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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 31 January 2000 (continued)

Departmental Budgets

5. Mr K Robinson

asked the Minister of Education if he will take into account non-departmental funding when allocating departmental budgets.

Mr M McGuinness:

Departmental budgets are allocated on the basis of educational need, having regard to departmental priorities and the overall availability of resources. Many schools receive financial and other support from parents and local businesses, and it would be inequitable to penalise such schools when determining their budgets.

Mr K Robinson:

I cannot help noticing that the Minister has failed, as yet, to respond to my written questions linked to this subject. Can I be assured that he and his Department are fully committed to a policy that has equality and transparency as its twin pillars? Can I be further assured that when he announces this year's capital build programme every sector of society represented in the House will be able to rejoice in the obvious equality and parity of esteem which he and his Department will have shown to each educational sector and to both sections of our divided community?

Mr M McGuinness:

I will make sure that the Member gets a reply to his written question.

I have already outlined the criteria which will form the foundation of the capital building programme, and they will be to do with educational need. We have to move forward of the basis of equality. I come from a community which for many generations felt that it was being treated unequally and unfairly. As Minister for Education, I have no intention of attempting to inflict that feeling on any other community. It is my responsibility to be fair.

During this year I intend to have further discussions with the Chairman of the Education Committee, Mr Danny Kennedy, and his Committee members. It is vital that when school capital building programmes are announced, every section of our community feels that it is being treated justly and fairly. There is a challenge in this for the Education Committee and for me, and I intend to rise to that challenge.

Maydown/Strathfoyle Primary School

6. Mrs E Bell:

asked the Minister of Education if he will make a statement on the future of Maydown/Strathfoyle Primary School in Londonderry.

(AQO 116/99)

Mr M McGuinness:

The future of this school is a matter for the Western Education and Library Board. I understand that the school's board of governors and the Western Board have decided to postpone a proposal for a merger with another school and have agreed to keep the enrolment position of Maydown/Strathfoyle School under review.

Mrs E Bell:

I thank the Minister for his reply. I was aware of that, but I wanted to know if there had been any further developments. Can the Minister confirm, in general terms, that amalgamation, which is a very sensitive issue, will be looked at sensitively and that all aspects, such as enrolment numbers, will be taken into account?

Mr M McGuinness:

I agree. Any proposed school closure would require the publication of a statutory development proposal, which provides for an eight-week period during which objections can be submitted to my Department. I would give careful consideration to all representations before reaching a decision on any such proposal for Maydown/Strathfoyle. I am also conscious of the ongoing debate in rural schools and of the number of campaigns to keep small rural primary schools open.

Obviously, rationalisation and amalgamation make sense where there is community support. However, when people are stridently opposed to rationalisation and amalgamation, and have emotional attachments to their schools, even if they are damp and have fire hazards, there is an onus on the Minister to listen carefully to concerns over the eight-week period during which people can make objections.

Curriculum: Road Safety

7. Mr Weir

asked the Minister of Education if he has any plans to make more time available in the curriculum for road safety awareness for pupils.

(AQO 139/99)

Mr M McGuinness:

The allocation of curriculum time to individual subjects and topics is a matter for schools themselves. Schools are aware of the important part that they have to play in keeping our young people safe on the roads, and they are supported in their work by the road safety education branch of the Department of the Environment, which has responsibility for road safety education.

Mr Weir:

Would the Minister support the involvement of the RUC in road safety programmes for schools, given that a few years ago he removed his son from school, rather than allow him to sit through a RUC road safety campaign?

Mr M McGuinness:

The key responsibility for road safety lies with the schools, the parents and the road safety education branch of the Department of the Environment. The decision as to who is invited into a school has to be a matter for the school, the parents and the board of governors. I confirm that I removed my son from a school gathering which was attended by the RUC. I did so because the RUC has been involved in killing schoolchildren with plastic bullets.

The RUC is the most discredited force in western Europe. [Interruption] The RUC should be disbanded. [Interruption]

3.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

Order. The time for questions to the Minister is up.

At this point I shall have to suspend the Assembly. I regret to say that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is unwell. The House will be suspended at the call of the Chair, but for not longer than 30 minutes. [Interruption]

Order. The Assembly must be grateful to the Minister for making herself available despite having been unwell.


Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Hospital Services

1. Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will make a statement on proposed reforms to acute hospital services.

(AQO 132/99)

5. Mr Molloy

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety how she proposes to improve access to hospital facilities west of the Bann.

(AQO 162/99)

8. Mr McElduff

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will assure people in Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh that accessibility to acute hospital services will be a key criterion when deciding upon the location of these services.

(AQO 141/99)

16. Mr Byrne

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether she intends to implement the recommendations of the Northern Health and Social Services Board's 'The Way Forward' report, which proposes the building of a new area hospital to provide acute services for the south-west of Northern Ireland.

(AQO 105/99)

17. Mr Foster

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will make a statement on the future of the Erne Hospital, Enniskillen.

(AQO 159/99)

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

Le do chead, a Cheann Comhairle, freagróchaidh mé ceisteanna a haon, a cúig, a hocht, a sé déag agus a seacht déag i gcuideachta a chéile, ós rud é go dtagraíonn siad, ar dhóigh, do caidé mar a sholrófar géarsheirbhísí otharlainne anseo feasta. Tá an tsaincheist seo ar cheann de na príomhthosachtaí atá agam faoi láthair. Tá mé ag machnamh ar conas is féidir ár seirbhísí otharlainne a fhorbairt ar dhóigh a chinnteoidh cúram otharlainne ardchaighdeáin a bhéas inaimsithe acu sin uilig atá ina ngá. Is mian liom a rá gur maith a thuigim chomh tábhachtach agus atá seirbhísí otharlainne ag na pobail áitiúla. Mar sin, sula ndéanfar athrú ar bith, ba mhian liom a chinntiú go mbeidh na socruithe faoi thodhchaí gach otharlann bunaithe ar an eolas is iomláine is féidir a fháil.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall take questions 1, 5, 8, 16 and 17 together as they all relate to how acute hospital services should be provided in the future. This is one of my key priorities, and I am currently considering how our hospital services can be developed in a way that ensures accessible, high-quality hospital care for all who need it.

I am very much aware of how important hospital services are to local communities, so before any changes are made I shall want to ensure that decisions about the future of individual hospitals are based on the fullest possible information.

Mr McCarthy:

In my constituency of Strangford, and especially in Ards, we were promised time after time that our acute hospitals would not be removed until there was sufficient funding in one of the nearby "golden six" hospitals, one of which is the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. How does the Minister account for the total lack of investment at the Ulster, given that the Ards and Bangor Hospitals have long since closed, leaving our constituents greatly inconvenienced? Can the Minister provide the House with details of the investment that has been put into the "golden six" hospitals, which includes the Ulster?

Ms de Brún:

Ní féidir liom an t-eolas beacht sin a thabhairt don Teachta Tionóil inniu, ach [interruption]

Mr Kennedy:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I am sorry, but I cannot take points of order during questions to Ministers, the reason being that to do so would shorten even further the time that is available. [Interruption]

Order. I entirely understand the issue to which the Member is adverting, but I cannot deal with it at this time. It is a matter to which I shall have to return. I cannot take points of order during Question Time because the times are tightly bounded. I think I know the issue to which the Member adverts, and I shall consider it.

Mr Kennedy:

Do I have your assurance that you will deal with the matter urgently?

Mr Speaker:

I cannot deal with the matter during Question Time, but I will do so as soon as possible afterwards. I understand the point that you are trying to make.

Ms de Brún:

Ní féidir liom an t-eolas a d'iarr an Teachta Tionóil faoi cá mhéad airgid go beacht a chaithfear le hoispidéil, ní féidir liom sin a thabhairt dó inniu. An méid is féidir liom a rá is é gur thug mé cuairt ar na mallaibh ar oispidéal i mBeannchar agus go bhfuil mé lánchinnte go bhfuiltear ag déanamh gach rud is féidir a dhéanamh san oispidéal sin ar son na n-oibrithe agus ar son na n-othar. Tá an Roinn s'agam féin ag obair i gcomhar le Bord Sláinte an Oirthir agus leis na hiontabhais éagsúla le cinntiú go bhfuiltear ag déanamh gach rud is féidir a dhéanamh le seirbhísí a choinneáil sna hoispidéil. Déanfar machnamh ar gach ceist de réir mar thig sí chun tosaigh.

I cannot provide the Member with the precise figures for which he has asked. What I can say is that the Department is working with the board and the trusts to ensure the continuance of the best services possible in all of the hospitals in the area and to deal with all of the questions which arise from that.

I recently visited a hospital in Bangor, and I can assure the Member that I was very pleased with the work being done. I had discussions with staff, local representatives and patients. The Department is mindful of the question which the Member referred to and, as a Member and a Minister, I am well aware of the issue.

There are proposals for the future development of the Ulster Hospital and significant capital investment will be required in due course. At this time I can give no further details.

Mr Speaker:

There is clearly going to be some difficulty. The Minister asked that five questions be taken together, and that was perfectly reasonable. Under normal procedures I call for supplementary questions from those Members who had questions which were taken together. However, if the Minister intends to give extensive replies, and to give them in two languages, we will barely get through the first of them - [Interruption]

Order. I must request that supplementary questions and the responses be as concise as possible in order to keep transgression to a minimum.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I wish to make a point of order.

Mr Speaker:

I am afraid that I cannot take a point of order at this juncture. I will take it at the end.

I note that Mr Francie Molloy, who was to ask a supplementary question, is not here.

Mr McElduff:

I wish to ask the Minister if she will assure people in Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh that access to acute hospital services will be -

Mr Speaker:

Order. When the Member is called to ask a supplementary question he should not repeat the original question.

Mr McElduff:

I was not scheduled to ask a supplementary question, a Chathaoirligh.

Mr Byrne:

I note what the Minister has said about the review of acute services throughout Northern Ireland and would like to ask her to accept the gravity of the situation in Tyrone and Fermanagh. Will she tell the House when we are likely to have a decision on a new hospital for the south-west of Northern Ireland? This is not only a very important issue for people in Tyrone and Fermanagh, but also crucial for the medical staff there.

Ms de Brún:

Mar a dúirt mé cheana féin, tá mé ag iarraidh an Bealach chun Tosaigh a chur fá bhráid an phobail faoi láthair. Tá mé ag dul i dteangmháil le daoine éagsúla, agus déanfaidh mé machnamh ar an tsaincheist. Tá mé ag iarraidh a chinntiú go mbeidh an pictiúr is iomláine agam is féidir a fháil. Mar sin de, ní féidir liom a rá go díreach cé mhéad ama a rachfas thart sula mbeidh cinneadh ann faoi aon ghné amháin den cheist seo.

As I said in my first answer, I am trying to ensure that decisions made about the future of individual hospitals are based on the fullest possible information, and, because this is part of a wider context and covers more than one possibility, I am not in a position at the moment to say exactly when any decision will be reached. Obviously, getting the fullest possible information will take time.

However, I assure the Member that this is one of the priorities I am dealing with. The Member will be aware that a number of decisions were left pending before the establishment of the Executive. I hope to be in a position to give a better and clearer view of the way forward very soon.

Mr Foster:

My question has been asked and the answer given. The matter of essential services in acute hospitals in rural Fermanagh has been dealt with.

Mr McGrady:

It is somewhat difficult to ask a supplementary question. The grouping of the questions today did not help in this respect. I must abandon the question originally asked, which has not been answered by the Minister. However, in addressing the issue of acute services generally I should like to ask the Minister, given the overcentralisation of maternity services, whether she accepts her Department's current policy, which is based on the August 1991 paper?

The Health Select Committee of the House of Commons said that it could not agree with the recommendations of that paper and that the proposal was regressive and should not be proceeded with. It then asked the Department of Health to withdraw the policy, on which the Department is now acting.

Does the Minister concur with the original policy or will she withdraw it and reassess the over-centralisation of maternity services? In other words, are the Royal Colleges going to dictate public health policy here, or are people's needs going to be paramount?

Ms de Brún:

Ó thaobh na seirbhísí seo agus ó thaobh na seirbhísí ospidéil eile de, ba mhaith liom a chur ina luí ar gach aon duine inniu nach bhfuil mé ag glacadh le nó ag diúltú do aon pholasaí a ghlac duine ar bith de na hAirí Sláinte a tháinig romham. Tá mé ag déanamh machnaimh ar an Bhealach chun Tosaigh, agus labhróidh mé le oiread daoine agus is féidir agus déanfaidh mé cinnte go mbeidh aon socrú fá thodhchaí seirbhís ar bith bunaithe ar an eolas is iomláine is féidir a fháil.

I am neither taking as read nor rejecting out of hand the proposals of previous Administrations and Ministers. As I have taken on board questions on the provision of hospitals and other services, I have made the best possible decision in each case, based on the fullest possible information. As I have said, I want to ensure that local people and others have the chance to meet me and put forward their views on a number of different matters.

I am sorry that the Member feels that my previous answer was not full. However, I am reviewing acute hospital policy and looking at the best way forward. I shall try to ensure that decisions are based, as I have said, on the fullest possible information, and I shall not restrict this review to previous years.

Downe Hospital: Acute Services

3.15 pm

2. Mr ONeill

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will consider the reintroduction of the 94-bed acute services plan in the new Downe Hospital.

(AQO 180/99)

18. Mr M Murphy

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will pledge to maintain and expand existing acute services at the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick.

(AQO 184/99)

Downe and Downpatrick Hospitals:
Maternity Services

19. Mr McGrady

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what discussions she has held with the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, the Down Lisburn Trust and other bodies concerning future plans for the retention of acute services at the Downe and Downpatrick Maternity Hospitals, and if she will make a statement.

(AQO 121/99)

Ms de Brún:

Le do chead arís, a Cheann Comhairle, freagróidh mé ceisteanna a dó, a hocht déag agus a naoi déag le chéile, ós rud é go dtagraíonn siadsan do Oispidéal an Dúin. Tá a fhios agam pleananna a bheith ann faoi láthair do Oispidéal an Dúin agus tuigim an imní a léirigh grupaí agus daoine áitiúla faoi na pleananna seo. Scríobh mé inniu chuig cuid de na Teachtaí Tionóil agus tá mé sásta bualadh leo le plé a dhéanamh ar conas is féidir forbairt a dhéanamh amach anseo, sula ndéanfaidh mé cinneadh ar an dóigh is fearr le gabháil chun tosaigh. Ba mhaith liom bualadh le Bord an Oirthir, le Bord an Dúin agus le Bord Lios na gCearrbhach.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 2, 18 and 19 together, as they relate to hospital services in the Down area. I am aware of the present plans for the new Downe Hospital and local concerns that they do not include provision for acute services. I have written today to some Members agreeing to meet to discuss both present and future aspects before I make a decision on the way forward. I hope, also, to discuss these soon with the Eastern Board and the Down Lisburn Trust.

Mr ONeill:

I thank the Minister for her answer, given that bed shortages in Northern Ireland, and particularly in the Down Lisburn Trust area, were well established over the Christmas period. The Minister referred to the considerable concern about and lack of confidence in the success of the measures proposed to replace acute services in our new facility. Will she ensure that, as an outcome of the deliberations, this 94-bed plan will be reactivated? Of all the plans that we have looked at in our area, this one received the overwhelming support of everybody - board, trust and local community representatives.

Will the Minister also agree that the continued uncertainties surrounding the provision of acute services at the present site is, in itself, damaging? This can be seen from the current crisis over the provision of a 24-hour accident and emergency service.

Mr Speaker:

I must appeal to both Members and the Minister to keep questions and answers as concise as possible to enable more questions to be asked.

Ms de Brún:

Beidh mé ag amharc ar cheist thodhchaí Oispidéal an Dúin mar chuid den aithbhreithniú ghinearálta ar na seirbhísí otharlainne. Aithním go ndearna Oispidéal an Dúin níos mó ná a sháith le linn na géarchéime leapacha ag an Nollaig.

The question of the future of the Downe Hospital is one that I will look at as part of my overall review. I have already indicated the way in which I wish to address this matter. I do recognise that the Downe Hospital has made an important contribution with regard to the current bed crisis. It is my intention to end uncertainty and to bring forward proposals on a number of matters. I have indicated that I do wish to ensure that any decisions I make are based on the fullest possible information.

Mr McGrady:

Does the Minister support her Department's instructions on the business plan for the new Downe Hospital? Has she made an analysis of the private scheme for midwifery-led maternity services that is taking place in Downpatrick? Has she done an assessment of the pilot scheme for thrombalitic care that is also taking place? Can she confirm that the new building that is planned will go ahead?

Ms de Brún:

Thig liom a insint don Teachta Tionóil go bhfuil mé ag déanamh machnaimh ar gach aon ghné den cheist seo, ach nach féidir liom a rá go cinnte ag an phointe seo caidé an bealach chun tosaigh a bhéas mé a ghlacadh. Mar a dúirt mé cheana, níl mé ag glacadh le agus níl mé ag diúltú do aon chinneadh a rinneadh roimhe.

I can confirm that I am looking at all aspects of this issue. To repeat what I have already said, I am neither accepting nor rejecting any proposals that were made before devolution. I am looking at the matter. I have taken on this responsibility, and I will ensure that any decisions I make are based on the fullest possible information.

Mr Speaker:

Will the engineers please check the microphones. There may be more than one on at the same time, creating a degree of echo.

Mr Shannon:

The issue I want to raise is the report that the Union flag is to be removed from Downe Hospital. This is unacceptable. The Union flag should be retained.

Ms de Brún:

An raibh ceist ann?

Was there a question?

Mr Speaker:

The Member did not put the question entirely clearly. Perhaps he would like to rephrase what he said.

Mr Shannon:

There was a report at the weekend that the Union flag is to be removed from Downe Hospital. I believe that the Union flag should be retained. Perhaps some comment could be made on that.

Mr Speaker:

The Member has certainly outlined his own viewpoint, but he has not actually asked a question. I will give him a final opportunity to do so. If it is not possible to ask a question -

Mr Shannon:

Is the Department prepared to make a statement on this issue? Perhaps the Minister would make a statement.

Ms de Brún:

Ó thaobh cúrsaí bratacha de, d'iarr mé ar an Chéad-Aire agus an LeasChéad-Aire barúlacha a thabhairt ar an cheist seo. Tá ceist na mbratach le teacht aníos ag an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin agus beidh mé in ann tuilleadh eolais a thabhairt don Teachta Tionóil amach anseo. D'iarr mé ar an Roinn san idirlinn gan bratach Rialtas na Breataine a chrochadh in airde ina aonar.

The question of flags has been drawn to the attention of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The issue will be dealt with by the Executive, and I hope then to be in a position to give a fuller answer to the Member. Pending discussion at the Executive, I have asked the Department to suspend the practice of flying the Union flag alone on its buildings.

Anti-Drug-Abuse Strategy

3. Mr Paisley Jnr

asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if she will work with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to implement an anti-drug-abuse strategy.

(AQO 129/99)

The Minister can run from question 3, but she cannot hide from it.

Ms de Brún:

Le do chead, a Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom leanstan ar aghaidh chuig ceist a sé: níl freagra na ceiste sin liom agus ba mhaith liom cinntiú go bhfuil mé ag freagairt na ceiste mar is ceart.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to go on to question 6 and return to this -

Mr Speaker:

Order. It is not possible simply to move on to the question one chooses. I ask the Minister to make some reply to the question that has been asked. In any case, if one were to move forward, it would not be to number 6 but to number 4. The Minister may reach number 4, but, for the moment, would she please answer question 3.

Ms de Brún:

Thig liom a rá go cinnte go mbeidh an cheist seo faoi cé air a mbeidh an fhreagracht leis an straitéis in éadan mí-úsáid drugaí a chur i bhfeidhm, go mbeidh an cheist sin ag teacht aníos ag an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin amárach agus go ndéanfar plé uirthi ansin.

The question of the implementation of the anti-drug-abuse strategy and where the responsibility for that lies has not yet been discussed at the Executive Committee, but it will be discussed tomorrow.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

The Minister's contempt for the House is appalling. I find her answer wholly unsatisfactory, and I would like to ask her, through the Chair, if her reluctance to work with the Royal Ulster Constabulary derives from her party's close connection with the Provisional IRA's illicit drug trade in Northern Ireland. Does her contempt for the RUC and for this House not make it clear that she is incapable of being a Minister and should resign today?

Ms de Brún:

Ar dtús báire ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil ard-mheas agam ar an Tionól seo-fiú ar na Teachtaí sin a bhfuil deacrachtaí pearsanta acu liom.

Is léir go bhfuil straitéis in aghaidh mí-úsáid drugaí á socrú faoi láthair agus go bhfuiltear ag obair uirThi sin. Tá daoine ag obair ar cheist mhaoiniú na straitéise seo de réir plean ar socraíodh air sular bunaíodh an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin agus sula raibh an cheist seo ar fhreagracht an Aire. Beidh le feiceáil amárach cé h-é/í an t-Aire a bhéas i mbun na straitéise, ach ní thig le duine ar bith a rá go gcruthaíonn sin go bhfuil aon fhadhb ann maidir leis an straitéis seo.

Ní raibh aon mhoill ann go dtí seo ag soláthar airgid do thionscnaimh atá chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don straitéis in aghaidh mí-úsáid drugaí, agus bhí seasca éileamh ann ar airgead dá leithéid. Tuigim, mar sin de, go bhfuil an próiseas seo le bheith faoi stiúir agus faoi phlé ag an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin amárach.

I have nothing but the highest respect for this Assembly. I sincerely hope that I have shown no contempt whatsoever for the House, and I have nothing but respect - [Interruption]


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