Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 June 2000 (continued)

11.45 am

Mr R Hutchinson:

Can the Minister assure me that within the budget set aside for regional development there will be moneys allocated to the upgrading of certain roads in east Antrim - in particular, the A8 from Larne to Belfast? That route is essential for tourism and for the transportation of goods to the rest of the United Kingdom and throughout Europe.

Mr Durkan:

The Member will be aware of announcements already made by the Minister for Regional Development and the announcements that were made on the basis of the budget allocations as indicated. If the Member was satisfied with those announcements I do not think he needs anything else from me.

Mr McMenamin:

With regard to our beleaguered textile industry, will the Minister provide extra funding for training? In my constituency, West Tyrone, a factory in Plumbridge has closed, with the loss of 145 jobs. That is the equivalent of almost 2,500 jobs in Belfast.

Mr Durkan:

The pressure on the textile industry is something we are all very much aware of. From experiences in our constituencies, many of us know just how vulnerable the textile industry is. The issue has been actively taken up by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

The Member mentioned training. The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has a direct interest in that regard. He and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have been trying to look at ways of helping to strengthen the textile industry. They want to mitigate the sort of pressures which make it so vulnerable, resulting in job losses, and help to make it sustainable and viable, both on the marketing and trading sides. Also, very importantly, they want to bring positive developments to bear, as well as provide assistance on the training side - something that the Members touched on.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I would like to welcome the Minister's commitment to Targeting Social Need. I understand the time constraints on the passage of the Appropriation Bill. Nevertheless, the public expectation of the Assembly is that it will do things differently. It should seriously consider directing finances to areas of long-term disadvantage. Even a cursory glance at this year's Estimates indicates that we are going to have more of the same. This is unfortunate. There is a finite amount of resources, but how is the Minister going to balance the finite amount and address the areas where there has been serious long-term underspend by the Government under direct rule? In particular, I would like him to explain why £91 million of public money has been committed to the Odyssey project. How does this address the area of targeting social need?

Mr Durkan:

I am sure the Member was not suggesting that the £91 million she mentioned towards the end of her question would be sufficient to address social need in Northern Ireland. The Executive is going to have to develop how we properly articulate and manage an effective policy in relation to targeting social need, and I have tried to explain that previously. Those are responsibilities for the Executive. There are measures that Ministers and their Departments will want to develop within their own particular programmes. We are also going to have to agree priorities and measures across the full gamut of public affairs and public management. We are committed to doing so. It is simply not within my gift to say that I will direct all the money to every social need that everybody in this Assembly can identify with.

We need to ensure that we design the overall allocation system and manage all our spending programmes in ways that effectively target and meet social need.

The Odyssey Project is costing a total of £91 million. There is a range of funding partners - the Millennium Commission, £45 million; the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, £2·5 million; the Sheridan Group, a private sector investor, £16·9 million; Laganside Corporation, £9·25 million; with £16·9 million coming from the Government. It is important that that detail be noted. The total spend is not coming out of our programme; Lottery money and private money are also involved.

Mr Poots:

I remind the Minister of the previous question asked by Dr McCrea about the council elections. Is sufficient funding being set aside next year for those elections, as the amount of money does not seem to take account of inflation?

The Minister of the Environment was possibly one of the most mean-spirited Ministers during the 72 days of the Assembly prior to suspension. He did not spend any money. Can the Minister assure Members that there is enough money in the Environment budget to do something about the major planning backlog, in particular in relation to area plans? Has the Minister of the Environment enough money to take action to help alleviate these problems?

Mr Durkan:

The budget was agreed by the Executive Committee. All Ministers and Departments would obviously like more money. All Ministers and Departments are able to point in a very real and credible way to pressures they are experiencing in the management of their budgets. In the Department of the Environment, there are future issues in local government, along with current and pressing issues, and some long-standing matters like the difficulties in the planning area. My Department will continue to work with the Department of the Environment and others to ensure that they have sufficient resources, and that they make the best use of those resources to provide Departmental services efficiently and effectively.

Mr ONeill:

I add my thanks to the Minister for the clarity and transparency with which he has handled the many different questions. Can he assure us that when the INTERREG III programme comes into effect later this year the mechanism agreed in line with EU considerations - namely, that the money be administered at local level, in our case by the three cross-border committees at local authority level - will continue to apply? Can he assure us that the Department will not be indulging in any kind of additionality or centrality?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for the question. First, I remind Members that the special EU programmes body, established as a result of the agreement, will have a direct interest and a real management role in relation to a variety of EU funds and programmes, including INTERREG.

Secondly, we want to see the sort of models - that ensure more local delivery and local appraisal of the use of key European funds - develop right across all the future European funding programmes. We also believe that it is a model that could usefully be applied in many of the departmental mainstream programmes.

Ms McWilliams:

Will the Minister comment on what seems to be a huge percentage increase in the forecast for the superannuation budget for health and personal social services? It is more than the Housing Executive was looking for, and £15 million more than was forecast. Has something incredible happened to bring about a 54% increase, way above the 1999-2000 forecast of about £28 million? The figure has turned out to be about £43 million.

The New Deal money is ring-fenced and often cannot be touched by Northern Ireland. It has been reprofiled and some of that money has been spent elsewhere. How did this happen? Was that a precedent? Can it be done in future years? I congratulate those who succeeded in doing it, but will the Minister comment on it?

Mr Durkan:

In terms of the detail of the reprofiling, I would appreciate more details from the Member so that I can properly pursue the matter and give a fuller and better answer. I am not quite sure about the facts she is raising. I am not disputing them; I am simply asking for more details so that I can give a fuller reply. I certainly will pursue the matter.

In terms of the increases in superannuation, let us remember all that happened in previous years when a Department was bidding for its budget allocation and the Department of Finance and Personnel was agreeing overall budget allocations. We have been informed by previous experiences and by the upcoming pressures that we know about. There is nothing provided for that is not needed, and for which real demand is not clear, visible and apparent. That is why the increase is there.

Appropriation Bill

First Stage


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 5/99] to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund certain sums for the service of the year ending on 31 March 2001; to appropriate those sums for specified purposes and to authorise other sums to be applied as appropriations in aid for those purposes; to authorise the Department of Finance and Personnel to borrow on the credit of the appropriated sums; and to repeal certain Appropriation Orders.

Bill passed First Stage.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill is now available from the Printed Paper Office. For most Bills there will have to be a little more time, but to have this available immediately to Members, the Department of Finance and Personnel took the requisite action. The Bill will be put on the list of future pending business until the timing of the Second Stage is determined.


Ground Rents Bill

First Stage


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill to make provision for the redemption of certain ground rents and other periodic payments.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

When will this Bill be available?

Mr Speaker:

The Bill should be available first thing tomorrow. The normal course of events for Bills is that when they pass the First Stage they are published overnight, but special efforts were made in respect of the Appropriation Bill for obvious reasons.

Dogs (Amendment) Bill

First Stage



The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 7/99] to make provision regarding the destruction of dogs under the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

Members will be given a list of further pending business, when a date for Second Stage will be determined.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Will it be available tomorrow?

Mr Speaker:

Yes, that will be the case with all the Bills that receive First Reading today. Members should now assume that when Bills are given a First Reading they will be available the following day, unless we know otherwise, in which case I shall take responsibility for advising the House.

Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill

First Stage


The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey): I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 8/99] to amend the Weights and Measures (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 to allow self-verification of weighing and measuring equipment, testing by Official EEA testers and pre-test stamping.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of future pending business until a date for the Second Stage is determined.

 North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting


The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

A Chathaoirligh. Dia daoibh go léir. Tá áthas mór orm bheith anseo ar madin. With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the first sectoral meeting on education of the North/South Ministerial Council held in Dublin Castle on Thursday 3 February.

Following nomination by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 1 February, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended the sectoral meeting of the Council. The Irish Government were represented by Dr Michael Woods TD, Minister for Education and Science, who was accompanied by Mr Noel Treacy, a Junior Minister in his Department. This statement has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.

Although the Council's main focus was on education matters, it first noted the resignation of Dr Vincent Cavanagh from the Food Safety Promotion Board, and it agreed the appointment of a replacement board member, Mr Michael Walker.

The objective of the meeting was to agree areas for co-operation on education matters. The Council discussed matters for enhanced co-operation in education which were mandated by the inaugural plenary of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh on 13 December 1999. These were: educational underachievement; special educational needs provision; teacher qualifications; and school, teacher and youth exchanges. The Council also noted other areas of co-operation, some of which may have potential for further co-operation.

In relation to educational underachievement the Council decided to establish joint working groups to focus on three issues: developing proposals which would contribute to encouraging pupils' attendance at school, particularly how parents may be better equipped to support their children in the learning process; improving the literacy and numeracy skills of pupils, including the training of support staff, especially in the specialised areas of early years and dyslexia; and developing a means of establishing a register of child protection so that people who may present a risk to the safety and well-being of our children are prevented from working with children and young people.

The council decided to establish a North/South special education co-ordination group, which will undertake a range of work to promote co-operation and to share information and best practice between those involved in special education.

The council also decided to establish a teachers' working group to examine a range of issues related to teacher mobility.

The council agreed to commission an evaluation of the range and effectiveness of current programmes involving school, teacher and youth exchanges. The research will be undertaken by the Centre for Cross-border Studies in Armagh. A report will be submitted to the next meeting of the council and will include recommendations which will contribute to the development of a more coherent approach to exchanges not just on this island but with other countries. The council will also give further consideration to the administrative mechanisms and support required in this field.

The working groups have been charged with developing initial proposals for the next meeting of the council on the priorities which they have identified, the delivery measures they propose to put in place and the projected timescale for addressing and reporting on these tasks.

The council approved an indicative timetable for future sectoral meetings. The first of these will take place shortly, with further meetings in September and December.

The council agreed the text of a communiqué which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Mr Speaker:

There will now follow a period of not more than 45 minutes for questions to the Minister.

Mr Kennedy:

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him in my capacity as Chairman of the Assembly Education Committee regarding the meeting of the North/South Ministerial council to which his statement refers. I remind the Minister that the Education Committee, on a cross-party basis, expressed its concern that it was not consulted either about the meeting or, particularly, its content. How does the Minister intend to keep his commitment to work closely with the Education Committee on all issues of mutual interest, with particular reference to matters of North/South co-operation?

With regard to the matters raised by the Minister in his statement, may I advise him that the Education Committee has identified the issue of educational underachievement as a possible subject for inquiry by the Committee later this year. Will he and his officials keep my Committee completely informed in the light of his previous commitments?

I note from his statement that the Minister referred to other areas of co-operation. Will he inform the House what these matters are or what these matters are likely to be? In relation to the make-up of the Special Education Co-ordinating Committee and the teachers' working group on mobility, may I ask who will oversee these groups. What report-back mechanisms will be put in place with regard to the Assembly?

Finally, with reference to the research by the Centre for Cross-border Studies in Armagh regarding school, teacher and youth exchanges, will the Minister refer the detail of this to the Education Committee in advance of the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting?

Mr M McGuinness:

I accept that during the course of the previous administration of this institution, there were some difficulties in relation to the Education Committee's being informed and given due notice about announcements and meetings which were to take place. I am very committed to resolving the difficulties which resulted from that. It was also very interesting that they appear to be the only difficulties between the Education Committee and my Department. There will shortly be a meeting between the Member and myself. I think that we can put into effect good working practice, and I undertake to overcome whatever problems and difficulties have arisen. The whole issue of educational underachievement is vitally important, and I look forward to discussing our approach to that.

There has been long-standing co-operation between my Department and the Department of Education and Science in the South on a wide range of issues. Here are a few examples. The European Studies project has been operating since 1986. It began as a joint venture between the Departments of Education in Belfast, Dublin and London and, for the first couple of years, involved a small number of schools. The project has grown in the intervening years and has over 400 secondary-level schools in 21 countries throughout Europe. It engages teachers and young people in teaching and learning in the context of multi-national partnerships using modern information technologies.

The Cross Connect project is a joint venture between the Western Education and Library Board, the vocational education committees of Cavan and Leitrim, and the University of Ulster. It aims to provide a programme of curriculum enrichment in small rural schools.

A further project, sponsored by Eircom with the support of the Departments of Education North and South, involves 50 schools linked through the Internet and by school exchanges. We will want to explore opportunities for further development of these types of activity, which benefit teachers and promote inter-cultural learning among our young people, not just on this island, but, in some cases, in a wider European setting.

The question about who the working committees are ultimately responsible to - whether it be the teachers' co-ordinating group or the other working groups we have set up - is very important. Ultimately, they have to be responsible to me, as the Minister of Education, and, in the Southern context, to Dr Michael Woods, the Minister for Education and Science. We are content that we have very dedicated and committed civil servants in our Departments who will deal meticulously with all of these issues. Accountability rests with me, and I must report to the Assembly so that people will have the opportunity to question us on our contribution. In effect, that is the position. The work will be overseen by the North/South Ministerial Council, which will meet again in September, although no definite date has been agreed.

Mr McMenamin:

Will the Minister take all steps necessary to protect the long-term needs of rural schools so that they can continue to play a key role in sustaining rural communities?

Mr M McGuinness:

Yes. I am keenly interested in this very important issue. Over a number of years, rural communities have experienced particular difficulties due to the threat that hung over some small rural schools, and which still does.

I appreciate the work that has been done in these schools and the efforts of the boards of governors, the local community, and the teachers, some of whom are working in difficult circumstances. As I have highlighted before, in the issue of education, the conditions under which teachers are teaching in the rural schools are particularly difficult, because some of the schools are old - in some cases, over 100 years old - and are in need of replacement.

I have been very keen to point out to the officials in my Department that all of these matters ultimately will come back to me for decisions, and I have said that there should be a review of how the Department of Education handles the issue of rural schools. I have made it absolutely clear to officials that I would be very reluctant to close any rural school if a large part of the local community is arguing for its retention. It is an important issue and it is one that I take very seriously. My officials are conducting a review and I hope to make the result public soon.

12.15 pm

Mr S Wilson:

I want to reiterate a point that was made by the Chairman of the Education Committee. The Committee agreed unanimously to send a letter to the Minister about the way in which cross-border meetings are handled. We only find out what happens at the meetings after they have taken place; we have no prior knowledge of the agenda or of how the business links in with the work being carried out in the Assembly. The whole Committee feels that this degree of secrecy is unacceptable and should stop.

The Minister's statement made reference to educational underachievement. He said that the working group would focus on

"developing a means of establishing a register of child protection so that people who may present a risk to the safety and well-being of our children are prevented from working with children and young people."

Perhaps he can tell us whether the working group will be looking at how the Minister might be prevented from putting impressionable schoolchildren at risk by recalling and boasting about his terrorist involvement when visiting primary schools. Maybe the Minister would like to give us an assurance that, as his contribution to the work of this working -

Mr Maskey:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I thought that the purpose of this session was to deal with the Minister's North/South statement. I do not see what this has got to do with that whatsoever. In fact, I think that this is the second contribution that has not had any bearing on the Minister's statement.

Mr Speaker:

The Member is absolutely correct. This is an opportunity for questions to this Minister, as there are questions to other Ministers, on the subject of the statement which he has made. It is an opportunity for questions, not for speeches, and the questions should be about the statement and not about other matters.

Mr S Wilson:

Thank you. If I had said it in Irish he might have understood it - or maybe not. May I finish the question?

Mr Speaker:

The Member might try.

Mr S Wilson:

I have asked about the working party. I am asking now if the Minister will give us an assurance that, as his contribution to the work of this working party - overseeing the safety and well-being of children - he will on no future occasion boast of his terrorist activities when visiting schools where there are impressionable young children present.

Mr M McGuinness:

Go raibh maith agat, a Sammy. There is going to be no secrecy about what happens at North/South Ministerial Council meetings. After every meeting that I attend I report back to the Executive, and it would be highly valuable and useful, for the Member's information, if his two Ministers would attend the Executive and get the reports at first hand. They would then obviously be in a much better position to inform the Democratic Unionist Party that no sneaky deals are being done on education. I do undertake to report back faithfully to the Executive and to the Assembly the content of all of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings on education which I attend.

On the second matter, this may be an opportunity to make it clear that the allegations which the Member has made against me in the course of the last few minutes are totally and absolutely without foundation. If the Member would care to check up on what happened during my first visit to a school after becoming Minister of Education, he would find out that the discussion which took place was between me and a single journalist. I did not boast to any child; I did not mention in any public way or in front of children from any school, the fact that at one time in my life I was on the run from the British forces. What was I on the run from? I was on the run from internment.

I was on the run from internment, not from any charge or the ability of the RUC, or anybody else, to bring me before a court. I was going to be interned because I was a Republican. I had not committed any offence, other than being a Republican. It is important to get this in perspective.

Finally, it is an appropriate moment to wish Mr Wilson well in his capacity as the new Lord Mayor of Belfast and to express the desire, which I believe will be shared by the vast majority of our people in this changing situation, that he will make strenuous efforts to be a Lord Mayor for everyone in Belfast.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Is it in order for a Member to deliberately mislead the House? We have all read about this matter and seen reports on television. He was there; he talked to those children and told them about when he was on the run. It was a good thing that he was on the run, and my party hopes that he will soon be on the run again.

Mr Speaker:

It would be wise for all Members to read Hansard before taking any of these matters up and making comment. I have listened very carefully to what has been said on all sides.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis seo ceisteanna a chur ort, a Aire, faoin ábhar fíor-thábhachtach seo. I welcome this opportunity to put questions to the Minister.

Issues have been raised this morning about the Education Committee and an alleged unanimity that is not there. These issues will be taken up within the Education Committee, and I would be grateful if the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of that Committee would not refer to decisions or recommendations as unanimous that, in fact, are not.

I ask the Minister - and I know and appreciate that the issue - [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:


Mr Kennedy:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the record, it is important that I, as Chairman of the Education Committee, confirm that the decision to write to the Minister in respect of the earlier debate was the unanimous view of my Committee on a cross-party basis.

Mr Speaker:

Order. This is not an opportunity for debate, and if a question arises where Members try to confirm or deny the veracity of what other Members have said we enter immediately into a debate. This is not an opportunity for debate; it is for questions that are brief and to the point, single when possible, rather than having as many feet as a centipede, and followed by responses from the Minister.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely it is entirely in order for the Chairman of a Committee to counter an attack made upon him from the other end of the House, even though it is during questions to the Minister. Surely it is never right for a Minister to - [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:

Order. If an opportunity is given for Members to resume after they have already asked questions on such matters, then we will be drawn into a debate. The point that I have made is that this is not an opportunity for debate; it is an opportunity for specific questions to be asked, and I am addressing that to all Members, not only the Member who was called to order.

Please complete your question, Mr McElduff.

Mr McElduff:

Will the Minister work closely with Mr Woods, Minister of Education and Science, and Dr Farren, Minister of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment, to task the teachers' working group to look at harmonising the qualification requirement for admission to teacher training colleges in both parts of the island? For admission to teacher training colleges, GCSE examination result requirements are higher than they are for the leaving certificate.

Secondly, will the Minister also look at the inequity of salaries between teachers North and South?

Mr M McGuinness:

I have no doubt that Dr Michael Woods, Seán Farren and I will be able to work together in a positive fashion on what is obviously a hugely important issue for all of the people of this island.

Only last week we attended an important education conference at Stranmillis College, accompanied by Richard Riley, the United States Education Secretary. We finished with a short lunch, over which we had discussions. It is clear that the relationships between Dr Woods, Seán Farren, Richard Riley and myself are excellent. Offers of assistance from the United States in relation to their huge bank of research into all sorts of extremely important educational matters can be taken up by Seán Farren, Dr Michael Woods and myself.

Under European Union Directives we have already gone a long way towards the mutual recognition of teaching qualifications. The South already accepts graduates from certain teacher training courses here, and it would be useful to see if it were practicable to extend that both ways. The key issues will be assurance about the quality of the training provided and the competence of teachers to teach in our schools. It is very important to understand that the issue of salaries is outside the working group's remit, and some consideration should be given as to whether it can be included later.

2.30 pm

Dr Birnie:

My question arises from the focus, in relation to educational underachievement, on increasing standards in literacy and numeracy. Clearly there are significant problems worthy of attention. I understand that, according to some surveys, up to one in five of the adult population here cannot decipher the instructions on a medicine bottle; something indicative of basic literacy. Given that both Northern Ireland and the Republic do badly in basic functional literacy and numeracy - we know this from international surveys, so it is no longer a matter of doubt - will the joint working group, to which the Minister has referred, avoid becoming too insular by simply restricting itself to comparison between the two jurisdictions? Will it be able to take into account best practice in numeracy and literacy improvement in Great Britain, the United States of America, Europe, the Far East, and indeed anywhere else in the world which is relevant?

Mr M McGuinness:

Obviously, I accept the huge importance of the issue the Member raises. I think that there are three key areas in tackling educational underachievement. In most of our schools where performance is lowest, attendance rates are also too low. We all know that teachers cannot teach pupils who are not there. Literacy and numeracy are, of course, the basic skills which open the door to the rest of the curriculum. Employers and others complain of poor results from many school leavers in these areas. Child protection is simply a fundamental duty for all of us.

These issues were identified because they are priorities both North and South, and in the case of the measures needed to stop unsuitable people finding work with children, east and west also. However, there will in due course be opportunities for us to look at other areas where joint working could bring benefits. The Member is absolutely right when he says we should not be insular in dealing with this matter. We must be open about it and recognise that there are deficiencies. There is a responsibility on the educational authorities, North and South, to examine education systems in other parts of the world to see if ideas can be harnessed to benefit the children of this island. We are very committed to doing so.

As I stated earlier, the contacts we now have with the Department of Education in the United States will be invaluable to us, but we should not restrict or confine ourselves to that country. We must examine other education systems throughout the world to see if we can put into practice processes which will benefit all our children, eventually eradicating the many deficiencies in the system.

Mrs E Bell:

I thank the Minister for his statement. This is one of the first instances of good communication between the Minister, the Education Committee and the Assembly. I did voice my concern about the North/South Ministerial Council meeting during the Education Committee meeting, and I supported the letter, as the Chairman said. My concern was that there should be good communication. There was no question of having concerns about secrecy because secrecy would not be allowed.

Within the priorities for enhanced co-operation the Minister has outlined education underachievement and special education. As the Chairman pointed out, quite rightly, we are looking at those issues as well. I am concerned about the overlapping of research and work, so we need to have some co-operation and information. How will this be co-ordinated? Will you ask the Council, at its future meetings, to look at the question of integrated and Irish-medium education so as to enhance the co-operation of the North/South Council?

Mr Speaker:

I remind Members to address their questions through the Chair.

Mr M McGuinness:

To repeat what I said earlier, I am very committed to having an open Administration and I would hate to think that anybody felt that there was secrecy at work. It is vitally important that there is a good relationship between the Department of Education and the Minister, in particular, and the Education Committee. I am committed to try to bring that about.

Also, it is important that the Assembly be aware that the first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council on Education came before the suspension of the institutions. It is important that people understand that during the period of suspension we had a situation where no work was taking place in relation to the sectoral meeting. The officials, in fact, had to discontinue the meetings which Michael Woods and I had authorised on behalf of the North/South Ministerial Council during that period. Obviously that puts us at a tremendous disadvantage insofar as it is not possible, even at this time, for me to have full information, simply because of the backlog of work.

It is also important for people to understand that many of the areas we are dealing with are high priorities North and South, and officials, North and South, are dealing with these issues on an ongoing basis. In relation to working in a joint fashion, during the course of recent months that has not been happening and it has only recommenced when the institutions were restored. We are behind schedule in relation to all the matters that we are dealing with.

In relation to Irish-medium and integrated education, obviously these are issues that we are going to have to deal with as we proceed. The Executive Committee, this Assembly and the Department of Education in the South will have to consider whether or not there are other matters that can be dealt with by officials. My statement makes it clear that we are dealing basically with the four areas that have been mentioned: educational underachievement; special education provision; teacher, pupil and school exchanges; and teacher qualifications.

We recognise that the delay has put us all behind schedule. There are obviously difficulties that need to be dealt with.

Officials have hit the ground running as I hope we have done so here, and the Ministers in the Executive. The officials have returned to attend to their responsibilities under the North/South Ministerial Council, and I am satisfied that they are working very hard to get it back on track as quickly as possible.

Mr B Hutchinson:

Does the Minister recognise that the present funding arrangement is one cause of the underachievement in many schools? Does he also recognise, in terms of development, proposals which encourage pupils to attend school and better equip their parents? I know from my experience as a councillor in Belfast, that there are many schemes throughout the five education and library board areas that are doing this, and we should recognise their work and achievements. Has the Minister's Department been in contact with the boards to find out about the good practice schemes which deal with such issues?

Moving onto numeracy and literacy, I recognise, particularly in my constituency, that there are low levels of numeracy and literacy, and that there is a cost to all in that. The Belfast Education and Library Board does not have the money to implement schemes to deal with this problem. Will it be getting additional money to deal with this, or will the money come out of the Department's current budget? There have been a number of changes to the curriculum, changes, it seems, from one year to the next. Does the Minister recognise that a lot of pressure has been put on teachers by these changes and that they too can contribute to educational underachievement? The Minister also referred to school attendance and to the problem of underachieving schools which pupils do not attend. Has the Minister looked at the differences between schools in disadvantaged areas and schools in affluent areas and at why the teachers and pupils seem to perform better in the latter?

Mr M McGuinness:

School funding arrangements are under review at the moment, as I have mentioned previously in other debates. They are under review with an eye to achieving a fairer allocation. Money has been made available to enable the education and library boards to promote good practice, literacy and numeracy. They have, I think, each received £900,000 this year for that. The point that the Member made about focusing on areas of social disadvantages needs to be taken seriously and not just by ourselves and the Department of Education. There is a huge responsibility on the Government to face the reality that many disadvantaged areas have tremendous pressure on them in this. I know for a fact that absenteeism from schools in socially disadvantaged areas is much greater than in other areas, and that needs to be focused upon. My Departmental officials and I are committed to focusing on this point in order to find ways of improving the situation.

Richard Riley made a submission to a meeting at Stranmillis College and said that the state of Connecticut, which pays the highest salaries to teachers in the United States, has the best examination results. Now that was not a scientific study and does not prove any case, but we all know and understand that teachers are under tremendous pressure. I agree with Mr Hutchinson that every time there is a review of the curriculum, it is hugely difficult for teachers to make the changes that need to be made. I know for a fact that computer technology has now effectively dominated all of our lives and not least the lives of teachers.

There are all kinds of stresses and strains on the teaching profession. It is important to recognise the huge contribution that teachers have made to the welfare and teaching of our children in difficult circumstances.

In disadvantaged areas, there is a schools support programme that gives professional support to schools. Substantial funding is directed to improving standards in these areas. We must recognise the pressures on teachers. From discussions with my officials, it has become clear that people are focussed on getting these things right. It is going to take some time, but it is within our ability.

My final point is one that I developed in the 'Belfast Telegraph' during my previous period in this job. The schools estate is not in a good condition. As I said then, we will need hundreds of millions of pounds to resolve the outstanding problems. If we are to educate our children properly, it must be done in a conducive atmosphere. I was unable to attend the opening of the new school in Keady last week, but doubtless Members saw the photographs and the television coverage. It looked to be a beautiful development. I would like all our children to be educated in such conditions. We will not achieve that overnight, but we need to work towards that end.

It is important that the Assembly, the Executive and indeed the British Government recognise the dire need for extra education funding. All these problems - educational underachievement, social disadvantage, dyslexia and special needs education - require funding. If the funding is not there, we will always be fighting an uphill battle. We know what the problems are and my officials are focussed on them. They will work hard to eradicate the problems within the education system.

Mr Speaker:

Quite a number of Members wish to ask questions. We agreed on 45 minutes, so I ask Members to be concise with their questions and the Minister to be concise with his answers so that we can deal with as many as possible.

Ms McWilliams:

I commend the Minister on his report. I agree that children need to be educated in an atmosphere conducive to their personal development.

Will the Minister tell us why the proposed child protection register is listed under educational underachievement? Some abused children do underachieve, but others dedicate themselves to getting an education to show that they have survived. These children might be stigmatised if the register were associated with underachievement.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee agreed last week to inquire into children's services, and in particular the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995? The Committee will be considering child protection. Does the Minister's proposal cover only those working in education, or will it also cover those working outside that sector? If that is the case, then the proposal should be referred to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee.

12.45 pm

I would also like the Minister to note that in Northern Ireland we are falling far behind England, Wales and Scotland where there is currently in existence the Protection of Children Act 1999. That legislation does not exist here, and if it is the case that such legislation does exist in the Republic of Ireland, it may be something that the next meeting would like to look at.

Finally, I share the Minister's view that we should share good practice and information, particularly where there are administrations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is most important that in this matter of child protection we look at the issue of prevention. In a country as small as ours - Northern Ireland has a population of just over 1·5 million, and the Republic a population of just over 3 million - this is a very pertinent issue, and if there is anything we can do to prevent the future abuse of children then a register may help. However, it is only one piece of the work in the whole area of action that is needed. It is not a new problem, but it has now been named, and we need to do something about it urgently.

Mr M McGuinness:

I take the point in relation to how we categorise these particular issues. I will strive to consider this further because the Member makes an important point. It is very important to understand that the register is basically for adults who are judged unsuitable to work with children, not the children. The register is intended to cover all education and health workers. It will cover the North in collaboration with everywhere else around these islands. There is undoubtedly excellent contact between the officials in all areas, and people do understand the need to get this right.

The points Ms McWilliams made are absolutely valid, and I would not dare to suggest that we have in place at the moment the proper structures, programmes or systems required to deal with the matter in an adequate fashion. We all know that the debate about child abuse has taken off recently. Clearly we now have a society prepared to face up to all the difficulties that this issue has for children, for families and for society in general. We are absolutely committed to dealing with these issues. I cannot deal with all of them here today because I do not have the details, but my Department will write to the Member in detail about the points that she has raised.

Mr A Maginness:

I also welcome the Minister's statement. This meeting shows the practical benefits of North/South co-operation in the field of education. My question is also about the register of child protection. May I ask the Minister to make that a priority. There is a danger that unsuitable persons are slipping through the net in both jurisdictions, and I believe that we should work with haste to establish the register in order to prevent this happening.

Finally, everyone here should deplore the frivolous party political manner in which Assemblyman Sammy Wilson approached this very serious matter of the protection of children.

Mr M McGuinness:

I appreciate the Member's comments and his support. I will make a register on child abuse a priority with my Department. I also think that Dr Michael Woods and others throughout this island will have no difficulty whatsoever in supporting that.

Mr Campbell:

The issues raised at the Ministerial Council between Northern Ireland and the Republic - which, coincidentally, do not have the consent of our community, but that is a side issue - were, according to this statement, approved and made on behalf of Mr Dermot Nesbitt. These issues apply equally if not more so to other regions of the United Kingdom such as Scotland and the North of England. What provision has been made to have these and similar issues raised at the appropriate ministerial level within the United Kingdom?

Mr M McGuinness:

To answer the first part of that question, it is important that we understand that all the institutions established as a result of the Good Friday Agreement were put to the people in a referendum in 1998, and over 70% - Unionist, Loyalist, Republican and Nationalist - voted for them. Let nobody be under any illusion about the support achieved here in the North for the new institutions and the huge support that we achieved in the South. Overall, there was over 80% support on the island for the establishment of the Assembly, the Executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the Implementation Bodies. There is democratic support on the island for these institutions, and I take my responsibility very seriously, as I believe all the pro-agreement parties, which are participating in a very positive and constructive way, consistently do.

On the second point, we are all open to learning as much as we can about all the issues that affect the lives of our people and children. I have no difficulty at all in talking to people in England, Scotland, Wales or anywhere else about how we can improve education for our children. We need an open-minded approach, and to recognise that we are living in a changing world. Everybody has the duty to move forward positively and constructively, with openness, to improve the educational standards of our children; I am absolutely committed to that.

Mr Speaker:

The time for questions is up.

The sitting was suspended at 12.52 pm.

On resuming -

Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission:
North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting


2.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the meeting of the North / South Ministerial Council held on 9 February 2000.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the first North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting for the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. The first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council for Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission sector took place on 9 February.

Following nomination by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I represented Northern Ireland. The Irish Government was represented by Mr Frank Fahey TD, Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources.

The papers for the Council were cleared in draft by the Executive Committee on 1 February and were circulated in final form on 8 February.

The main thrust of the meeting was to give impetus to the new Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. Accordingly, the meeting opened with an oral progress report from Mr Peter Savage, the chairman of the Commission, and Mr Derick Anderson, the chief executive (designate), who attended for this item only. They were able to confirm that staff had transferred without difficulty from the Foyle Fisheries Commission, that the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Order 1999 had also transferred successfully their prosecution and enforcement powers, and that good progress was being made in respect of their new headquarters. In addition, they described the interim agency arrangements which allowed the Commission to exercise its jurisdiction in respect of the Carlingford area through the Fisheries Conservancy Board and the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board.

The Council noted that the legislation to give the new Commission its powers to develop and license aquaculture forms part of the Executive's legislative programme, and Mr Fahey confirmed that he would aim to keep in step with the progress of the Northern Ireland legislation in making parallel legislation in respect of the Irish jurisdiction.

The Council also took note of a progress report on the transfer of Irish Lights to the new Commission. Mr Fahey confirmed that the Irish authorities were content with progress.

The Council discussed the consultation arrangements which should apply in respect of the new Commission. The Council considered that it was important that the Commission should, as a priority, bring forward proposals for a new non-statutory advisory body which would draw in a range of those affected by its functions.

The Council approved a list of key duties which it wished the Commission to bring forward at an early date. These comprised: appointment procedures and terms and conditions for chief executive; mission statement; year 2000 corporate plan proposals; staffing proposals, structure and terms and conditions; proposed revisions to staff contracts; draft code of conduct for board members and staff; and finally, proposed programme of work.

The Council discussed the schedule of sectoral meetings likely to take place during 2000. These were provisionally set for early May, September and the first week in December. The Council agreed to meet again in this format in early May 2000.

Finally, the Council considered and approved the draft joint communiqué, copies of which have been placed in the Assembly Library.

Mr Speaker:

We now have up to 45 minutes, if required, for questions to the Minister.

Mr Poots:

Can the Minister enlighten us a little on the new non-statutory advisory body? There is already a substantial amount of money being expended on the North/South body itself. How much is this non-statutory advisory body going to cost? How many members will it have and who will they be? Is it going to be more jobs for the boys?

Ms Rodgers:

There are no proposals as yet and, as I reported, this is a matter that will be considered. Many people from the fishing industry who use the Foyle and Carlingford Loughs have expressed concerns to my Department, and I think it would be useful to consult with them. I assume that the advisory body will be a means of taking on board the views of people who are not actually on the Commission, but as yet there are no proposals.


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