Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 14 January 2002
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Two points of order are being raised. The first is from Mr Alban Maginness.
Mr A Maginness:
Mr Speaker, I wish to raise a point of order in relation to the death of a constituent of mine in North Belfast, Mr Daniel McColgan. I understand that it would be inappropriate to move for the suspension of Standing Orders, or to ask to make a statement in relation to this matter. However, on a previous occasion — in the aftermath of the death of Mr Martin O’Hagan — it was deemed appropriate by the House that it would stand in silence for one minute as a mark of respect. Is it in order for the same tribute to be paid to Mr McColgan, who was so savagely murdered in a brutal sectarian attack at the weekend? Would it be appropriate, in the circumstances, to permit this at the beginning of the session?
I will take any further points of order before I respond. I understand that the second point of order has been withdrawn.
Mr Maginness must not have consulted with his Colleagues, because there was a clear understanding after the previous event as to how such matters should be handled. As regards this particular tragic and distressing event, several procedures might be followed, and one of those is presently being explored for later today. This is a sensitive and difficult issue, and it would be appropriate for the House to respond in a considered manner and not in a purely reflexive way. Therefore, I ask the Member to understand that explorations are presently ongoing as to how this matter might be addressed more fully than by simply standing in silence, though that is perfectly proper and appropriate. There may be a fuller way of dealing with the substance of this important issue. Given the sensitivities of the matter, I ask the Member whether he understands that this is a proper way of handling it.
Mr A Maginness:
I am grateful for your remarks, Mr Speaker. I was unaware that the House was contemplating any further proceedings in relation to the murder of Mr McColgan. I accept your ruling on the matter.
I appreciate that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 14 December, you issued a statement to Members regarding changes to the SDLP ministerial team. You said that Mr Durkan had ceased to hold office as Minister of Finance and Personnel, and that Dr Farren was no longer Minister for Employment and Learning. You also intimated that, in her capacity as SDLP nominating officer, Ms Bríd Rodgers had nominated the following: Dr Farren as Minister of Finance and Personnel and Ms Carmel Hanna as Minister for Employment and Learning. You said that they had accepted the nominations, which took immediate effect. Is it in order to congratulate the SDLP and its Ministers, despite their previous criticism of my party, on what looks like, sounds like and has the appearance of ministerial rotation?
It would be wrong for me to comment otherwise, and particularly inappropriate for me to stand in the way of any form of congratulations, however they might come about or however they might be couched.
It is a case of twisting rather than rotating.
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, in its environment sectoral format, which was held on 14 December 2001 in the Dunadry Inn, County Antrim.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Bríd Rodgers and I attended the meeting, which I chaired. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been agreed by Ms Rodgers, and is also made on her behalf.
The meeting began with the Council noting the award of the contract for a joint web site of current environmental research to a Belfast-based company, Infinet Design. The web site will appropriately be named ANSWER, which stands for ‘A North South Web site of Environmental Research’. Until now, there has been no central register of environmental research projects in Ireland.
The ANSWER web site will be a central repository of information for researchers, academics and voluntary groups. It should be accessible by March 2002 through its own web address and from the web sites of the two environment agencies. After the meeting, Ministers viewed a prototype of the web site.
The Council then considered progress in the development of an all-island land cover map. A sample cross- border area between Dundalk and Newry was selected to test whether the United Kingdom’s mapping approach might be sufficiently compatible with that of the Republic of Ireland to enable an all-island map to be produced. The information will be of use to many interest groups, especially those concerned with forestry, natural heritage and agriculture and will assist them with their respective land management roles. The comparison of data for the sample area should take approximately three months.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
Ministers were updated on progress in providing public access to environmental information and statistics. The two environment agencies have begun testing the compatibility of their separate databases using river- monitoring data. The more compatible the individual repositories are, the easier it will be to bring the information together for public access through the Internet.
The Council reviewed the work of the joint working group on water quality, which was established to consider water quality strategies for the Erne and the Foyle catchments and the implementation of the EU’s Water Framework Directive. Ministers were given a very informative presentation on the technical aspects of delineating international river basin districts under the Water Framework Directive. The Council endorsed the general approach adopted by the group and asked it to make recommendations for the areas to be delineated.
The Council then turned its attention to waste recycling issues. Ministers approved the establishment of a steering group to develop proposals for establishing a market development programme for recycled materials on an all-island basis. The group will comprise representatives of the Environment Departments and agencies of both jurisdictions, as well as a representative from my Department’s waste management advisory board.
The two Environment Departments are also exploring ways of establishing an all-island community recycling network with the help of the voluntary sector. The purpose of this is to encourage and facilitate the involvement of community-based organisations in reuse and recycling programmes and to promote partnerships between voluntary groups, local authorities and businesses in support of better waste management.
The Institute of Waste Management has also been asked to identify examples of successful recycling schemes and market development projects elsewhere in Europe, which might be examined as examples of best practice.
The Council was then updated on progress with the scoping study into the environmental impacts of agriculture. Ministers noted the establishment of the project steering group and approved the group’s proposals for the recruitment, supervision and funding of two researchers, one from each jurisdiction. The study will compare farming practices and controls on both sides of the border and will provide a basis for developing co-operative arrangements for nutrient management planning.
The Council next considered proposals for developing co-operation in promoting environmental awareness and education. The Council reviewed existing levels of co-operation and agreed that officials should work together to explore and develop opportunities for further networking and information exchange and for co-operation in the production of publications and exhibitions.
Finally, Ministers agreed the text of the joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of that communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment will take place in March 2002 in the South.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
As Chairman of the Environment Committee, I would like to raise two issues with the Minister.
The EU Water Framework Directive is a far- reaching and important piece of legislation, which has still to be transposed into Northern Ireland legislation to avoid infraction proceedings. My Committee has consistently been told by officials from the Department of the Environment that progress on a range of issues, such as the EU Directive, has been slow because of the difficulty of recruiting staff with suitable expertise, knowledge, experience and skills. Considering that the joint working group on water quality has been in existence for well over a year, can the Minister state exactly what contribution it has made to the transposition of the Water Framework Directive into Northern Ireland legislation? Is the Minister satisfied that his Department now has sufficient staff with the expertise, knowledge and skills to enable him to guarantee that the Directive will be transposed here in the time available?
The second issue concerns Northern Ireland’s waste management strategy. The Department of the Environment appears to have more success with the North/South waste recycling initiatives than with the three council partnerships responsible for waste management plans here.
The Minister talks about promoting initiatives and partnerships between voluntary groups, local authorities and businesses in support of better waste management. However, this week the Committee for the Environment will again have to call departmental officials to explain why none of the local partnerships have been allocated any of the remaining £2·5 million budget for this financial year to enable them to implement waste management plans.
Where does the funding for departmental officials involved in the North/South waste initiatives come from? For example, is it allocated from the £2·5 million budget? Are those same officials tasked with implementing the waste management strategy in Northern Ireland? Can the Minister assure the House that the £2·5 million will be spent on waste management plans in Northern Ireland in this financial year?
It takes time to employ staff. The Department of the Environment wants to enable faster movement, and I refute the argument that it is taking its time. My staff work hard and satisfactorily. The Department is satisfied that sufficient staff are now available to implement the Directive.
Before public consultation, the three waste management partnerships submitted waste management plans to the Department of the Environment in June 2001. The Department did not receive the final plans at that time — they were pre-consultative drafts — and that held up the process. The plans were reviewed by departmental officials and are being further developed by district councils in conjunction with the Department before the commencement of a major public consultation programme in February. The Department is distributing £2·5 million to deal with waste management issues.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
There are 11 requests to speak. Since there are 50 minutes remaining for the debate, I ask Members to make their questions as succinct as possible to allow the Minister time to answer.
Will the Minister outline some of the benefits of the measures that he announced, which were gained as a result of participation in the North/South Ministerial Council?
The Council is involved in many important and useful projects, including the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, which requires co-operation on cross-border waterways, particularly in the development of water-quality classification systems and in the production of water-quality management plans. The Council provides for the joint-ministerial oversight of that work.
Agriculture is another major contributor to the economies of both jurisdictions. However, the Department recognises the environmental impact of agricultural activities, particularly the run-off of fertilisers into waterways. It will explore and advise on those issues. The excessive use of fertilisers results in economic loss by farmers. The joint scoping study commissioned by the Council will examine controls and good farming practices in nutrient management on both sides of the border.
North/South co-operation in promoting recycling and the development of markets for the use of recycled materials will provide the economies of scale that are needed to render viable any investment in recycling and recovering facilities. It will also provide a larger market for products made from recycled materials.
The steering group’s work to establish an all-island market development programme for recycled materials will be critical in providing the economic incentives that are needed to make recycling and recovery a sustainable enterprise. The cross-border Council meetings have resulted in benefits, and they will continue to do so. I am satisfied with the progress that has been made.
Mr A Doherty:
I thank the Minister for his statement and note the decision to set up a joint web site, which will appropriately be named ANSWER. Can we hope that the answers provided by the environmental research will be more forthcoming and forthright than the answers that we so painfully and despairingly try to wring from the UK Government about the environment —
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is this a question?
Mr A Doherty:
Yes. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, it will be a three-part question. Can we hope that the answers will be more readily forthcoming than those that we try to wring from the Government about the environmental consequences of installations such as Sellafield?
With regard to the joint working group on water quality, I note that the emphasis so far has been on the quality of inland water and waterways. This is important and valuable. However, is it possible for the North/ South Ministerial Council to give urgent attention to what is considered to be the most polluted waterway in Europe? I refer of course to the Irish Sea, and again Sellafield is the bête noire.
Waterways do concern us, and the last point is very important. The working group on water quality is working well and has made good progress. It is now focusing on implementing the Water Framework Directive, which requires cross-border co-operation on shared waterways. I appreciate that there are concerns about Sellafield and the Irish Sea. However, we continuously monitor the waters of the Irish Sea, and although we cannot be certain, nothing in our findings causes us grave concern about pollution in the Irish Sea because of Sellafield.
Go raibh míle maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s statement and the report’s strong theme of harmonising and developing compatibility between the various research methods and data retrieval means.
With regard to the all-island land cover map and the project in Dundalk and Newry, it seems strange that it will take three months to establish whether the research methods are compatible. I imagine that one hour’s work would do that. I hope that we do not have to wait three months and that we will hear specific — [Interruption].
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is the Member coming to his question?
Yes. If there are problems with compatibility, can we expect specific proposals to be framed in those three months? We need to hear responses and solutions.
I support the Committee Chairperson’s comments about waste management. However, I am concerned that there is an emphasis on the community and voluntary sectors, when the main sources of waste material are obviously the manufacturing and industrial processes on the island. Should emphasis not be placed on them?
Is the Minister aware of the proposal to build a £30 million incinerator in north Monaghan, which is near this territory? If so, what is his response to it?
The Member has asked quite a lot of questions, and it is difficult to remember them all.
I am not formally aware of plans to build an incinerator in north Monaghan. My Department has not been made aware of it either.
With regard to the length of time that it will take to develop the land cover map, we do not want to waste any time on these projects. However, such things take time, and we must move slowly to ensure that everything is done correctly. There should be no significant problems with the compatibility of the two land cover approaches that we are working on. The CORINE (co-ordination of information on the environment) land cover project for Ireland is a European land map that covers mapping projects used in the South. Northern Ireland is included in the more detailed UK land cover map 2000. A land cover map records in detail the extent and types of land — for example, forests, wetlands, farmlands and coastal areas. The North/South Ministerial Council project aims to integrate the UK and Republic of Ireland land cover mapping approaches to produce an all-island land cover map. A sample cross-border area between Newry and Dundalk has been chosen for initial comparison of the two mapping approaches, and that work should be completed by the end of April.
The benefit of an all-island map is that land types will be classified in the same way, North and South, and in the respective jurisdictions. It will be essential to have similar information, North and South, for characterising shared river basin districts under the EU Water Framework Directive. Moves will be made quickly, but cautiously, to ensure that the right thing is done.
In the context of the market development programme for recycled materials, is the Minister aware of the Republic’s successful scheme for the recycling of agricultural plastic? Should Northern Ireland again become covered with the refuse from big bale silage, will the Minister ensure that Northern Ireland farmers can benefit from that scheme or a similar one?
In the Minister’s discussions with Mr Dempsey, the Republic’s Minister for the Environment and Local Government, did he mention the three species that are the subject of his Department’s special action plan — the chough, the curlew and the Irish hare? If not, will he do so as soon as possible?
At the last North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting, Noel Dempsey and I approved the establishment of a steering group to encourage waste recycling and to develop proposals for the establishment of a market development programme for recycled materials on an all-Ireland basis. The first meeting of the steering group will take place at the end of January 2002.
A study which is being undertaken by the Clean Technology Centre in Cork in association with the Austrian Institute for Applied Ecology is examining the development of markets for recyclables recovered from the municipal waste stream. The project is assessing existing and potential markets for recovered materials, instruments and tools for the development of new markets and outlets, and it will prepare a strategic approach for such development. I assure the Member that the Department continues to work on that issue.
Mr Ford also referred to the hare, the curlew and the chough. That matter was not dealt with specifically at our last meeting. However, the issue remains at the forefront of the work of the Environment and Heritage Service at all times.
I welcome the statement on waste recycling and the North/South approach to this important issue. I also welcome the proposal for partnerships between voluntary groups, local authorities and businesses. I join with Dr McCrea and Mr McLaughlin in asking what action is being taken at a local level. What incentives are being offered to encourage local authorities to become involved seriously in waste management?
The Department advises local authorities. Three different groups in the Province are currently working on waste management issues, and their efforts are now coming to fruition. The Department has helped where it can; £2·5 million will be distributed to district councils to help to deal with waste management issues.
Mr K Robinson:
What arrangements are currently in place for North/South co-operation in the event of a water pollution incident? Will adequate east/west arrangements be in place with the Minister’s Scottish and Westminster Colleagues to deal with the concerns of my constituents in East Antrim should the proposed nuclear power plant proceed at Hunterston on the Ayrshire coast?
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I have that question again?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Robinson, please take it a little more slowly.
Mr K Robinson:
Mr Deputy Speaker, I was acceding to your command to speed it up. I am sorry if I over- egged the pudding.
In the light of the Minister’s statement, what arrangements are currently in place for North/South co-operation in the event of a water pollution incident? Moreover, will he undertake to ensure that adequate east/west arrangements are in place with his Scottish and Westminster Colleagues to deal with the concerns of my constituents in East Antrim should the proposed nuclear power station at Hunterston on the Ayrshire coast proceed?
I apologise to Mr Robinson for putting him through that again.
Mr K Robinson:
I enjoyed it thoroughly, Minister.
I am sure that the Member did.
I am pleased to report that there have been no serious cross-border water pollution incidents recently. Emergency arrangements are in place with border-county councils in the Republic of Ireland for emergencies that involve shared river systems and with the Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES) for coastal waters. Our water pollution incident response procedures identify key officials in Departments, agencies and local authorities on both sides of the border, and provide telephone numbers for 24-hour contact. A UK-wide 24-hour helpline number — 0800 807060 — is available for reporting all water pollution incidents.
The impact on a waterway will depend on the nature and volume of the pollutant involved, how soon the incident is reported, and the location. Those factors dictate the nature of any emergency co-operation between the pollution control authorities in each jurisdiction. Water-borne pollution is difficult to treat once a pollutant has entered a waterway. More can be done by way of booms and extraction if the pollutant is oil. Oil does not dissolve, but forms a surface film.
I have seen media references to the possibility of British Energy building a new nuclear power station at Hunterston on the Ayrshire coast, which could be operational by 2011. A spokesman for British Energy was quoted as saying that a replacement nuclear plant at Hunterston was only a draft proposal at this stage and would be assessed as part of the current GB-wide energy review. I understand that the Scottish Executive have confirmed that the possibility of building a new reactor in Scotland would depend on the outcome of the GB energy review. That review is expected to conclude in the near future.
In the event of any proposal to build a nuclear power plant anywhere in the UK, I shall seek assurances from my ministerial counterparts in Great Britain on the radiological impact on the Northern Ireland population and on the wider public safety implications.
I welcome the Minister’s statement on the North/South meeting as a progress report on many issues. First, the community recycling network aspect of his report envisages local authorities, community groups, voluntary groups and businesses getting together to make a concerted effort to manage waste. Does the Minister agree that there has been a great deal of procrastination and pseudo-consultation for many years, especially in local government, without any real determination to make a decision? Can he give us an estimate of the date or the time by which he hopes to have a concerted programme for Northern Ireland, which can, it is hoped, be matched by an equally successful one for the Republic of Ireland?
Secondly, on the question he has just answered, I am pleased to hear that he is now aware that matters outside his jurisdiction can also impact on nuclear waste management matters within his jurisdiction. The power station in Ayrshire is not a replacement. It is new build — and I want him to watch that. Regarding a recent statement by an eminent scientist on the difficulty of decommissioning the number one pile at Windscale — that is, Sellafield — is the Minister aware of the dangers that are there? Will he ensure that, as promised, he will place nuclear matters in Great Britain on the North/South Ministerial Council’s agenda?
I assure the Member and the House that we shall work on those aspects to ensure that what is good for this part of the world is right and proper. We shall meet our responsibilities.
Mr McGrady is continually concerned about the Sellafield issue. As I am sure the Member knows, responsibility for regulating discharges from Sellafield rests with the Environment Agency for England and Wales. It is an excepted matter over which the Northern Ireland Administration has no jurisdiction.
My officials have undertaken joint studies with their counterparts in the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and with University College Dublin on the impact of discharges from Sellafield. Those studies consistently demonstrate low levels of radioactivity on the coastline of County Down, County Louth and beyond. In the near future, the British-Irish Council will consider the difficulties Sellafield presents. However, I assure the Member and the House that we shall want to move quickly and efficiently to meet our responsibilities.
The new body has been set up on a North/South basis. What east/west input will there be? What input will UK environmental rules and controls have? Will the Minister assure the Assembly that Directives, and requests from Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will be treated equally when the new North/South body draws up recommendations?
As well as the North/South Ministerial Council, which I speak about today, there is the British- Irish Council. Therefore, we are working North/South and east/west. The work that we shall engage in involves both islands.
I too welcome the Minister’s statement, but I am disappointed that he does not seem to know about the proposed incinerator in north Monaghan, especially as councillors from his party have attended meetings with me on the issue. As MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I ask the Minister to use his Department to seek information about that proposal as it will have adverse effects on the environment not only in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but across the Six Counties. It will also affect health and agriculture.
I come from the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, so I also have an interest in the matter. The proposed incinerator may affect the entire Province one way or another, and I assure the Member that we shall make enquiries to establish the intention.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the proposed initiatives to promote recycling and market development. As we know, the lack of a market holds up many recycling issues. The Minister will realise that another point on which the waste management issue revolves is waste reduction. Will he outline the efforts that have been made by councils and by his Department to liaise with businesses to reduce the amount of waste entering the system?
Further to the previous supplementary question, and in the knowledge that there will be residual waste no matter which system is used, will the Minister undertake with the Institute of Wastes Management, when it is within Europe, to examine some of the more modern energy-to-waste methods that are being utilised there?
Earlier, we talked about the North/South Ministerial Council’s approach to promoting recycling and to developing markets for recyclates.
That is an important issue, and I am aware of the concern throughout about reducing waste. The reduction of waste during the design and manufacture of goods is a key long-term objective, and it will be a slow process. The prevention of waste is essential, and recycling to get the best value for materials is also central to the waste management plans. There are the three Rs and the D — reduce, reuse, recycle and deposit. People must examine those mechanisms. Councils’ waste management plans are now almost fully developed. The more that we can recycle and, where appropriate, recover energy from waste, the less we shall lose to landfill.
I also assure the Member that we shall explore all avenues to determine the best way to reduce waste and deal with the surplus to which he referred. That is a difficult process; it must be worked on, and individuals must participate, not only councils.
The Minister referred to the Erne and Foyle basins. What are the first outcomes that he has learnt from the study on the delineation of waterways?
He said that all-Ireland co-operation on waste disposal is becoming more prominent. Does that mean that the three strategy groups that were set up to operate waste disposal in Northern Ireland will be abandoned? What is to happen to the £2 million or so that was to assist that programme? Can councils bid for that individually?
Moreover, will the Minister respond to the question that was put — will there be an east/west contribution to this debate on waste disposal, rather than just a North/ South one?
There will always be an east/west relationship, because we are part of the east/west relationship that comes with being part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A North/South dimension is working, with two separate jurisdictions respecting each other’s views but able to work together for mutual benefit.
The Member referred to international river basin districts (IRBDs). I do not know whether he wants an explanation, but where a river basin district overlaps the territory of more than one European member state, the EU Water Framework Directive requires those member states to identify it as an international river basin district.
Recommendations on the districts to be delineated will form part of a consultation paper on the implementation of the Directive in Northern Ireland. That report will be published before the summer. Due regard will always be given to any advice or guidance that becomes available on the application or interpretation of the EU Water Framework Directive in relation to the delineation of IRBDs. Where appropriate, guidance may be sought from the European Commission on the matter. One area in which such guidance may be needed is on the issue of assigning international river basins to IRBDs for practical administration and cost-benefit reasons.
Can the Minister provide some further details on the environmental research register? We should compliment whoever thought up the clever acronym, ANSWER. In particular, when will the register be posted on the Internet?
It is planned that the web site will go live in March. I look forward to launching this state- of-the-art source of information. The register is appropriately named ANSWER, and I gave details of it earlier. Access to the register will be through its own web address at www.answer-online.org, or through the web sites of participating organisations. The register will be of great value to anyone who is involved or interested in environmental research, such as Government Departments and agencies, universities and colleges, environmental groups, and industry and environmental consultants.
The sharing of that information will help researchers and sponsors to avoid duplication of effort and cost, to identify new areas for research, to find partners for collaboration and to identify potential sources of funding. The register currently contains information on environmental protection research carried out by the two environment agencies. Work is under way to add nature conservation research findings. Thereafter, it is planned to add information from academic institutions and the private commercial sectors.
Will the Minister explain what he means by an "international river basin district" and give some idea of what progress has been made towards delineating those?
Where a river basin or catchment area covers the territory of more than one European member state the Water Framework Directive requires those member states to identify the district as an international river basin district. Member states are required to co-operate on the management of water quality throughout such cross-border international river basin districts in their respective jurisdictions. Each member state must establish appropriate administrative arrangements for water quality management within that co-operative context in order to achieve the Directive's long-term aim of good water quality status by 2015.
The Erne, the Foyle and Lough Neagh form part of catchments shared with the South, and, as such, they lie within the international river basin districts according to the terms of the Directive. At previous North/South Ministerial Council meetings, Ministers agreed some general principles for the delineation of international river basin districts in line with the requirements of the Directive. I intend to include recommendations on the districts to be delineated in a consultation paper on the implementation of the Directive in Northern Ireland, and that paper should be published before the summer.