Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 June 2000 (continued)
I support the motion. It mirrors the general recommendations of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee that has been mentioned:
"Should devolved government be re-established in the region, this is a subject which we would commend to the Public Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly for continuing attention".
That is what we are doing this afternoon.
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee and of the Enterprise, Trade and Industry Committee, I have a direct interest in the public accountability for IDB spending and in the future of the IDB and its role in the economic development of this region. We have listened to a great deal of criticism of the IDB. I agree with those who say that this report should be used as a means of ensuring that the future work of the IDB is open, transparent, properly targeted and appraised. I agree with those who have said "Let us learn from the lessons."
I want to pick up on what Mr Hutchinson said about the need for the IDB to start taking serious risks for indigenous companies. It is essential that there is a balance between attracting inward investment such as the high-tech models from outside and supporting local industry. I am keen to ensure that the IDB does not close its door on things that Northern Ireland is famous for, such as the textile industry. I would like to see the IDB and the economic advisors take a strategic approach to restructuring the textile industry here. I would also like to see greater support for and innovation and research and development in successful areas such as our "clean, green image" food processing. That would allow us to capitalise on what we do well. Those issues will be important to feed into the review of economic development here and the role of the IDB.
We recognise the importance of providing support for new hi-tech industries, such as call centres and financial centres, but we need to ensure that when support is given to these new industries, the jobs that are created are properly contracted and secure jobs. We do not want to be used as a back door for cheap labour. The need for secure jobs is highlighted by the recent announcement by British Telecom that it is going to move its BT Cellnet operations to England. More than 200 jobs could be lost in Belfast if that happens, and I am hoping that the IDB is taking this on board and doing something about it.
In recent meetings with IDB officials we have noted that the situation appears to be improving. I have seen serious attempts to inform and brief Assembly Members and others about their work. We hope that the new political climate in Northern Ireland will make the work of the IDB less important as foreign investors queue up to put their money in what will undoubtedly become the perfect place in the world, and certainly in Europe, to invest.
Mr S Wilson:
My Colleague from North Antrim has already made clear our decision on this motion, but I want to re-emphasise the point. We oppose this motion not simply because we are unhappy with the procedure, as described by Mr Bell. We are unhappy about its source.
I am especially unhappy about what I believe to be the real motivation behind it - namely, an attempt by IRA/Sinn Féin to rewrite the history of the last 30 years. We are going to be subjected every week, I suspect, to the nauseating spectacle of Sinn Féin Members bringing forward motions to show how concerned they are about the ordinary issues which affect people on a day-to-day basis, while ignoring the fact that they have been partly responsible, and sometimes completely so, for causing the very problems to which they are now drawing attention. Last week we had Mr McHugh lamenting - [Interruption]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Wilson, it would be useful if you were to restrict your comments to this report.
Mr S Wilson:
I think they have been restricted to the motion. I do not know if you want instant gratification or whether you are prepared to allow me to lead up to the point I want to make.
Last week we had a debate on the closure of post offices. For the past 30 years post offices have been held up and bombed. Postmasters and postmistresses have been killed. Yet Sinn Féin was concerned last week about the decline in the number of post offices. And today it is jobs.
For 30 years the job of the IDB has been made practically impossible by the destructive actions of members of IRA/Sinn Féin. I remember, in another place, a member of the party opposite proudly proclaiming that they would demolish Belfast brick by brick. Then they complain about social disadvantage and no jobs. They point the finger at the IDB when its problem was caused by IRA/Sinn Féin's economic warfare against the people of this Province.
The first reason we are opposed to this motion is that it would give credibility to the hypocrisy and two-facedness of its authors. Having said that, I should point out that the report does list some valid concerns which need to be highlighted here today - concerns which hold for the Assembly in dealing with civil servants from various bodies. I want to emphasise the points made by Alasdair McDonnell and Ian Paisley that this is not an exercise in bashing the IDB, although the report does point us to what needs to be done to make sure that government in Northern Ireland is made more accountable. The Assembly and its Committees can learn from that.
Another concern is the lack of information. The report stated in paragraph 5 (xii) that the PAC was dissatisfied with the IDB provision of misleading information on the write-off costs of the Hualon Project. That failure to provide accurate information is unacceptable. We must stress that it is incumbent upon all witnesses who appear before the Committees to ensure they are properly briefed on the subject being examined. I do not believe this is unique to the IDB. A few weeks ago, on the Education Committee, we could have said the same about officials who came along from the Department of Education and who, I believe, treated the House, through the Education Committee, with utter contempt. This is endemic, because after 30 years of direct rule, civil servants have not been used to the level of scrutiny they would have had in other parts of the United Kingdom or in other democracies in the world. This warning to the IDB officials should be treated as a general warning to the Civil Service as a whole.
There is also a lack of information on the cost of overseas offices. We do not know what they cost. I tried to find the IDB on the Internet and it does not have a site. Here is a body which is supposedly promoting modern industry, to which the House of Commons has to commend the use of the Internet. It seems anachronistic that a body trying to promote high-tech jobs still relies on people using shoe leather to walk around the world - a fairly expensive walk, an £80 million walk.
I notice in the report a statement that I am sure will warm the Minister's heart:
"IDB needs to improve their ability to respond promptly, clearly and accurately."
It does not use the terminology we are used to in Northern Ireland, but the words are similar: "clarity and certainty". We wish to see some clarity and certainty. Given the practice that the Minister has at seeking clarity and certainty and at getting clarity and certainty about the things that he has got clarity and certainty about, I am sure that we will get that clarity and certainty over the period of his stewardship of the IDB. It is appalling that the kind of basic information that the House of Commons would have sought was not available.
The second matter is the failure to hit job targets. There is a need to keep tabs on the promises that are made. There is no point in the IDB giving grant aid to firms and getting promises of jobs. I understand that this cannot be totally accurate. Circumstances change, and sometimes technology changes. Markets change, and one cannot be absolutely certain that the job targets set will always be met. However, it is important that the Minister ensure that when targets are set, they are met. The Minister's record, or at least that of his party, on having targets met has been appalling. I hope he will be more successful at getting job targets met than he is at getting the IRA's targets on decommissioning met. That is an aside, but I hope he heard it.
My last point is on disadvantaged areas. There are disadvantaged areas in nearly every constituency. Nobody can claim a monopoly on disadvantage. Some of that disadvantage, as I said earlier, has been self-imposed by people who have gone out of their way to make areas difficult for industrialists to invest in. We cannot pretend, as Esmond Birnie said, that the IDB can say to an industrialist "Go there", and the industrialist will jump up and go there. The skills he needs must match those available in the area. Very often an industrialist will go where he can get support from similar industries and not be sitting in isolation.
Certain areas have an image. I accept that it makes good economic sense to match areas of unemployment with job opportunities, but the other point made by the report is that often, when a firm locates in a particular area, it is not people from that area who get the jobs. It is not simply a case of saying "There is a business, now you have to recruit from that local area." There is the complex business of training and making sure that people are available and have the skills that are required. Sometimes - I have had experience of this on Belfast City Council - where a firm gives advance notice of the numbers of people and the kinds of skills it is going to need, and there is a long lead-in period, it is possible to do that. At other times, it is not. It is unrealistic for the House to impose a burden on the Minister and on the IDB to deliver what may often be an unrealistic wish-list. It is important to address these issues, but it is also important to recognise that microeconomics does not always work so smoothly.
This is an important report that generates a lot of work for the Assembly and the Department. As a result, I trust, we will see an improvement in the performance of the IDB.
The Chairman of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr P Doherty):
Cheann Comhairle. As Chairman of the Committee of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and from the meetings I have had with the Minister, I am entirely aware of the convention which prevents the IDB from responding for eight weeks. To some degree this restricts the Minister in dealing both with the issue and with the responses. However, there have been numerous reports, going back to the 1980s, which outlined virtually the same problems. Even without these reports those people who live in areas of social need (they are scattered throughout the Six Counties -Fermanagh and Tyrone, for example) do not need reports to tell them that they do not have work. They do not need reports to tell them that they have been discriminated against. They do not need reports to tell them that society here - let us hope that it is changing - has been unequal.
Since this Assembly was elected some two years ago I have held, sometimes on my own and sometimes with my party colleagues, a number of meetings with IDB officials to try to understand their concerns and to put our views across as forcefully as possible. I am not lightening or lessening my criticism of the IDB, but we need to look at the issues in a holistic way.
The concerns of the IDB generally involved the lack of infrastructure in some areas. There are historical and political reasons why the areas west of the Bann do not have infrastructure. We have a Minister for Regional Development who does not attend Executive meetings yet his fellow Members preach to us about political instability. He will have a role in helping the IDB to develop and expand into areas of social need and into those areas which have not as yet received the type of inward investment that they require. As we look forward to the future, the political instability is coming repeatedly from the same source - the people who will not attend, the people who will criticise and reject and defy any of the collective decisions that are being taken by the Executive. Perhaps we need a Select Committee at Westminster to investigate the denial that emanates continuously from the DUP. Maybe it would be enlightening with regard to its attitudes to us.
Focusing on the key point, I do support the proposal. The IDB has failed many, many areas. It needs to seriously consider the criticisms of the Westminster report and of the various other reports which have appeared on a regular basis. If the IDB focuses on these issues, and if it approaches the situation in a holistic way, then in a year's time - or two years' time - when we again discuss the IDB it will be developing and growing and we will be able to work in co-operation with it. If, however, it reverts to the old ways, the old in-house practices, we will again be criticising and focusing - perhaps on the basis of our own reports rather than those from Westminster - on its many, many failures.
Today's criticisms stand. They are absolutely clear. One would need to be totally incompetent not to recognise that those criticisms are well founded. We need to take on board these criticisms and look to the future. We need to develop a holistic approach, and there is an opportunity now for members of the Committee and for the Minister, with his new responsibilities, to take on board these concerns and to get it right. We need to get it right, particularly for the people on the ground who have suffered from the lack of inward investment.
The sitting was suspended at 1.30 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -
Ba mhaith liom ceist uimhir a haon a chur. What plans does the Minister of Education have to improve educational provision for children who suffer from autism, and will he make a statement?
The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):
There are a number of special programmes designed specifically to help autistic children, and all special schools for children with severe learning difficulties operate structured provision to meet the needs of pupils with severe learning difficulties and autism. Education and library boards also provide specialised support to other schools with pupils with autism, and I am committed to achieving greater consistency in the level of such provision.
To assist in this, the Education and Training Inspectorate will shortly be issuing two reports on provision presently being made for autistic children. The first deals with provision for autistic children in special schools for pupils with severe learning difficulties, and the second is a survey of provision for children with Asperger syndrome, that is autistic children with normal or high intelligence. As I indicated in my statement of 5 June to the Assembly on the North/South Ministerial Conference held on 3 February, provision for pupils with autism is one of the priority areas for co-operation on a joint North/South basis through a special education co-ordination group that will examine the possibilities for the exchange of information and experience, and for commissioning joint research studies. I have also agreed with the United States Secretary of Education, Mr Richard Riley, that we can have access to American expertise and research in this area. Both initiatives will, I am sure, lead to significant improvements in the quality of provision for children with autism.
Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome the North/South dimension to educational study on this matter. What provision is there presently in mainstream schools, and what can be done to improve consistency and provision across all the boards? I am very conscious that this issue affects six out of every 10,000 people.
Mr M McGuinness:
In mainstream schools, the operation of the special educational needs code of practice ensures that children's needs can be picked up at different levels of intervention, from school-based to school-supported. Stage 3 intervention brings additional resources and advice from the education and library board, and the process of individual educational plans identifies targets and achievement dates for review. Children can have differing degrees of autism, and provision must have regard for the impact of the condition on the child's learning and ability to work with peers. It can also change with age. For example, a child with Asperger syndrome will probably experience more emotional problems during adolescence - hence the need for individual support - and may have additional problems with examinations, as the nature of autism can inhibit some children from doing well.
Such children's circumstances can be taken into account by the examining bodies, which will make special arrangements to meet their needs. Provision in mainstream schools therefore needs to be individualised and underpinned by a visual and structural approach. Support is now available from education and library boards, educational psychology services and their outreach and peripatetic services. Classroom assistance is also provided where necessary.
On the consistency and provision across the education and library boards, I am aware that in special schools for children with moderate learning difficulties, and in the mainstream, provision for autistic children is not as consistent across the boards as we would like it to be. I expect the Inspectorate's forthcoming reports to highlight this. There is a regional strategy group for special education and that comprises the special education officers and principal educational psychologists from all the education and library boards. It is chaired by a senior education officer and provides the appropriate forum to address this important issue. I will be charging the group with doing so. After the Education and Training Inspectorate have monitored their success in this regard and they will report back to me.
I welcome the Minister's statement. Does he accept that dyslexia is also a very serious problem in schools - one which has not been adequately resourced?
Mr M McGuinness:
I agree that dyslexia is a serious problem. I am not sure that I would agree that it has not been resourced. My Department is very conscious of the need to deal in a serious-minded way with any children who have severe or medium learning difficulties. Since I came to the Department of Education I have made it clear to my officials that we must prioritise the issue of children with severe learning difficulties. I recently visited Rathfriland Hill School in Newry, and that brought home to me at first hand the great difficulties faced by the children and the teachers who look after them. We are aware of the seriousness of the issue. It is probably safe to say that approximately 10% of all school-going children suffer, in varying degrees, from dyslexia, and a considerable number also suffer from dyspraxia. That is a huge problem by any standards, and it is one which my officials and I, as Minister, take very seriously.
May I urge Members to try to stick with the issue at hand. Dyslexia and autism are somewhat separate issues - in fact, entirely separate issues. I urge the Minister to be as concise as possible and Members to stay as close to the point as possible. Otherwise we will get through very few questions.
Following the Minister's recent visit to America, can he tell the House if the trip was financed in whole or in part by his Department, and the amount of money involved?
I have to rule that that question is entirely out of order. Unless a specific part of the visit was connected with autism, I fail to see any link to the question.
The Minister raised it in his first answer.
Sorry. I did not hear what the Member said.
The Minister raised the subject of his trip to America in his first answer, and I am trying to find out if there was a cost to the Department of Education.
Supplementary questions must be relevant to the initial question, not necessarily to the ministerial answer. Ministerial answers do not always entirely, and only, respond to the question asked. Members must understand that if they raise points of order it will to take away from the time available for questions. Mr Wilson, do you want to raise a point of order?
Mr S Wilson:
Let him answer the question.
Not on that basis. Next question.
School Building Programmes:
asked the Minister of Education what is the value of school building programmes so far commissioned using private finance initiatives.
Mr M McGuinness:
The estimated capital value of the four school pathfinder projects commissioned so far using the private finance initiative is £38 million.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I must say I am disappointed at the small amount involved. Does the Minister intend to make wider use of this form of funding?
Mr M McGuinness:
I have always been of the view that the private finance initiative approach cannot compensate in any way for the need for a substantial school capital building programme in any given year. I have already raised this issue on several occasions, particularly in a number of interviews with the 'Belfast Telegraph'. The Department of Education has been evaluating the experience gained during the pathfinder programme. As I announced earlier this year, we will be consulting with school authorities and the Assembly's Education Committee on a more extensive programme of private finance initiative projects to be launched next year. The present school projects are part of the pathfinder programme. Further private finance initiative developments will be subject to additional consultation, and I expect that increasing numbers of people will be keenly interested in how we develop this particular aspect of our school capital building programme.
Clearly, we are going to see further developments in the private finance initiative PFI, the public/private partnership PPP - or whatever we want to call it. Has the Minister checked that satisfactory arrangements are in place for the care and maintenance of school buildings under PPP? Also, will those who will be employed in the care and maintenance of the schools, under these arrangements, enjoy the same terms and conditions as those employed in other schools?
Mr M McGuinness:
Obviously, value for money is vitally important to my Department. Given the condition of the schools estate I have to be seriously concerned as to how Department money is spent in relation to PFI. I have had in-depth discussions with departmental officials in relation to all of these matters, and we are conscious of the need to ensure that, over a twenty-five year period, we are getting value for money.
There are also contractual issues for providers, but we are conscious of that. It brings into focus the second part of the question, and that is how employees in these schemes will be treated, particularly as they will be within a private finance initiative. We are concerned about that. My Department officials and I will keep a close eye to ensure there is equality of treatment, and we will move forward on that basis.
Strabane Grammar School
asked the Minister of Education what is the current position in regard to the allocation of grammar school places to Strabane Grammar School, and if he will make a statement.
Mr M McGuinness:
The admissions and enrolment numbers of a school are based on the number of pupils that the school can physically accommodate. My Department had discussions with the board of governors of Strabane Grammar School but was unable to approve additional places for admissions this September. I am satisfied that there are sufficient places available at the school.
I must express my extreme disappointment at the Minister's response. He will be aware that students in the Western Board area, in Londonderry and Omagh, can enjoy a 35% allocation of spaces and indeed with the new proposed amalgamated school by CCMS due to be constructed in Strabane, they have been guarenteed a dedicated grammer stream of 35% intake, whereas Strabane Grammar is currently operating on a 25% to 26% intake. This is a severe discrimination against pupils in controlled primary schools in the rural areas. I am aware of one boy-
Order. I must prevail upon the Member, who was about to elaborate extensively. This is not an opportunity for a speech. It is a supplementary to a question which has already been put. Please make it concise.
I am trying to illustrate the point that somebody, instead of being offered a place in Strabane, has to travel to Londonderry. Does the Minister not agree that this is a discriminatory decision made against the controlled grammar school in Strabane?
Mr M McGuinness:
No. I do not agree that it is a discriminatory decision. No grade guarantees a place in any grammar school. The position on admissions varies from year to year according on the numbers of pupils transfering, the grades obtained, and stated parental preferences. Boards of governors draw up and apply admission criteria when a school is oversubcribed with applicants.
My Department monitors the availabiltiy of grammar school places on an area basis, and not on an individual school basis. The broad general policy parameter is that places should be available in an area for all pupils obtaining grade A, and 80% of pupils obtaining grade B who are seeking grammar school places. The situation in Strabane is that grammar school places are available in Strabane, Derry and Omagh, and the general policy parameter has been met within the area.
The current approved admissions and enrolment for Strabane Grammar are 54 and 400. The school's physical capacity is 400, and enrolment as at October 1999 was 397. Therefore the school is almost full. There are plans for future capital development at the school, and the long-term enrolment used in the economic appraisal for the capital scheme is 400, so I fail to see how the allegation of discrimination can hold up.
Does the Minister accept that in the case that he cited there was geographical discrimination? A pupil with a similar grade was refused a place because he lived in Castlederg. The place was allocated to the person living closest to Strabane. Does the Minister accept that allocating grammar school places on a geographical basis requires further serious consideration?
Mr M McGuinness:
My Department monitors the availability of grammar school places in all areas for both sections of the community against the parameter that there should be places available for all grade A applicants and 80% of grade B applicants, and that parameter has been met this year in both sectors.
With reference to the earlier point made about the maintained situation in Strabane, we must all understand that the proposal for rationalisation in Strabane is under consideration by my Department. There is no question whatsoever of any section of the community being discriminated against. It is important that people understand that this is dealt with on an area basis, not on a school-by-school basis. Therefore, in the year just ended, it is clear, Strabane Grammar, with 397 places, for a school that holds about 400, has been fairly treated.
asked the Minister of Education to review the criteria for the establishment and funding of integrated schools, and if he will make a statement.
Mr M McGuinness:
Before the suspension of devolution last February I announced that a review of the viability criteria for new integrated and Irish medium schools was to be conducted. My Department is currently undertaking this review, and I will keep you informed of the developments in this regard.
I thank the Minister for his brief and succinct response. Will he take on board a particular concern I have while those criteria are being reviewed? My understanding of the present situation is that when establishing the criteria for integrated schools, only the number of Protestants and Catholics are counted, and those of mixed background and others are ignored. Will the Minister acknowledge that this discrimination is increasing the hurdles to the establishment of new integrated schools, for which there is a huge parental demand, and that this is something that must be addressed in the review that is currently underway?
Mr M McGuinness:
I am willing to address that issue in the review. In my time as Minister of Education, before suspension, I had a number of discussions with those in the integrated sector about this matter, and so it is something I am conscious of. Mr Ford knows as well as anyone that in relation to the development of these schools, it is absolutely essential to get the balance right. The current legislation clearly refers to reasonable numbers of Catholics and Protestants, but I know that there are people who fall between two stools, and we will take account of that.
Mr S Wilson:
Does the Minister accept that he is using integrated primary schools as a cover for discriminatory behaviour in favour of Irish language schools? Given the fact that the Department of Education has closed primary schools in the controlled sector on the grounds that they were not educationally efficient - some of them with just fewer than 100 pupils - does he agree that it is absurd to suggest that the viability criterion for Irish language schools and integrated schools should be 12 pupils? Is it not a case of him plundering his budget once again for his Republican disciples rather than giving good quality for people?
Mr M McGuinness:
No, I do not agree at all. Mr Wilson would be surprised if I did.
Integrated primary schools must demonstrate the potential to achieve a minimum year one enrolment of 25 pupils and a minimum long-term potential enrolment in the range of 150 to 175 pupils. Integrated secondary schools must demonstrate the potential to achieve a minimum year eight enrolment of 80 pupils with a minimum long-term enrolment of 400.
At the moment, Irish medium schools must demonstrate over a two-year period their ability to meet the minimum requirements for annual intake. The review put in place by my Department is about meeting demand. When I became Minister of Education I made it clear that the issues of choice, accessibility and excellence were very important. The demand for Irish-medium and for integrated education is legitimate. It is fair to say that, over the years, people in both sectors felt very strongly that they were not being given a fair opportunity to develop these forms of education.
My Department has a responsibility, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, to encourage integrated education and Irish medium education, and we will continue to do that. There is no question of my Department discriminating against any state school. If there are specific allegations that the Member wishes to make on the matter, the sensible thing to do is to sit down and have a discussion about it.
Mr K Robinson:
Will the Minister assure the House that he will adhere to the principle of equality of treatment when dealing with the establishment, funding or rationalisation of schools, regardless of the educational sector they represent and thereby ensure that the substantial savings achieved by such an approach will be specifically targeted at genuine social need?
Mr M McGuinness:
I do not disagree with the Member. Equality of treatment is vitally important for all educational sectors and I give you a firm commitment that my Department will adhere to that principle.
asked the Minister of Education what assessment of the Gallagher report he has made in relation to the transfer test.
Ms E Bell
asked the Minister of Education when he expects to announce the results of the Gallagher report into transfer procedures.
asked the Minister of Education when the review of the transfer procedure (11-plus) will be completed, and if he will make a statement.
Mr M McGuinness:
The purpose of the Gallagher report is to provide objective information on the effects of selection on pupils, schools, teachers, parents and society and to act as a catalyst for a full and open debate on the issues. The report is not yet complete. It will be published in September. It will be followed by a series of dissemination seminars at which the researchers will present their findings. The arrangements for taking forward the subsequent debate and consultation will be determined shortly. However, I wish to ensure that all the relevant interests, including educational bodies, the Executive, the Assembly Education Committee and the Assembly, have full opportunity to contribute to our deliberations on the nature of future post-primary education arrangements.
Can the Minister indicate the financial impact any changes to the current transfer test will have on the education budget, particularly in relation to the school estate?
Mr M McGuinness:
It is impossible to give that answer at this time. Clearly, my Department is focussing on the fact that we will have, through the research, which is currently with officials and which will be published in September, a huge body of work, to be finalised over the summer period. We will then have what conceivably will be one of the biggest debates in relation to education we have seen in 100 years. Before we even get to the issue of what type of structures are going to be required. We need to deal first with the research and the contents of that research. It is important to stress that this report will not make proposals. I firmly envisage our moving forward to examine the effects of selection, and the 11-plus in particular, on pupils, teachers, the community and society as a whole.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With due respect to the Minister, I must say that he has not answered my question. It seems strange that the Department cannot -
Order. It is not in order for Members to intervene in a ministerial answer on the subject of whether the Minister has answered the question when he is still on his feet. One should not forget that, if there is time, there will be supplementary questions.
Mr M McGuinness:
With respect, I believe I have answered Mr Kennedy's question, and the answer was an honest one. I do not know what the financial implications will be, for the simple reason that we must first deal with how to handle the research findings and move forward to what, in my opinion, will be a large educational debate which, I hope, will take in all sections of the community and everyone involved in the education of our children.
With regard to the research, after it has been put together, I hope that the researchers will go out to the education and library boards to meet the people and explain how they came to their findings. The Department will shortly decide how to move the subsequent debate forward. We shall then have to bear in mind all the debate's implications for the Department of Education, for the Executive and for society as a whole. At this stage, when we do not know what our decision will be, based on research and consultation, it is difficult to answer the Member's question, since it presumes we shall initiate wholesale change.
I do not know what the outcome will be. All I know is that it is a serious matter. It must be handled extremely sensitively, and the Department is doing just that. Some people may have criticisms about the slowness of the process, but some of the delay has come about because we decided at a late stage to conduct a comparative examination of other systems elsewhere in the world. It is impossible at this stage to talk about the report's financial implications until such time as we have the debate, go through the consultation period and I, as Minister of Education, in consultation with everyone else, decide how we move forward. When we reach that stage, and a decision has been taken, we shall look at the financial implications.
I appeal to the Minister to be as concise as possible in his replies. There is always a temptation not to do so, and it has sometimes become substantial in other places. In that case, Members need not also complain if their questions or those of their Colleagues are not reached.
Mrs E Bell:
I am aware of the work done on the Gallagher Report and that which will be needed following it, but I ask the Minister to remember that one thing that will come out of this will be the stress and trauma experienced by pupils of that age and their parents. I hope that whatever work is done will be done as expeditiously as possible to ensure that future generations do not suffer the same stress and trauma.
I am not entirely sure whether the Minister is clear about the question, but I appeal to him to make his response briefly so that we might get in one or two more supplementaries.
Mrs E Bell:
If the Minister has any problem I shall be happy to clarify the situation.
Mr M McGuinness:
I am very conscious of the points made by Mrs Bell, and I know that this has been the subject already of a huge debate within our society.
I thank the Minister for his reply to the initial question. Will he undertake to expedite the review of the Gallagher Report so that we do not have the paralysis by analysis that we have had for many decades? Will he also assure us that the wide range of consultation he has undertaken will be relatively time limited as this matter has been debated for many years in our community? The fact that there are multi-party questions today indicates the importance.
Does he further agree that the important thing, as has been said, is to remove this trauma from our children and from our families and ensure that it is not substituted by a similar one? The children's abilities should be foremost, and financial considerations should be hindmost, in the ultimate resolution of this difficult problem for the community.
Mr M McGuinness:
I fully intend to expedite all this. I know that down the years different Ministers of Education ran away from the hard questions. I am not for running away from this hard question. My Department is facing up to it and the research will be published in September. It will be complete and will not be adjusted by the Department. The researchers will be available to answer questions, and I hope that the consultation process will be finished by next spring. By that time, I fully hope, my Department and I will be in a position to state quite clearly how we intend to move forward. We will be very decisive in all of this.
The time for questions to the Minister of Education is up.
On a point of order under Standing Order 19(7), Mr Speaker. Members will recall that on 12 June I posed a question to the Minister who is about to take the podium. She did not answer the question. I asked the Deputy Speaker, Sir John Gorman, to clarify the point, and the Minister refused to answer the question.
Under Standing Orders,
"for the purposes of scrutiny, questions should be answered as clearly and fully as possible."
Standing Orders further state
"supplementary questions shall be answered individually as they arise."
The words are "shall be answered". I ask you, Sir, for a ruling.
It is not always entirely easy for the Speaker to rule whether questions are being answered. It is particularly difficult to rule on the question of whether they are being answered as fully as possible. What happens then is that they are no longer answered concisely, and there is no time for supplementary questions to be introduced.
There is a dilemma here. We have already seen a whole raft of questions for oral answers, which we were not able to reach today. I tried to get through as many as possible, but there is a difficult balance to be achieved. We must proceed as best we can, with rulings in individual circumstances and guidance in general.
Further to that, Mr Speaker. Will you look at pages 84 and 85 of the Official Report of Monday 12 June, and then give your ruling?
I will happily do that.
Is it in order for the Assembly to restrict the amount of time for questions to the Minister to 30 minutes, bearing in mind the large number of Members who are disappointed when their questions are not answered, and are not given the opportunity for a supplementary?
I am somewhat puzzled by the Member's question. It is not only in order; it is a requirement. It is in Standing Orders that there shall be questions for an hour and a half - from 2.30 pm to 4.00 pm. The alternative is that a Minister will appear for questions once every three months and have an hour and a half. The decision of the Business Committee was that three ministerial Departments would be here for questions each Monday from 2.30 pm to 4.00 pm. Ninety minutes divided by three gives 30 minutes, and that is the amount of time available. It is entirely in order for that decision to be taken. It would also be in order for the alternative decision to be taken that one hour 30 minutes be available for Ministerial questions but only once every three months or so. The immediate answer to the question is that it is in order.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Mr Speaker, would you not consider taking points of order after Question Time, as happens in another place?
That is an excellent suggestion. I hope that the Assembly will be content to hold with what is a reasonable proposition. Points of order will generally be taken after Question Time. We will now proceed with the questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Child Protection Legislation
Mrs E Bell
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to confirm when she is planning to introduce legislation equivalent to the Protection of Children Act 1999.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
Níl comhaontú ann go fóill ar an chlár reachtaíochta. Ach thig liom a dhearbhú go bhfuil rún againn dul i gcomhairle san fhómhar faoi mholtaí gur cheart bunús reachtúil a chur faoi na socruithe reatha trína meastar oiriúnacht iarratasóirí atá ag iarraidh bheith ag obair le páistí.
The legislative programme has yet to be agreed. However, I can confirm that in the autumn I intend to consult on proposals to place the existing arrangements for checking the suitability of those applying to work with children on a statutory basis. We clearly wish to strengthen the protection afforded to children, and our proposals will include a requirement for childcare organisations not to employ anyone on the register of those deemed unsuitable to work with children. The effect will be to provide legislation equivalent to the Protection of Children Act 1999. In the meantime, before proposals are brought forward, I will be happy to receive Members' views.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for her answer, which dealt with my point of concern. Obviously the Minister agrees that there are gaps in our current system of vetting. Although it is relatively effective, List 99 needs to be reviewed given the number of names included and the legislation it can use to protect children in care. I am glad that that has been looked at. Does the Minister agree that the appointment of a commissioner for children would further children's rights in Northern Ireland?
Ms de Brún:
The appointment of a commissioner for children is a very positive idea. It is slightly separate from the question that I was being asked, but in terms of strengthening children's rights it is a very positive proposal.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Referring specifically to the protection of children and young people, is the Minister aware that between 7 February and 15 May the Provisional IRA shot or beat 12 youths in Northern Ireland? These youths have been treated under the Health Service. The treatment of victims of such beatings and shootings by the IRA costs the health service a vast amount of money. Will the Minister confirm that she has spoken to her comrades in the Provisional IRA and asked them to stop these beatings? Will she condemn the Provisional IRA for carrying them out? If they are unfit to be associated with children and young people, does her association with members of the Provisional IRA make her, as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, unfit to be running that Department?
Ms de Brún:
I can say very clearly that I do not wish to see beatings - I am opposed to them. It is not the way forward. I have experience, in my constituency, of communities trying to put forward alternatives, trying to develop restorative justice schemes. That is the way forward. Punishment beatings, as they are called, are not the way forward, and I am opposed to them.
Does the Minister agree that for any new child protection legislation to be effective, it should clearly define a policing role, so that the expertise of the RUC can be brought to bear in protecting children in our society?
Ms de Brún:
Any proposals being developed are being developed in consultation with other agencies, notably the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Education. They will bring forward the points that they believe to be necessary in the legislation. Certainly, we need to see what the policing role will be in all of this. We need to ensure that there is provision in the legislation for co-operation between all of the statutory agencies involved in the protection of children. That is the way to go forward.
Mr B Hutchinson:
Does the Minister plan to have the budget in place to enable her to give legislative effect to an equivalent of the Protection of Children Act? We are being told we do not have enough social workers working with children to deal with the court cases or with cases in our constituencies. Will the budget be in place for this?
Ms de Brún:
Dúirt mé go minic cheana féin go bhfuil mé ag dul a dh'iarraidh tuilleadh airgid don Roinn agus do na seirbhísí sóisialta agus sláinte - agus déanfaidh mé sin. I have said on several occasions that I will be seeking an increased budget for health and social services. This will be necessary for a range of priorities I want to see developed, as do others.
We move to the next question, but just in case Members do not recall the note that went round, I should point out that question 4 should not have been on the list as it was a second question in the name of one Member. It was removed at an earlier stage.
Hospital Services (Southern Area):
Use of Term "Temporary Transfer"
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what policy she will pursue in relation to the Southern Health Board using the term "temporary transfer" when making a decision on hospital services, and if she will make a statement.
Ms de Brún:
Is eol domh go ndearnadh seirbhísí a aistriú ó Otharlann Dheisceart Thír Eoghain an bhliain seo caite. Chuir mé in iúl go soiléir go bhfuil coinne agam go ndéanfar gach iarracht an bhail cheart a choinneáil ar na seirbhísí láithreacha go dtí go ndéanfar cinneadh ar thodhchaí fhadtréimhseach na n-oispidéal atá laistigh de limistéar an bhoird.
I am aware that a number of hospital services were transferred from South Tyrone Hospital last year. I have made it clear that until decisions are taken on the long-term future of hospitals within the board's area I expect every effort to be made to maintain existing services. Where this proves impossible, any changes must be the minimum necessary to ensure safety and quality and must be temporary.
Does the Minister agree that this is not the case in south Tyrone, where the term "temporary transfer" has been used in order to avoid a judicial review of the decisions made affecting the provision of services? Does the Minister also agree that staffing and resources should be made available to South Tyrone hospital again, so that no more temporary transfers occur?
Ms de Brún:
Until decisions are taken about the long-term future of hospitals within the board's area, I expect the board to maintain existing services, to make the minimum amount of changes necessary - should it feel any transfer of services is necessary - and to ensure that the transfer of services is temporary. My view is that a temporary transfer is one which is made until final decisions on the long-term future of hospitals in that, or other, board areas can be put in place. I therefore do not agree with the Member's suggestion as to why transfers are made on a temporary basis. I have made it clear to the Board that any decisions to be made, relating to existing services, need to be very clearly based on robust evidence that changes or transfers are needed. There is a large number of complex issues involved in the suggestions being made at present. It is not simply a question of making available the necessary finance or resources. That is a question, first and foremost, for the Board, but I will expect it to indicate to me, as it has done to date, that it has looked at every possible option.
Community Care Services
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail how she proposes to increase provision of community care services over the next five years.
Ms de Brún:
Caithfear fanacht ar thoradh an athbhreithnithe chuimsithigh ar chaiteachas don bhliain seo sula bhféadfar cinntí a dhéanamh faoi sholáthar seirbhísí cúraim ó 2001-2 go dtí 2003-4. Tá an Roinn ag déanamh machnaimh faoi láthair ar phleananna na mbord sláinte agus seirbhísí sóisialta conas atá siad ag brath a gcuid féin den £53 milliún breise a cuireadh i leataoibh do sheirbhísí sóisialta agus sláinte phoiblí na bliana seo a úsáid. Tá an £11 milliún do sheirbhísí cúraim phoiblí san áireamh.
Decisions on the provision of community care services from 2001-02 to 2003-04 must await the outcome of this year's comprehensive spending review. The Department is considering the health and social services board plans and how they propose to use their share of the additional £53 million allocated to health and personal social services this year, including the £11 million earmarked for community care services.
Last winter I commissioned a review of community care in response to the widespread concern about pressures in services, and my Department's report, 'Facing the Future', contains provision for a longer-term review of acute bed provision and community care.
The Minister previously answered a written question which I submitted clearly showing that spending on community care has lagged behind that on acute hospital services since 1996. Will she agree - and she has hinted at this but not really answered - that a full range of domiciliary care, day care and respite care services is absolutely essential to the quality of life for many disabled people? Will she give a commitment that, in the programme of government, community care will be a real priority and not lost in a welter of claims for acute hospital services alone?
Ms de Brún:
I am as concerned as the Member that the amount of domiciliary care provided by trusts has not kept pace with assessed needs. I intend to take action to ensure that, in the long term, the provision of care to people in their homes is given as much priority as other types of care, particularly residential care. Overall, there has been underfunding in community care services over a number of years, and I intend to bid for additional resources in this year's comprehensive spending review to improve the full range of community care services.
In the context of improving community care services over the next five years, can the Minister tell us the basis for her decision to abandon fundholding without any consultation, thereby launching the health service into another pointless restructuring programme where only the bureaucrats will benefit?
Ms de Brún:
The decision to end GP fund holding was not taken without consultation. It was clearly flagged up in consultation documents put out by my predecessor. The consultation has already taken place. It did not fall to me to consult again on the matter. Ending fund holding is an essential part of developing modern care services. Health and social services ought to be about care and co-operation and not about market and competition.
Regarding the lack of provision within community care, may I draw the Minister's attention to the under provision of nurses trained specifically in epilepsy in Northern Ireland and ask what steps she intends to take to address this area of concern.
Ms de Brún:
I want to ensure that funding is available to improve the full range of community services but exactly how this will happen and what decisions will be made will depend on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. I intend to bid for additional resources for community care and then I will be in a better position to discuss what can be done with those resources in all areas.
With regard to gross underfunding in community care, does the Minister accept that the countless thousands of pounds spent on translation into Irish would be better spent on community care?
Ms de Brún:
The provision of health and social services is not carried out in only one language. My Department and the agencies, boards and trusts within the health and social services sector have to deliver services to a community diverse in social class, community background and language. We need to tailor our services to that. It is wrong to think of any one attempt to do that as taking away from the overall level of service. My Department not only works in this way, but also allocates part of its budget to ensuring that its documents and consultations make provision for audiocassettes, Braille, Chinese and large-format print. This ensures that we properly deliver the service that is required by our whole community.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Is it not accepted that the policy under which people are sent out of hospital without providing the appropriate community care is totally unacceptable in a civilised community? In the light of that, is it not also accepted that there is an urgent need for additional occupational therapists? Many of the people in the Province who need this attention actually die before they can be visited. What action is going to be taken to correct this situation?
Ms de Brún:
Ó thaobh na chéad cheiste de, tá pleananna ag na boird faoi láthair an fad ama a ghearradh a chaithfeas daoine fanacht sula bhfaigheann siad an pacáiste ceart.
Those are two separate questions. With regard to the first, the spending plans that I have received from boards will achieve real reductions in the time patients have to wait before receiving a community care package. I am also commissioning further work to improve the integration of hospital and community care services.
As regards waiting lists and waiting times for access to occupational therapy services, responsibility for reducing waiting lists lies, first and foremost, with the health and social services boards and trusts. For our part, the Department and the Housing Executive are undertaking a joint review of the housing adaptation service. This will identify the key factors impeding delivery of housing adaptations and discover what needs to be done to improve the service.