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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 31 January 2000 (continued)

Points of Order


Mr Speaker:

I shall respond to one or two issues, which arose in points of order.

Mr Kennedy raised a question, and I took it upon me to assume that it was to do with the fact that during Question Time the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety responded in both English and Irish. Whether I made that judgement as a psychiatrist or as a result of the ambience in the Chamber, I will leave to him to decide. Unfortunately he is not in his place, but I will take the issue up.

Mrs Iris Robinson raised some questions in respect of Members' interests with regard to Mr Benson. I have made some preliminary checks but have more checks to make before I will be able to respond to her.

Dr Paisley had a point of order that I did not permit him to make earlier. I wish to emphasise that I have decided to take points of order at the end of ministerial questions; if we were to take them during Question Time, the time we are allowed under Standing Orders would be cut.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I understand that, but when Barbara Brown - the English for de Brún - was addressing the House, it seemed to me that she was showing contempt for the House. As you are very well aware, a Member trying to impede the progress of the House by using language and repetition and by acting in a way that wastes time is contempt of the House. Today the Minister took a very long time even to respond, and she seemed to have some difficulty in standing. When she did stand at the Box, she had difficulty finding the relevant file. Then, when she came to read the file in Irish, she seemed to stumble over the pronunciations and hesitate for quite a considerable time - even when she was speaking Irish. On one occasion, when she was speaking in English, she stopped altogether and seemed to be lost for words.

Instead of the Member concerned knowing the answer, there was nothing but confusion. If we are to have another Question Time like the one we have had this afternoon, some of us will not tolerate it. Such behaviour is contempt of the House and does not show that she is carrying out her vow to take forward the business of the House. Our business has definitely been hindered today.

I know, Mr Speaker, that your attitude is that if Members are aware of parliamentary procedure they should be harshly dealt with - and you deal with me harshly. It would be totally unfair for the House to have another performance similar to the one we have had today. It is absolutely intolerable.

Mr Speaker:

The Member has raised issues which are specific problems that we must address. The language question is such an issue, and if we espouse the means for dealing with it as decided on 1 July 1998 for questions, we clearly have a problem. I accept that, and it is my belief that that is what Mr Danny Kennedy was addressing. In order not to use up any more time I said that I would address the issue, and I will do so.

It is not only here that Members take some time to respond to questions, as the Member will be well aware. It was taken to extremes in the Dáil, and the Ceann Chomhairle had to introduce very strict regulations which require that, if a Minister extends his answer beyond a certain length of time, the remainder of the answer is not given orally but in writing in Hansard. However, the incident which led to that was substantially in excess of anything that has happened here today.

Last week, at Westminster, a Minister took 11 minutes to give a response. The House did not regard that as a proper response, and the Speaker dealt with the matter. I suspected that the Member would ask this question, and I have already checked the figures. We had responses to 10 questions on health, seven questions on education and six questions on finance. More questions were answered, therefore, on health.

The Member has stated that there was contempt of the House. I advised the House before we began that there would be a suspension because the Minister had fallen ill. I had no reason to suspect that that was not the case, and the Member might consider that some of the hesitation and delay to which he referred was not so much a matter of the Minister's not being prepared to be courteous and respect the House but rather that the Minister was doing her best to give answers to the House while not feeling well.

We now move on to another question of health, and we should do so promptly, otherwise the remaining time will be shortened.

Mr McGrady:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it your intention to have advance notice from Ministers that they intend to group questions together and to have such groupings highlighted on the annunciator or otherwise communicated directly to Members? It can be confusing if Ministers unilaterally declare that they intend to group questions together.

Mr Speaker:

Shortly before the Assembly meets I am given suggestions for the grouping together of questions so that I can check whether such groupings are reasonable. If they appear reasonable, I permit them. So far as I know, it is not the practice in other places to announce in advance the grouping together of questions.

I believe that the Member is suggesting this for the convenience of Members who would choose to be absent from the Chamber, even when their questions have been tabled. I am not saying that this is the case with the Member himself.

However, this is not an unreasonable suggestion, because there were some Members whom I invited to ask supplementary questions who were not here, even though their questions were being responded to. I do not believe that this suggestion can be implemented, but I will consider the matter.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have told the House that in another place questions are not listed. They are indeed now listed on the monitor in the House of Commons. It is also stated whether they are to be taken together.

Mr Speaker:

It may well be that that is now the case. It certainly was not the case at one time. I am a less frequent visitor to that end of the building, just as the Member is a less frequent visitor to the other end. Thus it is hard for us to keep up to speed with each other.

Mr Kennedy:

Further to the earlier point of order which I raised, may I congratulate you for accurately predicting my concern. However, that concern has not yet been addressed. I find it most unsatisfactory that any Minister can come to answer questions and waste time giving an answer in one language, only to give what is presumably the same answer in English. This is clearly unsatisfactory, and I suggest -

Mr Speaker:

This is quite out order, as I have already said that I am taking the matter up. The point of order cannot be answered immediately since there are various ways in which it could be responded to which would have financial and other implications. I cannot take that matter any further at the moment.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

With regard to the way in which the Minister grouped the questions, I would like you to consider carefully how she selected seven of the 10 questions which she answered. May I draw to your attention that seven of those questions were drawn from Members of either her party or her side of the House? It was a quite deliberate attempt to shelter herself from proper probing by this Assembly. If she is unfit -

Mr Speaker:

The Member speaks more out of suspicion than from knowledge of how the system works. The choice of questions and the order in which they are dealt with are decided by ballot. It is a random matter, and not one decided by me. The grouping is done on the basis of reasonable subject matter. That is how the question is addressed.

Mr P Robinson:

When you consider these issues the key matter which should be in your mind is this: while a Member who speaks in two languages during a debate is using up his own time, if he speaks in two languages while answering questions he is using up our time.

Mr Speaker:

The Member is absolutely correct. It will clearly have to be part of the consideration, which I cannot promise will be completed by next week when the next Question Time is scheduled. It will, however, be dealt with as soon as possible. The reason for that is quite clear. As soon as one is dealing with more than one language, one enters into the question of simultaneous translation, which cannot necessarily be "magicked up" overnight. Bringing it into commission may not be quite as difficult as decommissioning weapons, but it nonetheless takes a little time.

We really must move on to the debate. It would be quite unfair to those involved if we shorten the time available. I shall take one last point of order from Mr Dodds.

Mr Dodds:

I should like to correct something you said earlier and put it on the record accurately. You said that the Minister of Health had answered 10 questions and that the Minister of Finance had answered six. This is somewhat unfair, for he dealt with six separate questions. The only reason you can say that the Minister of Health answered 10 is that seven of them were grouped together. In terms of separate subjects, she actually dealt with only three.

Mr Speaker:

That is not a point of order at all. The Member knows very well that there is a range of issues to do with supplementary questions that are asked by Members whose questions are taken together, and so on.

We shall now proceed to the debate.

Mr McCartney:

I should like to make a point of order about the debate which is about to take place. If I do not make it now I will not be able to make it at all.

Mr Speaker:

I shall take the point of order on this debate.

Mr McCartney:

I am grateful. In view of the fact that the time for this debate has been shortened - and presumably you had a list of those wishing to speak - can you now say for how long individual Members will be able to speak?

Mr Speaker:

Thank you for bringing that matter to our attention. The Business Committee agreed with me that the Member moving the motion would have 10 minutes and that all other Members would have five minutes. There is the possibility, if the Minister were present, of her winding up for about five minutes before the end. The proposer would also have a chance to wind up: Since that agreement, a competent amendment has been put down, so the individual who moves the amendment will have five minutes for that and five minutes to wind up before we move to the vote.

Maternity Services (Belfast)

Maternity Services (Belfast)

4.15 pm

The following motion stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mrs I Robinson:

This Assembly endorses the decision of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Statutory Committee to locate maternity services in Belfast at the City Hospital.

Mr Maskey:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise the matter of the competence of this motion. The motion states

"This Assembly endorses the decision of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Statutory Committee to locate maternity services in Belfast at the City Hospital."

As I understand it, the Committee cannot decide to locate anything anywhere. I fail to see how this Assembly can endorse a decision which cannot be taken in the first place and which certainly cannot be taken by that particular Committee.

Mr Speaker:

As the Member is aware, when the motion was tabled and agreed to by the Business Committee, the Health Committee had made a decision. Subsequent to that, and subsequent to the publication of the Order Paper, the Minister made a decision. It would not have been possible, at that point, to withdraw what was a reasonable and competent motion.

One could have some debate about the precise wording of the motion. There are clearly issues of competence, not solely in relation to the motion but in relation to decisions that will be the subject, to some extent, of the amendment. It was not unreasonable for the motion to be regarded as competent when it was tabled, agreed to by the Business Committee and put on the Order Paper. Subsequently, a ministerial decision was made and an amendment put down which addresses that ministerial decision. In that context it is appropriate for the Assembly to debate this, and that was agreed to by the Business Committee.

Mr Maskey:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Health Committee cannot decide to locate anything anywhere. It may decide to recommend, but it cannot decide to locate. It does not have that power. I want that established for the record.

Mr Speaker:

For the record, it is not for the Speaker to give such a ruling. The Speaker gives a ruling on matters inside the Chamber. The Member is speaking about legal matters - potentially, constitutional legal matters - outside the Chamber, and I cannot give a ruling on them. This is completely unfair to those who will move the motion.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are certain Members of the Assembly entitled to be on their feet while you are speaking when others have to sit down?

Mr Speaker:

It does not seem to me that it is only Members on one side of the House who try that one.

I call Mrs Robinson.

Mrs I Robinson:

I beg to move the following motion:

This Assembly endorses the decision of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Statutory Committee to locate maternity services in Belfast at the City Hospital.

At the outset may I establish that the Health Committee knew, throughout its deliberations, that the Royal and the Jubilee maternity hospitals both have outstanding records in providing the best possible care for mothers and babies. Additionally, may I remind the Assembly of the McKenna Report, which specifically examined, in minute detail, the factors governing the best location for maternity services in Belfast. This investigation was rigorous and took approximately nine months to evaluate. McKenna found in favour of the Belfast City Hospital, and the then Minister, Malcolm Moss, endorsed this view. Following intervention and predictable outcry from west Belfast politicians, Mo Mowlam was prevailed upon to institute a further review.

Although seriously lacking, in respect of the clarity of its terms of reference, the Donaldson review generally endorsed the recommendations of the McKenna Report with one exception - the location of the new maternity hospital.

We are all aware how "meddling Mo Mowlam" reversed the original decision only to find herself successfully challenged in the High Court on that. This led to the issuing of a further consultative document, which only added distortion to confusion. It was clear that, ministerially, the only desired political result was to be a west Belfast Hospital to satisfy Nationalist west Belfast.

Then came the Assembly and the appointment of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee to consider all aspects of this matter on its behalf, and in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. Following the most intense, deliberate and conscientious investigation, we arrived at our conclusions and reported our view accordingly.

Let us be absolutely clear about what we reported. We agreed unanimously that the best solution was a new maternity hospital: a centre of excellence. We were forced to accept that, in the meantime, services would be combined temporarily on the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) site. This was because paediatricians at the RVH had withdrawn their support from junior doctors at the Belfast City Hospital (BCH) and because work was due to commence in April to build a new cancer unit on the Jubilee site.

As a Committee, we were in favour of siting the new hospital on the BCH site. Two thirds of the Committee voted for this option. We arrived at this decision honestly, on the basis of what we considered to be in the best future interests of all the women and children of Northern Ireland. We gave the greatest weight to a consideration of clinical aspects and medical opinion. We were amazed when the Minister's statement suggested that her decision had been made on clinical grounds.

Let us consider the medical opinion. The clinical arguments in favour of the BCH site are irrefutable. Established practice throughout the United Kingdom requires obstetrics, gynaecology and neonatal services to be combined on one site. The Royal College of Gynaecology has clearly spoken of the need to keep maternity and gynaecology services together. All medical opinion agreed that, as we plan for a new century, a regional centre of excellence for the care of women is the answer to our present and future needs. This centre should combine on one site the full range of services: genetics, maternity, prenatal, fertility, gynaecology and cancer services, all centred on the specific needs of women.

Like the medical experts, our Committee considered all the criteria by which the centre of excellence was to be judged. We acknowledged that the clinical requirements could best be met at the BCH site. Additionally, we concluded that it would be safer for women, being directly linked to the tower block, to have direct access to acute and intensive care facilities, including computerised tomography (CT) scanning for babies. This combination would enable the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) unit and the genetic research facility to be on the same campus as well.

On the matter of accessibility for those using and visiting the hospital and from the point of view of centralising midwifery services, BCH was also the choice. Some in this Chamber may not like to face this, but there is a chill factor at the Royal. Sixty per cent of women surveyed in Belfast are reluctant to go to west Belfast to attend the Royal - that is a matter of fact. The Lisburn Road site is more attractive, given its close proximity to road and rail transport. Our decision was not arbitrary. We considered the issues and the facts. As a permanent solution, the RVH met none of the considered criteria. It is an acceptable site only as a short-term, interim arrangement.

Mr Shannon:

Does the Member agree that this is an example of what we, as a party, predicted? The Minister has overruled her Committee, in this case the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, but the same will probably happen to the Education Committee. Does the Member therefore agree that decisions taken by the Sinn Féin Ministers have been and will be politically motivated and will disenfranchise the Unionist people in this Province?

Mrs I Robinson:

I agree. Unfortunately, I have no great faith in Sinn Féin/IRA's ever taking a holistic approach.

That was the conclusion of the Committee. The seven-to-four majority came as a result of genuinely democratic procedures followed by people who had considered all the advice and information available. It was a cross-party majority. We were sure that the BCH site would be best for mothers, babies, staff and visitors and best too from a long-term financial point of view, although that was not our main priority.

It was the clear majority view that no substantial clinical case can be made in favour of the Royal. In relation to the Royal's suitability as the site for a new maternity hospital, my contention is that it may be possible for those who have examined the clinical arguments to make a successful legal challenge to the Minister's decision.

The behaviour of the Royal's paediatricians in this matter has been a serious cause for concern. Their behaviour was unworthy of people in their profession, and if not illegal it was shameful and unethical.

Many members of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee have expressed disappointment and even anger at the role played by the Committee's Chairman following the Committee's decision to support the BCH site. When a Committee takes a democratic decision it expects its Chairman to articulate that position or remain silent. Not only did he not fulfil the role of Chairman and argue the Committee's case; he sought to undermine his Committee by advancing his personal, partisan opinion. This behaviour is unworthy of him and renders the role of Chairman meaningless and farcical. If a Chairman is not speaking for his Committee, he is a Chairman without standing and authority.

I have looked at the amendment in the name of Dr Esmond Birnie. It seems to deal only with the procedure adopted by the Minister in taking her decision; it does not question the decision that she made. The purpose of the motion in my name is for the Assembly to declare itself in support of the City Hospital option. I cannot therefore support the amendment, which evades the issue, although I agree that the manner of the Minister's announcement was totally unacceptable.

I now turn to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is self-evident that her announcement was brought forward to pre-empt the debate in the Assembly today. In her headlong rush to avoid the Assembly's endorsing the Committee's decision and thus adding to the weight of opinion in favour of the City Hospital, she jettisoned every recognised procedure for communicating her decision to those directly, and indirectly, involved, and that calls the integrity and professionalism of the Minister and her staff into question. To my mind, the Minister behaved in an unforgivable manner by failing to inform the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee of her decision before the announcement was made to the media. The Committee was snubbed, but just imagine how the staff of BCH must feel, having been disregarded in this way. The fact that she had neither the decency nor the manners to come and face the Committee is indicative of a lack of moral courage on her part.

Did she make the decision or was she instructed by her party and its associates to make the decision?

In any event, it is my considered opinion that her conclusions were based on narrow political interest.

Mr Speaker:

I am afraid that your time is up.

Mrs I Robinson:

With the intervention, may I just take -

Mr Speaker:

I am afraid not. The intervention from a Colleague was taken by choice. I must ask the Member if she begs to move the motion.

Mrs I Robinson:

It is the view of the great majority of people throughout the Province that a west Belfast Minister made a decision in favour of a hospital in west Belfast -

Mr Speaker:


Mrs I Robinson:

I seek support for the motion.

Dr Birnie:

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "This Assembly" and add

" , recalling that the Belfast Agreement provides for key decisions to be taken on a cross-community basis, rebukes the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for not raising the question of maternity provision in Belfast with her ministerial colleagues, for not consulting properly with the Statutory Committee, and for attempting to pre-empt consideration of the matter by this Assembly, and calls on the Minister to bring the issue before the Assembly in a proper fashion."

I move this amendment because there is a matter of great procedural importance in last week's decision by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is even more important than the question of the location of the hospital, important though that is; and I agree with the majority view of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee on that matter.

The question at stake today is this: are Government arrangements going to work to the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland or will they simply degenerate into narrow partisanship?

4.30 pm

First, let us look at the timing of the Minister's decision and her announcement. There was an unseemly rush to pre-empt today's debate.

Secondly, her decision overrode the Committee's clear, majority verdict, and insult was added to injury in that most of the Committee members, other than the Chairman, only heard of her decision through the media on Thursday morning.

Thirdly - and this is equally damning - this was an Executive decision taken by the Minister, but not brought before the Executive Committee. Many Members have a strong suspicion that the Minister and, indeed, her party came to this issue of the Royal or the Jubilee with their minds already made up.

Has the Minister adequately discharged all the responsibilities of her office? I would point to the Belfast Agreement, to the terms of the Minister's pledge of office and to the code of conduct, whose provisions relate to equality, to the prevention of discrimination and to good community relations. I ask whether having a large maternity hospital at the Royal, a second, relatively-small one, at the Mater and a third, medium-sized one, at the Ulster Hospital for all of Belfast is compatible with the terms of the Belfast Agreement that are to do with equality, the prevention of discrimination and good community relations.

To recap, there are clear and important issues of precedent that we want to resolve this afternoon. First, should the Minister have consulted with, and informed, her Executive colleagues? Secondly, in the event of a conflict between a Minister and his Committee, should it become standard practice to attempt to resolve that internally by allowing the Committee a longer period for research, reflection, deliberation and, indeed, a further vote? Thirdly, if the Minister and the Committee cannot resolve a matter internally, should it be brought before the House to enable the Assembly to offer its opinion and guidance?

In all of this, there is a striking, massive and, indeed, sad irony: we have a Health Minister, indeed, a Sinn Féin Minister, who has replicated all of the worst neo-colonialist and unrepresentative features of direct rule. It is an irony worthy, perhaps, of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm': yesterday's self-styled radicals and revolutionaries have, through their style of decision making, become the reactionaries and oppressors of today. I urge the House to support the amendment.

Mr Speaker:

The Minister will have to respond to both the amendment and the substantive motion - and they address slightly different issues. The maximum time that will be available to her will be 10 minutes - five minutes in respect of each.

Dr Hendron:

We want to discuss, in a very serious way, what is best for mothers and babies in Northern Ireland. All of our people are entitled to the best service. We are talking about a regional hospital service for Northern Ireland: maternity services for Belfast, but a regional service for Northern Ireland, and I want to put great emphasis on that. If we were just talking about Belfast, we could toss a coin between the Royal or the City. But we are talking about a regional service for Northern Ireland; we are talking about a regional neo natal unit for Northern Ireland to care for sick or premature new-born babies; and we are talking about a regional paediatric service for Northern Ireland. There is only one major regional paediatric hospital in the North of Ireland, and it is not my fault if that happens to be in west Belfast.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Will the Member give way?

Dr Hendron:

I would give way, but I have been informed that I have only a few minutes left.

To give mothers and babies the best regional service, all three of the services that I have just mentioned should be together if at all possible. There is only one site in the North of Ireland where that is possible, and that is the Royal site in west Belfast, which contains the regional neonatal unit and the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

The decision on this matter must be a clinical one. As a public representative, but more importantly as a doctor, I have led this discussion for the past five to six years, and my endeavours have included an Adjournment debate in the House of Commons and many meetings with previous Ministers.

I am not canvassing for votes in west Belfast or anywhere else. The only issue here is a clinical one. It is a question of what is best for mothers and for sick or premature, newborn babies throughout Northern Ireland - not just those in Belfast.

I have a profound respect for the City Hospital and the Jubilee. I worked in the Jubilee many years ago, and recently the Minister of the Environment, Mr Sam Foster, when he was spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party on health issues, and I led, in a political context, the promoting of the City Hospital as a top cancer unit. I believe that it will be one of the best in the world, and we have had meetings with Dr Ric Klausner from the United States cancer unit at Bethesda, Maryland.

I listened carefully to Mrs Robinson, and, as Chairman of the Committee, I am embarrassed, and I apologise. I realise that it is a great honour to be Chairman of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, but one must adopt the maxim "To thine own self be true". Members of the Committee will accept that at the very beginning I informed them that this issue was coming up and that I had to go along with what I had been doing for years on clinical grounds. I thought that they understood and respected that. I certainly respect the decision of each member of that Committee. I offered to stand down temporarily when it came to the discussion on maternity services, but they kindly did not accept that.

Members mentioned timing and how we were informed by the Minister. Last Wednesday the Committee had a marathon meeting that lasted from 2.00 pm until after 6.00 pm. It was not about maternity services, but during it I received a note asking me to phone the Minister. The note did not say "urgent" or what it was about. I came out of the room at about 6.15 pm, had a cup of tea and phoned the Minister at approximately 6.50 pm. The Minister gave me the information on her decision.

At that stage some Members were still around, but others were en route to various parts of Northern Ireland. It was difficult for me to inform all of them because I did not have their telephone numbers, but I take some blame for that and apologise to my Committee for it.

It would have been helpful if the Minister had sent somebody, such as the permanent secretary, or had come herself, even for five minutes, to inform the Committee of the decision. There was a breakdown in communication.

Malcolm Moss made a decision, and the Donaldson Committee of experts was set up. There were no experts on the McKenna Committee on sick, newborn babies, and every paediatrician in Northern Ireland supports the points that I have made.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The time is up.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I come from a rural constituency, and my only disappointment is that, while Belfast has a choice of two sites, people west of the Bann have no site to choose. There is no doubt that both the Royal and the Jubilee provide excellent maternity services, but both the Minister and the Committee agreed that a new facility should be built to house the combined maternity units. The key question, a Chathaoirligh, was where the new hospital should be sited.

The Minister selected the Royal because maternity services would be adjacent to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and to the Royal's accident and emergency department - both very serious medical considerations. The Minister has again been accused of making a political decision because the Royal is in her constituency.

As Joe Hendron said, the Royal is also in his constituency, but he was not canvassing votes in west Belfast for the Royal. No matter what decision the Minister came to take, she would be damned if she did, and damned if she did not. I am quite sure that her decision was no more politically motivated than the decisions of those who voted against the Royal - that is if the latter was politically motivated at all, which I doubt.

Wednesday's decision concluded years of wrangling, not only over future regional services but, more critically, over where those services should be located or relocated. The 1996 McKenna recommendation that the Royal and the Jubilee should be closed and relocated on two floors of the City block caused an unprecedented campaign to be waged by medics, residents, politicians and trade unionists.

The debate about the siting of maternity services has been long and acrimonious, embroiling no less than five health Ministers, thousands of residents, and scores of gynaecologists, obstetricians and paediatricians from as far away as America. Wednesday's decision concluded those years of wrangling, and the Minister pledged, on taking office, that any decision she made would be made on professional grounds, in this case putting the care of mothers and babies first. The Minister has carried out her promise to the nth degree and should be congratulated for the forthright way in which she has approached this matter rather than being belittled for making a decision that people have been crying out for for years.

Professionals, nurses, doctors, obstetricians, gynaecologists, politicians and the public all have an overriding responsibility to ensure that the Minister's decision is implemented with all the professionalism and resources that expectant mothers, their unborn children and newborn children deserve and about the future of this part of the island.

Mr McCarthy:

It is unfortunate that we do not have more time to deal with this very important subject. Had it not been for points of order from Members who should know better, we would have had more time.

I congratulate the Minister, whatever her party. For years we have been shouting for devolution in this part of the world. At last we have accountable democracy and, whether we like it or not, we have someone who has had the courage to make this decision. Previously we had Northern Ireland Office Ministers who did not have that courage.

It is clear to the Alliance Party that the Royal Maternity Hospital and the Jubilee Hospital are both centres of excellence with worldwide reputations. Both sites offer a full range of high quality obstetric and gynaecological services, with back-up from intensive care and other services.

It would be easy for my party to back the City Hospital to serve constituency interests. However, the Alliance Party has decided to follow the clear balance of opinion among medical professionals and support the Royal as the best site for the regional maternity unit. Therefore we cannot back the motion. There is a number of reasons for regarding the Royal as the better regional maternity site, but the existence of a full range of specialised paediatric services on the Royal site must be regarded as the decisive factor. For that reason the better option for centralised maternity services in Belfast is the Royal site, adjacent and connected to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

The opinions of and evidence from domestic and international experts support the concentration of maternity, neonatal and paediatric services there.

Speed is very important when complications arise with a newborn baby. Transport from other hospitals adds time and can create further complications. Most women who will give birth at the Royal will not need paediatric services, and not every birth will be at the Royal, as it mainly serves Belfast.


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