Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 26 June 2000 (continued)
Sexual Abuse Victims:
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to confirm whether the Department has plans to allocate resources for the provision of additional residential places for victims of sexual abuse.
Ms de Brún:
Tá na ceithre bhord ag tabhairt aire do chúrsaí a shocrú do St Joseph's, Middletown atá le druidim go gairid. Ar na roghanna sealadacha atá ann nó atá ina bhféidireachtaí tá: Ionad de chuid Barnado a fhoscailt a bhí druidte go dtí seo, áit san earnáil phríobháideach a úsáid i gceantar Bhord an Iarthair agus duine nó daoine le scileanna altrama a fhostú. I dtaca le hairgead breise atá ar fáil, deir na boird go bhfuil forbairt ceantar cónaithe do pháistí ina tosaíocht acu.
I take this question to refer to specialist provision for children. The four boards are giving attention to making alternative arrangements to cope with the scheduled closure of St Joseph's, Middletown. Interim measures either in place or being explored include the possibility of Barnardo's reopening a previous facility, the use of a private-sector provider in the Western Board area and the recruitment of foster carers with the necessary skills. Boards have told me that the development of children's residential care is among their priorities for the extra resources that were made available following the budget.
What particular consideration is being given by the Department to young people who have been the victims of sexual abuse, rather than integrating them into the general care system, which is currently in severe crisis with the shortage of places? We know how many homes have closed down over the last couple of years. These children need some kind of structure put in place specially for them.
Ms de Brún:
That question relates mainly to the current mix. The best way of addressing it is to ensure that sufficient places are available to make up the correct mix, so that young people get places that are suitable. There is a working group looking urgently at this at present. The boards are now saying that this is a priority in their spending plans, and I hope to see some move forward in the mix.
Bangor Community Hospital
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether she plans to visit Bangor Community Hospital.
Ms de Brún:
Bhí áthas orm cuairt a thabhairt ar Ospidéal Pobail Bheannchair ar 17 Eanáir na bliana seo. Faoi láthair, níl pleananna ar bith agam cuairt eile a thabhairt air.
I was pleased to visit Bangor Community Hospital on 17 January 2000, and I have no plans at present to make a further visit.
The Bangor Community Hospital and primary care trial in North Down and Ards has been an outstanding success. Will the Minister guarantee continued use of this system and, indeed, its expansion across Northern Ireland, after the completion of the trial in March next year?
Ms de Brún:
When I visited Bangor Community Hospital I was very impressed with many of the things I saw. However, it is absolutely essential that a rigorous evaluation of this model be conducted to test its overall effectiveness and its applicability to other locations. I will look again at the question when this has been completed.
Is the Minister and her Department in a position to give a definite opening date for the new Causeway Health and Social Services Trust Hospital at Coleraine, County Londonderry? I have reason to believe that the opening date, which was set for autumn 2000, is unlikely to be met.
Order. Even with my relatively limited geography, I am aware that this is well outside the North Down Community Trust area. The question, while understandable, is not in order.
Sir John Gorman:
The Minister has confirmed my belief that her visit to Bangor Community Hospital was a great success. It is interesting that 70% of the cases taken by acute hospital out-patients departments across the Province are actually of minor importance. Is there not a lesson to be learned here about the need for similar hospitals to take the strain off the more substantial hospitals?
Ms de Brún:
The question that the Member has raised about the use of accident and emergency departments is very relevant. I certainly want to consider this when looking at the overall question of future hospital provision. The future of hospital services is a very complex issue, and therefore it is important that we get it right. Ensuring that we do so will take some time.
The success of the Bangor Community Hospital trial is directly related to the enthusiasm and professionalism of hospital staff and local GPs. What system does the Minister intend to put in place to ensure that all doctors carrying out general practice are regularly tested on their ability and competence?
It may not be a matter of geographical licence, but I will allow the Minister to respond in that regard.
Ms de Brún:
After I have finished answering questions here, I will be meeting with a delegation from the General Medical Council. I have welcomed their announcement that doctors should go through a revalidation process. That is something that I will be looking to take forward here. There needs to be absolute confidence in the medical system, and a revalidation process should be put in place.
Downe and Downpatrick Maternity Hospitals:
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what further discussions have taken place with the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, the Down Lisburn Trust and other bodies concerning the retention of acute services at the Downe and Downpatrick Maternity Hospitals, and if she will make a statement.
Ms de Brún:
Ar 1 Meitheamh bhí cruinniú ag an bhord le dochtúirí clinicí Ospidéal Downe, le saineolaithe An Ospidéil Ríoga agus Ospidéal na Cathrach, le gnáthdhochtúirí áitiúla, le hIontabhas an Dúin Lios na gCearrbhach agus le Coiste Sláinte Pobail an Dúin gur phléigh siad cad é mar sholathrófaí sa todhchaí na seirbhísí géarmhíochaine atá anois á gcur ar fáil in Ospidéal Downe. Mar thoradh ar an chruinniú bunaíodh meitheal a tháinig le chéile den chéad uair ar 23 Meitheamh.
On 1 June the board met with clinicians from the Downe Hospital, specialists from the Royal Victoria and Belfast City Hospitals, local GPs, Down Lisburn Trust and the Down Community Health committee to discuss the future provision of acute services currently provided in the Downe Hospital. A working group established as a result of that meeting met for the first time on 23 June. I am aware of how important hospital services are to local communities, and I want to ensure that decisions about the future of such services are based on the fullest possible information. In that context I intend to consider any recommendations made by the working group and to meet local interests.
I thank the Minister for her full reply, and I acknowledge what she said in her letter of 21 June, which is part of the answer that she has just given. I would like to respond on two issues. First, can she confirm that there is a need for a new hospital building in the Downe to replace the 250 year old building, and is she, as Minister, committed to the continuation of the process which is now nearing tender stage?
Secondly, on the clinical grouping referred to, which has just met, could she confirm that its terms of reference are not restricted to the withdrawal of acute services and their substitution by outreach as envisaged by a previous Administration? Will its considerations embrace the totality of acute services and how they could properly be provided in the Down and Mourne area through the new-build Downe hospital?
Ms de Brún:
As I have said, the working group has met to discuss the future provision of acute services currently provided in Downe Hospital. Those, therefore, are the terms of reference. They do not make any specific reference at this stage to where those services will be provided. However, I have not yet decided on the way forward on this matter. The provision of hospital services is a complex matter, and I want to look at all available options. Therefore, I want to hear the views of local people and of those who have an interest in this issue, as well as looking at the outcome and any recommendations coming from the working group.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Will the Minister stop the Eastern Health and Social Services Board's consultation that has been based on the decision of the British Prime Minister to remove acute services?
Ms de Brún:
The board's consultation seeks views on a range of services in hospitals throughout its area, including the Downe, and I am very aware of how important hospital services are to local communities. As I have said, I want to ensure that decisions are based on the fullest possible information. In that context, I am quite content for the consultation to continue, and I will be interested in the views put to the board. I also want to meet local interested parties to hear their views for myself.
In light of the Minister's last two responses, can she give an assurance that the maternity unit at the Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn is secure?
I leave it to the Minister to judge whether that is inside or outside that particular catchment area.
Ms de Brún:
I think that the response to that is the same as the other responses. I am very aware of local concerns about the future of smaller hospitals and the services available. The question of the provision of services is of the greatest priority to me. It is one that I do not wish to rush because it is a complex matter. I want to ensure that people have the opportunity to make their views known, and I want any decision that I take to be based on the fullest possible information.
Craigavon and South Tyrone Hospitals:
asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what arrangements have been made at Craigavon Hospital to deal with extra demands resulting from a discontinuation of acute services at South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon from 31 July 2000.
Ms de Brun:
Níl socrú déanta go fóill i dtaca le géarsheirbhísí leighis d'othair-istigh in Otharlann Dheisceart Thír Eoghain. Mhol Iontabhas Ard Mhacha agus Dún Geanainn nár chóir géarsheirbhísí leighis d'othair-istigh, géarsheirbhísí seanliach d'othair-istigh, máinliacht toghaí d'othair-istigh agus seirbhísí CSS d'othair-istigh bheith ar fáil san otharlann i ndiaidh 31 Iúil 2000.
Decisions have not been taken yet about the future of acute medical in-patient services at the South Tyrone hospital. The Armagh and Dungannon Trust has concluded that after 31 July 2000 the South Tyrone hospital will be unable to provide acute in-patient general medicine, an acute in-patient geriatric service, in-patient elective surgery and in-patient ear, nose and throat services. This is initially a matter for the Southern Health and Social Services Board to consider. 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 and, where this proves impossible, any changes must be temporary and the minimum necessary to ensure safety and quality. The board will consider the trust's views at its meeting tomorrow, and I expect to be advised of its decision as soon as possible to allow me to consider the way forward.
I regret that time is now up and that it is not possible to proceed with the supplementaries. We must move on to questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
'Peace II' Funds:
Rural and Agriculture Sectors
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what steps will be taken to secure funding allocations for the rural and agricultural sectors in the 'Peace II' funds.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): Proposals for Peace II, which have been lodged for negotiation with the European Commission, contain provisions for natural-resource rural tourism, reskilling, retraining and capacity building for disadvantaged farm families and cross-border co-operation which will benefit the rural and agricultural sectors.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Can the Minister give us an undertaking that he has had and will continue to have the widest possible discussions with groups, such as the Rural Development Council, the Ulster Farmers Union and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA), which represent agricultural and rural interests?
Rural interest groups have been consulted throughout the drawing up of the proposals. They are represented on the interim community support framework monitoring committee and on a working group which has been established and will be meeting this week to decide how best to take forward the work of the monitoring committee over the next key stage of the development of the operational programmes. I also make the point that there are matters and measures involved in Peace II which will involve other Ministers. I know for example that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development expects that a rural intermediary funding body will continue to form part of the delivery mechanism for the distribution of Peace II funds, and obviously that will work closely with the full range of rural and agricultural interests.
Bearing in mind that the European Investment Bank devotes two thirds of its lending to the less advantaged regions of the European Union, and that it has also recently broadened its remit, can the Minister tell the House what discussions, if any, he has had with the European Investment Bank to secure loan funding for Northern Ireland's rural economy?
The question goes somewhat outside the peace programme. I have had no discussions yet with the European Investment Bank on any sectoral interest.
The supplementary question was a little unclear. Those of us living in the rural community find the Rural Community Network and the Northern Ireland Rural Development Council programmes to be extremely beneficial. Can the Minister comment more fully on speculation that under the current proposals to distribute Peace II funds neither the Rural Community Network nor the Northern Ireland Rural Development Council will be allocated any funding? There is also a suggestion that there is no specific provision for the community based actions measure. Will the Minister comment?
Not unlike the Deputy First Minister this morning, I would point out that we have reached the community support framework stage of Peace II, which sets out the broad strategy and rationale on the funds. The next key stage examines the development of the operational programmes. Rural interests are fully represented on the interim monitoring committee for the community support framework and will also be represented on the monitoring committee that would be established for Peace II. In relation to delivery mechanisms, we are trying to make sure that form follows function. I can certainly reassure the Member, and indeed any others who are concerned, that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is clearly determined and fully expects that a specific rural intermediary funding body will continue to form part of the delivery mechanism for the administration of Peace II funds, a point which people were particularly concerned about. The Executive is making it clear that in relation to any measures that will fall to any of the Departments to administer, those Departments are going to have to show that they attach a premium to social inclusion, to cross-border activity and to applying measures to and through local delivery mechanisms also. That is something that will be monitored by the Executive as well as by all the other monitoring arrangements that exist.
Housing Executive Budget
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what discussions he has held with his ministerial counterpart in the Department of Social Development concerning the reduction in the budget of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and if he will make a statement.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will retain all receipts from the sale of Housing Executive houses as additional funding to address the urgent housing need, and if he will make a statement.
Prior to the suspension of devolution, I had one meeting with the Minister for Social Development, Nigel Dodds, to discuss the budgets for his Department, and that included the budget for the Housing Executive. Representations in relation to budgetary matters take many forms, and as well as expressing his concerns about the housing budget at our meeting, the Minister has used other means as well.
Turning to Mr Cobain's question, I stress that the Housing Executive will be able to retain almost £60 million of house sale receipts in the current year to offset its costs. As with other receipts, any extra will be at the disposal of the Executive Committee and this Assembly to be used to address emerging pressures which could, of course, include housing. This general principle on receipts enables planning for expenditure to be on a known basis, while maintaining flexibility to respond to changing priorities.
Is the Minister aware that the decision by his predecessor in terms of the budget allocation to the Housing Executive has resulted in the postponement and sometime abandonment of much needed rural redevelopment and rehabilitation programmes? Will he take this matter up with his ministerial Colleague for Social Development? There seems to be some confusion in that a letter that I have states that work on the refurbishment and replacement of rural cottages is largely completed, yet the same letter states
"nevertheless there remains a considerable amount of improvement work to be carried out in the rural community."
So there seems to be some dichotomy in that letter alone.
Will the Minister of Finance and Personnel address this issue either unilaterally or in conjunction with others? Rural community rehabilitation and redevelopment has lagged behind urban renewal and rehabilitation, and it needs that re-injection of finances to enable the current planned programmes to be implemented.
I certainly do not believe that I can take unilateral action in the form that was being suggested by Mr McGrady. If there are problems in ensuring that funding in respect of various programmes is going to areas for which it was intended, that should be taken up through the relevant agencies and, obviously, by the relevant departmental Minister. DFP's responsibility lies in the overall allocation to the various programmes of the Departments. The administration of those allocations then falls to those Departments and Ministers, subject to delegated authority from the Department of Finance and Personnel and subject to approval and various other standard requirements. A lot of cases have been made and reflected here in the course of recent debates on the supply resolution and some of the questions on the Estimates. The many and diverse pressures on the various aspects of the housing programme have certainly been well identified for my ears and, I am sure, for the Minister's ears as well.
Minister, we have been assured by you and other ministerial Colleagues that the TSN programmes are at the heart of all departmental spending programmes. Will the Minister explain how cutting the housing budget and ensuring that tens of thousands of the poorest people in the community continue to live in slums for the foreseeable future fits in with the TSN programmes?
I did not catch all of the question, but I take it that Mr Cobain was once again challenging what he regards to be any underfunding of the Housing Executive's programme. I have already made it clear that this year the Housing Executive will have gross resources of £528 million. Let us remember that the work of the Housing Executive is also now supplemented by work in the new-build area of the Housing Associations, and that also brings in private-sector money. Overall, £600 million is being spent on the housing programme this year.
We want to ensure that, as with all programmes, real need is met in the best, most efficient way possible. The Housing Executive will have to continue to work within its resources and the Housing Associations within theirs, including the additional money levered from the private sector, to address and reduce the sort of problems that Mr Cobain has identified.
Does the Minister agree that there is something unjust and unfair about the fact that the Housing Executive continues to have to pay loan charges on properties that have already been sold off under the house sales programme, and will he confirm that some of the money accrued from such sales is not brought back into the housing budget? If he agrees, can he ascertain the extent to which this happens?
Returning to the point that I made previously about the treatment of receipts, there is a suggestion, which has been a recurring theme in this House, that the Housing Executive should be allowed to retain all receipts generated by house sales. As with receipts in any Department or programme, any extra revenue has to be placed at the disposal of the Executive Committee and the Assembly. It is clear that not all programmes generate receipts and, therefore, not all programmes or services can benefit from windfall receipts. There are some extra receipts in housing this year, and where these extra receipts emerge, they are pooled for reallocation across various programmes in which there are pressures. Many people have identified that one of the programmes with pressures, and in which they want to see additional resources, is housing. Ministerial Colleagues and I will, at a future point, try to bear that in mind when such moneys are available for reallocation.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to provide an estimate of the loss of rates revenue for each of the 26 council areas as a result of inadequate monitoring arrangements, and if he will make a statement.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will take appropriate action to reinstate a rate collection office in Newry.
The Rate Collection Agency is responsible for the collection of rates as assessed in each of the 26 council areas. The agency is independently audited each year to test the adequacy of its policies and the system of internal control in support of its business objectives and on its collection performance against ministerial targets. The agency pursues all outstanding rates, which may include taking recovery action through the courts.
There are no plans to reinstate a Rate Collection Agency office in Newry.
Is the Minister aware that at a meeting of chief building control officers on 12 April, a representative of a leading and reputable firm of consultants brought forward a report that said that up to £26 million per annum could be lost through inadequate co-ordination and inaccurate information among the various Government agencies - that is Building Control, the Valuation and Lands Agency and the Rate Collection Agency. What is the Minister prepared to do to further investigate this allegation of serious public revenue haemorrhage?
I thank the Member. First, I am not aware of the basis for the figure of £26 million quoted. I certainly do not believe, whatever figure people may have been referring to specifically in relation to the question of loss of rate revenue, that it was £26 million. None of the information available to me concerning the Rate Collection Agency's performance, in recovery terms, suggests that there is any such haemorrhage or deficit in the recovery of the rates. I assume that someone has misinterpreted other references made at that particular meeting, which was discussing a project being brought forward under the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The aim is to develop a joined-up approach to land and property information services delivered by Government to citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland. As to where the figure of £26 million came from, certainly in terms of the Rate Collection Agency's performance and responsibility I do not know the basis for that figure.
I am disappointed at the Minister's response to the return of the Rate Collection Agency office to Newry and it is probably a request that will not go away. Does the Minister agree that our rural towns and villages would benefit from decentralisation? If he does agree, would he advise this Assembly of what measures he may introduce to relocate agencies and services under his control?
The supplementary question is turning a further corner. I appreciate Mr Bradley's disappointment at my answer in relation to the Newry office of the Rate Collection Agency. However, in terms not unrelated to my answer to Mr Carrick, the fact is that the agency's performance in rate recovery has continued to improve, even with the closure of some of the local offices. More and more people are using direct debit and local post office services for the payment of rates.
In relation to the relocation of other agencies in my Department, I would look to the overall question of the location and distribution of such offices in the context of the wider review of civil service locational accommodation policy, and that is the subject of a later question.
I endorse Mr Bradley's great disappointment in respect of the Minister's answer regarding Newry. Could I press the Minister to give active and urgent consideration to reinstate agencies under his control in the constituency of Newry and Armagh?
I thank the Member. I am sorry that he is disappointed about my answer in relation to the Newry office, but I should make it clear, as Minister with overall responsibility for the Rate Collection Agency, that the closure of the offices that took place over recent years has not actually been at the expense of the overall performance of the agency. It certainly has not even been at the expense of the performance of the agency in respect of those localities. The payment rate and recovery rate has remained high and has even improved. Let us remember that people are now availing of different payment systems than were previously available.
Again, in relation to the question of other agencies within my Department I would like to look at that question in the context of the wider review in terms of civil service accommodation and relocation policy.
Before I call on what will probably be the last supplementary question, I need to make a ruling in regard to supplementary questions that are effectively covering the same ground as substantive questions already put down. This would fall foul of the rule of anticipation. If a Member was to put down such a question as an oral question, it would simply not be accepted by the Business Office, because it would be in anticipation of a question that is already down. I have to make a ruling that Members are not at liberty to ask a supplementary question if it anticipates or foreshadows a substantive question which is down on the list for oral answer.
Mr C Murphy:
Would you rule that my question was also on decentralisation, and if that question is further down the list then I will defer to your judgement on it?
I have already addressed the question of a supplementary anticipating or reiterating the field, and frequently the wording, of a substantive question. In future, such a supplementary will not be in order. I trust that clarifies the matter.
Mr C Murphy:
I might be able to squeeze my question in. It is specifically to do with the Newry office and decentralisation in the southern region, not the general question of decentralisation. Is the Minister aware that the tendency in the southern region has been to centralise services in the Craigavon area, which is less accessible than Belfast for people from Newry, South Armagh and South Down? I hope this is something that will be borne in mind when we come to address the issue.
I am sure the Minister will take your remark into account. It is not in fact a question. I can understand when Members try to push out the boundaries of rulings to see exactly how far they extend, but I remind them that, when there is a substantive question, they should bring their supplementary in under that. It should be a question, not an observation, however enlightening it may be.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If the Minister had replied that the office was returning to Newry -
Order. I am afraid it is no excuse if the Minister's answer was not desired or appreciated by the Member.
Northern Ireland Block Grant
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether the block grant from the United Kingdom Government has decreased in real terms over the past 10 years.
Over the period from 1989-90 to 1998-99, expenditure on the Northern Ireland block, excluding social security payments, has increased by 2·2% in real terms. This is equivalent to real annual average growth of 0·2%. This figure also excludes expenditure on law, order and protective services.
Will the Minister confirm that the so-called subvention we receive from the United Kingdom budget has been reduced over the past 10 years, with economic growth taking place year on year in Northern Ireland leading to a reduction in money paid out in unemployment benefits and social security?
With regard to the last point, if the figure I gave earlier had included social security payments, the increase would have been not 2·2% in real terms but 15·8%. There have clearly been continuing increases in social security expenditure. The deeper question of the subvention has also been raised, among others, by members of the Finance and Personnel Committee, in particular Mr Leslie.
Not all the information is available to us on all the revenue generated and all the taxable income that flows from Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom Exchequer. However, many observers would have some agreement with the point the Member makes. Clearly, based on the fact that there has been economic growth and greater buoyancy in the economy here, one might assume this would also translate into higher tax yields. However, there are no definitive figures on that point at this stage, much to the dissatisfaction of members of the Finance and Personnel Committee.
Does the Minister agree, since there is always likely to be some stringency with respect to the total size and growth of the Northern Ireland block, that it is imperative for the Executive, as soon as possible, to start a review of administration in order to cut the costs of running the Government, taking in quangos, boards, agencies, and perhaps even the size, competencies and numbers of district councils, in order that money can be directed to highly productive and, indeed, social welfare ends as opposed to simply running Government?
We want to make public expenditure more efficient. We want to make sure that we are running effective public services. We want to make sure that as far as possible the money to fund public services goes into services for the people rather than into structures and systems. We want to make sure that as much public money as possible goes into real services rather than be absorbed by the Government.
These are not straightforward issues, and we must make sure that the systems and structures are adequate to support services and reflect the needs of services properly. Wiping away various structures and systems may not protect or promote the quality of those services. We have to consider this in a hard-headed and thoughtful way.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail what progress has been made towards the decentralisation of Government Departments outside the Greater Belfast area, and if he will make a statement.
I can confirm that it remains my intention to develop a civil service office accommodation strategy, which will incorporate a review of the current policy on job location. Following the restoration of devolved Government, I asked officials to bring forward proposals on how the review might be carried out. I will consult ministerial colleagues and the Finance and Personnel Committee on the way forward. Pending the outcome of the review, opportunities to disperse civil service functions will continue to be examined on a case-by-case basis, as particular needs and issues arise.
I am pleased to announce, that as a result of a recent decision to centralise staff superannuation functions currently carried out by the Department in the Belfast and north Down area, up to 20 jobs will be relocated to Derry over the next year or so.
I am sure the Minister got great pleasure from the last words of his announcement. It is regrettable that since we discussed this during our previous period of devolution, the Department does not seem to have done any work. The Minister has had to ask his civil servants once again to proceed with it.
May I remind him of the recent report about the dangers of congestion on the eastern side of this island, with the potential to have half the population living in the Belfast/Dublin corridor. In the Republic there seems to be a significant decentralisation of Government Departments. Will he indicate when he may produce a comprehensive report for Northern Ireland, preferably in line with his remarks about anticipation earlier, and without giving other Members an opportunity to detail the merits of their constituencies?
I thank the Member for not encouraging people to offer sites and premises. That is an issue we are bringing forward in the Department. I accept Mr Ford's interest in this particular matter, but it would be wrong to mischaracterise the Department as being reluctant in this regard. The Department of Finance and Personnel, while not a high profile Department, is very busy. We have been bringing forward a range of measures to both the House, and the Executive Committee. The policy on accommodation and relocation is one example. It is a policy currently being developed, and when the paper is ready, I will consult with ministerial colleagues and the Finance and Personnel Committee. We will try to do that as soon as possible.
In case anyone misinterprets my remarks about the 20 jobs that will be relocated to Derry, I would point out that these jobs will be incorporated into the Civil Service Pensions Branch, which is already in Waterside House in the city.
By extension of his answer to question No 4, will the Minister agree that the best way of ensuring job creation outside the Belfast area, and, indeed, outside the eastern corridor, is by a series of measures under the Programme of Government to stimulate the overall rate of economic growth and not by fiddling about with the relocation of Government Departments almost certainly with no saving of money?
The broader economic strategy is obviously one that I, as a Minister, have shared responsibility for with all my ministerial colleagues. Civil service accommodation and location is a matter for which I am specifically accountable as a Minister. It is entirely legitimate for Members to raise questions in that regard. A redistribution of civil service jobs can ease a variety of problems. It can contribute to easing the congestion that has already been identified, and clearly that is something that has been pursued with some success in other jurisdictions, often to great applause from the people who have more room to breathe when civil servants move elsewhere.
Decentralisation could contribute to the quality of life and in a variety of localities across Northern Ireland. It is consistent, for instance, with such policy papers as 'Shaping our Future' et cetera. Obviously, we want to take account of targeting social need and equality considerations there, but clearly we cannot pursue such a policy without a proper and responsible regard to cost. We must be realistic about that.
I welcome the Minister's comments on decentralisation. Given that the Department for Regional Development is trying to put together a regional development strategy, does the Minister accept that decentralisation, as a core theme, could greatly contribute to sustainable, balanced regional development right across Northern Ireland?
A balanced distribution of public sector employment, and in particular a balanced distribution of civil service jobs, across the Northern Ireland region could make a serious contribution to the quality of services provided throughout Northern Ireland - and not just to the places where those jobs would be located. We are in an age where the case that was made in the past for centralising such functions no longer exists. The Member is right to identify a variety of potential benefits. These are issues that I will be bringing forward, not just with an eye to the Department of Finance and Personnel's considerations, but also with a proper eye to the policies and commitments of other Departments and, indeed, of the Administration in its entirety.
I regret that we have come to the end of time for questions. I have transgressed beyond 4 o'clock because a substantial period, about seven minutes, was taken up with points of order. The Minister, however, does not escape at the end of Question Time, because he is now going to make a statement.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I should like to report to the Assembly on the meeting in sectoral form of the North/South Ministerial Council in Dublin on Friday 16 June 2000. Mr Foster and I attended. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Charlie McCreevy TD, Minister for Finance, who chaired the meeting. This report has been approved by Mr Foster and is also made on his behalf.
The council underlined the important contribution to peace, reconciliation, regional development and cross-border co-operation made by European Union programmes and looked forward to the significant new role of the special EU programmes body (SEUPB) in the negotiation, management, monitoring and delivery of the programmes. The council expressed the firm desire that the new political context and the role of the SEUPB should ensure a higher level of expenditure on co-operative actions co-funded by the European Union, especially Peace II. The council agreed that the establishment of the SEUPB served as a tangible, further reflection of the support and solidarity that has been shown by the European Union in seeking to advance reconciliation and peace and of its commitment to the new dispensation heralded by the Good Friday Agreement.
The council received a verbal progress report from Mr Philip Angus, interim chief executive of the SEUPB, on the work of the body. The body currently has 19 staff drawn from central government Departments, North and South. It has its headquarters in Belfast, an office in Monaghan, and a further office will be opened in Omagh.
The council endorsed proposals for taking forward the responsibilities of the body, which will be implemented under the direction of the interim chief executive. The council also endorsed the initial staffing structure for the body and approved the formal procedure for the appointment of a permanent chief executive to the body.
The council noted a position paper on the Peace II programme and agreed that officials of the SEUPB would contribute, in accordance with its mandate, as appropriate, to the forthcoming negotiations on Peace II with the European Commission. The council noted a common text on North/South co-operation, which will be included in the respective community support frameworks for Northern Ireland and Ireland. The council approved a guidance framework for the SEUPB, which had been prepared by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Finance. It also noted that further guidance on the role and functions of SEUPB and the Finance Departments was being prepared by the Finance Departments in consultation with the body.
The council agreed it would meet on a quarterly basis in this sectoral format and that the next meeting would take place in October in Northern Ireland.
The council agreed the text of a joint communiqué which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Minister refers to the Peace II programme. To what extent are the plans relating to Peace II soundly based on ex post evaluations of what happened previously under the Peace I programme?
We are trying to ensure that we take forward all the positive lessons of Peace I and that we drop any negative aspects. Obviously more evaluations are available in relation to some aspects than to others. Plans were being developed whilst there were still further evaluations to come in. The broad framework we have been taking forward at this stage has concentrated on the community support framework, which is a broad-band strategy and rational. We believe this takes forward positive aspects of Peace I whilst also trying to identify, and address, new opportunities afforded by the improved context we now have, especially the new political arrangements.
Does the Minister agree that in the light of the need for open, public and transparent accountability, and given the problem of additionality in the past, we need to be particularly vigilant as to how we administer the funding from Europe. Would he consider the establishment of an all-party sub-committee to oversee the administration of these funds, especially Peace II?
Mr ONeill rightly identifies the importance of transparency and due scrutiny with these funds, as with any funds managed in the public interest. Regarding monitoring, we already have the Interim Community Support Framework Monitoring Committee, and when we have the community support framework agreed, that will no longer be in shadow format. There will also be monitoring committees for the operational programmes under the peace programme and the transition programme. Those monitoring committees will involve a range of interests, including the social partners, local government, relative departments, etcetera.
The interim monitoring committee for the community support framework includes representatives of all parties in the Assembly. Mr ONeill may have touched on a useful idea when he said that the Assembly might want to consider setting up a monitoring Committee of its own, not least in relation to Peace II. This would enable the Assembly to underline the importance of the additionality requirements of the peace programme, as distinct from the other European moneys. It is a proposal that the Department of Finance and Personnel would not be averse to. We have touched on it in some exchanges with the Finance and Personnel Committee and I further discussed the possibilities with the chairman of that Committee. Clearly, it would be very important that anything set up by the Assembly did not in any way conflict with the role and responsibility of the Statutory Committee.
The Minister referred to the Peace II programme, but I would like to raise the matter of INTERREG III. At present there is a consultation process being carried out. Would he accept that one of the key issues for INTERREG III would be the development of integrated infrastructure in roads, other transport and energy to support economic growth? Also, bearing in mind where the Minister comes from, will he give his personal support to seeking EU funding for an extension of the natural gas pipeline to the north-west?
I thank the Member for his question. With regard to INTERREG III, we are required to submit forward programme proposals to Brussels by November 2000. Funding under that programme will not be available until next year. SEUPB has issued a consultation paper to some 800 organisations and individuals, and a consultation conference was held in Monaghan last week. Structures will be put in place to continue the consultation process as it develops and the particular characteristics, which Mr Neeson suggests should be evident in INTERREG III, would be welcome as an appropriate graduation in the nature and quality of the co-operation that the INTERREG programme should be developing and engendering. We are aware of particular interests from the various cross-border networks including the council groups.
With regard to EU monies for the natural gas pipeline, I would make the point that the transition programme, as it is currently drafted, would give a basis for using such EU funds to support energy projects both in the gas and electricity fields. For this to happen, the Executive Committee would have to decide that public expenditure would cover these projects. In relation to the natural gas project as indicated by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, we are awaiting the outcome of the proposals from the private sector before decisions can be made.
Will the Minister indicate if discussions took place about the mechanism to be employed in the analysis of need, and will he confirm that the Robson index will not be used in distributing the Peace II money as it is now nine years old, completely outdated and has no relevance to the current situation?
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
The discussions in relation to the future use or non-use of the Robson index were not a direct part of the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which is part of my Department, is trying to address the shortcomings of the Robson index and to see what alternatives there might be. Consultations are starting very shortly to see if we can agree a new basis for identifying and, in turn, targeting social need. That work is under way. I hope that the development of that work will inform decisions and effective performance in all the EU programmes and, indeed, in all public expenditure programmes.
I want to ask the Minister some questions about the identity of some of the money referred to in this programme. There is a tendency, particularly with EU money, for a lot of double counting to go on. We must be careful that we are identifying different pools of money. Equally, we need to be clear when we are talking about the same pool of money. Where EU money is concerned, the technique is rather like writing a history essay when you do not have much information: say what you are going to say, then say it, then say what you have said.
If I may, I will link the Minister's statement to the one made this morning by the Deputy First Minister, which dealt with the overarching programme for EU money. If I remember correctly, he said that the Peace II money would be worth an average of £75 million per annum for the next six years. I note that the cross-border sub-programme will have a minimum budget of 75 million euro, which I think is slightly less than £50 million at current exchange rates. Will the Minister confirm whether that money is part of the peace money mentioned this morning, or whether it is a further amount?
If it is part of the same money, does that mean that instead of being spent exclusively in Northern Ireland, which is the impression one would have gained this morning, in fact it may be the case that some of the money will be spent on the other side of the border? It seems to me that our money should be spent on our side of the border and their money should be spent on their side. I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification on that point.
I could not help noticing that the meeting was chaired by Mr McCreevy. I believe his nickname is "champagne Charlie". I wondered if he brought some champagne with him, before they changed around the exchange rates and issued the communiqué. Will the Minister also confirm that the chairmanship goes with the host, that is, that it will rotate according to the country in which the meeting is being held?
On the last point, chairing is the responsibility of the host Administration. That was why Mr McCreevy chaired the meeting on 16 June.
To clarify the question of the peace money and the cross-border priority, I refer to a point I made earlier. As well as having the distinct cross-border priority, which is there to ensure that at least that amount of money is made available for cross-border co-operation, and indeed wider east-west co-operation, we also set out to ensure that all Departments, when considering those aspects of the peace programme that fall to them, put a due premium on the need to ensure social inclusion and to use and support local delivery mechanisms and on cross-border co-operation itself. That is a cross-cutting theme as well as a single identifiable priority. In a sense, it is both. To use the jargon, it involves both a vertical and a horizontal approach. The cross-border money that I am talking about is clearly within the peace programme. All of the Northern Ireland moneys in the peace programme will be spent in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Minister's statement. In relation to the role of the SEUP what is the timetable for putting together operational programmes, and how does the Minister envisage the cross-border dimension working in reality on the ground? I noted his earlier reference to the role of cross-border local authorities. Many such authorities are interested in helping to facilitate the outworkings of this new body.
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister visited Brussels last week and, from the point of view of our Administration, the development of the community support framework is now complete. The Commission will publish the framework next month. The next phase will be the development of the operational programmes, and these have to be in place by October. SEUPB - the body with the role of managing and monitoring Peace II - clearly has a key role in that regard. We will be developing the operational programme framework in conjunction with the interim monitoring committee. There will also be a monitoring committee for each of the operational programmes - the peace programme and the transition programme.
Once the operational programmes are in place we have to produce programme complements which will bring forward the measures in specific and detailed terms. The deadline for this is no later than three months after the operational programmes have been agreed. We do not want to be in a situation where we run out of time at the end, so we have added on time at the beginning. We have been working on the programme complements in parallel with the work on the operational programmes. We want as much input as possible from all relevant interests and from all localities, be they at the border or elsewhere. We want to ensure that everybody, including local government, has sufficient input into the process. To implement all the various suggestions and ambitions would cost a lot more than the total sum available. Therefore we need to use the consultation exercises, not only to weed out particular ideas or projects, but also to see how a more positive synergy and complementarity can be developed between the many different ideas and proposals.
There may appear to be a bit of telepathy between Mr Byrne and myself - I am raising the same issue. In point nine of the joint communiqué the council noted that the sub-programme would provide opportunities for the funding of cross-border co-operative action across the full range of economic areas. Point four states that the new programmes have the capacity to have a real impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland and the border area. What role does the Minister see for the three cross-border bodies - the north-west body, the Irish Central Border Area Network and the eastern border counties body? I am a member of the north-west regional cross-border committee, and I am sure the Minister will agree that these bodies, via their secretariats, have built up a tremendous expertise. A vast local knowledge exists within each body which stems from the local council input. I want further clarification that these bodies will be respected in their input and that when the time comes they will be considered as very good vehicles for the implementation of the programme.
In the development of these programmes we want to apply positive lessons from other EU programmes such as Peace I. In response to a similar question from Éamonn ONeill a couple of weeks ago, I made it clear that in INTERREG III we would be looking at how local delivery mechanisms, particularly through representative partnership networks, could be used as a means of making sure that we had the best impact as far as that programme was concerned.