Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 July 2001 (continued)
Individual Learning Accounts
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the number of people who have opened individual learning accounts in Northern Ireland.
Individual learning accounts (ILAs) continue to grow in popularity in Northern Ireland. From September 2000 to date, almost 34,000 people from Northern Ireland have opened such accounts, and 14,000 have already used them towards the costs of eligible courses. That has far surpassed our initial target of 17,500 for this year.
Given that the number of people using the individual learning accounts has exceeded expectations, does the Minister envisage the amount of support each account can give to learners?
Individual learning accounts are provided under a general framework covering Great Britain as well as Northern Ireland, with some variations in each Administration. In Northern Ireland one of the main differences is that account holders taking computer courses are entitled to a discount of 80% - up to a maximum of £400 - as a special introductory offer. The maximum payment in Great Britain is £200.
Given the unexpectedly rapid uptake of accounts, and that in practice the average payment has been just over £200, I am now satisfied that the higher rate is no longer needed to stimulate usage of individual learning accounts here. Therefore, from 1 August the maximum incentive will be available at the British level. Any account holder who has booked a qualifying course before that date will continue to be entitled to the higher incentive.
Will the Minister now take action to address the funding formula for further education colleges? That formula, through performance indicators, rewards only large full-time classes for 16- to 18-year-old students and does not encourage adult recruitment on a part-time or flexible basis, thus inhibiting improvements in adult literacy and numeracy demanded by the Moser Report.
I am not entirely clear that this supplementary relates to the question of individual learning accounts.
It quite clearly does not. It refers to the funding formulae that apply to further education colleges. Even though I do have the answer, I am not sure whether, procedurally, I should provide it.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying this. One is sometimes hesitant to make a ruling on these matters, such is the complexity of further and higher education. On this occasion the Chair was correct. I have no doubt that the Minister will give an answer in writing at a later stage.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I applaud the Minister on the success of individual learning accounts, particularly in relation to the upgrading of skills for the employed. I want to question the Minister about the disappointing uptake by the unemployed - only about 1·8%. Should the higher incentive stay in place to address skills upgrading among the unemployed to encourage them to open individual learning accounts?
The general point on the incentive is that it is related to the actual cost of the course for which the individual learning account is being drawn down. Individual learning accounts are not designed primarily for the unemployed - New Deal and other programmes are more suitable for their needs. The main targets are those who have been reluctant to engage in adult learning, particularly those in low-skilled or part-time jobs who wish to enhance their skills and prospects. I hope, however, that those leaving New Deal and other programmes will be encouraged to take out an account and use it to progress and improve their skills further.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give his assessment of the impact on the well-being of students in respect of the need for them to undertake part-time jobs to finance their studies.
Undertaking part-time work is a feature of life for higher education students in many places, and it is certainly not a recent phenomenon. As a student myself - and that was not yesterday or the day before - I worked during the vacation and, indeed, during term time.
Research indicates that students working part-time can gain valuable work experience in addition to the financial benefits, which are probably the primary objective. Those working long hours may have difficulty, however, in keeping up with their academic commitments. We have had evidence from recent research regarding the impact of part-time work on those in their later school years - at sixth-form level - but we do not have the same amount of detail on the impact at university level in Northern Ireland. In general, it is a matter for students to balance the different aspects of their lives and, in particular, to maintain a focus on their studies rather than allowing part-time work to distract them from the prime purpose of being a student.
What services would the Department consider providing to students to reduce the stress they suffer while trying to balance their studies and their finances? Some American universities have a system through which they find employment for students. Would the Minister consider adopting such a scheme?
Members will recall fairly frequent and lengthy discussions on the new financial support package for students. When I outlined that package I said that my Department, in conjunction with the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland, is working on a programme of advice and information on university and student life. The programme will be directed at course applicants and current students. Students will be offered advice on how to manage their financial affairs and their approach to student life.
I trust that the provision of such advice will address some of the concerns that underlie the Member's question. I am familiar with work/study support programmes in American colleges, but I do not think that our colleges and universities have moved in that direction. Some features of such an approach exist at local level but not on the scale at which they operate across the Atlantic. However, if there are lessons there, perhaps we could encourage our colleges and universities to learn from them.
Mr J Kelly:
Recent publicity highlighting the inability of students to sit exams because they could not pay their fees shows that, despite the fact that students are taking part-time jobs, student finance remains a fundamental issue that must be addressed.
The matter has been addressed, and the Member is aware that the whole emphasis in my package was on helping students with their maintenance. The Member hardly needs to be reminded that almost 50% of our higher education students do not pay fees and a further 27% or 28% pay less than the full-fee contribution. The full-fee contribution is paid by only 22% of students.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
It is regrettable that students find themselves in financial difficulties. I trust that when the new form of financial support begins to operate we will be seen to have addressed many of their problems. We will not have eliminated them all, but I like to think that we are moving in the right direction.
asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the number of meetings of the task force on employability and long- term unemployment that have taken place to date.
Three meetings of the task force on employability and long-term unemployment have taken place, and a schedule of monthly meetings, to run until April 2002, has been arranged.
In addition the task force has published a discussion document and has started a series of engagement meetings with organisations outside Government that have an interest in employability and may have a role to play in helping to reduce long-term unemployment.
How will the Minister ensure that as wide a range of views as possible will be taken on board, especially those of people working with the unemployed and voluntary organisations that are experienced in dealing with the long-term unemployed?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Can the Minister please be brief?
During the course of these engagement meetings we hope to meet all interested parties. A meeting took place last week involving representatives of major voluntary and community groups, among them the Organisation of the Unemployed: Northern Ireland. Future meetings will also include representatives from a similar background. Up to 300 organisations are on the list for initial circulation of information about the task force. We trust it will be possible to hear the views of all those organisations and others.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The time is up.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mrs Eileen Bell has advised us that she will be absent today. Question 3 standing in her name will therefore receive a written answer.
asked the Minister for Social Development to outline sanctions that are available to force landlords to bring properties of multiple occupation up to a habitable state.
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Morrow):
The Housing Executive has the authority to inspect houses in multiple occupation to ensure that they are habitable. If any problems are identified, it has powers under articles 79 and 80 of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 to take action to ensure that whatever work is necessary to bring a house in multiple occupation up to specified standards is carried out.
The Minister is aware that some landlords do not fulfil their obligations. This causes great concern to many people. I had hoped that some other legislation could be enacted to force private landlords to take that responsibility. Perhaps the Minister would keep that under review.
We note the remarks made by Mrs Courtney and will give them proper consideration.
Are there adequate arrangements to ensure that safety standards in houses in multiple occupation are maintained?
The existing arrangements allow the Housing Executive to inspect houses in multiple occupation and to specify the improvements that might be necessary for better health and safety conditions. The Housing Executive has set specific standards that must be achieved. Those deal with issues such as facilities for the storage, preparation and cooking of food, the number of suitably located water closets, the provision of an adequate number of suitably located fixed baths or showers and wash basins, an adequate means of escape from fire and other fire precautions. I am satisfied that these powers are sufficient and adequate.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is evident that the existing voluntary arrangement in respect of landlords' responsibility is not working. Does the Minister intend to introduce statutory legislation in respect of those responsibilities in the near future?
It is proposed that the new Housing Bill will include provisions to allow the Housing Executive to introduce a mandatory scheme for licensing houses in multiple occupation. This will involve a registration scheme, and only those properties which meet an acceptable standard will be permitted to register. This will further enhance the Housing Executive's powers to ensure that houses in multiple occupation meet the necessary standards. If Mrs Nelis, or any other Member, knows of a particular house that concerns them, I want to hear about it. It will be thoroughly investigated to ensure that all the regulations are being carried out.
Mr M Murphy
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the steps he is taking to achieve social inclusion in Northern Ireland.
Achieving social inclusion is a high priority for my Department. The steps that I am taking include action in urban regeneration and community development, housing, social security and child support. They are set out in my Department's corporate plan and the New TSN action plan report 'Making it Work', copies of which are available in the Assembly Library.
Mr M Murphy:
Does the Minister accept that the policy of the DUP gives poor leadership for his Department - [Interruption].
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Murphy, you are out of order.
What action is the Minister taking to address the social exclusion caused by the massive discrepancy between the funding available for Ulster-Scots heritage projects and that available for projects focused on the Gaelic-Irish community?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is not directly relevant.
Mr R Hutchinson:
Have any additional resources been made available to achieve social inclusion?
Yes, there are considerable additional resources. In the current financial year the Department is allocating an additional £950,000 to district councils to support local community infrastructure through the community services programme. That represents an increase of about 40% to the current funding of £2·4 million and will strengthen local communities, increase community participation, and promote social inclusion through the stimulation and support of community groups, community activity and local advice services.
We are also making available £600,000 under the advice community initiative to projects aimed at rebuilding a sense of community by encouraging and supporting all forms of community involvement. Work has already begun on a small number of demonstration and research projects that will focus on identifying and reducing the barriers to the involvement of a number of groups, including minority ethnic communities and disabled people, with the aim of tackling problems with weak infrastructure in urban and rural settings.
Referrals to Medical Examiners
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of people claiming DLA and/or incapacity benefit who are referred to independent medical examiners.
Between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2001, 13,750 medical examinations were carried out in connection with disability living allowance claims. In the same period, 42,100 people who claimed incapacity benefit were referred for examination.
Is there a maximum time limit within which a decision on each case must be made? It is unacceptable that some claimants must wait for up to nine months for a decision.
I dealt with a similar question at the last Question Time. I understand that there has been considerable delay in the processing of some cases. We have taken on additional staff and resources to deal with the backlog. Once we have cleared the backlog, we will be in a winning position. We hope that very shortly we will be able to deal with applicants as they come in, rather than having a backlog. The Member will see a significant improvement in the whole service in the not too distant future.
How many doctors are employed by the Social Security Agency to carry out examinations?
As I said in reply to the previous question, we have taken on additional resources.
The agency currently employs some 157 medical examiners, 37 of whom are trained solely for disability living allowance, and the remainder are trained across all benefits. Currently, an additional nine doctors are in training.
Urban and Rural Communities
asked the Minister for Social Development to detail his plans to carry out an assessment into the social and economic needs of urban and rural communities; and to make a statement.
My Department will introduce new community support plans for the district councils' community services programme for implementation in April 2002. Communities will benefit through better assessment of their needs, better targeting of resources, improved use of community facilities and support for more local community groups.
My Department has also drawn up strategy proposals for neighbourhood renewal throughout Northern Ireland, the core aim of which is the regeneration of neighbourhoods, targeting those communities experiencing the most serious economic and social deprivation.
I thank the Minister for a very encouraging reply. I am sure that he will agree with me that many towns and villages lack the vitality and social infrastructure that would enable them to develop economically and socially, particularly for the next generation. In view of the support plans and strategy that he has referred to, would he not think it advisable to undertake an audit of these deficiencies on a district- by-district basis, so that the strategy, planning and finance could be better geared to those in greatest need, and who, indeed, identified the need in the first place?
I assure the Member and the House that there will be a targeting of needs in relation to neighbourhood renewal. My Department will carry out a widespread consultation. The decision on the allocation of scarce resources will be largely determined by information such as the impending publication of the Noble indices that update and refine the Robson indices of areas of multiple deprivation.
The point that the Member makes is a very good one. I will take it on board and look again at the question in Hansard. If I feel I have not given a full and frank answer, I will write to the Member with more information.
Will the Minister outline what steps he has taken to address rural poverty and social exclusion due to the economic crisis in farming, and does he consider it enough?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am reluctant to accept that as a supplementary question.
Can the Minister inform the House about the level of expenditure incurred by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive with regard to the spate of attacks on Housing Executive tenants?
The short answer is "No". The long answer is that I will endeavour to obtain the figures for the Member and will come back to him with the full answer in writing in the very near future.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 19/00] to make provision imposing on district councils requirements relating to economy, efficiency and effectiveness; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Bill will be put on the list of future pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
No amendments to the Bill have been tabled. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the six clauses of the Bill, followed by the three schedules, and the long title.
Clauses 1 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Long title agreed to.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget (No 2) Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
I beg to move
That Standing Order 10(6) be suspended for Monday 2 July 2001.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Campbell, there is some confusion at the Table as to whether you said "moved" or "not moved".
Mr Deputy Speaker, on the understanding that some 13 Members wish to speak, I begged to move the motion.
Question put and agreed to. (Cross-community support).
That Standing Order 10(6) be suspended for Monday 2 July 2001.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):
I beg to move
That this Assembly takes note of progress on the formulation of the regional development strategy.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to report progress on the formulation of the regional development strategy (RDS). I thank the 10 Statutory Committees for their valuable contributions. I have sought to reflect their views, as far as possible, in the latest text of the strategy that I have made available to Members.
Before I detail some of the key themes in the strategy, it would be worthwhile by way of background to set out briefly the approach that has been taken. Essentially the strategy has been prepared with a commitment to achieving a strong, spatially balanced economy; a healthy environment; and an inclusive society that tackles inequalities across the socio-economic spectrum.
The promotion of sustainable development is a key theme running through the document. However, sustainability is much more than a commitment to putting the environment at the heart of policies. It is also much more than achieving an optimal approach to sustaining physical development that makes use of our existing infrastructure. Hand in hand with that must go a commitment to sustaining communities. That is why social and economic cohesion is at the heart of the strategy.
Long-term planning is a complex process. Reaching agreement on the shape and content of the strategy has taken time - some people would say an inordinate length of time. I would argue that it is better for that unprecedented consultation to have taken place. That investment has helped set the right long-term directions for the future development of Northern Ireland.
In the course of the consultation exercise, meetings were held with all district councils; workshops were held with approximately 100 groups; and a university- led community consortium held conferences involving 400 community groups. Separate conferences and seminars were held on themes relating to the economy, rural issues and youth. Many meetings were held with individual Departments, agencies and a wide variety of groups as well as individuals. The team was also advised by a panel of international experts.
The draft strategy came under the scrutiny of public examination - the first of this type to be held in Northern Ireland. That provided a further opportunity to help build consensus on the way forward for the future development of Northern Ireland. The public examination and the assistance of the independent panel enabled the regional strategic framework to be improved and strengthened in the best interests of future development.
The draft strategy was also considered in great detail by the Committee for Regional Development and the other Statutory Committees. Once again, I thank the members of those Committees for the way in which they went about their task and for the valuable and helpful contributions that they made to help me finalise the document.
At this stage it is normal practice for the Chairperson of the relevant Committee to lead off. However, the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, Alban Maginness, is absent today due to the death of his mother. I tender my consolation and condolences to Mr Maginness, and I am sure all Members join with me in that regard.
The strategy is firmly based on the principle of securing balanced regional development to assist all communities to realise their potential. The consultation has been inclusive and participative. Today represents a key stage in that process in allowing the House to offer its views on the formulation of the strategy.
The strategy provides the spatial context for strengthening the competitiveness of the regional economy, tackling social and economic disadvantage and protecting and enhancing Northern Ireland's physical, natural and man-made assets. It provides a context for housing, transport, air and water quality, energy and waste strategies. It will provide for an optimal framework for infrastructure providers in the public and private sectors. It also provides the important context against which development plans will be produced and against which public and private investment decisions relating to land use will be made.
I will highlight some of the key themes of the strategy and comment on my responses to areas of particular concern to Members.
An issue that has exercised almost every Member is the need to set a challenging target for the development of housing in urban areas; in short, a target for brownfield development. There is a strong consensus that the Department for Regional Development should be more ambitious than the public examination suggested when it endorsed the principle of a drive for more brownfield housing.
I have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by Members. The way forward outlined in the strategy responds in a positive, balanced and practical way to those concerns. We should seek to double the recent levels of development in urban areas between now and 2010. The level of housing development in urban areas over the past 10 years has been around 25% to 30%. The strategy signals that that level is inconsistent with the policy objectives that we set ourselves; we should aim to double that over the next 10 years. That will set an ambitious regional target of 60% up to the first review in 2010 without the risk of town cramming.
This target will be subject to monitoring, evaluation, and a five-year review in the light of the latest housing data. Ultimately the figures that will be achieved for individual settlements will be determined by urban capacity studies that will take place through the development plan process. This approach will be copper- fastened by the sequential approach in the development plan process. The search sequence will focus firstly on the reuse of previously developed land and buildings and consideration of undeveloped land within the existing urban area before consideration outside the urban footprint. This is the strongest policy mechanism for preventing the previous trend toward greenfield development.
The test means that, in selecting sites to meet an established housing need, the brownfield sites will be allocated before the greenfield sites are considered. I hope that the House will agree that this is a clear signal that we are serious about this issue.
I now wish to turn to two other issues on the theme of housing; overzoning and affordable housing. Both issues were raised by a number of Committees.
I listened carefully to both sides of the argument about overzoning. I have come down in favour of a modest allowance for overzoning, but this will be the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, I propose to make provision in the strategy for a limited level of overzoning up to a maximum of 10% as a contingency in those situations where a potential land difficulty is likely to arise.
I stress that the preferred approach is to identify possible constraints in advance and proceed on alternative lands without overzoning. I believe that this approach is broadly consistent with the line taken by the public examination and sensibly avoids the risk of unnecessary litigation.
I turn now to affordable housing. I want to refer to this issue as it was highlighted by the Committee for Social Development. I have made it clear in the strategy that there is a commitment to make provision for affordable housing particularly, but not exclusively, for first-time buyers and those on lower incomes.
The strategy encourages the development of balanced local communities. It is crucial that we ensure that new housing developments help secure a better social mix by maintaining a balanced planning linkage where needed between market and social housing. The creation of large areas of housing of similar characteristics will not be acceptable. Therefore, the strategy will promote social housing targeted to meet identified needs and require an appropriate provision in larger developments.
In the time remaining I wish to address four other areas in the strategy. I want to say a few words about the legal context of the regional development strategy. Under current law the Department of the Environment and the Department for Social Development are required to ensure that any area plan or development scheme is consistent with the strategy when it is formulated. Concerns have been raised that "consistent with" might introduce an unnecessary and undesirable inflexibility into the planning system.
Following receipt of an opinion from senior legal counsel, I have decided to promote amending legislation that would substitute a requirement that development plans and schemes must be in general conformity with the regional development strategy. I am satisfied that the proposed amendment, which I intend to sponsor in the next sitting, preserves the authority of the regional development strategy.
I want to turn to rural matters. The strategy is as much about rural areas as it is about urban areas. Rural communities must have the opportunity to realise their full potential, to develop in their own right, and to contribute more broadly to a prosperous Northern Ireland.
The strategy signals the importance of the work on the regional transportation strategy. The strategy's vision is to have a modern, sustainable, safe transportation system which benefits society, the economy and the environment, and which actively contributes to social inclusion and everyone's quality of life. The regional transportation strategy will be a daughter document to the regional development strategy, serving to implement a key strand of the strategy.
In the chapter on implementation I have tried to avoid being overly prescriptive or setting up new structural or legal arrangements that would cut across other departmental responsibilities. My approach is founded on four key principles. First, Departments must work together if the strategy is to be delivered coherently. Secondly, it will not be delivered without the buy-in of local key stakeholders, by which I mean district councils and the new emerging local strategic partnership arrangements. Thirdly, I recognise that the Government alone will not deliver this strategy; there is a major role for the private sector in our future development. Fourthly, our approach, by necessity, has to be sufficiently flexible to adapt and respond to change.
The underpinning principle of the strategy is that it must be seen to relate to people's needs, now and in the future. Every part of the country, urban and rural, must be able to relate to the strategy. I believe that the strategy does precisely that.
I express my gratitude to the team of officials that prepared the strategy. The team leader was deservedly awarded the CBE for his tremendous service to planning. That award reflects the high esteem in which he is held.
I hope that Members agree that significant progress has been made towards the formulation of the regional development strategy. I welcome this opportunity to appraise Members of the stage reached and to seek assurance from the Assembly that the strategy is soundly based and provides the basis for its formulation.