Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 19 March 2002
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I understand that there is a difficulty with the annunciator system this morning. The scroll bar, which advises of matters such as ministerial statements to the House, is not working. I draw that to Members’ attention because three such statements are to be made this morning: a statement on the February monitoring round from the Minister of Finance and Personnel; a statement on the British-Irish Council environment sector from the Minister of the Environment; and a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council tourism sector from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I want to ensure that Members are not unaware of those because of the technical problem with the scroll bar. I understand that our technicians are trying to resolve the problem, but I trust that Members will ensure that their Colleagues are aware of it.
Mr Hussey has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.
I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of 1,517 residents of Newtownstewart and its hinterland in my constituency of West Tyrone. The petition has the support of all Members who represent that constituency, and of the members of Strabane District Council and Omagh District Council. I declare my membership of Strabane District Council.
The signatories of the petition are concerned that the present design of the junction of the Douglas Bridge with the Gortin and Plumbridge roads on the Newtownstewart bypass — currently under construction — may create an accident black spot. The petitioners emphasise that they have no desire to delay work on the Newtownstewart bypass. However, they ask the Minister to investigate the potential for an alternative layout at the named junction. The Minister has been made aware of the anticipated difficulties and has undertaken to consider them. The petition emphasises the broad concern about this matter in the Newtownstewart area.
Mr Hussey moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
I shall forward the petition to the Minister for Regional Development and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development.
Ms Morrice has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.
I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of the representatives of 22 women’s centres in Greater Belfast. More than 80 women have signed the petition, which highlights the funding crisis that women’s advice centres are facing. Many of those centres are threatened with closure because of lack of funding. If that happens, a wealth of experience and an important service to the community will be lost.
Ms Morrice moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
I shall forward the petition to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday, it was announced that Her Majesty would confer city status on two of the Province’s towns, Newry and Lisburn. Is it in order for the Assembly to congratulate those towns? As a representative of what is now Ulster’s second city, I feel it would be appropriate for us to do so.
The Member knows very well that, although it would be in order for the Assembly to debate such a motion, such a motion is not before the Assembly. However, it is clear that the Member, who represents the area, has taken the opportunity to make his views on the matter known.
I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the February monitoring round.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Dr Farren): On behalf of the Executive, I wish to make a statement on public spending allocations for 2001-02 following the February monitoring round.
The Executive have decided on some reallocations of expenditure for the short time that remains in this financial year. Those reallocations make use of the resources available from changes in the estimated requirements of Departments that arose in the February monitoring round.
At this late stage, we are primarily concerned with making the necessary changes to estimated requirements and the fine-tuning of allocations, rather than with any policy change or new priorities. As the spring Supplementary Estimates have been finalised, there is limited scope to increase departmental allocations.
Departments have surrendered some money due to new reduced requirements, and some unusual factors have arisen that affect spending power. Net routine reduced requirements amount to £31·2 million. In addition, three special factors have emerged, to which I shall return later.
Members will recall that, in deciding the Budget for 2002-03, we assumed that we would be able to carry forward some spending power from 2001-02. That was largely dealt with in the September and December monitoring rounds, but the first £13 million of new money from this round was required to confirm the spending plans of Departments in 2002-03, as approved by the Assembly in December. Thus the routine amount available for the normal business of Departments was £18 million.
Departments have lodged bids for additional resources in this monitoring round totalling over £6·9 million, and the Executive have agreed that they should all be met. They are mostly relatively minor "tidying-up" allocations to a few Departments. As the spring Supplementary Estimates have already been finalised, there is limited scope for increasing spending allocations in 2001-02, so the small number of bids is not surprising. Once they have been covered, we will be left with £11·3 million of routine savings that cannot be spent in 2001-02 and will be carried forward into 2002-03.
Several Departments have indicated that the savings that they have declared in this round relate to issues for which provision will be required in the next financial year. Those bids for "carry forward" will have to be considered on their merits in the first reallocation exercise of 2002-03. It is likely that there will be more end-year flexibility money that will be identified only when provisional out-turn data become available in May. I will make proposals for distributing end-year flexibility money that is not already committed for an agreed purpose to the Executive in the June monitoring round.
I said earlier that three unusual factors have arisen. First, we have been able to confirm a change to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s resource budget that will allow us to use £23·9 million for important priorities early in the new financial year.
Secondly, the Department of Education has re-phased the expenditure profile for the Classroom 2000 project, which means that some £9·9 million of spending will be accounted for in 2002-03 or 2003-04 instead of 2001-02. However, the timing of the project will not be affected.
It would not be appropriate to treat those unusual items as part of the routine monitoring round, and they will be carried forward as part of the end-year flexibility money. The provision for Classroom 2000 will be required in future years and will be held until confirmation of the detailed requirements is received so that work on the project is not impeded.
The third special factor is that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is completing a review of the spending requirements for its programmes for 2002-03, which may lead to some material adjustments to its plans from those approved in the Budget in December.
Having taken account of those factors, the Executive have decided to use the remaining room to manoeuvre from this monitoring round and the £23·9 million that has become available from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to augment the Executive programme funds and to address some immediate funding issues early in the new financial year. The Executive will be considering proposals on that soon after Easter. Given the scale of resources now available to us for 2002-03, there are strong arguments for taking early decisions on their allocation before the June monitoring round to allow for effective planning and spending.
In considering the scope for action available to us, we must take account of the new inescapable pressures that we will face in 2002-03 including, for example, the £10 million pressure for Harland & Wolff plc employers’ liability insurance claims.
However, I emphasise that these are only some of the factors we will need to consider, and no decisions have yet been made. Also, the circumstances that have given rise to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety issue require further analysis, not least to determine the likely position in 2002-03 and beyond.
The £23·9 million technical reduced requirement from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety arose through the complexity of the conversion to resource budgeting, and the saving came to light through improved understanding of the new rules on resource budgeting. Following the action taken a year ago to correct trust deficits, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety implemented measures to strengthen the financial performance of the health and personal social services, such as recovery plans to address underlying problems and contingency plans to ensure income and expenditure balances in-year.
The Department has advised me that trusts are forecast to break even this year. That achievement was assisted by the substantial in-year additions that the Executive provided for health. In this improved context, it transpired that the public expenditure cover required to provide the planned level of services in 2001-02 was £23·9 million less than had previously been understood.
The reasons for this are complex. I will not burden the House with a detailed explanation of the Department’s funding policies or the accounting transactions which have given rise to it, although I will be glad to discuss this in more depth with the Committee for Finance and Personnel. The good news is that we will be able to make fresh use of this £23·9 million in 2002-03. Some adjustments may also be made for 2002-03 and 2003-04. However, I will not be able to confirm that until the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have completed further work. It will be important to make prudent provision for health trust finances.
The outcomes of this monitoring round again demonstrate the need to address a pattern of underspending which then leaves room to manoeuvre; this has occurred in successive monitoring rounds. It is a matter of particular concern that Departments have surrendered such large sums at this stage, when it is too late for them to be used in the spring Supplementary Estimates.
Mr Durkan and I have both commented at length on underspending. I will not labour the point now, other than to reiterate my commitment to a thorough and robust review, the outcome of which I will report to the Assembly. This exercise will include recommendations on how to agree a long-term approach to the problem of underspending across all Departments. This may include, for example, incentives for Departments to improve the quality of estimating — at all times bearing in mind the need to focus on Programme for Government priorities and public service agreement targets.
I wish to report one further item to Members. On 20 December 2001, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced increases in provision for schools in England, and the resulting Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland is £663,000 in 2002-03 and £995,000 in 2003-04. Although this addition to the Northern Ireland departmental expenditure level is the result of a decision to increase spending on education in England, it is of course for the Executive to decide how the resources should be spent here. However, recognising that education is one of the Executive’s key priorities, we have agreed to allocate the 2002-03 share to the Department of Education now.
Although it would not be normal practice to allocate resources for next year during this year’s in-year monitoring process, we have concluded that this approach will allow the Department of Education to plan to make the best possible use of the available resources at an early stage. However, we have agreed that we should retain the £995,000 for 2003-04 as room to manoeuvre for allocation in the course of the Budget 2002 exercise.
I invite the Assembly to note the relatively minor reallocations that have emerged in this monitoring round. I ask Members to note that, taking account of some unforeseen — and unforeseeable — developments, we will now be able to consider some additions to allocations for 2002-03, including some through the Executive programme funds early in the new financial year. I also ask Members to note my intention to return to the Assembly, having rigorously examined the issue of underspending and how to better plan departmental spending.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is important that the issue of room for manoeuvre and the amount of money available this time be examined.
Will the Minister give a breakdown of the funds and how they will be allocated? How much will be used for particular spending, and how much will be added to the Executive programme funds (EPFs)? How do the Executive intend to undertake the process of allocating EPFs, as current rounds have all but been suspended during the review? My Committee has pointed out that the whole issue of EPFs is in question because it is not dealing with new spending and the new bidding process; it is dealing with reallocation of existing funds.
As regards the review of the monitoring process, I welcome the Minister’s concern about the amount of money that keeps coming up in monitoring rounds due to overbidding or underspending by Departments. How will that be dealt with? I welcome the opportunity for the Committee for Finance and Personnel to become involved in that review.
I will endeavour to answer as many of the Member’s questions as possible. However, Hansard will remind me if I overlook one or two, and I will reply to them in writing.
I have said that, taking the various special factors into account, the Executive will use non-allocated funds that have emerged from the monitoring round to augment the EPFs and address immediate funding issues early in the new financial year. However, I am unable to say precisely how the funds will be allocated within the EPFs. We will not consider proposals until soon after Easter, as I have already made clear.
We recognise that the EPFs have been undergoing a detailed review and that the Committee for Finance and Personnel has provided important and helpful assistance to the review. I acknowledge that contribution. The points emerging from the review will be taken on board in any new allocations from the EPFs.
I acknowledge the Member’s point about underspending, and that he has made that point on behalf of the Committee many times. The review of underspending trends is under way, and I hope to return to the Assembly and the Committee with the outcome of that as soon as possible. I have said — if only in broad terms — that we want to encourage Departments to be more precise in forecasting for their budgetary allocations. A greater degree of flexibility may well become available to Departments if we can be assured that they will be more precise in their approach to some aspects of their budgeting than has yet been apparent.
The bids are detailed in the table that has been circulated with my statement, so I do not need to detail them explicitly now. All Members can see where the money has been allocated. Since all the bids are being met, the allocations indicate the nature of the bids themselves.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Beggs): Following the question about the allocations identified in the monitoring round, the Minister referred to what the Executive consider to be the "immediate funding issues" that face the Administration as we start a new financial year. Will he detail these? Do they reflect the three big priorities previously identified by the Executive and the Assembly — health, education and the transport infrastructure deficit?
Secondly, can the Minister assure us that there will be no negative impact on any of the aims and targets in the Programme for Government as a result of the easements that have been identified in the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety? In particular, £9·9 million has been made available by re-phasing the Classroom 2000 project. Can the Minister confirm that that project will still be implemented on schedule?
There are short answers to most of the questions that the Member has raised. The Programme for Government will not be negatively affected. The pressures that I have referred to are well-known pressures in the three areas that the Member has identified — health, education, and roads and transport. As everyone knows, those are the main areas where major pressures exist, and the Executive will be making the kinds of allocations that are referred to here to address them
I can assure the Member that Classroom 2002 will not be affected. In reallocating funds to different years in the manner I described, I am addressing the re-phasing of the expenditure, rather than the implementation of the project itself
The Minister said that he intends to address financial planning in Departments in the hope of reducing underspending. Can he say when he will make his recommendations to the Executive and the Assembly, and what they might be?
We will be looking at incentives that may allow more flexibility in how Departments handle their allocations. However, the Executive have not had firm proposals, and until they do and those proposals are discussed and approved, I will not be able to bring them to the Assembly.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development handed back money allocated to brucellosis compensation. That is astonishing given the rise in brucellosis and the Department’s inability, in some cases, to deal with it because of an apparent lack of money.
The Minister said that he was concerned about Departments handing money back. His former Department, the Department for Education and Learning, has handed back £2·3 million from New Deal. Was that the money that was allocated to enable single parents to get education and help with childminding some time ago?
The Department for Regional Development handed back £2 million in additional receipts from the Water Service. Where did those receipts come from? Also, can the Minister say where the £1·8m from the capital budget for roads has slipped from?
The Member should direct his questions to the relevant Ministers for detailed response. Departments can find that they cannot spend all their allocations in the time available, and underspending occurs. Significant underspending causes concern, and that has led to a review to find out what underlies the planning process in Departments. I hope that that will give rise to more effective planning and forecasting in Departments. I could provide a general response, but I do not have the details available, so I will reply in writing.
Mr B Hutchinson:
The Minister’s statement was on accounting issues, and he has explained that, so can he answer those questions in the first instance, and then Members can ask the relevant Ministers?
I am surprised that £23·9 million has come back from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Minister said that certain circumstances arose around resource budgeting. Has he asked, or considered asking, the Auditor General to look at that? I am surprised that his Department has not had any indication from the Auditor General about how resource budgeting will affect the Assembly in the next three or four years.
I am surprised also that the Comptroller and Auditor General has not given him information about the implications of all budgeting here over the next three or four years, given that we continually add things on.
Secondly, I am astonished that trusts are breaking even. As a representative for North Belfast, I can assure the House that the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust has been under-resourced for several years. The Minister will probably tell me that that is a matter for Ms de Brún; however, it was Dr Farren who presented the budget. Are those efficiencies the result of cuts in services or improvements to them? I am concerned that there are not enough speech therapists or physiotherapists in North Belfast. Some older people in the constituency have been waiting for 18 months for adaptations to their homes.
As I said, the £23·9 million saving by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety relates to a technical reduced requirement to deal with the complexity of the conversion to resource budgeting. The Executive are still relatively inexperienced in the new approach to budgeting, and it is especially complex for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, because it has by far the largest departmental budget. It is, therefore, unsurprising that technical issues will arise in that Department. The saving came to our attention through the Department’s improved understanding of the new rules for resource budgeting.
It is not a case of the Department’s not spending its money. Rather, it is an outworking of the transition to resource budgeting, combined with the positive steps taken by the Executive and the Department to address the difficult issues related to health trusts. I emphasise that the planned level of services has been delivered in 2001-02. However, our improved understanding of the implications of the complex conversion from cash to resource budgeting has been achieved at a lower cost to our overall spending power, and has provided welcome room to manoeuvre. We will decide how best to use those funds in the plans that I will introduce after Easter, particularly in those related to the Executive programme funds.
Let us hope that the new accounting procedure that has led to the discovery of £23 million can achieve the same in all the Departments. It is like winning the lottery 23 times over. Let us hope that it is not another mistake, and that that money actually exists.
I am pleased that the Minister shares my concerns about the amount of underspend, particularly at the astounding backlog of £2·3 million in New Deal funding. My Colleagues on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment will wish to examine in more detail the £17 million underspend in that Department.
Although it is good that we have additional money, I am unimpressed by how it is being spent. Why have issues that have come to the Floor, such as women’s advice centres, Tor Bank Special School, integrated education or road safety not been included? Members argue for such provision daily, yet money is not being reallocated for those purposes. Some £11 million remains to be spent. Will some of our demands be met in those areas that matter?
The Member will be aware from my statement, and from the information on the £6·9 million that has been bid for and allocated, that all the bids that Departments have made are being met. That is the simple truth of the matter. The allocations that can be made relate to the nature of the bids. Given the amount of money available to us, we have been able to meet all the bids, and those are detailed.
Some of Ms Morrice’s other questions must be directed at those who have responsibility for the services to which she refers. As I said earlier, it is necessary to address questions of detail to the Ministers who have responsibility for the services that Members are concerned about. I have referred to the general level of underspend on several occasions this morning, and previously. We intend to come back to the Assembly at an early stage and identify how we intend to deal more strategically with forecasting, so that we do not have a continuation of the levels of underspend that have been reported in monitoring rounds to the Assembly.
The allegation is that the £23·9 million of underspend by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety came about due to the Department of Finance and Personnel’s lack of understanding of the rules that it introduced. The Minister states:
"This arose through the complexity of the conversion to resource budgeting, and the saving came to attention through improved understanding of the new rules on resource budgeting".
That shows that someone somewhere along the line did not understand the rules under which they were operating. As a result, £23·9 million that was available to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was not spent. Does the Minister not think that that is totally inconsistent with his suggestion that the planned level of services has been delivered? A planned level of services delivered by the Department that has underspent by £23·9 million is one of the most parlous in Europe.
The Minister is avoiding responsibility for any departmental efficiency, but the public will say that the Department has not spent £23·9 million that was available to it, whether it was for technical reasons or otherwise. The Minister is saying that the planned level of service has been delivered, but the level of service delivered is absolutely disgraceful.
Under the Barnett formula additions, there is money available for the Department of Education. The Minister has decided that the Department of Finance and Personnel will retain nearly £1 million of the amount that is being given specifically for education by central Government under the Barnett formula, and the Minister will lump it into the general kitty to be used for any purpose that his Department may decide. Money that is given to education by central Government should be ring-fenced for education, which is not delivering a product that is anything to write home about.
I thank the Member for his question; however, I leave his comments to be addressed by the Ministers responsible for those services. As regards allocations to the Department of Education, Members have to, and do, appreciate that Barnett consequentials are allocated at the discretion of the Executive. That is what devolution brings with it — authority and the right to allocate additional resources as the Executive and the Assembly, in approving what the Executive recommend, see fit.
On this occasion the Executive recommend that the first of the Barnett consequentials be directed to the Department of Education — the second may also be. However, that matter needs to be discussed in greater detail in the budgetary planning by my Department when making recommendations to the Executive and the Assembly.
If the Assembly were merely a channel for allocating money on a similar basis as it is allocated across the water it would have no authority over its expenditure. The Member would have many questions to ask about such an automatic type of public expenditure allocation. That is not what devolution is about. However, I assure the Member that, given the Executive’s identification of the priorities of health, education, roads and transport, education will receive due and adequate consideration in the allocation of that Barnett consequential, as it will in all our allocations.
The £23·9 million, which is causing the Member concern, was an available spending capacity. Had winter pressures, for example, been similar to those we have experienced, the money might have been drawn down. At the stage it was identified to us, it was not possible to make use of the money in that manner or in any other. The money provides us with additional room for manoeuvre, and, as I said, it will be allocated early in the new tax year. I will return to the Assembly after Easter when plans for the Executive programme funds will be finalised. This £23·9 million will make a significant contribution to those funds.
Will the Minister place on record the situation as regards easements made by Departments that are outside departmental expenditure limits? I ask this question because the Department for Employment and Learning has made easements in the past four monitoring rounds in its annually managed expenditure of £11·66 million. What can that money be used for? If it is not being spent in the current financial year, is it lost to Northern Ireland? In reply to a question I asked on the December monitoring statement, the Minister said:
"we are examining the underspending patterns across Departments to see what lessons can be learnt and what advice can be given on budgetary planning."
The Minister referred to the rigorous examination of such underspend. When will that examination be complete?
I trust that it will be completed soon. I shall return to the Assembly with the outcome of the review on underspend. I hope that our strategic approach to forecasting in Departments will reduce underspend. Beyond that I can add nothing at this stage.
Underspending in annually managed expenditure does not benefit Northern Ireland; it reverts to the Treasury.
The Assembly appreciates the massive pressures on the Health Service and the Minister’s statement that special circumstances have created underspend in it. People on waiting lists and the overworked staff, who are under constant pressure, may find that difficult to understand or to accept. Will the Minister give a detailed explanation of how the reduced requirement arose? I understand the points made about resource budgeting and the fact that there is much more to the problem, and I appreciate that that is in the Health Minister’s remit.
Bearing in mind the state of the Health Service, is it the Minister’s opinion that this is likely to happen again next year?
There are no certainties about the future. We have acknowledged that departmental forecasting is rigorous in relation to underspends generally. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly is not the only legislature that experiences underspends. There are underspends in Westminister, and they cause Members similar concerns. That imposes obligations on my Department and on all Departments to review their planning and forecasting procedures, and these are being considered and accepted. I cannot guarantee that we will not have underspends in Departments, should similar circumstances arise. I can, however, give an assurance that we shall do all in our power to work with Departments to ensure that forecasting and spending plans are rigorous and that we will address the problem.
The Executive and I are fully aware of the difficulties and pressures that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is experiencing. We are anxious to address those concerns as effectively as possible.
There has been some slippage, but I am concerned about accountability, and I am glad that we are not throwing good money after bad.
I am concerned that the Budget does not provide for the restructuring of the agriculture industry. I am happy to wait for six months for a substantial scheme to emerge that will contribute to that restructuring. I am glad that good money is not being thrown after bad and would prefer to wait for proposals for which the Assembly would be accountable.
I trust that bad money is never thrown around, which good money follows. I hope that good money will always follow good money. However, that is a matter for judgement.
I hope that Mr Savage appreciates the nature of the statement and the tidying-up exercise that the Executive are engaged in. The issues he raises relate to the policy of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I have deflected certain questions to the Ministers who are directly responsible for Departments. However, I recently heard the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development say that in the summer she would publish detailed plans of her Department’s policies. The expenditure that the Member anticipates will be signalled through those plans rather than in any statement of mine.
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the British-Irish Council meeting in its environment sectoral format, which was held on 25 February 2002 in Edinburgh.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):
I wish to make a statement about the second meeting of the environment sectoral group of the British-Irish Council, which was held in Edinburgh on Monday 25 February 2002. The statement has also been agreed by my accompanying Minister, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wilson] in the Chair)
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Rogers and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting, which was hosted by Mr Ross Finnie MSP, the Scottish Executive Minister for the Environment and Rural Development. It was chaired by the Rt Hon Mr Michael Meacher MP, Minster for the Environment in the UK Government. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. The National Assembly for Wales was represented by the Minister for the Environment, Ms Sue Essex. The Government of the Isle of Man were represented by the Hon Pamela Crowe MHK, Minister of Local Government and the Environment. The States of Jersey were represented by Senator Nigel Quérée, President of the Planning and Environment Committee. The States of Guernsey were represented by Deputy Roger Berry, President of the Board of Administration. A full list of delegates is appended to the communiqué that was issued after the meeting. I have placed copies of the communiqué in the Library for Members’ information.
The proceedings opened with a warm welcome from the host, who then gave a short presentation on the key issues with regard to waste management, because the Scottish Executive are taking the lead on that item. All delegations agreed that the issues he identified were matters of serious and growing concern. They also thought that there was considerable scope for the Administrations to co-operate, especially in sharing best practice and on research. The group agreed to set up a working group of officials from member Administrations in order to examine the many important waste management issues that they face and to identify scope for co-operation. The working group will present a report of its findings to the next sectoral meeting.
The group also discussed Sellafield and radioactive waste, prompted by a draft paper prepared by the Irish and Isle of Man Governments. Ministers exchanged views on the discussion paper, and the concerns of those Administrations with coastlines on the Irish Sea were recognised. I emphasised the widespread concern in Northern Ireland about emissions from Sellafield, despite the fact that our extensive monitoring programme shows there to be no significant impact.
Officials from my Department have also 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 also consistently demonstrate low radioactivity levels on the Irish coastline. That work has been published in several reports and presented at international conferences.
I drew attention to public concern about the safety and security of the Sellafield plant and shared with ministerial colleagues the assurance that I received on those matters from Mr Brian Wilson, Minister of State for Industry, Energy and the Environment. I informed the group of this Assembly’s recent motion on Sellafield, which attracted cross-party support. I also expressed my view that the British-Irish Council is the most appropriate forum for making representations about Sellafield.
The group agreed that the exchange of views had been useful and that Sellafield and radioactive waste should be given more detailed discussion at the next sectoral meeting. Michael Meacher recognised the concerns expressed and that something must be done. He also committed himself to bringing forward a UK strategy in the spring to deal with that matter. The Irish and Isle of Man Governments were committed to bringing forward a more definitive paper, based on the draft paper that was presented on 25 February.
The next item of business was a paper from the United Kingdom Government drawing attention to a proposed regional seas pilot study as part of the review of marine nature conservation. The study will examine the effectiveness of existing systems for marine nature conservation and make recommendations for improvement. The Irish Sea was selected for the pilot scheme as it has the advantage of engaging all UK Administrations, as well as the Governments of Ireland and the Isle of Man. Members agreed that it was a worthwhile project and indicated their interest in participating in the study.
The group also considered a progress report from the working group on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The meeting noted with satisfaction the progress made and agreed that the working group should continue to ensure that realistic assessments of potential climate change impacts are made for all areas of Britain and Ireland. It was also agreed that the working group should report to the next sectoral meeting.
On behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive, I offered to host the third environment sectoral group meeting, which will probably be held this October, in Belfast. The group accepted my offer.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
The Minister's statement raised several issues that I would like to comment on, but I must limit myself to two.
Last Tuesday the Minister gave the opening address to the annual convention of the Sustainable Development Commission. Was the important subject of sustainable development discussed, or even mentioned, in Edinburgh? The Programme for Government that was published in February 2001 set a target of June 2001 for the publication of proposals for a Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy. The Committee still eagerly awaits to be consulted on those proposals. When will they be published? Will the Minister consider putting sustainable development on the agenda of the British-Irish Council's next environment sectoral meeting, to be held in Belfast?
Can the Minister give some details of the discussions that were held on waste minimisation? Note that I did not say, "waste management", but "waste minimisation." What lessons does the Minister feel Northern Ireland can learn from the Scottish experience?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. This is the first time that I have spoken while you have been in the Chair. I noticed the changeover but did not wish to mention it during my speech.
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment for his comprehensive question. I shall deal with it appropriately.
Sustainable development was not dealt with substantively at the British-Irish Council meeting. However, I share the Chairperson's view of its importance. The seminar that I attended exercised my mind on the necessary complementarity of protecting the environment and having a sustained, developed economy. Those two elements can be viewed as mutually exclusive, but the aim is for them to complement each other. That theme of protecting the environment while developing the economy is very important. It permeates the Programme for Government and goes to the heart of the Department of the Environment's work. I say openly and positively that I shall consider whether sustainable development should be on the agenda for the next meeting.
"Minimisation" is an important word; it means that the creation of waste must be minimal. However, that is only one element of what must be done. More waste must be recycled, and more must be recovered. There are very clear targets, and I do not know at this stage whether they can be met, but we shall endeavour to meet them. Some £2 million has been provided to assist councils in this financial year, with a further £7·4 million next year. No doubt, further questions will be asked on the issue, but I hope that my answer has been comprehensive.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Ms Lewsley):
I welcome the Minister's statement, but I am disappointed that he did not tell us that, at the meeting, he moved away from the Executive's thinking and criticised the Irish Government's legal challenge to the Sellafield plant. Does the Minister agree that to use the British-Irish Council meeting to express his own views so forcibly, despite what the Executive had agreed in advance, was both inappropriate and a breach of ministerial protocol?