Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 19 June 2000 (continued)

Mr Leslie:

I thought this debate had plenty of steam in it. There was talk of frenzy down at the other end of the House so I assume that there must be more of it to come. Certainly the DUP Members seem to have got themselves into a lather of self-justification, but I am afraid we are unable to match their frenzy at this end of the House.

Members who seek to criticise the Assembly for engaging itself in financial matters are not being entirely just when they consider the legislative structure under which the Assembly was set up and the similar structure of the Scottish Parliament. The House had very little choice but to deal with these matters at the beginning - otherwise there would have been no pay or rations at all. It is just the gauntlet that new legislatures have to run at the beginning of their lives. The purpose of appointing a Senior Salaries Review Body was to minimise the responsibility that the House bears in relation to the decision it takes on those matters.

I am certainly glad that the DUP will be supporting the deletion of clause 3. That is consistent with the position it adopted in Committee. I would be interested to see in future the extent of its devotion to the recommendation of the Senior Salaries Review Body, which it supported when the matter first came before the Assembly in February last year.

There is an extent of misunderstanding about the timetables set in the legislation. The three-week period that the legislation set was not properly thought out and poorly drafted, and that initially moved the Committee to look at the question of what would happen during a period of dissolution. The point was that the clause could have been accidentally triggered over a period of dissolution were the Bill to stand with its original wording. That was the first matter to be addressed by the early amendments.

The issue for the House is whether it accepts the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body. If it chooses to do so, there will be some latitude for the House to set hurdles to be crossed before those recommendations impact, which is what I sought to do through the amendments that I have laid before the House.

Mr Speaker:

There is not enough time now for either Mr Fee's winding-up speech or for decisions which may well require divisions. I therefore propose, with the leave of the House, to suspend the sitting. We will resume at 2.30 pm with questions, and the Consideration Stage of this Bill will continue at 4.00 pm.

Debate suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 1.23 pm.

On resuming -

Questions for Oral Answer


2.30 pm

Mr Speaker:

Before we move on to questions to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I want to inform Members of an oversight that occurred on the published list of oral questions for next week. Two questions for oral answer by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have been admitted in the name of the same Member. Members will know that a maximum of one question per Member per Department is permitted. The Member who tabled the question has agreed that number four on the published list - AQO 353/99 - will not be called but will, instead, receive a written answer.

May I take this opportunity to remind Members of the need to observe the rules on the number of questions permitted for each Question Time. Where a question for oral answer has been directed to the wrong Department and the matter is not the responsibility of the Minister answering, it is wholly inappropriate for a Member to ask a supplementary question.

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister


Civic Forum


Mr Ford

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister when the first meeting of the Civic Forum is to take place.

(AQO 282/99)


Mr Neeson

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail progress made towards the establishment of the Civic Forum.

(AQO 281/99)


Mr McCarthy

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister when the composition of the Civic Forum will be announced.

(AQO 283/99)


Mr Close

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give a date for the first meeting of the Civic Forum.

(AQO 280/99)


Ms McWilliams

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to confirm the progress to date on the issue of staffing for the Civic Forum and to give an indication of when the Civic Forum will be established.

(AQO 311/99)


Mr McClelland

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what progress has been made towards the establishment and operation of the Civic Forum and to list representations made on the same.

(AQO 309/99)


Ms Lewsley

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister when the Civic Forum is to be established.

(AQO 302/99)


Mrs E Bell

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline work their office has done to establish the Civic Forum.

(AQO 284/99)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

With permission, I shall answer questions 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 12 together.

Paragraph 34 of strand one of the Good Friday Agreement provided that a consultative Forum would be established. It would comprise representatives of the business, trade-union and voluntary sectors and such other sectors as agreed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It would act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues.

The report approved by this Assembly in February 1999 provided that the Civic Forum would have 60 members as well as a chairman. Under the terms of the report, 54 of the nominations for the Forum would be processed under ten headings: voluntary and community; business; trade-union; churches; arts and sport; culture; agriculture and fisheries; community relations; education; and victims.

The report identified groups and organizations which were to be invited to nominate members for the Forum. A further six members, plus the chairperson, will be appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been working with each of the sectors and, in some cases, assisting with bringing consortia together to draw up a nominating process. Each sector will submit a selection process to us for approval, by the end of June, and we will then carry out the remainder of the process during July and August.

We have had representations about the establishment of the Civic Forum from 54 individuals and organizations. The submissions came from representatives of business, churches, cultural organizations, trade unions, community groups, housing, victims' groups, the education sector, professional and medical groups, and women's groups. A list of all the representations has been placed in the library.

In our report of February 1999 we undertook to have the Civic Forum established within six months of devolution. The chairperson and members of the Forum are to be appointed in September, and its first plenary meeting will take place in October.

The Forum will wish to consider where it will be based, and a number of locations are currently being considered as possible venues for its plenary meetings, but decisions will not be taken until it has been established. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will provide the initial administrative support to the Civic Forum, and the permanent staffing needs will be agreed, in consultation with the Forum, once it has been established.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for his lengthy and detailed response and, in particular, for the dates that have now been given. He spoke at length about the criteria that would be applied for the appointment of 54 of the Forum members. Could he give us some detail as to whether he and the First Minister have finalised the criteria for the six nominees in their direct gift? Specifically, has he reached any conclusion following my question on 7 February as to whether members of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP will be disbarred from those posts?

The Deputy First Minister:

When there are so many questions grouped, the answer has to be rather lengthy. No decision has been taken in respect of nominations by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the criteria by which appointments will be made. We will review the nominations put forward from each sector and take account of the range of expertise and experience needed to inform the deliberations of the Forum on social, economic and cultural matters. We will seek to ensure that the Forum has the appropriate balance to enable it to fully represent all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

The final part of the Member's question related to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. I assure the hon Member that the criteria we will use, and the practice we implement, will not result in that type of process. Given the experience of recent years, that must surely be to the disadvantage of the Alliance Party.

Mr Neeson:

I welcome the statement by the Deputy First Minister that a date has now been set for the establishment of the Civic Forum. As it will happen soon, I think it would be important, and helpful, if this House could be given some idea about where the Forum is going to be located. The Minister referred to the matter in his statement.

The Deputy First Minister:

A number of venues have been mooted. It is no secret, and one could speculate as to where they may be. There are various suitable venues throughout the North of Ireland. However, the First Minister and I would be very keen that the Forum is actually part of the community, that it is not set apart from it and that it will operate in a way that is close to the community. It would be invidious to list some of the options, but those options may not be the right ones in relation to the general view that the Forum should be part of the community. I would not hesitate to say that the Waterfront Hall has been under consideration. Other venues throughout the North of Ireland have been considered - even Armagh was mentioned. I assure the hon Member that the location will be decided in the best interests of the Forum.

Ms Lewsley:

Will the Minister give an assurance that the principles of equality and transparency, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, will be adhered to in the Civic Forum?

The Deputy First Minister:

The nominating sectors are aware of the importance of using appropriate processes to select their nominees based soundly on merit. Each sector will submit its proposed selection process to us for approval, and we will seek to ensure that these principles have been adhered to. Additionally, it is crucially important that it is not just the merit principle we must ensure. We must also ensure that the Forum is representative of the entire community in Northern Ireland.

Mr McClelland:

I also welcome the Minister's statement. Would the Minister take this opportunity to outline the means by which the Civic Forum will make its views on economic and social matters known to this body?

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the hon Member for his question. Obviously the means will be initially by deliberation. For some considerable time there has been consultation with the social partners. Secondly, there will be debate within the Forum. The Assembly will be interested in and aware of that debate. Thirdly, there will be direct consultation between the Forum and the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister or a relevant Minister, or, indeed, in whatever circumstances the Assembly decides that it should operate.

Mr McCarthy:

I apologise for coming in late.

How many staff will be employed to service the Civic Forum, and have these jobs been widely advertised?

The Deputy First Minister:

It is impossible at this stage to say what the staffing requirements for the Forum will be. The hon Member will agree that it will be a matter for the Civic Forum to decide on the number and the duties of those who will be servicing it. We have made financial provision, if my memory serves me right, of around £300,000 to set up the Forum. The Forum will then make recommendations to us on its staffing requirements, and until such times as that is done, it will be serviced initially, and I repeat initially, from within the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Ministers: Assembly Responsibilities



Mr Hussey

asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what steps have been or will be taken to ensure that Ministers act responsibly towards departmental Committees and respect the will of the Assembly.

(AQO 270/99)

The Deputy First Minister:

The role of departmental Committees is set out in the Good Friday Agreement and reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Paragraph 9 of strand one says

"The Committees will have a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department with which each is associated."

Paragraph 22 says

"All Ministers will liaise regularly with their respective Committees."

Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for the establishment of Assembly Committees and for the conferral of powers on them as described in paragraph 9 of strand one. Ministers should consult widely while formulating policy and take account of the views of their Committees and, indeed, of the Assembly, in accordance with the provision of the agreement and in the interests of good government.

The Pledge of Office commits Ministers to supporting and acting in accordance with all decisions of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee has adopted a ministerial code which commits Ministers to being as open as possible with the Assembly and to ensure that the information given is accurate and truthful. The code also sets out the circumstances in which a Minister is obliged to bring matters to the attention of the Executive Committee. This includes matters which cut across the responsibility of two or more Ministers and issues which require agreement on prioritisation or the agreement of a common position, or which have implications for the programme of government. In addition, all significant proposed policy initiatives or significant statements of policy, including legislative proposals, must be brought to the attention of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the secretary to the Executive Committee for possible referral to that Committee.

Consideration is being given to the most appropriate way of bringing the ministerial code to the attention of Members.

Mr Hussey:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his response. However, I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will be well aware of the sincere concerns that exist in the House and, indeed, in the community at large about the way in which a Minister may act. I am thinking of the time when the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety acted in a manner which could best be described as unilaterally independent and, at worst, dictatorial when, in acting, she ignored the cross-community opinion of her Committee and the will of the majority of the Assembly. Can the Deputy First Minister assure us that, by whatever means, through Ministers or the Executive Committee, such a situation will not recur?

2.45 pm

The Deputy First Minister:

We should have recourse to both the agreement and the legislation. Executive authority is discharged on behalf of the Assembly by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the 10 departmental Ministers. Paragraph 24 of strand one of the agreement states

"Ministers will have full executive authority in their respective areas of responsibility, within any broad programme agreed by the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly as a whole."

On the role of the Assembly's Committees, paragraph 9 of strand one states that they

"have a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department with which each is associated."

Paragraph 22 requires a Minister to liaise regularly with the Executive Committee. Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act provides for the establishment of Assembly Committees and the conferral of those powers on them. All executive authority therefore rests with the Ministers, rather than with the Assembly or its Committees. A departmental Committee cannot override a ministerial decision, nor can the Assembly, except by voting down a piece of legislation. Having said that, in terms of the record, the legislation and the agreement, Ministers should take full account of their departmental Committees' views when formulating policies, just as they should take account of the views of other organisations and interested parties. We hope that all Ministers will want to have an open, transparent and inclusive approach to the departmental Committees, recognising the role they have been given by the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr S Wilson:

Is the Deputy First Minister aware that a majority of people voting in both the Assembly and the Education Committee voted to have the Union flag flying over Government buildings on authorised days? Is he aware that the Minister of Education ignored those votes? What sanctions, if any, have he and the First Minister imposed on the offending Minister? Has he been summoned to any meetings or had papers withheld? Has he had threats that his departmental responsibilities will be taken over, or is the nature of this Administration so capricious that these sanctions are reserved only for members of anti-agreement parties?

The Deputy First Minister:

As the Member well knows, no authority resides in the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister in relation to this matter. No legislation resides with anybody, be it the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister or the Secretary of State, so it is not in the power of any of those persons to send letters or to sanction anyone. The reality is, as the Member well knows, that the Secretary of State has tabled an Order in Council which has not yet been activated. When it is activated it will be a matter of the Secretary of State's own choosing. Let us be clear that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has no power of sanction in this matter, nor has it any power of decision in legislation. The Member will also be aware that part of the Order in Council states that the Secretary of State should consult the Assembly. I look forward to seeing the methods he will employ to do that.

Mr Speaker:

I urge Members to recognise that the more concise they are, the more questions we can get through. We are almost two thirds of the way through the Questions to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and we have not made enormous progress.

Ms Gildernew:

As a supplementary to question 5, can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister tell me what steps have been taken to ensure that Committee Chairs act responsibly towards Committee members and respect their will? The work of the Committee of the Centre has yet to begin due to the inability of the Chair to treat all members in a spirit of equality.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The question is out of order. It is well outside the capacity of the Ministers to respond to a question of that kind.

Mrs E Bell:

Mr Speaker, following the comments of the Deputy First Minister about transparency in relation to the departmental Committees, would you be indulgent enough to let me know if the budget of £300,000 that has been quoted for the Civic Forum will be communicated to the Committee of the Centre?

The Deputy First Minister:

That is a notional figure that has been mooted by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to set up and ensure the initial stages of the Civic Forum. That of course is not its budget. When its budget is being decided, it will no doubt be done through representations to the Department of Finance and Personnel and referred to the Committee of the Centre.

Mr Speaker:

The sprightly Deputy First Minister was so quick to his feet that I did not have an opportunity of ruling that the question was out of order because it was a supplementary to the previous question. That is a reflection on the agility, not only verbally but physically, of the Deputy First Minister.

European Union Matters



Mr Gallagher

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister if any meetings are planned with the British Government to discuss European Union matters.

(AQO 299/99)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

There are regular meetings at both ministerial and official level at which European Union matters are discussed. A ministerial group for European co-ordination meets every four to six weeks in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate and promote Government policy on Europe, which includes Ministers from the devolved regions. The next meeting is scheduled for 27 June. Joint ministerial Committees provide a forum for all the devolved regions to discuss matters of interest with the Government. There will be a joint ministerial Committee on European Union matters.

In addition, individual Ministers meet their counterparts regularly to discuss their own policy areas, many of which have an EU dimension. EU policy is an excepted matter, but, in recognition of the fact that many devolved areas have a major EU dimension, the Government have acknowledged the need to involve the devolved Administrations in the formulation, negotiation and implementation of policy towards the European Union. This is reflected in the EU concordat. The concordat also recognises the role of the North/South Ministerial Council in considering the EU dimension of relevant matters, although each Government retains sovereignty on the issue.

The Deputy First Minister and I, accompanied by Mr Durkan, will be in Brussels for a day of engagements on Wednesday of this week. We will be meeting President Prodi, Commissioners Barnier, Byrne and Kinnock, as well as a number of Members of the European Parliament. The main purpose of the visit is structural funds, but it is our objective that the Northern Ireland Administration establish strong direct relations with the European institutions. This is an issue that we will be discussing with Sir Stephen Wall, the United Kingdom's permanent representative to the European Union.

Mr Gallagher:

I note from the First Minister's comments that regular meetings take place on these issues.

In 1996 the British Government opted out of a valuable EU subsidy scheme for schools milk. Consequently, children lost an entitlement as EU citizens to subsidised milk used for catering in all school kitchens and subsidised milk in all secondary schools. Will the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister put pressure on the British Government to reinstate these subsidies? Does the First Minister agree that the reinstatement of this scheme would make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of children here and that the resultant increase in milk consumption would also benefit the hard-pressed agriculture industry? The reinstatement of this scheme would involve no extra financial implications for this devolved Assembly, and it could remove the threat of closure facing some school kitchens, especially in rural areas.

The First Minister:

The Member, like nearly everyone else here, will have benefited from free school milk. I certainly take the point that he makes with regard to the benefit to the milk industry and the agriculture industry generally. On the specifics of the matter, I cannot comment. I am not aware of the detail of the decision in 1996, but we will look at the matter that the hon Member has raised and consider what we should do about it with our counterparts.

Mr Taylor:

Is the First Minister aware that our neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, is now suffering the highest inflation rate for 18 years - the highest level of inflation in Euroland? It has the potential now to reach nearly 6% and kill the Celtic tiger. Will he bring to the attention of Her Majesty's Government the implications of surrendering control over interest rates and thereby exchange rates?

The First Minister:

It has been observed that within what is now called Euroland, namely those countries which are part of the European single currency, the "one size fits all" interest rate is a matter which can cause problems for particular countries. Whether that is the case with the Republic of Ireland, I am not in a position to comment on at the moment. I am quite sure, in view of the comments that have been made in recent days, and particularly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Government are weighing, and will continue to weigh, very carefully the economic pros and cons of the single currency.

Mr McNamee:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My question relates very much to the question that has been just asked. Britain's remaining outside the European monetary system is causing particular difficulties for businesses and individuals in the border areas of this part of Ireland because of the continuing fluctuation rate of the euro. Will the First Minister consider, in his discussions with the Government, the difficulties that businesses and individuals endure?

The First Minister:

The Member is referring to the difficulties encountered in border areas because of the differences in exchange rates. Of course it is not just a matter of the exchange rate; different fiscal regimes operate too. The Member will be aware of the very considerable disadvantage that exists with regard to petrol stations and other retailers where there are strong and significant differences between prices on both sides of the border. This is not strictly an EU matter, rather it is one for our national Government, and we have raised it with them on a number of occasions. We have explored the possibility of trying to have some sort of relief, consistent with EU policy. However, EU policy is quite a disincentive on this. There is a danger that any provision made to assist business in border areas will constitute state aid.

We have also raised with the Government the problems caused by the extensive amount of crime that has become associated with this and the extensive racketeering that is going on in these areas. This is resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue and is seriously distorting the operation of the economy and society in the areas affected.




Rev Dr Ian Paisley

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister if any reports have been received on progress made by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning since the latest statement of the IRA, and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 298/99)

The First Minister:

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was appointed by the British and Irish Governments and makes reports to the Governments rather than to this body. No report has been made since 11 February of this year. In a letter of 15 May, the Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, said

"We expect the IICD to make regular reports, whose content must be for the IICD to determine. They will be published promptly by the two Governments."

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Can the First Minister indicate the timetable that he thinks should be set for decommissioning? When does he believe it should start? When will the international monitors commence their work? When will they report progress, and when will they complete their work? Does he not now recognise that he is being taken for a ride by the IRA?

The First Minister:

I am not going to give any timetable, which would be entirely speculative. I refer the hon Member to the statement made on 6 May in which the IRA leadership referred to putting in place within weeks a confidence-building measure to confirm that its weapons remain secure.

3.00 pm

Of course, the hon Member can work out that the phrase "within weeks" contains a time dimension, and I am sure that he can see that the undertaking by the IRA is one that needs to be redeemed in the very near future.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

The First Minister stated on Thursday that he was awaiting a confidence-building measure by the Provisional IRA, in line with what he supposed to be its obligations to Gen de Chastelain. Were his comments more to do with the fact that his party's executive was about to meet, rather than with the fact that he realised that it is not known whether decommissioning will actually ever take place?

The First Minister:

I covered that matter in my previous question when I referred to the IRA statement that it would put the specifics of the matter in place within weeks. On Thursday, I was replying to a question, just as I am doing today.

Mr Speaker:

The time for these questions is up.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have these questions on the Order Paper, and it is strange that the last question was answered in the first group of questions. You are well aware, Mr Speaker, that when Ministers in the House of Commons group questions together, they still answer the same number that are usually answered at Question Time. It is entirely unfair for a Member in twelfth place to have his question answered in the first batch. It is possible therefore to get round the system even if a question is put down late, as long as it is similar to earlier questions. That is why there was such a long list. In the House of Commons, only three or four questions would be grouped together - never more.

Mr Speaker:

The Member will be aware from a scan of the list that it was not that the last question was answered first, although he would be the first to admit that, on occasion, the last may be first. Eight questions out of 12 covered the same issue. I took a number of questions - I did not call all those Members who had put down questions on the list, even for supplementaries. I ensured that every question at least got asked, was allowed a supplementary from the questioner and at least one further question. That is the most that I can do. As long as Members exercise increasing discipline by phrasing their questions and answers as concisely as possible, we can get through more questions. It would be extremely unusual in the House of Commons for two thirds of all questions on the list to be on the same subject. We must not take up the time of the Minister for Regional Development, who will answer questions for 30 minutes.

Regional Development

Dromore Bypass



Mr Poots

asked the Minister for Regional Development to indicate when work is likely to commence on the Dromore bypass.

(AQO 291/99)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr P Robinson): The Dromore bypass was opened in 1972. I therefore assume that this question relates to the proposal to construct an underpass at Hillsborough Road, Dromore. Subject to the successful acquisition of land and the completion of the necessary statutory procedures - without the need for a public inquiry - the scheme is expected to commence in January 2001.

Mr Poots:

I welcome the fact that the work is scheduled to commence in January 2001, as the project has already been delayed. Has consideration been given to incorporating the Milebush Road into the current proposal? That would further alleviate the traffic crossing the carriageway and would perhaps save more lives than the initial project will do.

Mr P Robinson:

I understand that there would be difficulties in achieving design standards at Milebush Road, and the increased costs would have to be considered. The real benefit comes from the scheme at Hillsborough Road, and the Department is satisfied that that is the best value for money, and a scheme that will bring the best results in the local area.

A8 (Belfast-Larne Road)



Mr R Hutchinson

asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the current position in regard to the capital improvement programme (1999-2001) for the A8 Belfast to Larne route, and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 310/99)

Mr P Robinson:

I am pleased to confirm that, following extensive consultations with district councils and the general public, my Department's Roads Service has identified a £10 million package of improvements to the A8 route. These include: a roundabout at the A8/Doagh Road junction; dualling a 1·5 mile stretch of the carriageway from Doagh Road to Coleman's Corner; a roundabout at Coleman's Corner; a roundabout at the junction of the A8 and the A57 Templepatrick Road; a link road from the A57/A8 roundabout to the Carrickfergus Road/Straid Road junction; speed reduction measures in Ballynure; climbing lanes both north and south of Ballynure; a roundabout at Antiville; and a roundabout at Millbrook with a free-flow lane.

The Roads Service is about to initiate the various statutory procedures. The environmental statement is due to be published on the twenty-eighth of this month. This will be followed by the publication of the direction order in October and the notice of intention to make a vesting order in early 2001. Subject to the successful completion of the statutory procedures, and assuming that no public inquiries are necessary, the improvements could commence in mid-2001.

I recognise the importance of the A8 as part of the trans-European road network and acknowledge the benefit this development will have for Northern Ireland's links to external markets.

Mr Speaker:

I am not sure whether the Member could possibly have a supplementary question after that, but I will call him anyway.

Mr R Hutchinson:

And there's more.

This announcement will be welcomed by the people of Larne, and of East Antrim in general. The A8 capital improvement scheme is long overdue. I welcome the Minister's commitment to the crucial aspect of this scheme: greater road safety. I look forward to the commencement of improvement work without further delay and thank the Minister for giving this commitment to the people of East Antrim.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I was right to be uncertain about the possibility of a supplementary question. If the Member has a concise supplementary to put, so be it. Otherwise I will move to the next questioner.

Mr R Hutchinson:

Does the Minister agree - Sorry. [Laughter.]

Mr P Robinson:

The only thing I would add is that the timetable I set out is subject to the need for public inquiries. If an inquiry becomes necessary, the dates could slip by six months or so.

Mr K Robinson:

Does the Minister agree that, welcome as the proposals for the A8 are - and I have lobbied for the upgrading of this road for over 110 years - the real solution to freeing up the A8 for strategic traffic back and forth to the port of Larne lies in the proactive development of a rejuvenated commuter service on both the Larne-Belfast and Bleach Green-Antrim railway lines, and in the urgent completion of the short stretch of the A2 between Jordanstown and Greenisland? It is the inadequacy of the other transport links in East Antrim that is forcing commuter traffic on to the A8, and that will nullify all the arrangements that the Minister has announced today.

Mr Speaker:

I draw the attention of Members to the fact that a question is something that requires a response: yes, no, or some information. It is not an opportunity to make a statement of opinion, however well-informed. It is extremely difficult for the Minister to respond if there is no clear question. I am not clear what the question was, but nevertheless I will give the Minister an opportunity to reply.

Mr P Robinson:

I think I recognised a question there about railways. During the period of suspension, Minister of State, Adam Ingram, initiated a task force to look at a number of railway-related matters. I expect the task force to report as a matter of urgency on the whole rail network. That brings us to the issue of funding. I hope that I will have the Member's support when I look for increased transportation funding within the Northern Ireland budget.

Mr Beggs:

Is the Minister aware that over 16,500 vehicles per day travel along the A8; that substantial redevelopment continues in Larne west; that Stena Sealink are returning to Larne in the autumn and that the Millbrook and Antiville junctions are becoming increasingly more dangerous accident black-spots? Will the Minister enable improvements to these junctions to proceed independently should planning delays occur elsewhere?

Mr P Robinson:

Yes, I can give that assurance. There are a number of separate features to the A8 route proposals, so if one or two of them are slowed down because of statutory processes, or because of inquiries, it will not hold us back on the others.

Sewage Treatment
(Crossgar and Killyleagh)



Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister for Regional Development what assessment he has made of consultation between the Water Service and the local community concerning the transfer of sewage from Crossgar to Killyleagh, and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 276/99)

Mr P Robinson:

This scheme was developed during the period of direct rule. The proposals to transfer waste water from Crossgar for treatment at Killyleagh were explained to public representatives who enquired about the scheme, but there was no direct consultation with the local community. I am aware of the concerns expressed by local public representatives and residents about the impact of the scheme on the Killyleagh area. I am determined to ensure that the Water Service is as open as possible about its development proposals and about the impact that they will have on local communities. I have asked Robert Martin, the chief executive of the Water Service, to consider how, under devolution, we can enhance our consultation arrangements with local representatives and, through them, with the public on issues such as this.

Mr McCarthy:

I am delighted to hear the Minister say that his Department is going to take more notice of the local community. Killyleagh may well have extra capacity at present. We are aware though that new developments are taking place all the time in both Crossgar and Killyleagh, and, indeed, neighbouring areas. Apart from the apparent withholding of public information to residents of both areas, and in view of the minimalist savings per year, surely the Department should -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Members must be aware that the purpose of the exercise is to ask questions.

Mr McCarthy:

It is coming.

Mr Speaker:

So is Christmas. Please put the question and give the Minister a chance to respond.

Mr McCarthy:

Will the Minister agree to provide a modern sewerage system for Crossgar and Killyleagh, thereby fulfilling the wishes of the local community and, most importantly, the local representatives?

Mr P Robinson:

I am not sure to what extent the local representatives use the sewerage system in Killyleagh or Crossgar, but if we take into account all the housing proposals for Killyleagh and Crossgar up to the year 2021, the Killyleagh works will be operating at approximately 70% of its capacity. There is still considerable room for further development. Indeed, Killyleagh could probably double in size, given the capacity of the works.

The Department is well satisfied that the standard of the Killyleagh works is satisfactory for the purposes of the area. There will be no additional problems in terms of the environment. No new structures are being erected as a result of this proposal, and although I was not there when the decision was taken, I do not believe that I would have taken a different one. I might have gone about it differently and had more consultation, but I suspect, with respect to the hon Member, that this is the sensible decision both from the practical and financial points of view.

Mr Taylor:

I am very disappointed that the Minister would have taken exactly the same decision to pump sewage from Crossgar into the Killyleagh sewerage works. Is he aware that the net saving will only be £15,000 for each of the next 20 years? Is he aware that the decision was taken on the basis of there being only 335 new houses in Killyleagh in the next 20 years, whereas applications have already been made for 1000 houses over the next 10 years and some have been granted? Is he aware that for Killyleagh a new tannery has already been given planning permission?

Finally, is he aware that the Killyleagh sewage plant is on the flood plain of the Dibney river? With the advent of global warming there is likely to be flooding there, and with the Crossgar sewage going into Killyleagh, the works there will be flooded several times per year. Environmentally it is bad for Killyleagh, and it restricts growth. Does the Minister therefore agree with the request of the Killyleagh Development Association that he should immediately review the decision of the former direct-rule Minister?

3.15 pm

Mr P Robinson:

The immediate saving would be about £250,000 in capital costs, as well as the ongoing annual savings that have been referred to. With regard to capacity, if the right hon Gentleman had listened to my previous answer he would have heard me saying that I had taken into account all of the prospective applications up to 2021. Therefore I had taken into account the building programme to which he refers. Even with that building programme, and the building programme for Crossgar, it still only takes the capacity up to 70%. On the particular proposal in relation to Killyleagh, I am, of course, happy to receive any delegation. I have no note of any elected representatives asking to see me on this matter, but I am happy to speak to them about the issue and to put the various facts before them.

Strategic Development Plan



Mr Byrne

asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will undertake to ensure continuity of policy in relation to the implementation of the Department's draft strategic development document 'Shaping our Future'.

(AQO 271/99)

Mr P Robinson

I am happy to give the undertaking being sought by the Member for West Tyrone. The Strategic Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, which is the legislative basis for preparing the regional development strategy, includes the provision which requires all Government Departments to have regard to the regional development strategy. Under the legislation, my Department is responsible for co-ordinating implementation of the strategy, and I have invited views on the need for new machinery at regional and sub-regional levels to implement the strategy and to provide clear leadership in ensuring effective and co-ordinated action. Once the regional development strategy is adopted as policy, it will be reviewed every five years to ensure that it continues to meet the development needs of the region.

Mr Byrne:

I thank the Minister for the outline of the answer to my question. Given the whole problem of public transport in Northern Ireland, and, in particular, the poor state of our current railway system, how does the Minister propose to impress upon his ministerial Colleagues the need to find the £2 billion that is required to improve matters? Can the Minister outline how he foresees the negotiations going to try to obtain this £2 billion to allow a modern railway system to be put in place over the next 10 years?

Mr P Robinson:

The transportation needs of Northern Ireland go beyond the railways but certainly include them. Roads and bus transport are included as well. In a public interview, I have indicated that I regard a figure of about £2 billion being necessary over the next 10 years. There are a number of possible ways that money could be raised. One of them is if the United Kingdom's Transport Minister proceeds, on the basis that the press are indicating, to initiate a strategy of expenditure in the region of £140 billion for the United Kingdom as a whole - half of which would come from the private sector. If that were to happen, then, using the Barnett formula, something in the region of £2 billion, believe it or not, would come to Northern Ireland over the next 10 years. This is, of course, providing that the Barnett formula is used, and that the money, on arrival in Northern Ireland, is not diverted to other uses.

As far as the negotiations in Northern Ireland are concerned, I have already outlined a case to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the needs. There are clear immediate needs for funding in the transport section of my Department, which I hope can be met. I have already spoken in detail with the Regional Development Committee; I have submitted papers to the office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I have taken every available opportunity, publicly and privately, to press the case for more funding for transportation.

Mr McFarland:

The regional development strategy has many fine ideas but the financial cost is likely to be heavy. How does the Minister see public/private partnerships fitting in with his policy and is he considering, for example, a privately funded rapid rail transit system for Greater Belfast to alleviate the present rail crisis, particularly on the Bangor-Belfast line?

Mr P Robinson:

The Member is right. There is likely to be an identification of very considerable costs, costs not simply to the Department for Regional Development. The regional strategy deals with the whole swathe of Government and everyday life. Therefore in the implementation of that regional strategy there will be pressure on the budgets of a number of Departments. Regarding those matters which relate to the Department for Regional Development, we would identify transport as being an area where, clearly, significant improvement has to be made. The task force which I mentioned earlier will be looking at a number of options in relation to railway - I suppose the Member is interested specifically in the railway line from Bangor to Belfast.

I have no doubt that one aspect of its consideration is what the future for that railway line might be and how it might be improved.

Regional Strategic Development Plan



Mr C Murphy

asked the Minister for Regional Development what steps have been taken to ensure that the regional strategic development plan has been equality proofed.

(AQO 306/99)

Mr P Robinson:

The underlying objectives in the preparation of the draft regional strategic framework clearly included the issue of our divided society and the need for a balanced approach for future development. The draft published in December 1998 was prepared after extensive consultation within and outside Government. Equity considerations were addressed by an inter-departmental steering group including representation from the Central Community Relations Unit, which at that time was responsible for equality issues. The final regional development strategy will recognise the importance of strategic issues such as equality of opportunity. The spacial development elements of the strategy currently being worked up will seek to achieve balances between urban and rural and east and west so as to provide for equality of opportunity for everyone. The regional development strategy has been included in my Department's draft equality scheme, and equality impact assessments will be carried out on the regional development strategy and its main components, the spacial development strategy and the strategic planning guidelines. In addition, equality impact assessments will be undertaken on a number of regional planning policy statements, which will be produced within the framework established by the strategy.

Mr C Murphy:

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the importance of the regional development strategy in that it will govern regional development in this part of Ireland for the next 25 years, and given the opportunity it therefore presents to attempt to address some of the unequal development that has taken place here over the decades, particularly on an east/west basis, why does the draft equality scheme for the Department propose to impact assess the regional development strategy in year five rather than in year one?

Mr P Robinson:

First of all, I am happy that the draft regional strategic framework was given a warm welcome right across the Province, east and west, and received very supportive comments from councils of all political backgrounds. Regarding the equality scheme, the Member concerned is on the Regional Development Committee and will have a first-hand opportunity to deal with the equality scheme and any aspect of it which he believes is not appropriate.

Trust Ports



Mr Bradley

asked the Minister for Regional Development to introduce legislation to extend the powers of trust ports.

(AQO 261/99)

Mr P Robinson:

I am currently developing proposals aimed at extending the powers of trust ports in Northern Ireland. This is a complex and sizeable task, however, and the intention is to bring forward proposals for consideration by the Assembly at the earliest possible date. I anticipate these proposals taking the form of both draft primary and subordinate legislation. In taking the task forward I am anxious to work in partnership with the trust ports and will be encouraging them to assist by reviewing their existing local legislation.

Mr Bradley:

Does the Minister agree with the statement in 'Shaping our Future' that Warrenpoint port will have a significant role to play in the future economics of the eastern seaboard?

Mr P Robinson:

It would be easy for me to say "Yes" and sit down. However, last week I visited Warrenpoint and was impressed with this compact port. The managers of the port also impressed me - they have overcome difficulties in recent years in a way that many other ports would admire. The loss of business, because of the removal of one of their main customers, was something that would hit any port hard, but they have managed to overcome this difficulty and to increase the usage of the port to a higher level than previously. I recognise that it is an important element of the regional strategic framework. Its importance is identified in the draft strategic plan and is recognised by my Department. It is also a very important element of the economy in that area.

Mr Dallat:

Will the Minister assure the House that those appointed to trust ports are properly qualified for the tasks they undertake? Will he also assure us that the appointments are properly advertised and that all aspects of the equality legislation are complied with?

Mr P Robinson:

I know where the Member is coming from. There are two elements in relation to trust ports in the legislation that we are considering: one is to extend the commercial ability and powers of trust ports; and the other is to make them more accountable. I have to look at a number of options for making them more accountable. Some argue that greater council representation might be helpful in that respect, and, when considering the issue, I may look at how well Coleraine has worked out.

Flags of Paramilitary Organisations



Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister for Regional Development what action he will take to ensure that flags of illegal paramilitary organisations are removed from the Department's property.

(AQO 278/99)

Mr P Robinson:

I do not condone any unauthorised use of Roads Service Property. The Roads Service will remove any materials such as flags, secretarian symbols and graffiti that have been displayed illegally on its property and are a danger to road users. In other instances where there is no danger, and in spite of there being no legislative requirement to do so, we will seek to remove such material on the advice of the RUC and where there is strong local support. Experience has shown that acting without local support is likely to lead to a proliferation of such material and put at risk the safety of staff tasked with the removal work. There is also the question of cost. When the Roads Service budget cannot meet its essential maintenance obligations, it is difficult to justify using resources on other activities which do not cause a danger to road users.

Mrs E Bell:

I thank the Minister for his answer. The question of local support is something that is not as clear as it might be. It is a source of disquiet among people who wake up in the morning to find flags on telegraph poles and the roads festooned with different colours of paint and bunting. Will the Minister assure me that his Department will be in liaison with other bodies such as the RUC and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive over this issue?

Mr P Robinson:

People react in different ways to the flying of flags, whether in their areas or in other areas. When the Department receives a complaint on these matters it contacts the RUC and any other relevant body involved. However, I am sure that the hon Lady will agree with me that it would be far better if people were to show allegiance to their country by flying the Union flag rather than through the use of paramilitary symbols.


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