Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 22 October 2001
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We meet today under most unusual circumstances. In the rest of the world there is conflict with terrorism, but in our country the Government seem more interested in making arrangements with terrorism than in preserving the basis on which the Assembly meets.
The Assembly is supposed to have cross-community representation, and cross-community votes were cast for the various ministerial posts and other jobs. All the Unionist ministerial positions are vacant at present, so the Government of Northern Ireland consists of a Nationalist and a Republican coalition. As I said to the Secretary of State, if the SDLP or Sinn Féin Ministers had left their posts, we would all have been out immediately. However, because the situation arose —
Order. Will the Member come to his point of order? I am not clear on what it is.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
According to today’s news, the Secretary of State has congratulated Mr Adams and said that he will be very generous if Mr Adams does what the Secretary of State wants him to do. No self-respecting Unionist can remain in the Chamber and pretend that business can be done with a Government that is both Republican and Nationalist.
Order. The issue that the Member raises is political — it is not a point of order. The Assembly is entirely in order to sit, to hear statements from and ask questions of Ministers, and to conduct debates on matters that are properly on the Order Paper. I need to bring some substantial issues to the attention of the House. I intend to do so, but the Member’s point is not a point of order in respect of the House sitting. What he and his Colleagues choose to do from a political point of view is another matter — [Interruption].
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Well, I will not be taking any part in this charade.
Order. If I inform the House, and particularly those Members who have put down questions that will now fall, of the status of some of those matters, that may be helpful to those who wish to participate. I shall then take a point of order from Mr Trimble.
I confirm that on Thursday 18 October 2001 I received letters from the nominating officers of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party notifying me that the Ministers from those parties had been dismissed with effect from midnight on that date. I advise Members of the implications that those dismissals will have for today’s Assembly sitting. The dismissals affect only those Northern Ireland Ministers who belong to the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. Ministers from the other parties remain in their positions.
Question Time will be affected. Sir Reg Empey, having been dismissed as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, can no longer carry out the functions of the First Minister. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will, therefore, be unable to respond to questions for oral answer at 2.30 pm, nor will there be questions at 3.00 pm to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, who is no longer in post. Questions to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development will proceed. Ongoing business will be interrupted at 3.30 pm for that purpose, because that is the time when the Minister would normally have answered those questions.
Those questions for oral answer listed on today’s Notice Paper by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will fall. Members can of course table those questions again, and they can also table questions due for oral answer on 12 November by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of the Environment.
In relation to the six vacant ministerial posts, no questions for written answer will be accepted until Ministers are nominated to those positions. Questions that were tabled for written answer before the Ministers’ resignation will be answered immediately following the ministerial vacancies’ being filled.
It is important that I draw those matters to Members’ attention. I shall also ensure that the detail of that is put in the all-party notice for this week so that it is clear for Members and is in writing.
My point of order, Mr Speaker, is also a comment on the matters that you have just mentioned, because it has been necessary to reorganise the business of the Assembly following the vacancies that have arisen — and I am not altogether comfortable with the method that was used to bring about those vacancies.
We were not anxious to see that happen. It has happened with a fair degree of regret on our part. I hope that this situation will be resolved quickly. It can be resolved by those parties that have so far been in breach of the agreement by failing to take effective steps to achieve the total disarmament of paramilitary organisations. That there are five vacant Ministerial posts puts us in a difficult situation. There are immediate implications for what can and cannot be done. The situation is not stable, and the Secretary of State should consider what to do in that regard.
I raised my point of order to endorse what Dr Paisley said about the need for a cross-community Administration. I was glad to hear Dr Paisley restate that principle, which is contained in the legislation and in our Standing Orders. What he said about the need for a balanced Administration was true, and I acknowledge the embarrassment that it causes to Members opposite who find themselves in an unbalanced Administration with no desire to be there. Dr Paisley’s party followed the Ulster Unionists into the Executive and onto the Policing Board. It followed the Ulster Unionists in withdrawing, and I am sure that it will also follow the Ulster Unionists when we go back.
The Ministers had two options: to resign or to be dismissed. The Ministers were dismissed, except for the Junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who could not be dismissed, except by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting together or by Ministers fulfilling the functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers acting together. The Minister could have resigned, but that option was not taken. The position is clear.
Regarding the second point, Members may recall that, under Initial Standing Orders, an Executive could continue to function only on a cross-community basis. However, that Standing Order was not incorporated into the substantive Standing Orders, and therefore — whatever the political questions to which the Member refers — there is no reason why the Ministers currently making up the Executive cannot continue to fulfil their functions.
It is true that a substantial number of Departments have no political head. That has implications for the Assembly, and I have referred to the most immediate of those implications. It will affect Question Time today, the tabling of questions for oral answer and the tabling and answering of questions for written answer.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I regret that the DUP Members have absented themselves from the Chamber for this important statement, which has implications for an industry that is important across Ireland, North and South.
The fourth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format was held at the Carrickdale Hotel in Dromad, County Louth, on Thursday 4 October 2001. Mr Nesbitt, Junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, accompanied me to that meeting and agreed this statement. The Government of the Republic of Ireland were represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, who chaired the meeting.
The Council considered and agreed a paper on animal health policy, with particular reference to foot-and-mouth disease. The paper gave details of the progress made on animal health policy decisions taken at earlier meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. The Council noted the progress made in controlling foot-and-mouth disease and the co-operation on animal movement and epizootic disease control, animal health policy and scrapie control. In its consideration of those issues, the Council recognised the potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease on animal health in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. It was noted that the all-island approach to controlling the outbreak had minimised the spread and impact of the disease in both parts of Ireland.
The Council agreed that the experience gained during the outbreak clearly demonstrated the benefits of an all- island approach to animal health and called on Agriculture Departments, North and South, to proceed urgently with the work aimed at increasing such co-operation.
The Council considered and endorsed a paper on the World Trade Organisation, EU enlargement, and common agricultural policy reform. The paper set out the common North/South interests and objectives in those areas.
The Council noted the concerns of Ministers, North and South, with the issues highlighted; their agreement on the objectives that should be pursued in negotiations; and their agreement to continue to review developments in those matters.
The Council considered and noted a paper on the work of the steering committee on cross-border rural development, which outlined its progress on the work programme that the Council formally endorsed at its meeting on 17 November 2000. The Council also considered a paper on the joint study of the pig industry that outlined the main conclusions of a consultancy study on pig-meat processing on the island of Ireland. That paper was commissioned by both Agriculture Ministers in December 1999. In noting the paper, the Council agreed that officials should continue discussions with the relevant development agencies and the industry to develop appropriate action to improve the competitive position of the pig sector on the island.
The secretariat tabled an additional paper seeking the Council’s approval of proposed salary, and salary range, increases for chief executive officers based in Northern Ireland with effect from 1 April 2001. The Council approved the increases subject to final approval by the Finance Ministers, North and South.
The Council agreed that its next meeting in the sectoral format will take place in Northern Ireland in February 2002. The text of a communiqué for issue following the meeting was agreed; a copy has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
I welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly her comments on an all-Ireland approach to animal disease control, cross-border co-operation on rural development, and the improvements to the competitive position of the pig industry, North and South. What cross-border provisions has the Minister made for the eradication of BSE, brucellosis and tuberculosis? Given that she set such a premium on cross-border co-operation with another EU state, will she indicate whether she has discussed the retirement scheme for farmers, North and South?
Mr Savage will be aware that we have agreed an all-island strategy for the eradication of scrapie in sheep, which may mask the symptoms of BSE. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and not the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is responsible for investigating BSE in sheep. My Department has a contingency plan that is out for consultation with the industry and other interested parties in Northern Ireland and the UK.
My officials were recently in Dublin to discuss TB and brucellosis controls in order to inform our decisions on the way ahead. We have agreed to establish an all- island animal health strategy, and that work continues.
The early retirement of farmers was not discussed. I initiated a desk-based study on early retirement last year. It was inconclusive because of the absence of data. Therefore, I have initiated a study to be carried out by Queen’s University and University College Cork. I hope that their findings will be reported to me in the new year, and that they will look at the implications of early retirement, its cost-effectiveness and its impact on the restructuring that is essential for the industry.
The report will be based on research that the industry does in other countries. When I receive the report, I will be able to judge whether early retirement will contribute to restructuring, and whether it would be a good idea. In the meantime, I shall keep that option open.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the progress that has been made under the various headings. What progress has been made in developing a strategy for animal and plant disease control? I refer in particular to brucellosis, which is endemic in my constituency and which causes difficulties for the farming industry. There has been a substantial increase in cases of brucellosis since 1996, at a cost of £22 million to the industry. The matter requires urgent attention. It must be eradicated and the carriers of such diseases must be controlled.
Brucellosis and tuberculosis are matters for concern. There has indeed been an increase in brucellosis, and we have been reviewing the strategy in Northern Ireland. When the working group set up under the North/South Ministerial Council arrangements carries out its work, we will be in a position to consider the elements of a cross-border strategy. Unfortunately, we have been unable to take that as far as we might have done because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Nevertheless, my officials were in Dublin last week to discuss the subject — and brucellosis — with their counterparts there. Progress has been made and will continue to be made to deal with the scourge.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and the fact that the North/South Ministerial Council, which is so important to agriculture, is still meeting and making progress. The statement mentions an all-Ireland approach to disease, and, in particular, to outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Work by Departments on both sides of the border minimised its spread and impact. Is the North/South Ministerial Council in agreement with Departments, North and South, that the way to a disease-free future is through an all-Ireland policy?
Why were impact studies for foot-and-mouth disease carried out in some areas, but not in the Meigh border area, which was badly affected by the disease?
At a North/South Ministerial meeting in October 2000, before there was any suspicion that we would be affected by foot-and-mouth disease, Mr Joe Walsh and I agreed to work out a joint strategy on animal disease on the island of Ireland. During the foot-and- mouth crisis, that strategy was shelved because there was no time for people to work on it. Work has now resumed on its development.
I am not sure what Mr McHugh was talking about with regard to the studies in Omeath. The Member will be aware that I am conducting an independent review on the foot-and-mouth epidemic. The remit is wide and will involve examining all aspects. Perhaps Mr McHugh could let me know in writing precisely what he has in mind, because I am not sure what he means.
Questions can be put to Ministers only on matters for which they have responsibility. Problems usually arise when issues fall between the Departments’ areas of responsibility. That is also the case in respect of jurisdiction responsibilities. Despite the Minister’s success in many areas to date, she is not responsible for studies that take place outside her jurisdiction. The Member’s question can be answered only by the Minister responsible for that jurisdiction — in this case the Minister in Dublin. I hope that that clarifies the matter.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I mentioned Meigh, which is in County Armagh.
I thought that you said Meath and the Minister thought that you said Omeath. I would of course have recognised Meigh. I thank the Member for clarifying the matter.
I read the Minister’s statement with interest. However, what was missing from the report was more notable than what it contained. I was particularly interested in the references to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), EU enlargement and reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP), an area that may change considerably in the future. Can the Minister say which interests were identified as common to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and those which were not?
We have many interests in common with the South with regard to the reform of the CAP, the WTO and EU enlargement. That is referred to in the communiqué, which has been placed in the Library. The main areas of common concern include: the impact on exports to third countries and further reduction in export refunds; the consequences of any further changes to CAP for producers; and the effects on farm incomes of any proposals affecting direct payments.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the progress that has been made since an all-Ireland animal health programme was first discussed in the Assembly. There has been much talk of future strategies. Will they include the continuation of an all-island fortress policy, regardless of future situations?
At present, a fortress Ireland policy is part of our strategy to maintain freedom from foot-and- mouth disease on the whole island. The policy will remain in place as long as it is necessary and as I long as I am Minister. I cannot speak for what will happen if a change in Administration occurs.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s statement. What impact will an increased instance of tuberculosis have on the Southern side’s disease- free status?
I understand that the Member is asking what would be the effect of an increase in tuberculosis in the North on the disease-free status of the Republic of Ireland.
I would not want to comment on the impact on the South, or on whether there would be any impact. That is a matter for the Minister there.
I tried to raise that exact point in respect of the earlier question by Mr Murphy’s Colleague. It is neither possible nor proper for the Minister here to respond to questions that relate to matters for which the Minister in Dublin has jurisdictional responsibility — [Interruption].
I am not sure whether that was a "hear, hear" in response to the point of order.
The Minister is aware of the importance of farm quality assurance in Northern Ireland. Has she discussed with her counterparts in the Irish Republic the system that they use? We all know that foreign produce finds its way to consumers in Northern Ireland who believe that those products will be of the same standard as that sought here in Northern Ireland.
I did not discuss farm quality assurance at the agriculture sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council. That matter was not on the agenda, and it was not discussed. Therefore it is not in my statement.
I am pleased that the North/South Ministerial Council discussed the pig meat report. Can the Minister explain the recommendations of that report?
The main recommendations are set out in the consultants’ report. They relate to: rationalisation of existing slaughter capacity and scaling of plant size; supply chain agreements between producers and primary processors; the need for secondary processors to improve reliability and consistency of supply; and the development of a stronger value-added sector. The report also indicates that without a significant improvement in the competitiveness of the industry in all of Ireland, it will face a further reduction of the production and processing sectors.
What steps are being taken to deal with the illegal cross-border movement of livestock?
Discussions continue between my officials and their counterparts in the South on the illegal cross- border movement of livestock. Among the issues being examined is individual sheep tagging, a practice that would have had an impact on our recent situation. The Government in the South have already made progress on that matter, and we are co-operating with them in that regard. We are also examining possible measures to reduce "incentives" for illegal cross-border sheep trading, such as reduced value-added tax and other forms of tax relief.
Can the Minister provide more detail on the role of the steering committee on cross-border rural development?
The role of the steering committee on cross-border rural development is to promote maximum co-operation in the implementation of EU and rural development programmes; to exchange information on experience and best practice in regard to rural development in each jurisdiction; and to examine the scope for a common approach to the feasibility of developing cross- border area-based strategies and rural development research.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Ms Hanna):
On behalf of the Environment Committee, I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(5), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(3) be extended to 14 December 2001, for the Committee Stage of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill (NIA Bill 19/00).
I speak, if I may, as an MLA who has an awareness of the situation. I have no objection to the extension of the Committee Stage, provided that it does not prejudice the urgency of repealing compulsory competitive tendering before 1 April 2002. I am, however, obliged to respond to recent points that have been made on the matter. There is concern that the Committee’s preference for a two-clause Bill — as communicated to me — would give precedence to the interests of district councils over the rights of residents and ratepayers, who are entitled to the assurance that council services are subjected to the independent best value audit. That applies to all parts of the public sector. I assure the House that best value means providing quality services at a price that local people are willing to pay. Councils should therefore operate in a framework that is transparent and accountable to the citizens that they serve.
Order. The question relates solely to the extension of the Committee Stage. The Member may raise a matter relating to that question, but I cannot entertain a debate on the substance of the Bill.
I reiterate the important point that although I have no objection to the extension of the Committee Stage, it must not prejudice the urgency of repealing compulsory competitive tendering before 1 April 2002.
Work on the Bill has taken longer than was anticipated, and the Committee believes that more time is required at the Committee Stage.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(5), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(3) be extended to 14 December 2001, for the Committee Stage of the Local Government (Best Value) Bill (NIA Bill 19/00).
I have this morning received a letter from the Minister of Education, Mr Martin McGuinness. It is relevant to the debate, and therefore I propose to read it to the House. It says
"Dear Lord Alderdice, I regret that due to urgent party business, which requires me to be in the USA, I cannot be present in the Assembly today for the take-note debate on the motion on the report prepared by the Committee for Education on the review of post-primary education in Northern Ireland. I would ask you to convey my apologies to the Members and hope that both you and they will understand. I have written separately to the Chairman of the Education Committee, Mr Danny Kennedy, explaining the position and indicating that my officials will be monitoring the debate, and if appropriate I will provide a written response to Members’ questions."
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The report before the Assembly deals with primary education and the 11-plus, an issue that is fundamental to every family in the North of Ireland. Is it not therefore an insult to the Assembly that the Minister of Education will not be in attendance to answer the finer points of the debate and to have exchanges on the matter?
It has been the custom in the Assembly and in other places that Ministers, if at all possible, attend debates on matters of their departmental responsibility to listen and to respond to points raised. If a Minister is unable to be present at a debate, be that on account of alternative arrangements, health matters or other reasons, a Colleague may act on his or her behalf. As a member of the Business Committee, the Member may wish to raise this question there. It would be inappropriate for me to comment other than on the simple procedural matter, which is that it is the custom, and the Minister has recognised that it is the custom and has written to apologise because he recognises that he is breaching the custom. The Member has said what he has said.
Mr J Kelly:
On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely the Minister’s absence is not for any frivolous reason. If the Minister were not absent on that business, these Members would be criticising him for not doing all that he could to ensure the survival of the Assembly.
It is difficult for me, from the Chair, to decide whether the visit by the Minister is frivolous or otherwise. Perhaps only history will demonstrate that; it remains to be seen. It is clear that the Minister — in fairness to him — has recognised that he is not following the normal custom. He has written and tendered his apologies to the House and to me. It is proper to put that on the record, lest there be any sense that the Minister had not recognised that his non-attendance was an unusual matter.
It would not be proper for us to extend this into a debate. Of course, if there are points of order I will take them, but only if they are legitimate points of order.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You read out a letter from the Minister of Education stating specifically that he is abroad on party business, not ministerial business. Surely the primary responsibility of a Minister who is being paid for the job is to be responsive to this Assembly when he has already agreed to be so by the arrangement of the business today?
From a procedural point of view, as Speaker of this House I of course regard the responsibility of a Minister to his ministerial job as being a primary one. However, I suspect that as everyone searches themselves and looks at whether their responsibilities are primarily to the House, their families, their parties or whatever else they have responsibilities to, they might come up with different answers to that question. The Standing Order position is clear — there is a primary responsibility to the House. The Minister has recognised that and has sent a letter of apology, which I have read into the record.
Mr J Kelly:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not want to labour the matter, but surely Mr McGrady can recall when Ministers from his party were absent from the House when issues were raised that were relevant to their Departments.
Order. After the earlier departure, I assumed that points of order which verged on the political would be less likely in the Chamber, but it does not necessarily appear to be so. As one can see, one just never knows what the future brings.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Kennedy):
I beg to move
That this Assembly takes note of the report prepared by the Committee for Education on the ‘Review of Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland’.
It was once alleged that I could make a moving speech. I did not realise that I could ever move an entire political party or grouping from the Assembly, but I understand that I may not be to blame for that.
At the outset of this important debate on education, I — on behalf of myself, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Education Committee and the entire Assembly — unreservedly condemn the outrageous attack that resulted in injuries to a couple of children in an explosion last night in north Belfast. I hope that the House will join with me in saying that attacks of that nature have no place in north Belfast or, indeed, anywhere in Northern Ireland.
Mr M Murphy:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I cannot hear what the Member is saying.
It is clear that some Members are unable to hear. Perhaps the Member would speak with a little more robustness. That being the case, I ask him to start again.