Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 July 2001 (continued)
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Single Development Agency
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail progress on the establishment of a single development agency for Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I am pleased to report that excellent progress has been made in establishing the new agency. Last week saw the introduction of the Industrial Development Bill to the Assembly. The results of the equality impact assessment have recently been published.
The process of seeking to appoint a shadow board and chairperson is under way, and advertisements for the post of chief executive designate will appear in the media shortly.
I thank the Minister for that response. The Bill has been published since I tabled the question. However, is the Minister aware of a recent Alliance Party policy document which talked about the need to protect the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) within the concept of the new Invest Northern Ireland (INI) single agency? If the Minister did not see the Alliance Party policy document he may have seen a very similar one from the SDLP.
Does the Minister have any information on how the interests of those existing small businesses - which perhaps have the potential for the greatest growth over the coming years - will be covered in an agency which might otherwise be dominated by the needs of inward investors?
Sir Reg Empey:
I assure the Member that any agency in Northern Ireland that ignores SMEs would be better not in existence. Ours is a small company economy. Small companies employ the vast majority of people who work here; that is where the growth has occurred. However, that is not a Northern Ireland factor. The number of people who work for the Fortune 500 companies in the United States has not increased in the past 10 years; the growth has been in the small business sector.
I assure the Member that I know that great minds think alike. I am also conscious, if INI is to succeed, that it will have targets to achieve in its corporate and operating plans. The emphasis will be on increasing the birth rate of small businesses, where Northern Ireland has a lower start-up rate - but a higher survival rate - than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wants to marry those two factors to increase the number of start-ups.
Can the Minister assure the House that the new agency will be dynamic and marketing-led rather than one that bundles the existing agencies into a lethargic, heavyweight bundle? Will any fresh faces or new ideas in marketing be brought in from the private sector? Will the excellent work of the Industrial Research and Technology Unit (IRTU) be safeguarded and possibly expanded? I see that as vital to any future industrial expansion.
Sir Reg Empey:
The hon Member for South Belfast has made the latter point on virtually every occasion that he has spoken on this issue. I know how passionately he feels about the need to ensure that innovation is at the heart of what the agency does. I assure Dr McDonnell that this is not intended to be a Lego set in which agencies are simply bolted together and called a new agency; that is not the case. The aspects of policy for which IRTU is responsible will be at the core and will be, as we said in our statement, the golden thread that will run through the thinking of the new agency.
With regard to the agency being marketing-led, there must be people involved who have a marketing capability. The Department hopes to advertise for the appointment of a chief executive designate shortly, and I have given the consultants my views on that matter. It is hoped that those views will be reflected in the draft, because it is essential that we have people who understand what a customer is. I am fully aware of the hon Member's long-term interests in these matters.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment is in his place. Today - noting the number of questions on the lists - we have, through the usual channels, made arrangement to proceed through the Questions for Oral Answer without any suspension between the questions to various Ministers because they may not take the full half-hour. I am grateful to Ministers and to others for agreeing to that; it makes for a smoother run of business.
It has just come to my attention that Mr Sean Neeson will not be able to be here, and therefore question number 3 has been withdrawn.
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact of the extra funding granted for tourism promotion to combat consequential losses due to foot-and-mouth disease.
Sir Reg Empey:
Extra funding for tourism promotion has been allocated against three broad objectives: to ensure damage limitation; to restore consumer confidence; and to provide selling platforms for the industry. All activities are being evaluated through detailed impact assessments, although these are not yet available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the domestic market is beginning to recover.
I must express my disappointment that no money has been spent so far. Can the Minister tell us whether the money will be spread across Northern Ireland? Will it be spread to hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfasts, open farms and heritage centres? Can the Minister give us some indication as to where the £1 million will go?
Sir Reg Empey:
I hope that the Member may have misheard me. I did not say that none of the money has been spent; indeed a substantial amount has already been spent. The position is that the campaign is split; £762,000 is going on international marketing and £238,000 on domestic marketing.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has a comprehensive programme that is working its way through the system. Well over half of the money has been spent. It has been spent in different markets: the European market; the North American market; and the domestic market - across the board. It has also been spent sectorally - to deal with the point the Member makes - because different sectors require different promotion. I assure the Member that that is happening.
When we reach the stage where the money has been spent and the programmes have been rolled out - and these programmes will be rolling out into the autumn - we will evaluate what we have received for that money and the impact that it is making, or has made, on the market.
I welcome, in part, the Minister's answers to the question. Is he confident that sufficient funding has been set aside for consequential support, given that some businesses and tourist providers were seriously affected? Perhaps he is aware that the takings of some businesses, hotels and guest houses were down by 70%; others were down by 100%.
Is the Minister satisfied that he has enough money? Will he put his shoulder to the wheel with his Colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, in her request to get consequential payments to help these people make up the loss?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am acutely aware of the point that the Member makes, though we must not confuse two different issues. We have a fund of £1 million that was put in place as a recovery measure for the industry; there is then the scheme for compensation to businesses, which does not come out of that fund. That is a separately funded project.
The full extent of how much the scheme for compensation to businesses will cost is not yet clear to the Executive. Claims have been received - we have now passed the point by which people had to register, which was 20 June - and we are not able to assess the full extent yet. No one is going to suggest that three months worth of rates is going to compensate someone who has suffered a drop of 70% in their business. My Colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, is looking at some cases, such as those of the marts that were forced to close by her Department. That is an issue that we will be dealing with separately.
On consequential resources, as a proportion of our spending and as a proportion of our population, we have allocated more resources to this issue than has anyone else in these islands. My Colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, is chasing after consequential resources that we hope to get from the Treasury in respect of some of our spending on this matter. Even allowing for that, we are spending at least three times more than the consequential that we would receive as a share of national resources.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In the light of the considerable misunderstanding, particularly in the United States, of the nature of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, how successful has the campaign been to attract American visitors this summer?
Sir Reg Empey:
This is one of the key, sad aspects of the situation. The image of the outbreak that was portrayed by CNN featured the Prime Minister in a protective suit. Prospective visitors were asking if these suits were provided free at airports, and they feared that if they came here their hands and feet would fall off. They were asking whether there would be any food to eat. My Colleague in the Republic, James McDaid, received exactly the same bizarre enquiries, unbelievable as they might be. There is a huge misunderstanding of the situation, but the information is beginning to get through.
Sadly, the disease was also confused with BSE, which is a much more deep-seated problem. There is a downturn in the figures relating to US tourists for both jurisdictions of this island and throughout the United Kingdom. Bookings for holidays in July and August were being made around the time of the outbreak, and therefore potential visitors were put off. Some operators which had booked seats on aircraft had to cancel for financial reasons. It is too early to tell what the loss will be. We will have suffered a downturn, but industry representatives advise me that there is evidence of recovery.
Research and Development Programmes
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail any financial packages which are available to those companies wishing to invest in research and development programmes.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Industrial Research and Technology Unit (IRTU) is dedicated to encouraging companies to invest in innovation and industrial research and development. It delivers a comprehensive range of pre- competitive and near-market investment support programmes. These include the Compete programme, which provides support by financing up to 40% - up to a total of £250,000 - of eligible costs for near-market product and process development projects. Also included is the Start programme, which assists pre-competitive research projects with a grant of up to 50% of eligible costs - up to a maximum of £2 million.
The IRTU also helps companies to access support under UK, EU and International Fund for Ireland (IFI) programmes. On a small scale, LEDU also aims to encourage companies to develop innovative products and processes.
I thank the Minister for his response. Some of the companies I have talked to are not always aware of the support that is available. Will the Minister ensure that his Department issues details of financial packages to companies, so that they can avail of them if they wish?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Department has a policy of encouraging companies, and it does this by contacting local companies through its client executives. However, I accept that there are newly formed or non-client companies which might possibly benefit from the financial packages. I take the Member's point and will ensure that her remarks are brought to the attention of the executive and directors of the IRTU.
What are the current arrangements for funding the research of our newer industries? Does the Minister consider a close link between the universities and industry to be essential? The need for closer links is particularly evident when one looks at such aspiring EU countries as Finland, in which the Oulu University is linked to 18 industries, including Nokia. Will the Minister ensure that the newer industries can be well established and that they will not suffer the continuous vagaries of the market place?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has been working closely with my Department on those issues. We recognise that the key to success will be the degree to which we can translate the brainpower in the universities into economic development and new products. Both Departments have put a great deal of effort into that. We are in regular contact, and we do our best to join up our policies on the matter. We take it very seriously. The new agency that we are creating will be founded with the objective of ensuring that the research and development expenditure target is raised. The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment raised that point when we discussed the formation of the agency and emphasised that we must give it priority.
In the future, given the pressure on our traditional industries, the only thing that will distinguish us from the low-cost economies is our ability to use intellectual capital. We are fully seized of the urgency of the matter. My ministerial Colleague and I are determined to increase the percentage of GDP devoted to research and development, because that lays the foundations for the future.
Natural Gas Pipeline (South Down)
asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the progress made in relation to the extension of the natural gas pipeline to the south Down area; and to make a statement.
Sir Reg Empey:
Bord Gáis Eireann and Questar have put forward proposals for a south/north pipeline that would facilitate the supply of gas to south Down and have applied for a gas conveyance licence. The gas regulator and officials from my Department are involved in negotiations with the companies on those matters.
I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. I draw his attention to a statement made on 20 June by the gas and electricity regulator to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. The regulator said that one of the best ways to deal with fuel poverty would be to ensure the widespread availability of natural gas in Northern Ireland. In addition, the Executive's statement of 14 June spoke of an opportunity to achieve the goal of supplying natural gas throughout Northern Ireland. What further steps will the Department take to ensure that the network of natural gas supply will be extended, particularly to the south-east, including south Down?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member will not need any convincing from me that my Department wants to see the extension of the gas supply through as much of Northern Ireland as possible. He will also be aware that a huge amount of effort, in the Department and elsewhere, is going into achieving that. I am in regular contact with Mrs O'Rourke, the Republic's Minister for Public Enterprise. The Executive have discussed the issue in the past couple of weeks, and my Department, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit have formed a negotiating team. During the summer months, we will refine the final proposals, which we hope to sign off in the autumn.
There are huge issues, not all of which are within our control. As Members know, our objective is to get a south/north pipeline and a north-west pipeline, so that as much of Northern Ireland as possible can have access to natural gas. However, we are in the hands of the companies which would carry that out. We have an application from the Electricity Supply Board of Ireland (ESBI) to build a power station at Coolkeeragh. That application is dependent on there being a supply of gas in place by a certain date.
There is also the wider issue of joining up the networks to create an all-island gas market. That, in turn, is related to our links with the UK and European gas markets. That is our objective, and I have set it out on many occasions. We are pursuing it as vigorously as we can. The Executive and the Department of Finance and Personnel are involved. I hope that we will be in a position to report significant progress by the autumn.
On a similar theme of south/north connections to natural gas supplies, the Minister intimated that there is the possibility of the south/north connection coming in along the west coast of Ireland. Has the Department had any negotiations on a route that that could possibly take, with better provision for the west of the Province?
Sir Reg Empey:
The answer to the detailed question is that the Department has not been in any negotiations. I am aware, however, that the Corrib field on the west coast of Ireland, which the Member referred to, looks likely to produce significant resources of natural gas. That will be available to the grid by 2003-04. The Department has not yet seen the proposals for any particular route that will have an impact on Northern Ireland. There is clearly a demand for gas in County Donegal, which could be facilitated by the Department's own north-west proposals. However, the ultimate objective is to have a totally integrated system.
It would be misleading of me to say to the hon Member that the route will go through Castlederg, but all Members of "Team West Tyrone" regularly draw the House's attention to their active promotion of their area. However, we must remember the limitations. The pipeline will not go everywhere - we must face up to that reality. Our objective is to ensure that the pipeline goes to as many places as possible, but there is a commercial limitation to what is available.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is understandable that we are limited in dealing with those who control the finances. The progress towards south Down is welcome. However, is the Minister pressing the case for other areas on the basis of economic equality of opportunity so that the gas pipeline is extended to places such as Fermanagh and Tyrone?
Sir Reg Empey:
That argument has been, and will continue to be, brought to bear, not only on this issue, but also on a whole range of other issues including telecoms availability and broadband. That is perfectly sensible.
The Member will be aware of course that a gas drilling licence has been in operation for some time in his area. A company recently acquired that licence from the original holder, and it may wish to start further exploration in County Fermanagh. New technology has provided a better opportunity for the extraction of gas in the particular geological conditions in that county. Also, the price of gas has risen substantially since the original licence was granted some years ago.
I am hopeful that there may be some activity in that area, although it is not necessarily linked to the sort of project that the Member prefers. However, I suspect that people in Fermanagh will not particularly worry about which pipe the gas comes out of, if it comes at all. At the moment I am not aware of any proposal to bring a pipe up from Corrib through the western corridor. That is something that the Irish Government will have to address. If we can play any role in that, we will be more than happy to do so.
Question 1, in the name of Mrs Eileen Bell, has been withdrawn. Mrs Bell will receive a written answer.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail which groups of people will be assisted through the EQUAL Programme.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
There is no specified list of groups to be assisted through EQUAL, and there is scope for a wide range of applications in respect of those who experience inequality - the general target group for the programme. Consultation during the preparation of the EQUAL programme indicated that the main needs are as follows: the long-term unemployed and economically inactive men; women who face difficulties in being integrated or reintegrated into the workforce, especially those with caring responsiblities; disabled people, including those with learning difficulties and mental ill health; and young people who are described as "status zero". Those are marginalised young people who have, for whatever reason, opted out of education or training.
EQUAL will also take into account the needs of asylum seekers, minority ethnic groups, including Irish travellers, drugs and alcohol misusers, ex-prisoners and ex-offenders, older workers and the homeless.
I very much welcome the Minister's answer. Can he go further and tell us when the first applications to the EQUAL programme can be made so that people can benefit from the support he has just outlined?
I am pleased to advise the Assembly that the first call for project applications for the EQUAL programme has been made. In preparation for the process, workshops were held across Northern Ireland to provide information to potential applicants. Those workshops were very well attended, and I trust that there will now be a wide range of applications in response to the call.
Basic Skills Strategy
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what progress has been made with the preparation of a basic skills strategy for Northern Ireland.
The Department is currently preparing a draft basic skills strategy, based on advice received from the Basic Skills Unit and taking into consideration strategies being introduced in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The draft strategy will be the subject of wide- ranging consultation later this year.
How will the public consultation be managed? What will the timescale be?
The Department's Basic Skills Unit will consult with all relevant interest groups, including the departmental Committee, public bodies, groups involved in the voluntary or community sector, businesses, trade unions and other groups with a legitimate interest in the provision of basic skills formation. The process will allow for full participation and the opportunity to assist in the production of our own local strategy.
We propose to complete a draft strategy for presentation to the Executive and to the departmental Committee of the Assembly by early autumn. Public consultation will then take place, with final publication planned for early 2002.
Mr K Robinson:
Will the Minister outline the arrangements included in his basic skills strategy to ensure that effective liaison will occur between his Department and the Department of Education, so that the problem of illiteracy and innumeracy can be more effectively addressed in school-age children before it becomes a problem in adulthood?
It is a matter for concern that there are school leavers who manifest basic literacy and numeracy problems. I am fully aware that the Minister of Education is involved with the issue at school level, and both Departments are in regular consultation on this matter. Through the well-established consultation mechanism we will take account of the strategies being developed to deal with basic skills throughout the school years so that we can build on the experience thus gathered.
Given that the problem persists among the adult population, and notwithstanding the strategies being developed for those in school, it is incumbent on us to develop our own strategy aimed at adults with that deficit. That is the responsibility of my Department, but there is regular consultation between the two Departments on this and on many other issues.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Is the Minister satisfied by the quality and spread of information on the availability of basic skills programmes in educational outreach centres in disadvantaged areas?
Part of the development of the strategy will take full account of existing provision; we are not starting from a blank sheet. We are fully aware that provision is made for basic skills training in our further education colleges and in many of our community organisations. It is an inherent requirement in all our training programmes that basic skills needs are addressed if trainees demonstrate that they have deficits in certain areas. Therefore, we are making considerable provision; our strategy seeks to build on and develop what is currently being provided so that we can be assured that a comprehensive approach to tackling basic skills needs in the adult population is undertaken.
Tourism Sector (Training)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment whether he has made any submissions to the trade and business development sectoral body of the North/South Ministerial Council on training for the tourism sector.
At the last two meetings of the North/ South Ministerial Council on tourism, which I attended with my Colleague Sir Reg Empey, I presented joint papers prepared by my Department and our Southern counterparts in the training authority for the hospitality and catering industry - CERT. I presented papers relating to the provision of joint programmes for training in tourism and the hospitality industry.
The initial paper outlined the current position and training arrangements in the sector in both parts of Ireland and proposed a number of joint actions. A subsequent paper, which I presented at the most recent North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Coleraine last Friday, contains a range of joint programmes to meet the varying needs of business development in the sector including the needs of micro-businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises and the larger hotels. The programmes were developed in conjunction with the industry and are designed to meet its specific needs in the short and long term. We hope that the first of the joint training programmes will be in operation within the month.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. What will these proposals cost, and when are the training courses likely to begin?
The full cost of the proposals is being finalised. I am not in a position to give precise figures. I indicated in my initial answer that we hope that the first of the training programmes will take place within the month and that programmes directed at small and medium-sized enterprises will follow on between now and September. We hope that programmes which will provide for the exchange of lecturers and instructors in the hospitality and tourism sector on a North/South basis will also be put into operation.
Can the Minister indicate the anticipted level of employment for manual and managerial posts in the tourism sector? What NVQ level will people be trained to? Where does he expect such training to take place?
I am afraid that without notice I am not in a postion to answer the first part of the Member's question. I am not sure that the question is answerable from the information available in my Department. It is probably more likely to require information available to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The training programmes that I referred to are essentially short-term. They deal with precise issues related to management, operational skills and exchange opportunities for lecturers and instructors in the various colleges that provide training in that area rather than courses that are directed at particular NVQ levels.
A Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister have any plans to introduce language training in the tourism sector? It is important that staff can deal with visitors from different countries and from different parts of our own country.
That question is not directly related to the issues before me. However, I will happily provide information to the Member in a written reply.
Electrical and Electronic Engineering
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the adequacy, relative to labour market demands, of the annual output of electrical and electronic engineering and software graduates from local universities.
Research carried out on behalf of the Northern Ireland skills task force shows a need to continue to increase the output of graduates in electronics and software. My Department is addressing the issue by increasing the number of university places. Last year enrolments in electronics increased by 41% to 811. Information and communications technology (ICT), enrolments increased by 5% to 3,960. An additional 300 places have been allocated for the academic year 2001-02 to meet the sector's needs.
What percentage of graduates from local universities stay in Northern Ireland to work?
Today seems to be a day for confessing some ignorance. We are all aware of the considerable pressures on that sector of the labour market, and we frequently hear that high proportions of our graduates migrate southwards or across the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to take up job opportunities. Figures from a survey in the north-west suggest that despite the fact that some 200 to 300 people graduate each year, many graduates do not take up opportunities in electronics here because of the pressures and demands that I have just referred to.
Several recent reports, notably Professor Best's, which I have occasionally referred to in some of my answers, highlighted the fact that our output continues to be significant. However, the pressures persist, and the competition is such that we find ourselves in a tight labour market. In conjunction with the universities and further education colleges we have made considerable efforts to increase the supply of graduates and technicians in this sector of the labour force.
The Minister is aware of the need for financial commitment to the electronic training facilities in the north-west. Will funding be made available in the near future?
I will have to plumb local knowledge to answer the question. I wonder if the Member is referring to Limivady College of Further Education. If he is, he will be aware that my Department is considering plans that include the provision of new facilities for training people in electrical trades.
Skills Audit (Down Area)
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what further progress has been made on the skills audit for the Down area; and to make a statement.
My officials met with the chief executive of Down District Council on 15 June to discuss a skills audit for the Down area. I understand that the meeting was very constructive and that a number of options were discussed. Officials are actively investigating how best to carry out such an audit and will shortly contact the Down District Council chief executive with detailed proposals.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for the progress being made in creating new high- technology jobs in the Down area through inward and indigenous investment.
Ongoing discussions about the skills audit between Down District Council and the Training and Employment Agency were mentioned. Can the Minister tell the House how many companies are involved in the audit? As far as I am aware, the number of companies involved is quite small. Would it not be better to increase that number and extend interpretation of the audit to include software engineering and ICT in the Down/Belfast travel-to-work area?
From my initial answer the Member will understand that the nature of the audit is currently under consideration. The meeting only took place on 15 June, so nothing has yet been finalised. The matter that Mr McGrady has raised will certainly be considered by officials in my own Department, by the Training and Employment Agency, and by members of Down District Council, who are already working together on this issue.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the adequacy of the salaries of lecturers in further education colleges.
The terms and conditions of employment of lecturers in further education colleges are determined by the joint negotiating committee made up of representatives of college management and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), the lecturers' trade union.
Both sides are currently considering proposals to bring forward recommendations contained in a review of lecturers' salary scales that concluded that they have not risen as quickly as those of teachers in schools and universities.
In addition, I understand that a threshold agreement for lecturers at the top of their scale, similar to that in the schools sector, is being considered. I trust that these negotiations will have an agreed outcome.
I thank the Minister for his reply, which will give some encouragement to staff in a hard-pressed sector. Would the Minister agree that the way that pay scales have been structured in further education colleges has perhaps not provided an adequate career progression for such lecturing staff?
It is not for the Minister to comment directly on the issue raised by the Member but rather to point to the fact that negotiations are now under way to deal with such matters. Insofar as the Department funds the further education sector, we have an interest in the outcome, but that interest keeps us at a remove and leaves it to the representatives of the colleges and the trade unions to work out the details of any future pay scale arrangements.