Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 29 April 2002
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement about the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment that was held on 17 April 2002 in Dublin. Given the pressure of other business, the Business Committee has limited the time allocated to the statement and Members’ questions to 45 minutes.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):
With permission, I will make a statement about the sixth environment sector meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in Dublin on 17 April 2002.
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Denis Haughey and I attended the meeting on behalf of the Northern Ireland Administration. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for the Environment and Local Government, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed by Mr Haughey and is also made on his behalf.
The Council considered a report on the work programme of officials who were to identify ways of encouraging the expansion of waste recycling and produce a strategy for developing markets for recyclates. The group had gathered baseline information on waste streams and rates of recycling, North and South. It had also identified shared barriers to the development of a sustainable and widespread recycling industry, which might be better overcome by using a joint approach. These include small geographic size, low environmental awareness among manufacturers and consumers, lack of standards for recycled materials, and infrastructural deficiencies. It was agreed that, at the Council’s next meeting, the group should submit proposals for the development of an all-island strategic approach to developing markets for recyclable material, taking account of developments in Great Britain.
Ministers noted that it might be necessary to look beyond local markets to the wider group of islands, continental Europe or further afield for available viable markets for recyclates. The group will also recommend appropriate linkages between market development programmes that are being introduced in either jurisdiction.
The introduction of European legislation on the disposal of chlorofluorocarbon compounds (CFCs) contained in fridges and freezers, leading to their storage or costly export for destruction, has had a major impact in both jurisdictions. Given the economies of scale required for establishing a viable treatment facility to recover CFCs, the Council noted that officials are developing a joint approach in conjunction with local authorities, including the possibility of letting a single contract for an all-island service.
The Council also noted progress on the establishment of an all-island community recycling network, designed to encourage community involvement in waste recycling projects in partnership with local authorities and businesses. The Council awaits the outcome of an economic appraisal of the proposal.
Northern Irish officials have also given initial consideration to options for the introduction of arrangements similar to those in the Republic of Ireland for the collection and recycling of plastic waste from farms. The Council was informed that Northern Ireland does not yet have the necessary primary legislative powers to introduce a statutory regime. With the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and farmers’ representatives, officials will explore possible options for a voluntary scheme, taking account of any proposals that may emerge from consideration of the issue by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Whitehall.
The second item on the agenda was a report from the joint working group on water quality, which is tasked with co-operating on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive in respect of cross-border waterways. A technical advisory group supports the group’s work, which the Council endorsed. The Council also agreed that the findings of the group’s review of water quality management strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments should inform agreements for the implementation of the Directive.
Where river catchments span international borders, the Water Framework Directive requires that they be included in what are called "international river basin districts" to ensure their integrated management from source to sea. The technical advisory group has identified three core agglomerations of river basins that could form the basis for delineating international river basin districts for water quality management: the River Shannon catchment, the Lough Neagh/Carlingford Lough/Dundalk catchment and the Erne/Foyle/Swilly/Melvin catchment.
The Council requested that the working group make recommendations for delineations based on those catchment groupings, along with their associated coastal waters, and prepare proposals for public consultation. The group was also asked to produce proposals for joint funding of the cross-border activities required to implement the Water Framework Directive and for the financing of projects from INTERREG III funds.
The Council noted progress in the scoping study into the key environmental impacts of agriculture. The study had been commissioned with a view to developing co-operation on nutrient management planning and controls on the cross-border movement of slurries and spent mushroom compost. The final report of the scoping study will be presented to the next environment sector meeting in the autumn.
The Council was pleased to note that work on the North/South web site of environmental research had been completed. The web site uses the acronym "aNSwer" — the N and S are upper case to emphasise the North/ South element — and it contains a register of comprehensive information on environmental research carried out by the two environment agencies and by academic institutions. It will be an invaluable tool for those interested in, or involved in, environmental research. The web site was formally launched by Ministers after the Council meeting on 17 April.
The Council was also informed of the completion of the project to develop a joint register of sources of environmental information. The environmental data sources site is accessed through the same aNSwer web site. It too was launched by Ministers after the meeting. The site will provide users with information about the availability and location of a wide range of environmental data and statistics. The Council will continue to receive periodic reports about the development of the site.
The Council approved a work programme for the development of co-operation on information exchange and environmental awareness. Ministers recognised the value of sharing expertise and resources to raise public awareness of environmental issues. The programme includes the production or revision of a range of environmental literature, shared use of exhibitions, staff exchange and local authority network meetings, including a waste management colloquium for local authority environmental education officers and recycling officers.
Finally, Ministers agreed the text of a joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in November 2002 in Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
The Minister will know that the public consultation exercise for the three local waste management partnerships is soon to end. The groups have consulted with the Northern Ireland public on the future long-term management of the enormous amounts of waste produced here every year. While minimising the volumes of waste produced must be a major part of the strategy, it is clear that recycling is important. The Minister referred to a report that identified options on waste recycling and the development of suitable markets for recyclates. I am sure that he will agree that the proper consideration of all available information is the key to making the right decisions. Will the Minister, therefore, make that report — or an interim report on the ongoing work — available to the Environment Committee and each of the three partnerships in Northern Ireland for consideration?
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment pointed up, correctly, the waste management partnerships and the necessary consultation for this aspect of waste management.
The Committee has initiated a strategy from which the three groupings in the 26 district councils are implementing three plans, which is a sign of the necessary partnership. Partnership is needed between the district councils, the Assembly and, as the Chairperson rightly said, the Environment Committee.
The Chairperson referred to the importance of recycling. Recycling is important: reuse, recovery and recycling are the three Rs. Recovery means using waste without its having been recycled. All those aspects are important, and the Department will identify the options.
The Chairperson also referred to suitable markets, and I support his views on that. There are four key elements, of which suitable markets is just one. A key issue, which I have identified through dealings with the North/South Ministerial Council and the Environment Committee, is that we must make people aware of what is happening. For that reason the Department has implemented a campaign to make people aware of the different aspects of recycling such as the necessary machinery and, as the Chairperson said, sustainable markets.
I wish to share information with the Committee, and I am on record as having sought more regular meetings with its Chairperson. I want to keep the Committee fully informed, in writing and orally, as and when I can. However, when we implement the strategy, we must be conscious that we are not simply dealing with the island of Ireland. The key limiting factor is finding a market for recycled goods, and in order for the Committee to give me its thoughts, I hope to keep it well informed. Given that we are all part of the problem, we must all be part of the solution.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Ms Lewsley):
I welcome the fact that the Minister has made recycling number one on his agenda. The Council noted the progress of an all-Ireland community recycling network, which includes businesses and local authorities. Can the Minister give us the timescale for the economic appraisal?
The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee is delighted that I put recycling at number one on the agenda. We are trying to reduce waste, and that may be more important than recycling. Waste that cannot be reduced will be recycled or recovered. The most limiting factor is whether markets for recycled produce can be identified. There is little point in educating those who create the waste — which all of us do — if we cannot identify markets. If markets are identified, that will motivate entrepreneurs to become involved in the industry. Only then, as the Deputy Chairperson would like me to do, can I make recycling my number one priority.
Ms Lewsley mentioned all-Ireland recycling. We are all part of a local community, and we are all responsible for the problem, so we are all responsible for finding a solution. The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee said that we have been considering the all-Ireland dimensional map and asked when it will be available. I hope that the final appraisal will be completed by the end of May 2002. The economic appraisal will assess the costs and benefits, financial and otherwise. It is difficult to put a price on the benefit of having fewer landfill sites, although we can assess how much pollution filters into the water system. When I went to Queen’s University two weeks ago, I was fascinated to see the flow of water being assessed. Believe it or not, water that fell as rain 4,000 years ago is being drawn from the rock— such is the timescale involved in the process.
What are the key factors to consider when drawing up waste management plans?
I mentioned the key factors in my answer to the Chairperson of the Environment Committee. Waste management plans are the second stage of the strategy. Northern Ireland recycles only 6% of its waste. That compares poorly with countries such as the Netherlands, which recycles up to 42% of its waste. However, to be fair, other countries such as France and Spain recycle only 3% of their waste. We should never be complacent, but nor should we undersell ourselves and our efforts.
First, we must recognise the magnitude of the problem, which is simple: 6% of Northern Ireland’s waste is recycled, but EU Directives require that that figure be 25% by 2005 and 40% by 2010. Deadlines and budgets crystallise a situation and focus the mind. Proper budgeting is critical to ensure that the waste management plans are implemented. Last year, we provided approximately £2 million to assist district councils to implement the waste management plan. I hope that next year that will rise to between £5 million and £7 million. The money must be spent where it is considered appropriate.
The Waste Management Advisory Board for Northern Ireland has an important role to play in the development of waste management plans. The board is independent of the Administration and was set up to advise it. Its membership comprises public and private sector staff, and it is chaired by a lady who works in the waste management sector. When I first met the board members, I was asked whether I would take account of their views. I said that I would take any advice that they cared to give, but that I would also expect them to address my questions. Partnership is needed in the development of these plans. There must be co-operation between the Environment Committee, the Executive and the Administration as well as between the Assembly and local authorities.
I dealt with education, compartmentalising waste, attracting entrepreneurs to develop the industry and, above all, the limiting factor of markets for recycled goods in my answer to Mr McCrea. Waste management plans are important, and I have tried to highlight some of the key elements.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement on one of the most important issues we face. He mentioned European legislation and the possibility of heavy fines being imposed if the Directives are not implemented. Why does this report not concentrate on the reduction of waste production in manufacturing, reprocessing and retail businesses? Given that the South of Ireland Government have introduced a plastic bag tax, has this Administration any plans to do something similar?
The management of waste from farms, and particularly slurries and spent mushroom compost, is a major pollution problem. There does not appear to be a joined-up approach by either Administration, or even by one Administration, for dealing with this issue. Surely digesters should be used to create energy rather than going down the road of incineration, which seems to be what the Governments on both sides of the border are planning. Are there any plans to use digesters to deal with slurries and mushroom compost?
Mr Molloy made many points, which I will try to address. He referred to incineration, as did Dr McDonnell when he spoke about an incineration plant in Copenhagen that he found to be environmentally friendly. There is no plan, as yet, for any particular aspect. We are waiting for plans to be introduced. However, we should not duck the problem that too much waste is going to landfill. We must find ways of getting rid of it by recycling, reuse or by using it to create energy. Incineration is one way forward; it is not on the agenda, but it is certainly not off the agenda for consideration.
Mr Molloy seems to be saying that there is little joined-up approach North/South, never mind within this Administration. Believe it or not, there is much co-operation between the North and the South. He mentioned farm slurry. The North and the South have similar problems, and we compared notes on what needs to be done on farms in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. I am fully aware of the concerns of farmers on the storage regulations for silage and slurry.
I am also concerned about the Water Framework Directive and the possible extension of nitrate vulnerable zones and the impact that both could have on farmers. The Erne and Lough Neagh basins are being examined scientifically, and that could result in the expansion of nitrate vulnerable zones in Northern Ireland. Bríd Rodgers and I are working together on this issue. She knows that I have been in discussion with the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and I have also contacted the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) to find out if it wants to speak to me or to my officials on this matter. Bríd Rodgers and I will not be trying to gold-plate this — we are not going for the super-solution. We will stick strictly to the scientific evidence, and my officials will collaborate with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the farmers’ unions.
Most of us come from a farming community; at least, we all recognise the importance of the farming community to Northern Ireland and share that community’s concerns at the current weakness of the industry. I refute the allegation that there is no joined-up approach. Collaborative work continues between the North and the South, within the Departments in Northern Ireland and with those involved directly such as the farmers’ union.
Mick Murphy raised the issue of plastic bags recently. I repeat that it is not for Northern Ireland to legislate about plastic bags, as has been done in the South. I replied to Mr Murphy that we would wait to see whether it would be successful, which I have tried to ascertain since then. The removal of plastic bags from our overall environment, where they are seen to be detrimental, seems to be a success. Therefore, I will have to examine closely what can be done about plastic bags in Northern Ireland. That issue will now exercise my mind greatly.
Mr Molloy’s second point concerned the reduction of the production of waste. I agree with him. However, as I said to Patricia Lewlsey, that is only one element. We must reduce waste and recover waste that can be used again easily and recycle it. None of those actions will be viable unless or until we have markets for the recycled goods.
Infraction proceedings, European Union Directives and potential fines are important. That is why we want to ensure that all EU Directives are brought in as quickly as possible. We must meet those EU obligations. I am not doing this simply for the sake of it. I am doing it because the environment needs it; the European Union has directed that it be done; and we will suffer severe fines if we neglect to do it.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I do not want to eat into the time available, but I remind all Members and the Minister of the advice about time constraints that I gave at the beginning of the debate.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, which appears to show some progress on some important matters. I also welcome his response to William McCrea about his willingness to meet the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. However, I remind him that this is not a substitute for the Minister and his officials meeting the entire Committee and taking our concerns with a spirit of openness.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
I note that the Chairperson agrees with me, and I have no doubt that the Deputy Chairperson would also agree if she were present. In that spirit, I welcome the fact that the Minister has taken on board my comments about the recycling of farm plastic waste when he last reported from the North/South Ministerial Council. The Minister said that there are no relevant legislative powers, but a farm plastic waste scheme in Northern Ireland would require subsidy from his Department towards the basic costs. Will that be in place before silage is unwrapped next winter, so that it will cease to be a problem after this season?
What is the timescale for the introduction of the necessary legislation domestically to deal with the EU Directives on the disposal of fridges and freezers, an issue that is starting to cause a considerable problem across all parts of these islands? It is an area that we need to be rather more proactive about than we have been so far.
First, I stress that I do recognise the Committee’s position. When I made reference to the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson, I was reminded correctly that there is an overall Committee. I often liaise with the Committee through the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson. I see that Mr McCrea acknowledges that that is the case. I do not want to put the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson above the full Committee, and nor would the Chairperson himself.
Mr Ford referred to plastic farm waste, or "farm film" as it is called, and asked if we would have something in place before silage is unwrapped next winter. The position is clear in the Republic of Ireland. Farmers are offered a deposit or refund scheme, or they can participate in an approved recovery scheme.
The story I will tell is similar to the story of the plastic bags: it is working in the Republic of Ireland. The recovery scheme is financed by a 100-tonne levy on sales, established in 1997, and 6,000 tonnes of farm plastic a year is being recycled — that is 40%. We are examining the feasibility of that. However, we would need primary legislative powers in order to do that, and that would take time.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering whether a voluntary scheme would be helpful. We will monitor that scheme, and, as with the other matters, we are in preliminary discussion with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That is another example of working together in joined-up government in this Administration. The key consultees — if or when it can be done — will be the farming unions.
We are exploring the possibility of an all-island approach to fridges and freezers, and officials North and South are working closely on that issue. It has nothing to do with politics, but rather with the reality of dealing with fridges and freezers, so that they are not being stored at council expense. Mr Meacher from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided £40 million to deal with that in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we will have to deal with it in the coming months.
I was interested in the Minister’s reply to the Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee. Will the Minister explore the issue further? The dominant principle in Europe is that the producer of pollution pays. What efforts has the Minister made, in conjunction with the United Kingdom Government and European manufacturers, to ensure that pollution is reduced at source? Massive efforts made to handle the huge tonnage of waste are futile if a serious effort is not made to reduce it at source. In Germany, Coca-Cola and other manufacturers of mineral waters and drinks are not allowed to use plastic containers and must use recyclable bottles. What efforts has the Minister made to reduce waste at source?
Given what I have already said, I will not elongate this reply: I will be brief. We want to see pollution reduced at source, wherever that may be. I use the word "pollution" as distinct from "refuse" and "recycling", so I assume that Mr Gibson is referring to pollution of water. That takes longer to deal with. I accept that there are times when industry can create something immediately. However, there have not been many water pollution incidents in Northern Ireland, and no serious cross-border incidents either. However, safeguards are in place. Key officials are on 24-hour call to take action. The impact of the pollution to which the Member refers depends on its nature, its location and how soon it is reported. In that sense, water pollution is difficult to treat.
Oil pollution is noticed more easily, because it lies on the water’s surface, creating surface booms. However, it is not easy to treat. We are working with the key officials and we shall also endeavour to take legal action where necessary.
Mr A Doherty:
I refer the Minister to the group’s agreement to submit proposals to the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council for the development of an all-Ireland strategic approach to the creation of markets for recyclable material. Will those proposals include a firm timetable that outlines the practical steps that will make them a reality?
According to the current timetable, we shall have the waste management plans by May, so that a decision can be made on them before the autumn. However, I have made it clear to officials that when those waste management plans are presented, I wish to see action contained in them, not merely words. There is no timetable as such to implement the plans. As I have mentioned, there are timetables for targets, which are based on EU Directives.
It is appropriate that I should follow Arthur Doherty, a past chairperson of the north-west regional group. The Minister will know that that group has, for some time, co-operated with Donegal County Council. I agree with Mr Molloy and Mr Gibson on the issue of food production in the wholesale and retail sectors. One often wonders how many times they have to wrap a banana, when nature has wrapped it well enough.
The Minister said that he would deal with the issue of white goods. We need speedy action, not just words or endless consultation. Does the Minister agree that Government bodies, North and South, could do much more to encourage the development of a market for recyclates by instructing Departments and their agencies to use recycled materials? I think of the amount of paper that we use in this Building and wonder what the effect would be if Departments were instructed to use only recycled paper.
Both Governments could do much more by instructing Departments, although I am not sure that the use of the word "instruct" would sit well with the autonomous nature of those Departments. I am conscious, however, that we should lead by example. There is little point in this Administration asking the public to be mindful of waste if we do not give a lead.
The Member asked for speedy action on the issue of white goods such as fridges and freezers. In the autumn, we may be in a position to issue a contract for an all-Ireland mechanism to deal with white goods. Councils are storing them up and have asked me to take urgent action. I agree with the Member that speedy action is required.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, is there any way of harmonising the waste strategy so that householders will not be penalised? Secondly, with regard to the water quality working group’s recommendations for delineation, has a date been set for public consultation?
I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I will have to ask Mr Murphy to repeat that question, because I did not get its drift.
Mr M Murphy:
Has a date been set for public consultation on the water quality working group’s recommendation for delineating river catchment basins?
More clues are required.
Thank you, Mr Poots. If I have heard that right, Mr Murphy is talking about catchment basins for the Water Framework Directive. First, I shall define "international river basin" in the North/South context. It has to be transposed by 2003. The plans must be operable by 2009, and the water aspect must be operable by 2015. That is a long time. We are trying, through the North/South Ministerial Council, to establish where international river basins exist. When the basins are established, we will develop the plan. I apologise for not understanding Mr Murphy’s question the first time. I hope I have understood properly, but if I have not, he will receive a written answer.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I call Mr Poots. I would be grateful for a brief question and an equally brief answer, because there is very little time left.
Given that the Minister seems so keen on all-Ireland strategies and agendas, will he take a look at the all-Ireland clinical waste management strategy? Will he look at the tendering process, and can he say that everything was done correctly and was above board? Will that be the case for any future strategies?
First, I would like to correct Mr Poots. He referred to "all-Ireland", but all my references have been to "all-island." There is an important difference. It is a geographical unit comprising two political jurisdictions. I am not a lawyer, but I can understand what is meant by "jurisdiction", by "geography" and by "politics". It should be understood that we cannot have a market in recyclates in Northern Ireland. Therefore, there should be a wider all-island market. I also said that Great Britain and further afield must also be considered. We will not do anything underhand in that way.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on transport that took place on 17 April 2002 in Dublin. I remind Members again of the time that has been set for the statement. I would like brief questions and answers, please.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. What time have you allocated for the statement?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I cannot take that point of order. I gave the advice that the Member is seeking at the beginning of the sitting.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt): Monday morning blues.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the second transport sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in Dublin on Wednesday 17 April 2002. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Denis Haughey and I attended the meeting, which was chaired by the representative of the Irish Government, Mr Noel Dempsey, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been agreed by Mr Haughey and is also made on his behalf.
The agenda for the meeting focused exclusively on the programme for the enhancement of North/South co-operation on road safety, which was agreed at the Council’s first meeting in transport sector format in December 2000. The programme includes several commitments, on which progress was reported at the meeting. The meeting began with the Council’s endorsement of the existing level of road safety education activity on both sides of the border. In confirming its continued commitment to co-operation on that important activity, the Council approved a proposal to hold a North/South joint road safety conference and to consider holding an annual conference of that nature to allow for the development of a network of road safety professionals.
The Council considered progress on, and approved, the further development of a proposed new joint road safety campaign on pedestrian safety. The campaign, whose launch is proposed to take place in Belfast in early September 2002, will aim to raise people’s awareness of the number of pedestrians being killed and seriously injured on the roads in the island of Ireland. It will also seek to make pedestrians and drivers more aware of their personal responsibility for avoiding road traffic collisions involving pedestrians.
Statistical data for 1996 to 2000 indicates clearly that pedestrian safety warrants attention. Pedestrians account for around one quarter of road fatalities, North and South. Since 1996, both Administrations have co-operated on the development of joint road safety awareness campaigns. Those campaigns can be especially effective on a North/ South basis due to the similarities of the jurisdictions’ road safety records and their common causes of fatalities and serious injuries. Sharing the cost of the development of campaigns between my Department and the National Safety Council in Dublin provides better value for money for each body. In addition, joint campaigns have been effective in attracting greater private sector sponsorship.
The Council considered the scope for the development of a common basis for the reporting of data on road traffic collisions. Ministers acknowledged the merit in having a definitive database to enable comparisons between countries. The Council welcomed the proposal to progress the sharing of information between the two jurisdictions on the databases and to explore the potential for reporting commonly held data. Relevant agencies were encouraged to investigate the similarities and differences in the characteristics of collisions that occur in border areas. The provision of such information may help to identify what measures could be taken in both jurisdictions to address the causes of collisions in border counties.
The Council reviewed the extent of the exchange of information on road safety awareness between the two Administrations. Arrangements are in place, through the exchange of key strategic documents and regular meetings between officials, for the Administrations to keep each other informed of significant road safety developments, North and South.
The Council took note of the position on the introduction of a penalty points system in the South, on the existing penalty points system in Northern Ireland and on developments in Europe as regards disqualification from driving and traffic fines. Ministers were pleased to note that the United Kingdom and Irish Governments are proceeding towards the ratification of the European Convention on Driving Disqualifications. They are also participating in a European Union initiative to facilitate the pursuit of the payment of traffic fines on a cross-border basis. Ministers also agreed that the mutual recognition of penalty points between the two jurisdictions remains a desirable objective. It may be possible to introduce such a measure when the system in the South becomes fully operational.
Finally, Ministers agreed the text of the joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting, and a copy has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on transport will take place in the autumn in Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
In July 2001, the Department of the Environment completed an extensive public consultation exercise on the Northern Ireland road safety strategy for 2002-12. The Environment Committee has yet to see the finished document. When will that important document be available? Unlike the situation with his Department’s recent publication of the key planning policy statement, PPS 10, will the Minister confirm that he will afford the Committee sufficient time for proper and effective final consultation before publication of the road safety strategy?
That is an interesting question because there was an additional point, which I noted and will refer to. Undoubtedly, the Chairperson awaits my comments with interest.
He is correct in saying that the consultation document on the road safety strategy was published in May 2001. It is anticipated that the strategy will be published in June 2002.
I have already referred to consultation with the Environment Committee. I have already referred to the general point, which since I became Minister I wish to subscribe to, and it is that the Committee should be consulted, fully and frankly, on all issues when it is possible to do so. I recognise — [Interruption].
I am not sure what that was, but it was probably of no consequence.
I recognise that the Committee performs a function, which is to challenge the Administration. I also recognise that the Committee, in performing its role, makes a vital contribution to the final piece of legislation or policy planning statement being produced.
I noted with interest that the Chairperson asked:
"Unlike the situation with his Department’s recent publication of the key planning policy statement, PPS 10, will the Minister confirm that he will afford the Committee sufficient time for proper and effective final consultation before publication of the road safety strategy?"
I presume that he was referring to the recent policy planning statement on telecommunications masts — and I see him nodding in agreement. The Department had full and lengthy consultation with the Committee on the statement. The Department also gave the Committee a full and detailed response. Following that full discourse between officials and the Committee, and before I had made any decision on the policy planning statement, I was made aware of further nuances and comments that had arisen between officials and the Committee. Before I decided to publish the statement, notice was given to the Committee on 9 April that I intended to publish the statement on 11 April. I was satisfied that all consultation had been exhausted during both the oral and written communications with the Committee.
I accept that there can be further discussion when Departments and Committees are not in agreement. However, at some point the time for decision and publication is reached.
My Department consults widely with the Environment Committee, and I wish to have positive engagement with the Committee. However, after full deliberation, there comes a time when publication has to take place. That point was reached on 9 April.
That does not preclude me from issuing a further policy planning statement on the matter. If there are further elements that must be dealt with, a new policy planning statement can be issued. It is not like creating primary or secondary legislation, which, once passed, must be followed for two or three years. The Department issues policy planning statements after consultation, and it can issue further ones.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Ms Lewsley):
I welcome the Minister's statement and the fact that there is better co-operation on road safety education across the whole island. Has the Minister set a date for the road safety conference? He mentioned that it might occur annually. Can he outline in more detail the plans for cross-border co-operation on the payment of traffic fines? Will that money be earmarked for particular road safety projects?
Does Ms Lewsley want clarification on the road safety conference?
On the date for the conference.
The conference will take place, although a date has not yet been set. The Council recognises the benefits of having a conference to bring road safety practitioners together to exchange views. Therefore, that will become a focus. If a date has been set, I have been remiss, and I will ensure that the Member and the Committee are informed of the date forthwith.
The Council is considering holding an annual conference, but it will wait to see how the first one goes. There is merit in bringing practitioners together to discuss ideas and exchange views in any discipline.
The Member also mentioned traffic fines. As I said, the North/South Ministerial Council is trying to ensure that the policy is operable in all jurisdictions in the European Union. If the system were fully operable, the authorities in the state where the offence occurs would be entitled to seek information from the vehicle registration authority in the offender's home state. Having obtained that information, they could write to the offender to demand payment of the fine. That would be the first stage. If the offender did not pay the fine within a stated period, the responsibility for enforcing the fine would be transferred to the authorities in his or her home state. It is hoped that such measures will ensure the payment of fines.
The United Kingdom and Ireland support, in principle, the implementation of that initiative. The Member asked what the revenue from such fines would be used for. Fines are not there solely to raise revenue. It is to be hoped that few fines and penalties will be required. On Sunday I met a man who spoke to me about the launch of the fixed speed cameras. He said that he would ensure that none of his money would go on a resulting fine. I said, "Well done, let's hope there are no fines, because that will mean people are abiding by the law."
Can the Minister provide the House with the relevant road safety statistics relating to the Committee for the Environment's recent report on school transport?
I think that that is a double question - the road safety statistics and the Committee for the Environment's report on school transport.
The statistics for road deaths are emotional. So far this year over 40 people have been killed on the roads. The exact figure was 43 on 23 April, and I heard yesterday that another person has died. That compares with 36 deaths in the same period last year and 49 in 2000. We must not be complacent. However, road safety statistics show that there has been a significant reduction in the number of deaths on the roads, compared with the 1970s.
Statistics can be beguiling and simple and yet convey no message; their use can be dubious. However, if the death and injury rates of 1989 had prevailed until 2000, 4,000 more people would have been killed or injured - that is the magnitude of the reduction over that period. The number of children killed or injured has fallen by 31%, and that is to be welcomed.
The situation, however, is still bad. On average 150 people die, 1,500 are seriously injured and 11,000 are slightly injured each year. The main causes are speed, drink and a failure to wear seat belts, and those factors have been the focus of our advertising campaign. Two statistics about seat belts are particularly important. A person not wearing a seat belt is reckoned to be twice as likely to be killed as a person who is wearing one. That is a stark statistic - you are twice as likely to be killed if you are not wearing a seat belt. Indeed, if you are in an accident and you are seriously injured, you are six times more likely to survive if you are wearing a seat belt. Seat belts are important. It is estimated that, each year, 20 deaths and 250 injuries would not occur if people wore their seat belts. Too few wear their seat belts.
The safety of pedestrians is referred to in the statement . It might have been useful if the Minister of the Environment had invited the Minister with responsibility for roads to travel to Dublin to hear the discussions. I do not know when Mr Peter Robinson was last in Dublin, but it would have been useful had he been there, because we are talking about pedestrians. As the Minister said, they account for a quarter of road fatalities, North and South.
Every effort must be made to eradicate this unnecessary waste of human life. Was there any discussion about a possible legal requirement to wear bright clothing being placed on pedestrians using roads at night, thereby making them easily identified by drivers and preventing fatalities? Was there any discussion about a possible reduction in the criteria that exist in Northern Ireland before the roads authorities will provide crossings on busy main streets or roads? Anything that would reduce the number of pedestrians killed on our roads would be welcome.
I am not sure that my ministerial Colleague would permit me to call him "Colleague". However, I will do so for the record. I am sure that he can, in his own inimitable way, tell us why he is not involved in North/South co-operation, which is to the benefit of all on the island of Ireland. I must stress that. Pedestrian crossings are not within my remit; therefore I leave them to the appropriate Minister.
The wearing of bright clothing was not raised at the meeting. However, I am sure that some Members are old enough - or young enough - to remember the UTV advertisement that urged us to wear something light and bright at night. That has featured in advertisements for many years. Mr McCarthy is correct to say that pedestrians should wear something light at night. The Department will address the safety of pedestrians in its campaign to be launched in September.
All the campaigns have aimed at social and personal responsibility. If the people are not involved and do not understand what must be done, even the best measures will not work. The Department is trying to ensure that people are socially and personally responsible. Previous campaigns raised awareness. Likewise, the Department is certain that the latest campaign will raise awareness of the vulnerability of pedestrians. Everyone has seen the advert on national television about a person being hit by a car. However, awareness must be increased - not only that of pedestrians, but also that of drivers.
The campaign will challenge youth, those who drink and those who do not wear seat belts. The Department can change people's attitudes to pedestrians by challenging them and by raising awareness. By changing attitudes we change behaviour. Pedestrians are important, and a campaign will be directed at them. I will ensure that the matter of wearing something light and bright at night will be considered.