiplying factor yearly on fuel tax? Is the Minister aware of any change of heart in London?

The Deputy First Minister:

With reference to the first part of the question, I am aware of such a fund, but I am not aware of its detail. I will make myself aware of its implications and, if at all possible - which I doubt at this stage - I will see if it could be applied not just to West Tyrone but to other rural parts of the North of Ireland.

With respect to the second part of the question, I will write to the Member when I obtain the professional and detailed advice required from the Minister responsible.

Assembly Public Accounts Committee


Mr Neeson asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister if it is appropriate for the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee to come from a party represented on the Executive.

(AQO 70/99)

The Deputy First Minister:

The nomination of the Chairperson to the Public Accounts Committee is governed by the Standing Orders of the Assembly. The political parties from which the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson are nominated are determined in proportion to the number of seats held in the Assembly under the d'Hondt system. The only restriction placed on the political affiliation of the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee is under the terms of Standing Order 55. This states

"Neither the Chairperson nor Deputy Chairperson of the Committee shall be a member of the same political party as the Minister of Finance and Personnel or of any junior Minister appointed to the Department of Finance and Personnel."

The work and programme of the Committee will be assisted by a significant input from the Comptroller and Auditor General. We fully support the need for robust scrutiny of spending programmes and the need for accountability.

Mr Neeson:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer and assure him that I am well aware of the rules. My question concerned appropriateness. Will he accept that I am not bringing Mr Bell's ability into question? Also, will he accept that when I raised the issue initially in the House, the Minister of Finance agreed that it would be inappropriate to appoint someone from a party that was in Government? Does he agree that, by convention, and not only in Westminster but also in the new Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee comes from a party that is not in power? Does he further agree that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is in great danger of creating a system of Government by political patronage?

The Deputy First Minister:

I refer the Member to the d'Hondt system, which we spent two years deciding upon. We all knew the implications of that system and how they would be applied in this Assembly. The system of government here is therefore quite different from that in Westminster. In Westminster there is single-party government. In Northern Ireland there is a forced coalition involving all the major parties. The use of d'Hondt determines how ministerial posts and Committee chairmanships are decided.

With regard to the second part of the question, the process of the scrutiny of Government expenditure by the Public Accounts Committee in the United Kingdom was established in the nineteenth century - in the time of Gladstone - under UK parliamentary convention and has been followed since then. The main Opposition party has always appointed the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee. This custom and practice has no constitutional imperative, but it is perceived in the United Kingdom Parliament as enhancing the integrity and impartiality of the Committee.

There is no Public Accounts Committee in the National Assembly for Wales. There is an Audit Committee. The rules of that Assembly say that the Chairperson of the Audit Committee should not come from the majority party, but that, it seems, would not preclude the appointment of a Chairperson from a party represented in the Government if it were not the majority party.

The public accounts arrangements in the Scottish Parliament mirror those of the Welsh Assembly. A member of a majority party is precluded from appointment to the chairmanship of the Audit Committee. In Dáil Éireann the main Opposition party holds the chairmanship. At Westminster and in Dáil Éireann the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committees is drawn from the main Opposition party by convention. In Scotland and Wales, only the members of a majority party are precluded from chairing the Audit Committees.

We must remember the distinction between a majority party in Westminster and a larger party here. That is where the crucial distinction lies.

The final part of the question refers to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister governing by patronage. We do not govern; we try to serve. What is referred to as patronage is what is contained in the d'Hondt system that we all agreed.

3.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

I am sure Mr Neeson is glad that he got the supplementary in.

The time for that set of questions is now up.


Regional Development

A29 Road (Moneymore-Desertmartin)


Mr Armstrong asked the Minister for Regional Development how he intends to improve the A29 road between Moneymore and Desertmartin to make it safer.

(AQO 52/99)


Mrs Carson asked the Minister for Regional Development if he plans to review the development of the A29.

(AQO 47/99)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr P Robinson):

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 1 and 7 together.

With regard to the section of the A29 between Moneymore and Desertmartin, the Roads Service has recently laid anti-skid surfacing at the Reubens Glen junction. Work to widen a stretch of the road at Hillview farm is due to commence in the next few weeks, and improvements to road signing and lining are planned for the year 2000-01. Subject to the availability of funds, it is proposed to carry out further minor road works to improve this substandard section of the road over the next five years. The Roads Service has plans to replace Carland Bridge and realign one mile of adjacent carriageway. This scheme is included in the six-to-15-year forward planning schedule.

Mr Armstrong:

Is the Minister aware that there were five fatal accidents on this part -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I do not know about the Minister, but I cannot hear the question. Please project your voice more clearly, Mr Armstrong.

Mr Armstrong:

Is the Minister aware that there have been five fatal accidents on this part of the A29 since 1 April 1999? This road is unsuitable for heavy and fast-moving traffic.

Mr P Robinson:

I am well aware of the number of serious accidents that have taken place on this stretch of road. My Friend Mr McCrea, the Member for Mid Ulster, has raised the issue with me on several occasions. The House will be aware that, sadly, it was on this section of the road that the niece of the Minister of Finance and Personnel died. Unfortunately, this section of road has a high accident record. During the period 1994-98, 30 injury accidents were recorded, four of them fatal. Unfortunately, there is no distinct pattern to the road accidents or to where they take place. However, these are issues that the Department always keeps under review, and it is in our forward plan for work to be carried out in addition to the immediate work that I have already mentioned.

Mrs Carson:

I thank the Minister for his reply. My problem relates to the draft strategic document 'Shaping Our Future'. This document ignored the importance to my constituency of the road running from Armagh north to Coleraine. It was not given a high priority in the document. This route carries heavier traffic than the A4 east-west road.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must prevail upon the Member to ask the question.

Mrs Carson:

Can the Minister give us an earlier timetable for improvements to the Carland bypass, the Moy bypass and Dungannon? We need something done sooner than in 15 years' time.

Mr P Robinson:

I shall take several of the points the hon Lady has made. With regard to the regional strategic framework, we have not got the final framework document. The Member and her Colleagues will no doubt have made the point during the public examination that greater emphasis should be placed on this road. I am concerned to see in my briefing that on one part of the road there is an advisory speed limit of 5 mph. That is hardly what one expects on a significant trunk road.

With regard to the timing of improvements, the Roads Service is happy to make improvements to any road in Northern Ireland that are felt to be desirable, though we must have the necessary finance. The more the Assembly gives to the Department for Regional Development for its roads budget, the more work I can do, and I am glad to have enlisted the support of the hon Lady in that struggle.

Dr Hendron:

I know that the Minister is very concerned about the terrible carnage on our roads and, in particular, on the stretch of the A29 between Moneymore and Desertmartin. The Minister has said that his Department may be able to get finance from elsewhere. The Department of Health and Social Services and Public Safety is also very concerned about the carnage on our roads, and I therefore ask the Minister to work with the Minister of Health, whether on finance or on planning, to tackle this terrible problem.

Mr P Robinson:

One responsibility links the Department for Regional Development and the Department of the Environment: it is the Minister of the Environment who, crucially, is responsible for road safety. There are targets to significantly reduce the carnage on our roads. And this is not a matter simply for Departments or elected representatives; it is for the whole community to take all the necessary steps to ensure safer driving. It is up to the Government to ensure that there are safer roads.

Mr McHugh:

Does the Minister agree that the document 'Shaping Our Future', in its present draft form, militates against the development of places like Fermanagh and Tyrone? In terms of future investment, will the Minister try to make changes to the document with the aim of promoting more inward investment west of the Bann to make up for the job losses in Unipork in the next couple of months? Will he read the document from a rural perspective and see how it works against us in the long term?

Mr P Robinson:

I was watching closely, Mr Speaker, to see how flexible your approach to questions was going to be. We were dealing with the A29. I will deal with the regional strategic framework, and it is important to point out that the draft plan was subjected to public examination. In the next few weeks I expect to receive the report from that public examination, and I hope to publish it as soon as possible for further consulation. The Assembly's Regional Development Committee will also want to report on it. It would be premature for me to remark on what the outcome should be before I have seen both the public examination report and heard the views of the Committee.

Mr Morrow:

Is the Minister aware that land was vested 10 to 15 years ago to improve the Carland Bridge stretch of road? Since he is aware that traffic speed is reduced to five mph, can he assure the Assembly that an attempt will be made to bring forward the plan for improving that section of road so that we will not have to wait another 15 years?

Mr P Robinson:

I said that Carland Bridge was on the six-to-15-year forward planning schedule. Perhaps the Member should not be so pessimistic as to assume that it will not happen before year 15. He argues that it should be brought forward. Of course, we have to use some objective criteria to determine priorities, and I will be happy at any stage, as will the Committee, to examine whether these have been properly applied in any case. But the Department is currently working to the six-to-15-year plan, and it will depend largely on resources whether that can be advanced.

Railway Lines


Mr Ford asked the Minister for Regional Development what plans he has for the Antrim to Lisburn railway line and the reopening of the Bleach Green railway line.

(AQO 48/99)

Mr P Robinson:

Work to reinstate the railway line between Antrim and Bleach Green commenced in November 1999 and is expected to be completed towards the end of this year or early next year. The railway line between Antrim and Knockmore junction was due to be mothballed, but that decision is being re-examined by Translink and will be reconsidered in the light of the regional strategic framework.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for what is possibly the first good news that the people of Crumlin, Glenavy and the surrounding areas have heard about that railway line for some time. I am glad that he is building on the work of his predecessor and reinstating the Bleach Green line.

Will the Minister give an assurance that that re-examination by Translink will not merely be a paper exercise? Will his Department ensure that the necessary funds are provided to allow that railway line to play its part in the strategic plans for the future?

Mr P Robinson:

I can assure the Member that this will be seriously examined by Translink, but it is critical that a business case be made for the retention of that line. I am sure the Member is aware that not many more than 780 passengers use the line each week: about 50 to 60 per day. We need a business case to ensure a larger clientele for that service.

I will be doing everything possible to ensure that increased funds are available, particularly for transport where there has been serious underfunding for a long time, and I hope that the Member will also play his part in this.

Mr K Robinson:

Will the Minister undertake to ensure that Northern Ireland Railways opens the Bleach Green line and maximises its commuter potential to ease the horrific commuter problems on the northern side of Belfast? There is the possibility of developing this line, but I am afraid that Northern Ireland Railways will get carried away by the speed at which it would like to travel between Londonderry and Belfast and onward to Dublin and miss the commuter potential which lies there and would give the sort of figures that the Minister needs for the Crumlin to Glenavy line.

Mr P Robinson:

Yes. I am sure that all those involved will be taking every step to increase the use of our railways. I must point out to the Member that we have had such serious underfunding in transport that, excluding the railway line between Belfast and Dublin, most of the rolling stock is, to say the least, antiquated. It will require substantial investment, and until there is that kind of investment, it will be an uphill struggle to encourage people to use our existing rolling stock. So, once again, we come back to the one issue that is central to roads, water and transport and that is an increase in resources for the Department.

Mr Berry:

During the past few years Tandragee residents have been seeking to have the fluoride removed from their water supply. The Water Service advised people that this would be done. Will the Minister confirm if this is the case - [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am sure that there is some connection between fluoride and bleach, but there is no connection between the Member's supplementary and the Bleach Green railway line.

A5 Road (Upgrading)


Mr McMenamin asked the Minister for Regional Development whether funding to upgrade the A5 from the sale of Belfast port will be given top priority.

(AQO 31/99).

Mr P Robinson:

In response to the question from the Member for West Tyrone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's economic strategy for Northern Ireland provided additional funding for programmes for roads, schools and housing. These additional funds included £70 million from the expected sale of the port of Belfast. If the sale does not proceed, it is likely that this will impact on the Department's roads programme, which includes a number of improvement schemes for the A5.

3.15 pm

In view of the priority the A5 merits, I am happy to announce that a contract will be let shortly for the Leckpatrick scheme.

Mr McMenamin:

May I remind the Minister that when the Chancellor announced the £12.5 million aid package for the A5, he did not realise that a backlog of work, amounting to £35 million, had built up in the western region. To assist us in the north-west, and particularly in west Tyrone, we must have a proper infrastructure in place. In west Tyrone we do not have ports or airports so it is vital to have our main trunk road, the A5, which runs through Ballygawley, Omagh and Strabane to Derry, brought up to the necessary standard. Only yesterday one of my constituents, a young woman, was killed on the A5 between Derry and Strabane - my sympathy goes to her family. I ask the Minister to make the A5 his number-one priority.

Mr P Robinson:

I suspect that the supplementary question was prepared before the answer to the main Question was given to the Assembly. I have indicated that the Department deems the A5 to be such a priority and that we are proceeding with the Leckpatrick element. Effectively, there were four schemes for the A5 in the Chancellor's initiative. Apart from Leckpatrick, there was the Strabane bypass (stage two), the Newtownstewart bypass and the Omagh throughpass (stage three). These schemes are currently being progressed through the various design and public consultation processes, which include the publication of direction orders, environmental statements and vesting orders, all of which require public consultation and may even result in a public inquiry.

The timescale for the implementation of these schemes is dependent on both the successful completion of the necessary statutory procedures and the availability of funds. The Roads Service is, however, pressing ahead with the completion of the statutory procedures for each scheme so that contracts can be awarded as soon as the finance has been confirmed. The direction orders and environmental statements for the Strabane, Newtownstewart and Omagh schemes are expected to be published within the next few weeks, while the Leckpatrick scheme is ready to start.

Mr B Hutchinson:

If the sale of the port of Belfast goes ahead, will Mr Robinson's Department have some sort of safeguard to stop something similar happening to what occurred when the airport was sold and some people made millions? Will his Department have a golden share and will it stand up?

Mr P Robinson:

Mr Speaker, I see that you are screwing up your eyes. It is part of the question and comes closer than fluoride to being in order.

The golden share was of course a vital element of the PPP proposal brought forward by the Harbour Commissioners. As far as the Department is concerned, it is also an essential element. Because of the EC's challenge to the British Airport Authority's golden share, clearly we want to be satisfied that any golden share proposal contained in a privatisation package would ensure, in the long term, that the public interest was safeguarded. I can assure the Member for North Belfast that I will not recommend to the Assembly any privatisation of Belfast port unless the public interest is safeguarded. If there were any limitation to that safeguard by way of a golden share I would wish to have that limitation spelt out.

Mr Byrne:

I welcome the news that the Minister has given today about the A5 road. Given that this road connects with the N2 in the Republic and with part of the road into Donegal and that 25% of the traffic using it is from the Republic, would it make sense to examine the possibility of looking for a contribution from the Republic towards upgrading it more substantially?

Mr P Robinson:

This Assembly is responsible for the governance of Northern Ireland. In our budget we will take account of all our roads needs. The Government of the Irish Republic have sufficient roads of their own to pay for. Clearly we want to have a seamless join on any road that crosses the border, and there needs to be some co-ordination. I assure the Member that I appreciate the strategic importance of the A5. That is why we are bringing the Leckpatrick scheme forward now and pursuing as far as possible the other three elements of the Chancellor's initiative package.

Mr Leslie:

In view of the emphasis placed on the importance of the proceeds of the port sale in the Minister's otherwise welcome announcements about road building, will he advise the House whether he is considering alternative financing should this money not be forthcoming within his timescale? In particular, there are some traffic bottlenecks around the country that might lend themselves to private enterprise and a toll bridge.

Mr P Robinson:

The Department is currently preparing a 10-year roads and transportation strategy. This document will recognise the unlikelihood of any substantial increase in the block grant paid to the Assembly by the Chancellor, Mr Gordon Brown. It is also unlikely that there will be any substantial increase in the allocation to the Department for Regional Development, whether I put my arms around the Minister of Finance or not. Given that situation, I have to look at ways of increasing the funding either from within my Department or from other sources.

We are looking at a number of possibilities such as those considered by the United Kingdom Transport Minister, Mr John Prescott, which include congestion charges and tolling. We are also looking at other possibilities such as planning impact charges for developers who increase the burden on our infrastructure. We are looking at whether private utilities like Phoenix Natural Gas and British Telecom should be able to dig up our roads and devalue our assets without making some kind of contribution. We are looking at a wide range of possibilities, including partnerships with the private sector, and we hope to bring our views to the Regional Development Committee in due course.

Mr C Murphy:

A Chathaoirligh, does the Minister agree that it is premature to count on the sale of Belfast port and link it to road improvements thereafter? Is it not surprising that the Member has chosen to frame his question in this way when his party Colleague is chairing the Committee which is examining the arguments in this issue? Does the Minister agree that this gives us some indication of the Member's party's policy on privatisation?

Mr P Robinson:

I am sure that the Regional Development Committee will look closely not only at the way in which the Port of Belfast may want to proceed with privatisation, but also at whether it wants to pursue a private-sector option at all. I wish to assist the Committee and make sure that the Assembly has a meaningful role in considering the future of the Belfast port, rather than the statutory role which simply gives it the right to accept or reject a confirmation order brought to it by me.

Within the next few weeks, I hope to provide the Assembly, and the Regional Development Committee in particular, with an options paper which will look at a number of alternatives. Of course, one significant alternative is for the port to remain in the public sector. There are private sector options as well. I will be interested to hear the views of the Committee on those options and, indeed, the views of Assembly Members as well.

Rural Roads (Western Areas):


Mr Gallagher asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will introduce criteria to ensure that rural roads west of the Bann are treated during winter months.

(AQO 59/00)


Mr Gibson asked the Minister for Regional Development what the criteria are for determining which roads should be gritted in the West Tyrone constituency.

(AQO 63/99)

Mr P Robinson:

Mr Speaker, with your permission I will take these two questions together.

The current criteria for salting roads in West Tyrone are those which are applied consistently across Northern Ireland. They provide that main through routes carrying 1500 vehicles or more per day are salted during wintry conditions.

In addition, some routes that carry more than 1,000 vehicles per day are salted provided that there are special circumstances, such as sharp bends or gradients. I appreciate the concerns about this matter. Gritting costs approximately £4.5 million each year and deals with the roads that carry 80% of all traffic. Any significant increase in gritting could only be achieved by diverting resources from elsewhere in the roads' budget. I will, therefore, be consulting the Regional Development Committee about the priority which this aspect of roads expenditure should have and in particular, about the weighting to be given to rural areas.

Mr Gallagher:

I thank the Minister for his response. As he has outlined, the setting of the criteria is a complicated matter. I would draw the Minister's attention to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report a few months ago, which indicated that a mere 20% of roads in rural areas in the west of the Province were included in the gritting programme. That is a significantly lower percentage than applies to other areas in the North of Ireland.

Will the Minister accept - and I speak as a member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee - that a great deal can be done to improve safety at very little cost? As he has referred to costs several times I suspect that his advisers are still in direct-rule mode - concentrating on costs above everything else. In the new situation, does the Minister agree that Roads Service policy needs to move from "savings first" to "safety first"?

Mr P Robinson:

The Member would be entirely wrong to direct that criticism at my officials. There is an assumption underlying his question that the gritting of roads is a safety matter and that other areas of expenditure by the Department are not safety related. Many of those matters are safety related, and difficult choices have to be made.

I am aware of the issue, particularly in Fermanagh. I visited the council there, and it was brought to my attention. I made it clear to the council that I would look specifically at whether some weighting should be attached to rural and remote areas when deciding whether roads should be gritted.

I ask Assembly Members to recognise that £22 provides one tonne of asphalt, which lasts for 20 years. It also provides one tonne of salt, which can be washed away in 20 minutes.

Mr Gibson:

With respect to the Minister's last remark, is he aware that in much of rural West Tyrone many of the minor roads are awash with water because of the flow of surface water from adjoining lands? Department of Environment roads and drainage officials tell me that it is a common problem. Ground drainage, which is essential, was carried out 15 to 20 years ago under grant schemes, but much of the pipe work is silted, and the culvert apertures may be inadequate. Therefore, much of the salt, at £22 a tonne, does not even last 22 minutes on some of the roads. Will the Minister take this concern up with other Ministers to stop the roads of West Tyrone from becoming burns and sheughs?

Mr P Robinson:

I am glad to hear Ulster-Scots being used. I say to my hon Friend that there are drainage-related problems, and the possibility of salt being washed off the road is one of them. It is also frustrating for officials that when salt is put down, rain washes it away. There is more than one way of having salt washed off a road, with the consequent waste. I have asked officials to place a very useful leaflet that has been prepared by the Department and gives an explanation of a number of gritting problems in Members' pigeonholes.

3.30 pm

Members will recognise that gritting is a major problem that needs to be dealt with. However, if we could deal with 90% of the roads and have them salted, as opposed to 80%, the additional 10% would actually double the cost to road users.


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