Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 27 June 2000 (continued)

4.30 pm

To some, culture is high culture: concerts and theatre, art galleries, poetry and, of course, eating out. Everything else is not culture; it is common: television, bingo, football, discos, lotteries and carrys-out - or carry-outs. [Laughter] I am being too grammatical for myself.

If that is your idea of culture, arts and leisure, you might be right in thinking that it is not nearly as important as other areas of Government, such as health, housing, education, environment and employment. But you would be wrong. As that cultural guru Jimmy Cricket says, "There's more." We are getting very sophisticated. Now we also have Cultural Heritage. It has capital letters because it is very important, particularly as a way of killing time, and other things, during the long, hot Ulster summer.

There is Cultural Heritage A, full of flags and emblems, arches and murals and banners, collarettes and hard hats, walking up and down, Ulster-Scots, balaclavas and black helmets. There is Cultural Heritage B, full of flags and emblems, murals and protests, diddly-dee music and dancing from the knees down, tír gan teanga, tír gan anam berets and black glasses.

I make the point very firmly that I have no wish to belittle the culture of any group. What I am trying, awkwardly, to do is to describe each group's culture from the perspective of the other. What I find totally abhorrent is Cultural Heritage C, which unites and divides at the same time. It is a culture of bigotry and sectarianism, violence and punishment, up to and including the ultimate sanction of death. This sanction can be directed against one's own side for not conforming, or against the other side just for being different and therefore a threat.

Mr Fee:

Actually, the Member and I conspired to allow me to contribute to a debate which I was not listed to take part in. His point is very important. He spoke about balaclavas, sashes and the like. I have a unique experience of arts and culture in Northern Ireland. At school, I had a wonderful teacher called Sean Hollywood who introduced me to the dramatic arts and the amateur drama circuit. He inspired an understanding of what amateur drama can do: the potency of drama as a means of communication, a manner of understanding the point of view of others, and a way of building empathy between people with differing cultural backgrounds and experiences, of building sympathy, and through that, unity between people from different backgrounds.

I am glad that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure is here, for I have a simple plea, and I take this opportunity to make it to him. The amateur drama circuit in Northern Ireland has been the single continuous arena in which people from a broad range of backgrounds and beliefs have met, exchanged views, communicated and come to some understandings. I welcome the current generation of Newpoint Players, who are here in the Gallery today. Within that group, and within all the groups on the Ulster drama circuit, there is a diverse range of religious, political and other views, yet they have found a forum in which they can exchange them and come to terms with them. It is the single element of arts and leisure in Northern Ireland that is wholly underfunded, with no structural supports whatsoever, and it is maintained by a massive voluntary effort.

I ask the Minister to take a personal interest in the amateur drama circuit and see what provision he can make, or what resources he can release, to help support the work of people in every section of the community in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hussey:

I would like to make a very brief point, and I see my councillor colleague from another life, Mr McMenamin, looking at me and wondering what I am going to say. Mr A Doherty talked about high culture and low culture. Is it not amazing that what some people would call low culture - whether it be John Hogan or Billy Connolly or whatever - seems to be financially viable, whereas what is called high culture often needs the public purse to assist it?

Mr A Doherty:

My answer to that is yes. I thank the first person for intervening - he managed to get more time than I am going to need. But it was in a good cause, and I am grateful for that.

The people of most countries take a genuine pride in their culture and heritage, no matter how diverse it is. It draws them together and brings joy and colour to their lives. That is not the case with us, and that is tragic. Now tell me that culture, arts and leisure is not important. Now tell me it is not time we caught ourselves on and stopped tub-thumping or hurling clichés or veiled insults at one another and demanding equality so long as we, in Orwellian terms, are more equal than others.

Do not tell me that all cultures and traditions are good and must be protected, no matter what the cost in human suffering, misery and terror. Cannibalism, slavery and ritual mutilation of young girls and boys, torturing, burning of witches and heretics are all examples of traditions and cultural heritage which, thankfully, have now gone in most places - sadly, not all. We could all make a long list of elements of our culture and traditions that should be changed or done away with. There is much that is good that could unite us and bring us joy, but there should be no place for anything divisive, dangerous or downright evil. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, his Department and the Assembly Committee have much to do, and I wish them well.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am grateful to Mr McMenamin for raising this subject. I believe the arts can be and should be a unifying medium. It can break down class, religious and cultural barriers, and that is what I hope we in the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will be directing our attention to over the years. The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into fishing. As I listen to members of the angling fraternity telling the inquiry about various aspects of fishing that I knew little or nothing about, I now appreciate that angling is, indeed, an art, and it should be encouraged.

The island of Ireland is rich in all aspects of arts and culture, and it is a fundamental part of our historical heritage as Celts. We can point to our ancient Celtic heritage, which is aptly illustrated and internationally famous, and it has been an inspiration to all. Countless artists, painters, writers, musicians and architects take inspiration from that ancient civilisation known as the Celts. We can dispute whether we are Celts or not, but I do not think any of us can claim we are purely this or purely that.

However, we can point to the heritage that has been left to us. We can point to the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. We can look at our Celtic stonework crosses throughout the graveyards. We can read the literature of our bards and poets. I am indebted to a writer, Thomas Cahill - I think he is American - who claims in a book that we Celts or Irish saved civilisation from the worst, or darkest, excesses of the Middle Ages, and that we did this through the medium of art.

Therefore I believe that art is humanity's creative expression and interpretation in a world made by God. Art in its most basic form is created by, and should be for, the common people, be it through the medium of song, storytelling, drama, language, the visual arts, sculpture, or painting and drawing. Indeed, in contemporary society, art is used on the walls of our various cities and towns to express what the people needed to say and, perhaps, were prohibited from saying.

Art should never be interpreted in its narrowest forms as a means of class division, or of division of any description. Equality should be the cornerstone in the thinking of all those charged with the responsibility of promoting arts as the means of addressing division and promoting diversity. Art, as we know it here, should reflect the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement. The Ulster-Scots tradition and the interplay and relationship between these two islands as reflected in that very rich culture of Scots Gaelic - song, Scots dancing, design of clothing - should all be respected and promoted.

We need to democratise arts. On all sides of the artistic process there needs to be access for the creators and also for the consumers at a community level. It should not be the prerogative of the affluent. We must recognise that art is a partnership that provides a forum for the expression of people's most fundamental needs. It can be utilised to address issues that define the social, political and cultural needs of the community. I am reminded of an Italian film director, Armand Gatti, who came here some 20 years ago to make a film which he thought would tell everyone in France and Italy what we were doing, what sort of a divided people we were. He called it 'The Writing on the Wall', and he showed the film in France, in Toulouse, with French subtitles. Then he showed the film in London, and people could not understand what we were saying, because we were speaking, I believe, a language that has been interwoven with various dialects, from Scots to the Irish language. And so, in London, Armand Gatti had to add English subtitles to a film in which young people from Derry and Belfast were speaking.

I am also reminded of my mother, who travelled quite extensively back and forth between Donegal and Scotland. She was a great fan of Robbie Burns. I always remember that she quoted or read extensively to us children from his poetry. The one that sticks in my mind is

"Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, timrous beastie".

I think that everyone knows that one. To me, all those things make up an interpretation of art. I am thinking of interpretation of the Féile an Phobail in West Belfast, which has been an artistic festival of tremendous international dimensions.

It has attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world in the past two years, proving that art can play a fundamental role in bringing people here to enjoy our rich and diverse culture, in promoting our economy and in being a tourist magnet.

4.45 pm

As a society we need to do a number of things to promote and widen the interpretation of what art is. I think that to a degree - some Members have already mentioned this - art has been defined for us. Now we need to start to define it for ourselves. Art should never be about rich millionaires who come over here and buy our paintings, literature, even our buildings and export them somewhere in the world because they have the means to do so.

We need to start encouraging art by encouraging it in our children. We need to look at the wholeness of our children. Children are naturally creative. They are naturally conduits for the expression of art. We must begin at that fundamental level.

The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee needs to promote and widen the interpretation of art, and we can do this by allowing art to influence us in all forms: art in schools; art in community schemes; art for the disabled; art for the ethnic and minority communities - we can learn a lot from the richness and the diversity of them all. We should look at art in our design and textile industry. I used to make Irish dance costumes when I was a member of a women's co-operative. We embroidered very elaborate designs, most of them copied from the book of Kells. We learned that the knots, crosses, twists and designs that we used had an artistic meaning, often symbolising something close to nature - for example, the knot symbolised harvest time.

There has to be a radical overhaul of the various agencies charged with responsibility for promoting the arts. Art must be made more accessible to those communities who have struggled for years with little or no financial support, or even recognition. We need, once again, to promote and encourage all of our cultural festivals, our feiseanna and our films. Look at the success of a film made in Derry on a very, very low budget, 'Dance Lexy Dance'. It is an amazing film which made it all the way to Los Angeles and the Academy awards.

This has been a valuable debate, and I hope that the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will address all the issues raised today. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Boyd:

I want specifically to highlight the excellent work of the Northern Ireland Film Commission and provide some details of its role and function. The purpose of the Northern Ireland Film Commission is to develop the film industry and film culture in Northern Ireland. It was established in 1997 and provides assistance and information for film and television producers from across the world who are considering filming in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has unique opportunities for the creative producer. Its position as a region of the United Kingdom offers producers access to UK sources of production finance, whether for feature films or for television drama. The role of the commission is to provide strategic leadership for the film sector by ensuring the best use of those public funds which are available for film development and production in Northern Ireland.

In addition, it is contracted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to provide advice on the distribution of National Lottery funds to film projects - currently around £700,000 per year. Benefits of the Northern Ireland Film Council's work include medium-and long-term job creation, inward investment and tourism. It promotes Northern Ireland as a tourist destination, stimulates private-sector investment and builds confidence in Northern Ireland through new images across screens throughout the world.

The Northern Ireland Film Commission promotes an awareness of Northern Ireland locations, crews and facilities to producers nationally and internationally, and promotes films produced in Northern Ireland. It also supports the development and production of films in Northern Ireland and encourages private-sector investment in the industry. It offers development loans to producers intending to make feature films or television dramas in the region, and the fund offers producers loans towards the costs of developing a project.

The Northern Ireland Film Commission provides a comprehensive information service in print and digitally on all aspects of film in Northern Ireland and Europe.

It is recognised as the industry training body for Northern Ireland, and, as such, it ensures that the training needs of the industry in Northern Ireland are met and that producers engage local trainees when appropriate. Specialist short courses, training grants for freelance technicians, industry-recognised qualifications and support for trainees on productions are all part of the commission's commitment to building on the existing creative and technical skills and talent base of the industry in Northern Ireland.

The commission's training programme is supported by Skill Set, the UK national training organisation for broadcast, film and video, the Training and Employment Agency, and Ulster Television. In 1997, together with Ulster Television, in recognition of the success of its joint training programme, the commission received a regional training award and a national training award.

The commission also works in conjunction with BBC Northern Ireland, British Screen, Ulster Television, Channel 4, Belfast City Council, Londonderry City Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland on a range of schemes intended to develop the creative, technical and business skills essential to the growth of the industry in Northern Ireland. The film commission manages the premiere scheme, funded in partnership with Ulster Television, Belfast City Council and British Screen. Premiere offers an opportunity for Northern Ireland's new film-making talent to make five short fiction films each year.

Northern Ireland has developed a reputation for innovative and imaginative approaches to cinema exhibition and media education. The commission promotes the development of cultural cinema and encourages the study of the moving image and convergent technologies here.

Northern Ireland is the home of the Cinemagic International Film Festival for Young People. This is a high-quality mix of entertainment and education for young people between the ages of six and 18.

Belfast is the home of one of the UK's longest established art-house cinemas: the Queen's Film Theatre. Northern Ireland continues to produce many fine actors and actresses, and long may that continue. I commend the work of the Northern Ireland Film Commission.

Finally, may I say a few words about amateur dramatics. This has been thriving in Northern Ireland, and, in fact, my own family has been involved in amateur dramatics. I thought it was particularly sad when the Arts Theatre closed its doors last year. We must ensure, as an Assembly, that no other theatres close due to a lack of funding.

Mr Davis:

I will be very brief. I am very pleased at the way that this debate has taken place and at the number of speakers that have taken part. I am delighted to see the Minister here. I believe that as a result of the establishment of this new Department under a local Minister, the arts, leisure and sport will be very dominant in the years that lie ahead.

It is a well-known fact that Belfast suffered for nearly two centuries from having the image, if not the explicit reputation, of being the centre of obscurity in western Europe, and not without just cause, in relation to the arts. However, that has all changed. We are currently well served, perhaps better served, for poets, writers, painters, playwrights and musicians than any other area of a similar size in the world of art. Belfast City Council deserves credit for bringing arts to the fore, albeit in response to pressure from various areas and groups.

Those interested in art in other areas of the Province have now organised considerable lobbies to pressurise elected representatives for more funds for promotion of the arts. We all know that there are plenty of projects throughout the Province crying out for more funding and financial support.

We could take a lead from the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, which have been doing very well in recent years. These cities spend not only to promote the arts by raising the general level of appreciation but, more importantly, by creating new jobs and new industry in what is now established as the growth area of the national economy.

In conclusion, I do not believe that we can afford to miss the opportunity that now exists, and with the new Minister installed in the new Department, we can get on with promoting the arts.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):

This has been a wide-ranging debate and one that has stimulated a number of people to speak. I am very grateful for the input from all parties around the Chamber.

The debate could perhaps have begun with what we mean by "culture" and what we mean by "arts" - "leisure" is well defined as "sporting activities" - since culture and arts are sometimes confused. The widest definition of culture is the values and rules that underpin society.

The motion is about arts in Northern Ireland, and I believe that that relates primarily to the performing arts, creative arts and community arts. Those are broken down into other facets: painting, sculpture, film, architecture, literature, dance, drama, music, poetry, literature, and so on. I will not go through the complete list.

The timing of this debate could not be more appropriate. Ours is a new Department and we have begun to create a strategy for the Department and, within the arts section of the Department, a strategy for arts that we call "Future Search", as previously mentioned. The main deliverer of financial support for arts in Northern Ireland is the Arts Council. A review of the Arts Council, which is now in the public domain, has just been published by Prof Everitt. It is called the 'Opening up the arts - a strategy review for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland'. It is important that we look at those two pieces of work, which have yet to come to fruition because the final strategy has still to be produced. However, I expect that to happen sooner rather than later.

We recognise the importance of the arts, and we recognise the unfulfilled potential and the need to develop them. Mr Arthur Doherty referred to arts in terms to do with the quality of life, and I believe very strongly in that. This is an area that will enhance, reinforce and sustain the quality of life for our people by helping to build a better future for Northern Ireland through arts and creativity. It will also act as a catalyst for personal, social and economic development.

Someone spoke about value for money, and the arts give value for money. In terms of where art stands, the Myerscough Report - which came out in 1996 using data from 1993-94 - demonstrated that six years ago the arts sector had a turnover of £150 million and supported up to 9,000 jobs. When one considers that that was six years ago, and thinks of all that has happened since then, one can see the economic potential that arts and culture have.

The arts can also be a catalyst for personal and social development that gives confidence to young people through participation, and they can express an image both within and outside Northern Ireland that can change perceptions about the Province. They are important among a whole range of Government activities and can help to attract inward investment and tourism.

It is the key element of the Northern Ireland economy and that is why it is so exciting. A number of points have been raised, and many of those have been earmarked for future research.

5.00 pm

Mr McElduff raised the issue of arts in education, and that is one top-of-the-list key aim, in terms of future research. Mr McElduff played an important role by participating in the 'Creativity in Education' workshop. That workshop looked at how we could give our children the opportunity to realise and develop their creative potential - embedding creativity in the educational process. Prof Ken Robinson, the United Kingdom's leading authority on promoting creativity in education, will be helping us to develop action in this area.

Mr McCarthy referred to the creative industries. Again, we have enormous potential and talent in this area. Coincidentally, it may interest Mr McCarthy to know that, during the first period of devolution, the very first activity I undertook as Minister was to go to a Cinemagic function, and I was very impressed by the director, Miss Shona McCarthy. I did not realise that she was his niece, and I do not believe she volunteered the information. Even now that I know this, I can assure him it will not be a disadvantage to her. We have an innate talent among our young people in our creative industry, and that is something which we are looking to tap into. There are new technologies coming on board.

Mr McMenamin spoke about a cultural task force. We would not rule that out, and it is certainly in the melting pot. It is important to reflect that we have already a creative industries task group looking at film, Cinemagic and how we get involved in the new converging technologies, such as software and the Internet.

We also have the creative industries task force, which is a United Kingdom wide vehicle, and we are interacting with colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales. Again, that is another mechanism for delivering ideas, strategies and policies. The idea of a cultural task force can go into the melting pot. I am not sure how to respond in so far as producing yet another grouping to go with that.

Support for individual artists was mentioned, and again this is an important area. Over 1,000 people are employed in arts and crafts in the Province. That is part of the job creation and economic benefits we are deriving from an innate creativity and imagination in our population.

The issue of universal accessibility was raised by Mr McMenamin. He may be aware that we launched the Adapt programme recently. That aims to improve accessibility to the arts for those who suffer disability, by effectively auditing all arts and culture venues - whether they be museums, theatres, art galleries or heritage centres. There are approximately 300 venues for which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is responsible. That is another area which we are trying to move forward on. Once we complete the audit we are determined to take the next step which will be the implementation stage.

I have referred to the review of the role of the Arts Council, and that will be the main mechanism for delivery. A number of areas have come forward under that review. The Chairman of the Arts Council referred to the review as 'bracing', and it was certainly not a review that simply looked at what has gone before and endorsed it. It made a number of suggestions on various areas, including transparency, the involvement of district councils, resources, extending participation, and, in particular, the review of the community arts sector, as already mentioned. That is important when we talk about community arts and amateur drama, and the Everitt Report points out that some 20,000 people in Northern Ireland are involved in such activities. We looked at ways in which the Arts Council of Northern Ireland can support that area.

Resources of course are extremely limited. The Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, Mr ONeill, referred to £65 million, but this is a global figure and includes funding for libraries, which take up roughly a third of the budget, and sport, for which we allow roughly £2·5 million in Northern Ireland. Were it not for the National Lottery top-ups, we could not survive. We also have other areas such as Ordnance Survey, the Public Record Office and museums, all of which are funded through my Department. It boils down to the fact that funding for the arts in Northern Ireland stands at a grand total of £7 million. We add on to that National Lottery top-ups, which is why we can make progress.

If we were comparable with Scotland, we should look for an increase of around 40%. If we had the Great Britain average, we would receive a 16% increase. What we get through National Lottery funding is based on our percentage of the population, irrespective of need. It is recognised that when it comes to meeting our needs in Northern Ireland we are between 15% and 20% behind the rest of the UK, not least because we have suffered from 30 years of violence, and not least because we have one of the youngest populations, if not the youngest, in Europe. Our needs are greater, and our funding for the arts has been abysmal.

Mr Weir referred to the fact that all sections in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure are "Cinderella" sections. Libraries come under our remit because they used to be part of the Department of Education. Every time there was a financial constraint on education, the Department cut not the schools, or the youth service - or at least not to the same extent - but the libraries.

The same thing affected sports, and Members can see that £2·5 million for all sports in Northern Ireland is indicative of the sort of challenge we face. The sum of £7 million is abysmal funding. One of the ways forward is to see what is happening in other countries. We need only look south of the border to see what is happening in the Irish Republic and the money that is spent there on arts and culture. People there recognise the connection between economic development and cultural tourism. They recognise that they can provide potential employers with a workforce that is creative and imaginative by getting into the cultural and artistic side of society and, in particular, by bringing on young people.

It may be that our generation has lived too long to advance that theory now, but our young people have innate talent, and we have an opportunity to give them training and support to reinforce those natural talents so they can repay our society handsomely. We need only look around the world - take, for instance, the way in which creative industries have come on in places like Glasgow - to see the huge potential for economic development and job and wealth creation. If we look simply for value for money, we could not spend our money in any better way than this. It also channels the talents, energy, creativity and imagination of our young people down pathways such as the arts, cultural activity and sport, taking them away from other, more negative pursuits.

I have tried to cover as many of the points as I can. I know that I have not covered them all. I am grateful that so many points have been raised, and I shall do my best to address those on Monday when I will be here to take Ministers' questions, and when I am next with the Committee. Culture, Arts and Leisure is a very exciting Department. I believe that I have the best job in the Executive, and I think other members of the Executive recognise that. The variety is here, the potential is here, and there is the ability to improve - to use Mr Doherty's phrase, which I am very attached to - the quality of life of our people.

Private Finance Initiative Scheme (Antrim)


Mr Ford:

I have a very long saga to recount of the history of Antrim town centre. I hope it will be of interest not just to those of us who represent South Antrim. It certainly has implications right across Northern Ireland. I had hoped that my council colleagues, Cllr McClelland and Cllr Clyde, would have been in a position to contribute to this debate today, but perhaps you will keep me right from the Chair if necessary, Mr Deputy Speaker. The saga of this particular PFI Scheme involves two statutory agencies - the Transport Holding Company and the North Eastern Education and Library Board. It also involves what are now three different Departments of Government - Culture, Arts and Leisure, Regional Development and Finance and Personnel - and I am desperately hoping that at least one of them will manage to provide a Minister to respond to this debate in the near future. It is a rather complex issue which requires their attention.

As far back as 1984, when the Antrim area plan was developed, a site in the centre of the town was already identified for the development of a library and a bus station. It sits at the junction of Church Street and Railway Street in the very centre of the town. Part of it is now owned by the Transport Holding Company and part by the North Eastern Education and Library Board. It is an area of about an acre and occupies a prime town centre site. It is situated in the middle of the main street, with the high wall of the parish church on the other side. The fact that it lies empty restricts possible developments on either side, and it splits the town centre in two. It is having a hugely detrimental effect on the development of the town centre. That was the plan in 1984, but it was not until the autumn of 1990 that Ulsterbus announced plans to develop the site. Planning permission was granted in 1992 and an investment appraisal undertaken, but the black hole sat there.

Mr Boyd:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not want to stop the debate, but do we have a quorum?

Members counted, and a quorum being present -

Mr Ford:

I am sure that no Member for South Antrim would wish to stop this debate.

In 1993 a series of negotiations took place about land swaps and about various plans for the site. Ulsterbus was supposed to be taking the lead in a joint scheme with the North Eastern Education and Library Board. I remember shortly after my election to Antrim Council in 1993 that it was already a topic for discussion in the technical services committee. There was a concern about the state of the site and the detrimental effect it was having on the town centre. There were further talks in 1994, and I believe that planning permission was granted for a scheme at that stage. In 1995 there was another investment appraisal, and there was to be another delay.

It was clear at that stage that the major problem was the Conservative Government's economic policy. They refused to fund the necessary public infrastructure. I remember, as I am sure you do, Mr Deputy Speaker, a meeting with Mr Moss, who was then briefly the Minister for the Environment. He came to Antrim Council in late 1995 and was questioned about what was happening on the Ulsterbus site, as we now refer to it. He said he would review the matter again. In 1996 a report arrived from the Minister. Now this was at the height of the Tory Party's privatisation efforts and its enthusiasm for PFI so, according to Mr Moss, the way was now open to proceed under PFI. It could not proceed any other way.

5.15 pm

In the Chamber today we have heard some support for the concept of PFI and PPP. Four and a half years on, I have considerable doubts about their value since there has been no real progress, at least as far as the public is concerned. Of course, there has been much happening in the background.

The PFI procedure was supposed to have been implemented in early 1996 but it was after the change in Government, and long after the departure of Mr Moss, that a briefing meeting was held in January 1998. In March 1998 three parties were invited to negotiate. Bids were submitted in July 1998, although only from two parties, and they made their best and final offers in December 1998 - only three years after the Minister announced that we would be proceeding through PFI as the best and speediest way of implementing this scheme for the good of the people of Antrim.

By the spring of 1999 it was clear that all was not well. There were stories that the PFI would be terminated on grounds of cost. In May 1999 I was approached by an agent for one consortium and informed that it believed that PFI was not being properly implemented in this respect. I was told, and I have no reason to doubt it, that there was a unilateral demand for reduction in the price of the scheme. That was in contravention of the scheme drawn up by the Government as to how PFI should be implemented. I was shown a copy of the guidelines. The penultimate saga is described as "final negotiation over the proposals". It has also been described, perhaps more accurately, as "a bit of a haggle over the details of the scheme". Yet it appeared, and my understanding is, that this was driven by the Department of Finance and Personnel. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response. The haggling over the details was ignored, and there was simply to be a unilateral decision to require a price reduction, or nothing would happen.

I contacted Paul Murphy and Lord Dubs, the Ministers then responsible for the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Environment. I also obtained the support of Antrim Council in June 1999. That particular bidder met the council in the summer of 1999 and showed models and plans for what the scheme might have entailed. By September Lord Dubs advised the council that a meeting was being arranged with both bidders. However, it took another letter, and it was in October 1999, following a further intervention by Lord Dubs, before the two bidders were invited to submit their revised bids. Further bids were then submitted in November 1999 - we are now nearing 4 years from the time that the PFI scheme was introduced as a speedy way of resolving the problem. By February this year, the company that had first contacted me told me that it was now being recommended as the preferred bidder.

However, there was a further wrangle about incurring costs in advance of final approval. It appeared that the company was being asked to undertake further work before it was given the full approval, and it would be at certain financial risk in so doing. Given the wrangles that had gone on over many years and the difficulties it had, I find it difficult to suggest that the company should have been anything other than cautious in its approach in dealing with that aspect. I understand that in February this year, and for four months since, the company has been told that news is expected soon, every time it has asked. Soon means many things. Those of us who have been through the entire negotiations that led up to Good Friday in 1998 should, perhaps, be cautious of criticising others. Soon for something that was supposed to have been finalised at least a year ago is not very soon.

I hope I have managed to give a reasonably accurate picture of this particular project and all the traumas it has been through, although I have shorn off an awful lot of detail. I felt it was necessary to do it for two main reasons. First, I wanted to highlight the problems that have been caused to Antrim and its people by the delay in this scheme. A crucial town centre scheme has moved nowhere for five years, despite constant allegations that this is the speediest way of dealing with it. Secondly, it raises many and detailed questions about the PFI process. I am glad that the Minister of Finance is now here to respond to my concerns, and no doubt the Minister for Regional Development will be in a position to wink across the Chamber at him as well.

I have some philosophical concerns with PFI. I have made this clear to those with whom I have been talking, who are engaged in the PFI process. There are major problems in some schemes across the water. In hospitals and schools, for example, the management of a facility appears at times to come extraordinarily close to issues of clinical judgement or professional competence of teaching staff.

There are major problems in the implementation of PFI schemes in that respect. There is also the issue that at times, despite the cost of Government borrowing's being lower than that in the private sector, PFI schemes have added to the cost rather than decreased it. This should have been the ideal scheme for PFI. It was a simple scheme to manage and build a library, a small bus facility, some shops and some residential accommodation; there were no major complications of professional competence, no major difficulties in terms of who was responsible for which aspects of the work. It was easy to divide between the various agencies and the private-sector bidder.

In this case the private sector produced better plans than those that were originally produced by the Transport Holding Company and the North Eastern Education and Library Board. There is no doubt that for a commercial town-centre site, the commercial impetus of a private-sector bidder has added additional shopping facilities and accommodation and has produced a better plan. However, a better plan is no use to the people of Antrim if something does not appear on the ground. Even with these better plans, this saga has been going on for over four years, with no sign of any movement. The Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions in England, or Great Britain, or wherever its precise remit covers, has produced a report suggesting that PFI is not the appropriate way to proceed for schemes of less than £10 million.

It seems to be parallel with what some of us would call compulsory tendering in councils. Because PFI is not the right way to proceed, there is this huge issue of small bodies or small schemes being subject to massive additional costs and over-administration. That appears to be borne out in every case by this scheme. PFI is being forced upon us by the initial policy decisions of the Conservative party, which have been implemented without change by the new Labour Government, and that has been detrimental to us all.

As a town, Antrim currently has major development opportunities. It recently submitted an application for out-of-town retailing which has been rejected but which gives the town centre a major opportunity to develop. There are possibilities of new housing, which you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, remember from our rows with the planners on the issue of the redundant Massereene Hospital site's being used for commercial development sitting, as it does, in a town- centre location. All these things are going ahead, and yet the scheme, which is supposed to have been in the public sector for almost 16 years as a plan to move on, is now lost in the ether, and nothing is happening. We talked about public transport earlier, and here is a scheme that aims to provide the facilities to bring quality public transport into the town centre for the benefit of those who are taking their custom to the shops there, yet nothing has been done about it. This gap is likely to continue, with no sign of movement. Most other things are going ahead, while we sit with an empty site, blocking the development from one end of the main street to the other and also blocking the view of any possible development up Railway Street towards the hospital site.

In conclusion, I hope that at the end of this debate the Minister will be able to tell us two things; first, can he explain to the people of Antrim what is happening to the Ulsterbus site, and how we will get the public transport and library facility? Unfortunately the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has left, so he cannot hear my praise for the Library Service about which, I am sure, he would have been pleased. Secondly, I would like the Minister to tell us how his Department is going to deal with such a dilemma in the future. This saga illustrates the past failures of PFI under the Department of Finance and Personnel to produce any real benefits for the people of Antrim and the people of Northern Ireland, even in a scheme as simple as this.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I can understand the genuine frustration that the people of Antrim are currently suffering as a result of the inactivity of those who have the responsibility of ensuring that this building is erected in Antrim. The scheme is an imaginative one, the plans are excellent, and the people of Antrim would be well served if it were fully built and operational. The problem lies in getting it from the initial planning stage to full planning stage and then actually building it. I understand the Members for the area raising the issue in the Chamber, and I would like to apologise for my Colleague Mr Clyde who is at the funeral of a close friend and is unable to join us in the debate. For a long time elected representatives in Antrim, including my colleagues, Cllrs Clyde, Dunlop and McClay and others, have fought valiantly to make representations about this delayed scheme. It has a long history, but we cannot go back, and, we cannot change that. I trust that we can give an impetus to the scheme to ensure that it moves on.

Six years ago the North Eastern Education and Library Board entered into deep and genuine discussions about pooling its land with the land which was under the control of the Transport Holding Company. They decided together on an imaginative scheme which would permit the Transport Holding Company to take full responsibility for building the property. It was agreed that the Education and Library Board would repay a sum of between £50,000 and £60,000 each year for five years until its part of the scheme was paid off. That was not only an imaginative scheme; it was the proper initiative to take and the best way forward. The two schemes were coming together with the pooling of land and resources, and in five years the board should have owned the library. They felt that it was the best way in which to handle public funds, and I certainly agreed with their approach.

However, the relevant Departments said that the scheme could not proceed if the board accepted rent under the PFI directive, a directive that Government policy dictated. Even though the board had spent a considerable amount of finance on legal and consultative fees, and the PFI procedure would delay the project for a considerable time, they were told by the Department that it had to be done in this way. The board and the Holding Company went through all the procedures, involving an outline business plan, legal advisers, consultants and advertising, and then they were told to enter into negotiations with bidders, making a full business case.

The offers finally came in but were unacceptable on two counts. First, the project was now unaffordable and, secondly, the bid fell outside the public-sector comparators. The board and the Transport Holding Company asked if it was possible to go through the normal procurement route, but they were told that they must re-open negotiations with the private developers. So, once again, it went back into the melting pot of negotiations.

An amended copy of the final business case was eventually presented, and a bid was both acceptable and affordable to those who were involved in the negotiations. The board and the Transport Holding Company await the final approval before matters can proceed.

However, that that is not the end of the story. It will take time to reach the final planning stage and then it will take another year for the actual building. The people of Antrim could be two years away from getting their bus station and library and the shops that are to be included in the development. The development itself is excellent, and we should do everything in our power to encourage it. It will certainly bring quality, public transport, and quality shops into the centre of Antrim. It will help to regenerate the town and ensure it is kept very much alive and busy by bringing people right into its very heart.

That is one of the attractive things. It is bringing the people, using the public transport we talked about this morning, into the very heart of the town. That is what we want to see, to encourage the development and expansion of Antrim, with its heart being very much alive and a vibrant economic entity.

5.30 pm

The question remains: why the delay? I am led to believe that the Ministers concerned have the final papers on their desks now. I ask them to look very quickly at those papers. The Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of Finance and Personnel are sitting here now. I trust that they will both ensure that the papers on their desks are approved. There is anxiety among those involved that something actually be done. It should be done.

This scheme probably falls outside the criteria for PFI. I am told that the scheme is too small, at just over £1 million, for PFI investors to find it attractive. There were no groups of people jumping up and down to take on this particular scheme. Even in the education sector, schools are being lumped together to try and constitute schemes that are appropriate for PFI. The route that has been taken has created an unnecessary delay. I ask the Ministers and Departments concerned to ensure that there is no further delay. They should get it off their desks, allow this money to be spent in the centre of Antrim and ensure that the people of Antrim are well served with an up-to-date library and an up-to-date, quality public transport system. I support Mr Ford, and I trust success will be forthcoming through continued representations.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I thank both Members for their contributions. I apologise to Mr Ford for my not being in the Chamber for his opening remarks. They were available to me through the technology that we have on the premises, so all I missed was whatever was said while I was coming down the stairs.

Mr Ford:

That was the important bit.

Mr Durkan:

Lucky I missed it then. I will write to the Member when I read it in Hansard. A variety of points were made and many questions were raised about the whole issue of PFI and PPP, and there were also particular points relating to this specific project. I will deal with the general points first.

Public/private partnerships allow the expertise and methods of the private sector to be deployed in the public sector. That has the potential to bring greater efficiency, along with a focus on achieving long term value for money over the duration of a project, which can be 20 years or more. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a form of public/private partnership where the private sector is involved as a provider of capital assets as well as services. PFI projects frequently involve construction or renovation of buildings, as is the case with the proposed bus station, library and retail units in Antrim.

One of my most important roles as Minister of Finance and Personnel is to ensure that we obtain the maximum benefit and value for money from the resources available. This calls for a rigorous, realistic approach to questions of how public services can best be delivered. The need for this is re-inforced by the concerns that are continually being raised by Members over the level of resources available for particular services. When taken together, these concerns cover just about every service. This point was brought home, certainly to me, during the recent debate on the 2000/2001 Main Estimates and was emphasised again today during the debate on public transport.

Against this background we need to explore, and be ready to exploit fully, any method of delivering services that offers potential for improvement over the more traditional ways of procuring new assets in the public sector. I hardly need to remind Members that these traditional methods are not always fault-free, with cost overruns and delays in construction occurring perhaps too often. With a PFI project it is likely that such risks will be wholly or substantially transferred to the private sector, which should be better able to manage them.

There are great challenges confronting us with the improvements that we wish to see in education, health, transport, housing and many other public services. We have also inherited a backlog of maintenance work. In facing these challenges we cannot afford to ignore what the private sector has to offer by way of potentially better solutions and fresh thinking. To do so would be to do a disservice to the people. Indeed, we would find ourselves as a minority of one because other countries and territories throughout Europe and the world have increasingly looked to the private sector for help with similar problems. I am sure that this is not a distinction that we would want to bring on ourselves.

Northern Ireland has so far had a reasonably good record of successful PFI projects, two of which have this month won an award or been highly commended nationally. So far, deals worth some £53 million in estimated capital value have been signed across a wide range of services including information technology, water and sewerage, education and health. A further £560 million worth of deals are at various stages of completion on public transport, education and health, and there may be potential for much more such funding.

Both Dr McCrea and Mr Ford suggested that schemes under £10 million were not suitable for PFI. The test for PFI schemes is value for money. The size of the scheme is one factor, but it is not the only consideration. Many smaller successful schemes have been implemented here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The value of the scheme that was referred to, contrary to some of the figures that were suggested, is really around £3 million. However, public/private partnerships and PFI are not panaceas. There are limitations as well as opportunities. We need to identify the potential opportunities in order to decide which solution will work best in particular circumstances. The key test, as I have said, is value for money. My Department works very closely with other Departments in helping to analyse business proposals.

The deals under public/private partnerships and PFI are generally more complex than traditional methods of procurement, and therefore they do take more time. This is only to be expected given the length of time for which these deals have to run, and the number of services which may be involved. Both public and private sectors have been on a learning curve. I hope that this is now behind us and that these lessons will help us. We should now be in a better position to identify suitable new projects and to speed up the processes in the future. Departments have developed their own expertise, and they also have available to them a competitive field of experienced private-sector consultants to help take projects forward.

For more innovative and complex projects, Departments will also be able to call upon the services of the newly established Partnerships UK. This organisation has taken over from the Treasury taskforce and has the sole mission of helping the public sector with PPP and PFI deals. In addition, I will be looking to see if there are any ways in which my Department can be of further help in supporting PPP and PFI projects.

In relation to questions raised specifically about the Antrim project, I can well understand the frustration felt by Mr Ford and expressed by the Mr McCrea at the length of time that it has taken to reach a conclusion on the Antrim bus station and library project. As I said at the outset, the prime focus of my Department throughout the process has been, and will remain, on obtaining value for money. That is the Department's job.

Contrary to some of the impressions given, the Department of Finance and Personnel has not been the source of the ongoing lengthy delay throughout the life of this project. The Department of Finance has had to respond to the papers that it received and relay its consideration back to the relevant Department. The relevant Department has, in turn, had its work to do in relation to the PFI procedures. It would have had to do further work anyway for economic appraisal purposes had it been going down the traditional procurement route. People should be careful not to misrepresent the Department of Finance and Personnel's contribution to this exercise. I am prepared to sit down with the Member and take him through my Department's calendar of involvement. It will be clear that the Department of Finance and Personnel did not hold up progress on the project. It has achieved reasonably quick turnarounds in its responses to, and considerations of, this particular project.

Where the search for value for money indicates that a PPP or PFI solution will give better value for money than traditional procurement, then my Department will quite rightly seek to ensure that a PPP or PFI solution is pursued. As the Antrim case has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that the PFI option is likely to provide the better value that we are seeking if limited funds are to be used to best advantage. I understand that a revised business case, incorporating all the necessary information, is now being finalised by the Department for Regional Development. My Department expects to receive this in the next few days, and I hope that it may be possible to make an announcement soon.

The sitting was suspended at 5.43 pm.


On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) -

Fire Service: Award


6.00 pm

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that a statement is to be made on the Fire Service. I call the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

A LeasCheann Comhairle. Sula ndéanaim an ráiteas ba mhaith liom an deis seo a ghlacadh le leithscéal a thabhairt do na Teachtaí cionnas gurbh éigean leagan úr Gaeilge den ráiteas a sholáthar i mbeagán ama. Bhí gá leis seo le rudaí a bhí mí-chruinn sa bhunleagan a cheartú.

Before making my statement I would like to apologise to Members for the fact that the Irish version had to be replaced at short notice. This was necessary to correct inaccuracies.

Le do chead, a LeasCheann Comhairle, déanfaidh mé an ráiteas anois.

Is mian liom faisnéis a thabhairt do Theachtaí den Tionól Reachtach faoi na socruithe atá á ndéanamh le honóir a thabhairt don tSeirbhís Dóiteáin as an tseirbhís as cuimse a rinne siad le triocha bliain anuas.

Buailfidh an t-Údarás Dóiteáin bonn a bhronnfar ar gach trodaí dóiteáin a bhfuil ar a laghad trí bliana de sheirbhís leanúnach le dea-iompar curtha isteach aige/aici idir na blianta 1969 agus 2000. Bronnfar meadáille ar fhoireann tacaíochta na briogáide a bhfuil cúig bliana seirbhíse acu le linn an achair seo.

Beidh an chéad bhronnadh sa Halla Mhór, Foirgnimh na Parlaiminte, níos moille sa samhradh nuair a bhéarfas mé na chéad duaiseanna do roinnt trodaithe dóiteáin agus do roinnt de fhoireann tacaíochta na briogáide.

Obair an-chontúirteach í an múchadh dóiteáin agus cúis mhór bróin é gur gortaíodh an iomad trodaí dóiteáin agus iad i mbun a gcuid oibre agus go bhfuair cuid acu bás ag cosaint beatha agus sealúchas an phobail. Murach calmacht agus éifeacht ár gcuid trodaithe dóiteáin agus cuidiú lucht tacaíochta na briogáide, bheadh na mílte marbh atá beo inniu. Tá mé cinnte go mbeidh iomlán na dTeachtaí ar aon intinn liom go bhfuil bronnadh na mbonn agus na meadáillí seo tuillte go maith mar chomhartha aitheantais as an obair rí-thábhachtach seo.

I wish to advise Members of the arrangements being made to pay tribute to the exceptional service of the Fire Service over the last thirty years. The Fire Authority will strike a medal that will be awarded to all fire fighters having at least three years' continual service with good conduct; this includes service between 1969 and 2000. Other brigade staff with five years' service, which includes service within this period, will be presented with a medallion.

The first award ceremony will take place in the Great Hall, Parliament Buildings, later in the summer, when I will present the first awards to a number of firefighters and brigade support staff. Fire-fighting is very dangerous work, and it is to be regretted that many firefighters have been injured, and a number have lost their lives while protecting the public and trying to save property. Many people owe their lives to the courage and skill of our firefighters and the important contribution of brigade support staff. I am sure that all Members will agree with me that the award of these medals and medallions is well-deserved recognition for this vital work.

Ms Lewsley:

I commend the Minister for recognising the work of the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade by awarding this medal. It is most appropriate given the low morale over recent months and the fact that over the last 30 years the Fire Service has provided an excellent service and shown a commitment to the community throughout the troubles, sometimes putting their own lives at risk. Would the Minister agree that given that public safety is at the core of this issue, there is a need to redress the balance to bring the local fire brigade numbers into line with the services in the rest of the UK? Considering the size and the population of Northern Ireland, it would also be beneficial if the Fire Service were to receive a significant increase in funding to enable it to increase its recruitment programme to provide adequate coverage in all areas in the North of Ireland.

Ms de Brún:

I welcome the Member's tributes for the Fire Service. It is to be understood that the fire brigade here is a labour-intensive organisation with over 900 whole-time and over 900 part-time firefighters. The target establishment for the whole-time firefighters is 919 personnel, 899 of whom are in post, leaving a shortfall of 20. The target establishment for part-time firefighters is 980, and 917 are in post which is a shortfall of 63. Those are comprehensive numbers in terms of staffing levels here. Following the comprehensive spending review in 1999, additional moneys were allocated to the Fire Service. The moratorium on recruitment was, therefore, able to be lifted. Twenty-five additional firefighters were recruited in August 1999, and a further 25 recruits had their passing-out parade only last week. The fire authority is experiencing difficulty in recruiting part-time firefighters, but its preference is to recruit part-time firefighters on a 24-hour call-out basis.

In terms of the question the Member asked about money and investment, the Fire Authority baseline budget allocation has risen, and this is significant. It has risen from £43·7 million in 1998/99 to £51·4 million for 2000/01. An additional £4·9 million was allocated last year, which is an increase of £8·5 million in real terms. The £51·4 million allocation for this year represents an increase of £2·9 million over the 1999/00 allocation, representing a 3% increase in real terms.

We have also seen modernisation and improvement in the standard of fire services, which is being pursued through the development and efficient maintenance of a fire brigade fleet and fire-fighting equipment. The comparative cost of fire services in England for 1999/00 was £30,024, in Wales it was £32,055 and here it was £26,654, so there are significant comparisons.


<< Prev/Next >>