Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 9 September 2002
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have been advised by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Michael Coyle has been returned as a Member of the Assembly for the East Londonderry constituency, filling the vacancy left by the resignation of Mr Arthur Doherty. I invite Mr Coyle to take his seat by signing the Roll of Members.
The following Member signed the Roll: Mr Michael Coyle.
I am satisfied that the Member has signed the Roll and confirmed his designation.
I wish to inform the House that the Budget (No.2) Bill has received Royal Assent. The Budget (No.2) Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 became law on 12 August 2002. Royal Assent has also been received for the Railway Safety Bill. The Railway Safety Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 became law on 13 August 2002.
I wish to advise the House that on 4 September 2002 I received separate correspondence from Ms Monica McWilliams and Ms Jane Morrice advising that, in accordance with Standing Order 3(8), they wish to change their respective designations to "Other". I remind the House that a change in designation notified in writing to the Speaker takes immediate effect.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, it would be helpful if you would inform the House what the Members’ designation is now. Are they Unionists, Nationalists, Others, or just rescuers of whatever party is in trouble?
I have already advised the House that those Members wish to change their respective designations to "Other".
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I beg leave to present to the Assembly a petition signed by 38 people who are residents of Tardree Grove in my constituency. The petition states that
"residents fail to comprehend how widening the road will alleviate the volume of speeding traffic which uses the route as a shortcut to the dual carriageway and call for the installation of speed restriction ramps as a more permanent solution to this on-going problem."
Mr Paisley Jnr moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.
I will forward the petition to the Minister for Regional Development and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development.
I have received notice that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on trade, held on 26 June 2002 in Belfast.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the seventh meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its Trade and Business Development sectoral format, which took place in the Europa Hotel, Belfast on Wednesday 26 June 2002.
Ms Carmel Hanna and I represented the Northern Ireland Administration. The Irish Government were represented by Ms Mary Harney, TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This report has been approved by Ms Hanna and is also made on her behalf.
The Council considered a ‘Digital Island’ discussion paper, covering information and communications technologies and discussed a policy structure to determine the priorities necessary to exploit the potential that digital technologies can offer in support of increased trade and business development. The Council approved the establishment of a steering group to take the work forward and asked that a progress report be prepared for its next meeting.
The Council considered and noted the work currently being undertaken by InterTradeIreland in the field of science and technology and acknowledged the importance of that work for increasing job creation and economic development. The Council considered the European Union dimension to extended collaboration in this area and discussed the potential for enhanced North/South co-operation in science and technology through a variety of EU programmes such as the science, technology and innovation awareness programme, the European Space Agency and EUREKA — a pan-European network for market-orientated industrial research and development.
The Council asked InterTradeIreland, in conjunction with Departments and agencies, to examine the feasibility of further North/South co-operation and, jointly with Departments, to provide a report for the next meeting on the potential of specific co-operation opportunities.
The Council considered and approved a framework operating plan 2003 for InterTradeIreland. The main activities outlined in the plan included business and economic research, promotion of North/South science and technology research, ICT and e-commerce initiatives, the promotion of North/South institution and business alliances, the development of an all-island business model, knowledge transfer and the promotion of private equity. The Council asked InterTradeIreland to develop this framework plan and produce a final operating plan for 2003 for Council approval.
The Council considered and approved InterTradeIreland’s proposals for the introduction and operation of a performance appraisal system for its employees. The system will introduce modern public sector human resources policy to InterTradeIreland by linking the role and performance of employees to the broader objectives of the body as outlined in its operating plan.
The Council approved the publication of InterTradeIreland’s annual report and accounts for the year ended 31 December 2001. Copies of that report will be laid before the Houses of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament.
The Council received a verbal report from the chief executive of InterTradeIreland on the progress made on implementing the body’s work programme. The chief executive updated the Council on recent achievements, such as the equity network programme, which arranged several equity workshops around the island, and a major private equity conference in Belfast in April. Business forums were held in numerous venues around the island, which raised awareness of important issues, including taxation, employment law and the support available from public sector development agencies. The Council will meet again in this sectoral format in Dublin on 1 November 2002.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair)
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Neeson):
I thank the Minister for the statement and congratulate him on the successful outcome of last week’s Washington conference. Will he elaborate on the details of the draft operating plan for 2003 for InterTradeIreland and particularly on the development of an all-Ireland business model, knowledge transfer and the promotion of private equity?
Sir Reg Empey:
This is an outline of the main elements that are likely to be included in the draft operating plan, which will come before the autumn meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) for consideration and approval. Other agencies and Departments will be consulted fully to ensure that the proposals do not duplicate what is already available. There is little point in programmes in the different jurisdictions duplicating one another. The key focus of the body is to promote trade and business. I have drawn Members’ attention to the huge potential for companies in each jurisdiction to benefit from public procurement. There are public procurement contracts worth between £7·5 billion and £10 billion on the island, and only a comparatively small percentage of that trade is won by companies in Northern Ireland. Our companies should have full access to public procurement in the Republic and vice versa.
The operating plan must take account of the way in which we are able to make progress with these concepts and implement them, because the objective is to enable trade to grow. We also wish to develop e-business so that companies, and small companies in particular, that are located in border areas are able to grow. We wish to encourage that policy throughout Northern Ireland, but it has a particular cross-border dimension.
We wish to deal with a range of issues, but I stress that the Assembly will be able to debate the full operating plan. It must be subject to approval, and I hope that as the company matures, we will be better placed to measure the increased trade and business development that it achieves.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I note his comments about exploiting the potential of digital technologies to promote trade. Has the NSMC in this sectoral format considered evidence on the percentage of companies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that have constructed web sites as a marketing tool?
Sir Reg Empey:
Yes. One of the Council’s proposals is to develop portals where people can have access to information, and we must be aware that, under the auspices of the British-Irish Council, work is being done to improve communication and co-operation for building the knowledge economy. What is happening here is entirely consistent with, and complementary to, that approach. The improvement and extension of e-business and e-government is a Programme for Government commitment; we must set an example. There is the opportunity to promote the development of all-island trade via e-business, and the digital island programme would include proposals from either jurisdiction which could achieve that. I support the concept that the Member has suggested.
I congratulate the Minister and my Colleague, Carmel Hanna, the Minister for Employment and Learning, for the significant reduction in unemployment that has taken place over the past few years. I have no doubt that cross-border activity significantly contributes to job creation and has increased — [Interruption].
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hear a noise in the wilderness. Can he be removed from the wilderness, or can the wilderness be removed from him?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Order. If the call had been from the wilderness I would not have called a point of order. The call was from the House, which makes it a point of order. The Member is entitled to be heard.
Before I was so rudely interrupted I wanted to say that I am aware that much bureaucracy and inhibitory factors have to be dealt with and negotiated before we can get full benefit from the North/South negotiations.
I am concerned about the digital island issue. We talk a great deal about e-government — much more so within Northern Ireland Departments — but as the ‘Digital Island’ discussion paper suggests, e-government affects the North/South dimension. I am frustrated by the inability of our Departments to get to grips with, and exploit, modern communication technology.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Order. Is there a question?
Will the ‘Digital Island’ discussion paper do anything more than pay lip-service and, if so, what tangible results will we see within three years?
Sir Reg Empey:
We have asked a working group to produce specific proposals, and its report will be available to us at our next meeting. In response to an earlier question I said that we are trying to promote the development of trade by e-business. It is not rocket science: it is a perfectly sensible thing to be doing, and it has potential. However, we must ensure that we are operating in an environment that is not going to separate us further from the wider market. Consequently, the British-Irish Council has taken up the matter also. Work is ongoing on a North/ South and east-west basis, which is entirely appropriate.
We will be reviewing the report of the working group in the next few months. My next report to the House on the matter will give the Member an opportunity to judge whether there is simply more bureaucracy or whether the specific proposals will achieve something within three years. If the Member would hold his fire until he sees the report after the next meeting, he should be better able to make a judgement then.
My Colleague, Mr Neeson, referred to the Washington summit, and I assume that there will be a statement to the House or the Committee on the outcome of that important meeting.
As regards digital technology, there is one issue that the Minister has not yet been able to come to grips with. Roaming charges might seem to be a small issue, but it gets up the noses of many people in south Down. If the North/South Ministerial Council is serious about dealing with the problems of digital technology, can the Minister understand the anger of someone living in Rostrevor or Warrenpoint who regularly finds that Republic of Ireland telephone companies are deliberately beaming strong signals into south Down? Mobile phone users are being forced to use their network to make and, even worse, receive telephone calls, and they are then faced with huge telephone bills at the end of the month. While travelling from Kilkeel to Newry, I regularly receive two or three text messages welcoming me to the Irish Republic when I have not even set foot inside it. [Interruption]. Recently, one of my Colleagues received a bill for £1·50 for three text messages that welcomed him to the Irish Republic — and he had not even left Kilkeel. When will the Minister’s Department get together with its counterpart in the Irish Republic to tell it to stop beaming these signals into Northern Ireland so that we can avoid incurring roaming charges?
Sir Reg Empey:
Despite the hilarity in the Chamber, there is a serious point in Mr Wells’s comments — if one can only find it. Telecommunications is a reserved matter and is the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry in London and its counterpart in the Republic.
The issue of roaming charges was raised at the last meeting of the British-Irish Council, when we pointed out that it is a double-edged sword. Signals are also beamed in the opposite direction — from Wales into the Republic, for example. Signals have a habit of crossing all sorts of borders. I am happy to take the Member’s advice, and I will consult further with my Colleague across the border on how these matters may be addressed.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is an argument for all-Ireland harmonisation of mobile phone networks. That would do away with the problem, given that it is the same country.
How far advanced and how formalised are InterTradeIreland’s contacts with all economic development agencies on the island of Ireland, including Invest Northern Ireland (INI), the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), Enterprise Ireland and a range of smaller, less well-known economic agencies?
Sir Reg Empey:
InterTradeIreland has arranged and facilitated several meetings. Some organisations had never met before. However, these are free-standing organisations, and it is up to them to determine how often and with whom they meet. We cannot dictate. Several organisations identified the advantages of receiving supplies from companies located a few miles down the road. Previously, they had had no knowledge of the products that those companies sold. The potential also exists for import substitution. If businesses can shorten their supply lines, they can reduce stocks and become more efficient. Anything that can be done in rural areas to ensure that people start to build trade between one another is to our benefit.
The bulk of our trade is with Great Britain, and the other largest markets are the United States and the Irish Republic. Anything that can be done to boost trade and relationships is to be welcomed. As Mr Wells stated, I was in Washington last week, and I will consider how I might best inform Colleagues about that visit.
InterTradeIreland has run a series of roadshows. It meets regularly with the agencies, but it recognises that the agencies are free-standing and have their own remit. InterTradeIreland acts as a facilitator to raise awareness of the economic and social benefits of doing business with companies that are close at hand. One of InterTradeIreland’s tasks is to encourage and boost that trade, thereby creating and securing jobs close to home. That function is at the core of InterTradeIreland’s existence. However, it cannot dictate how people should conduct their business. It can only facilitate and encourage businesses, and it is doing so effectively.
I was interested in the Minister’s response to the previous question about how to boost trade on this island. He will not be surprised by my question. If InterTradeIreland is focusing on the promotion of trade and business, why was the euro not mentioned in the deliberations? Surely the introduction of the euro here would be the best and only way to boost trade. What are the practical outworkings of the currency differential for InterTradeIreland? The Minister said that we will be submitting joint bids to the European Union for the EUREKA programme, et cetera. Will those bids be in euros or sterling, and, on a practical level, are InterTradeIreland staff paid in euros or pounds?
Sir Reg Empey:
I would never have guessed that the Member would raise that issue. Ms Morrice knows my views on the euro; I have repeated them several times in the House, and I am happy to do so again. I am working on the assumption that sterling will remain the currency of this country for the foreseeable future. I do not believe that the people of the United Kingdom wish to vote themselves into the single currency, so I do not envisage that happening in the immediate future.
However, the issue is not as simple as the Member says it is. Some businesses benefit from having sterling as their currency. Businesses using sterling to buy raw materials in the euro zone, or those that buy with a strong currency in international markets and sell into the dollar zone — as many of our businesses do — do better than those trading in euros.
If 12, 15 or 20 nations are brought together under a single currency, as proposed, not all of their economies will be compatible within a broader macroeconomy. They will not work at the same speed, nor will they have the same degree of development. It is not necessarily acceptable that the blunt instrument of a single interest rate should be used to control the money supply in those economies. Recently, for instance, the German economy would have benefited from a lower interest rate, but the Irish economy should have had a higher interest rate. The result is inflation.
It is horses for courses: some of our companies would benefit from being in the euro zone because the differential would no longer exist. The value of the euro has improved. However, the problem is not that sterling is overvalued; the euro is undervalued because it was created for political reasons. Some of the countries admitted into the single currency should not have been permitted to join. Some have already broken the rules, including Germany, one of the major economies, which cannot meet its targets on budget deficits. Despite that, nothing will happen; the issue will be fudged around. That is why the euro is undervalued; people do not trust that it will be treated equally for economic reasons.
The staff of InterTradeIreland are paid in sterling. I stand to be corrected, but I understand that any European bids submitted to Brussels, including those to the peace and reconciliation fund, are converted into euros.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and I look forward to the publication of the ‘Digital Island’ discussion paper. Recent research shows that a major digital divide exists in Northern Ireland: 53% of citizens aged 16 and over do not have access to the Internet. I call on the Minister and his Department to address that by providing financial aid for the areas of most need, especially west Tyrone.
Sir Reg Empey:
Oh dear. Team west Tyrone strikes again. I am conscious of the serious point that the Member has made. There is a digital divide, and we are aware of it. My Department is running several schemes to try to ensure that businesses, including those in west Tyrone, do not suffer from geographic isolation. We are running a scheme under which small businesses can apply for grant aid to get broadband Internet access via satellite. That is a way of ensuring an alternative for businesses that are too far away to have a cable service. We hope to connect 200 businesses in the current round, and I will be happy to let the Member know how many have been connected and how many are in his constituency. It is important to note that people must apply for that grant.
Furthermore, my Department has five advisers who go around the client base of Invest Northern Ireland, talk to businesses and draw their attention to the benefits that can be gained from broadband. In Invest Northern Ireland’s Lisburn office, all the technologies are on display. People can go to see them at work and receive advice on them.
The Department is technology-neutral. We do not say that one technology is good or that another technology is not good. It is a question of providing people with examples and showing them how they work. There is a great deal of traffic in that office, and we are trying to promote it.
The Member’s question goes beyond pure business. As a community, we must take the wider social issue seriously. Some countries, such as the Republic and America, have been more successful than others at increasing the number of people involved. There is a pilot project in inner-city Belfast that plans to connect several people in this way, because there are wider issues. However, our priority has been to get businesses connected, and the Department is running several schemes designed to encourage that.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Minister referred to the ‘Digital Island’ discussion paper. Before we get to that point, Members remain to be convinced about digital Northern Ireland. The Minister knows that broadband and Bluetooth technologies are essential for the future development of Northern Ireland. Will he consider extending the availability of those services to rural communities in my constituency, such as Cullybackey, Ahoghill, Dervock and Stranocum, which are currently denied access to that network and are, therefore, denied any new incentive for employment? Will the Minister focus on the resolution of that issue before spending money on the bigger picture, which is less important than resolving Northern Ireland’s own difficulties?
Sir Reg Empey:
There is no question of people being denied access. A variety of technologies is available for broadband. I have just told Mr McMenamin that we are running a scheme under which people can apply for a grant of up to £1,500 or 50% of the cost of installation of a satellite-based broadband facility. The grant also includes a contribution to the first year’s running costs.
Any business in any of the areas that the Member mentioned can apply to the Department. It will be visited by a departmental official and its suitability assessed, and a grant can be paid. Anyone in business in the Member’s constituency has access to a scheme to enable the provision of broadband. This is specifically aimed at the type of rural situation to which Mr Paisley Jnr referred, where there is no reasonably priced access to cable.
One of the biggest encouragements for the companies to roll out their cabling and other facilities is "aggregation of demand". If the Member can encourage clusters of those involved in district councils, hospitals or schools — areas where there is a potential demand for broadband — to aggregate their demand to one of the companies, the company will then have the incentive to put the infrastructure in place. The Department is trying to do that locally through working with all the district councils.
That point also has cross-border application. In rural areas, particularly around the border, there may not be enough demand on one side, but if the demand on both sides were added together, both sides would benefit. That is the rationale for aggregating the demand and encouraging the cross-border element. That can help Northern Ireland because, on its own, its rural areas will not generate sufficient demand to stimulate the companies to put in the infrastructure.
Another development is the possibility of a wireless-based technology where a cluster can be established. There is £1·5 million available for that from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry in London. Mr Paisley Jnr is correct; it is a key issue, but it is being addressed. The facilities and the understanding are there. The key driver is not the supply of wireless-based technology, but the demand for it. It may cost British Telecom between £100,000 and £200,000 to convert an exchange such as ADSL only to find that it has just half a dozen customers. That is of no use to British Telecom, so demand for an exchange must be stimulated, and anything that the Member can do in that regard would be appreciated.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his detailed answers. What progress has been made on the creation of the all-Ireland trade directory in which InterTradeIreland is involved? The Minister said that the North/South Ministerial Council received a verbal report from the chief executive of InterTradeIreland, but surely in ‘Digital Island’ a report of a different type could have been made available through modern technology.
Sir Reg Empey:
The all-Ireland trade directory is not covered in this report. Work on the directory is ongoing, and I will write to Mr Molloy with details.
Inevitably, the Council will receive verbal reports, because the meetings take place up to several weeks after the relevant paperwork goes out. Also, there are other matters on which the Council must be updated, and it will want to question the chief executive of InterTradeIreland when he is there. Not everything can be done in writing, but I accept Mr Molloy’s point. However, I think that there will always be a verbal report, and it is appropriate that the chief executive, to be accountable, be available for the Council to question face to face.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that she wishes to make a statement.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is mian liom tuairisc a thabhairt don Tionól ar chruinniú den Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas a tionóladh i bhformáid earnáileach in Ard Mhacha Dé hAoine 28 Meitheamh 2002. Ag an chruinniú seo breithníodh ábhair a bhaineann leis an Bhord um Chur Chun Cinn Sábháilteachta Bia agus le comhoibriú ar shaincheisteanna sláinte.
Arna ainmniú ag an Chéad-Aire agus ag an LeasChéad-Aire, d’fhreastail an tUasal James Leslie, Aire in Oifig an Chéad-Aire agus an LeasChéad-Aire, agus mé féin ar an chúigiú cruinniú den Chomhairle san earnáil sábháilteachta bia agus in earnáil na sláinte. Ba é an tUasal Micheál Martin, an tAire a bhfuil cúram na Roinne Sláinte agus Leanaí air, a rinne ionadaíocht thar ceann Rialtas na hÉireann.
Tá an ráiteas seo, a cheadaigh an tUasal James Leslie, á thabhairt ar a shon chomh maith.
Fuair an Chomhairle tuairisc ar an dul chun cinn a rinneadh ar riarachán agus ar obair an Bhoird um Chur Chun Cinn Sábháilteachta Bia. Bhí cur síos sa tuairisc ar an dul chun cinn a rinneadh ar chomhoibriú eolaíoch agus ar chomhnaisc shaotharlainne agus ar mhalartuithe foirne; an fhorbairt atá á déanamh ar fhóram bia agus cothaithe uile-oileáin; an cur chun cinn atá a dhéanamh ar fhaireachán trasteorann ar ghalair bhia-iompraithe; agus feachtas ilmheáin arb aidhm dó a chinntiú go ngéillimid do reachtaíocht sláinteachtais.
D’fháiltigh an Chomhairle roimh an dul chun cinn a rinne an Bord um Chur Chun Cinn Sábháilteachta Bia agus é ag cur a chláir oibre i gcrích.
Rinne an Chomhairle straitéis chorporáideach 2002-04 an bhoird a bhreithniú agus a cheadú. Déanfar athbhreithniú ar an phlean gach bliain sa phleanáil bhliantúil gnó nuair is féidir spriocanna a uasdhátú más gá. Cuirfear an plean bliantúil faoi bhráid na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/ Theas gach bliain.
Cheadaigh an Chomhairle dréachtplean ag aimsiú riachtanas sóisialta nua an bhoird, a leasaíodh i ndiaidh comhairliúcháin phoiblí, agus scéim chomhionannais leasaithe an bhoird atá le cur faoi bhráid an Choimisiúin um Chomhionannas lena cheadú.
Fuair an Chomhairle cur i láthair ar ghníomhaíochtaí an tionscnaimh comhoibriú agus ag obair i gcomhar. Maidir le saincheisteanna na hearnála sláinte, fuair an Chomhairle tuairisc ar an dul chun cinn a rinneadh ar an chlár oibre a comhaontaíodh ag cruinnithe cheana. Ar na tosaíochtaí a aimsíodh le haghaidh comhoibriú tá seirbhísí taismí agus éigeandálaí, pleanáil le haghaidh olléigeandálaí, comhoibriú ar threalamh ardteicneolaíochta, taighde ar ailse, agus cur chun cinn sláinte.
Chuala an Chomhairle faoin dul chun cinn atáthar a dhéanamh maidir le comhoibriú trasteorann i seirbhísí otharlainne atá faoi cheannas an Ghrúpa Thuaidh/Theas um Seirbhísí Otharlann Réigiúnach. Sa tuairisc seo bhí cur síos ar chúrsaí maidir le nódú orgán sa Deisceart agus conas a b’fhéidir na seirbhísí seo a leathnú ar bhonn uile-oileáin.
Thacaigh an Chomhairle leis an dul chun cinn a rinne meithleacha oibre ar phleanáil le haghaidh éigeandála. Cuireadh an Chomhairle ar an eolas faoi phleananna maidir le comhoibriú agus ag obair i gcomhar ról bainistíochta a ghlacadh chuige féin ag forbairt pleanála le haghaidh éigeandála agus cúram réamh-ospidéil.
Cuireadh in iúl don Chomhairle gur ceapadh sainchomhairleoirí le staidéar féidearthachta a thionscnamh ar na costais agus na sochair a bhaineann le seirbhís míochaine éigeandála ingearáin a chur ar fáil. Fuair an Chomhairle tuairiscí ar an dul chun cinn a rinneadh ar chomhoiliúint seirbhísí dóiteáin thuaidh/theas ar thaismí tráchta bóthair.
Thug an Chomhairle dá haire go bhfuil obair á déanamh i gcónaí in ábhair ina bhféadfaí comhoibriú trasteorann a thionscnamh, lena n-áirítear taighde breise agus anailís le meas cad é mar a rachadh teicneolaíocht tomagrafaíochta astaithe positron ar bhonn uile-oileáin chun sochair don tsláinte.
Hinseadh don Chomhairle go bhfuiltear ag déanamh taighde le fáil amach arbh fhéidir comhoibriú a dhéanamh ar bhonn uile-oileáin ar sholáthar seirbhísí agus ar oiliúint oibríochtúil i seirbhísí taca riachtanacha san earnáil géarmhíochaine.
Thug an Chomhairle dá haire go bhfuil comhoibriú ar siúl sa Chuibhreannas Ailse ar Thaighde Ailse. Thug an Chomhairle dá haire gur fógraíodh maoiniú suntasach breise le haghaidh taighde teiripe ailse agus forbairtí i gcomhordú trialacha cliniciúla ar bhonn uile-oileáin.
Thug an Chomhairle dá haire an dul chun cinn a rinneadh go dtí seo i dtionscnamh chur chun cinn sláinte, lena n-áirítear na torthaí spreagúla ón mheasúnú a rinneadh ar an fheachtas aigéid fhólaigh.
D’aontaigh an Chomhairle gur sa Deisceart i nDeireadh Fómhair 2002 a bheadh an chéad chruinniú eile sna hearnálacha seo.
D’aontaigh an Chomhairle ar théacs na teachtaireachta a eisíodh i ndiaidh an chruinnithe. Cuireadh cóip den teachtaireacht sa Leabharlann.
I wish to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council held in sectoral format in Armagh on Friday 28 June 2002. The meeting considered matters relating to the Food Safety Promotion Board and co-operation on health issues.
Following nomination by the First and Deputy First Ministers, Mr James Leslie, junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I attended the fifth meeting of the Council in its Food Safety and Health sectoral format. Mr Micheál Martin, the Minister with responsibility for the Department of Health and Children, represented the Irish Government. This statement has been approved by Mr Leslie and is also made on his behalf.
The Council received a progress report on the administration and work of the Food Safety Promotion Board, which included details of progress on scientific co-operation; laboratory link and staff exchanges; the development of an all-island food and nutrition forum; the promotion of cross-border surveillance of food-borne diseases; and a multi-media campaign aimed at improving compliance with hygiene legislation.
The Council welcomed the progress made by the Food Safety Promotion Board on advancing its programme of work. The Council considered and approved the board’s corporate strategy for 2002-04. The plan will be reassessed annually in the context of the annual business planning process, during which targets can be updated as necessary, and it will be submitted to the North/South Ministerial Council annually. The Council approved the board’s draft New TSN plan, which was amended after public consultation, and the board’s amended equality scheme for submission to the Equality Commission.
The Council received a presentation on the current activities of the co-operation and working together initiative (CAWT).
The Council received progress reports on the programme of work on health sectoral matters that it had agreed at previous meetings. The priorities identified for co-operation include accident and emergency services; planning for major emergencies; co-operation on high-technology equipment; cancer research and health promotion.
The Council heard progress reports on the continuing cross-border co-operation in hospital services overseen by the North/South Regional Hospital Services Group (NSRHSG), which included the current position on organ transplantation in the South and the possibility of developing the services on an all-island basis.
The Council endorsed the progress made by emergency planning working groups. It was informed of plans for CAWT to undertake a project management role in developing emergency planning and pre-hospital care initiatives. The Council was also advised of the appointment of consultants to undertake a feasibility study on the costs and benefits associated with the introduction of an all-island helicopter emergency medical service. It also received progress reports on joint North/South fire-service training for road-traffic accidents.
In addition, the Council noted that work is continuing in several areas that have potential for cross-border co-operation, including further research and analysis to gauge the potential health gain from positron emission tomography (PET) technology on an all-island basis. The Council was also informed that the potential for all-island co-operation on procurement and operational training in essential support services in the acute sector is being researched.
The Council acknowledged the continuing co-operation on cancer research within the cancer consortium. It also noted the announcement of further significant funding for cancer therapy research and the developments to date in the co-ordination of all-island clinical trials.
The Council recognised progress on several health promotion initiatives, including the encouraging results from the evaluation of the folic acid campaign.
The Council agreed that its next meeting in these sectoral formats would take place in the South in October 2002. It approved the text of the communiqué that was issued after the meeting, a copy of which has been placed in the Library.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Dr Hendron): I welcome the Minister’s report. I am aware of the good work that the Food Safety Promotion Board does across the island of Ireland. The board spoke to the Committee in May about its current programme.
First, as child-protection issues are dear to all our hearts, I would appreciate it if the Minister could expand on the co-ordination of child-protection issues on the island of Ireland, North and South.
Secondly, I welcome the development of emergency planning and the exploration of initiatives such as the helicopter emergency medical service. However, can the Minister comment on the feasibility study that is examining the introduction of an all-Ireland service and on the fact that the Royal Group of Hospitals, which provides key regional services, does not have its own helipad?
My final point is about positron emission tomography (PET), an issue that the Minister has led over the past couple of years. As Members will know, PET technology goes far beyond MRI scanning. Although it is available at Blackrock in Dublin, and now at the Royal Hospital for the people of Northern Ireland, can the Minister comment on the work that has been carried out with regard to that technology on an all-Ireland basis?
Ms de Brún:
I welcome the fact that as a result of a significant charitable donation we now have an initial PET scanner at the Royal Group of Hospitals in Belfast. A framework for evaluating the benefits of that new technology will be in place once the facility begins proper operation.
With regard to the North/South Ministerial Council, so far the joint co-operation work has focused on building a framework for the shared learning of the clinical benefits of PET. The development of a PET clinical scanning service would be an appropriate area for North/South co-operation.
The work on child-protection issues is progressing. The lead on that is within the education sector, but I have clearly taken an interest in that too. My officials are members of the working group, and I am delighted with the progress it has made. With regard to the work that I undertook, individuals applying for paid and unpaid work with children are checked through the Pre-Employment Consultancy Service (PECS), which is operated by the Department. As well as checks carried out against criminal records, checks are also carried out against the PECS register. Similar lists held by the Department of Education here, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health in England and Wales are also checked. The criminal records of individuals moving here from England, Scotland, Wales or the South are also examined, including information on convictions, cautions and bind overs.
As reported, work is ongoing with regard to the helicopter emergency medical service. The consultants have not come back yet with any detail on the options for the locations of such a service and, therefore, have not commented on the specifics of what is available in each hospital.
Mrs I Robinson:
Can the Minister confirm that we will be the driving force in any new helicopter emergency medical service and that it will be based in Northern Ireland? Has there been any discussion with her counterparts in the west of Scotland, who would also benefit from the service owing to the close proximity of Scotland's coast?
Ms de Brún:
Before looking at the matter on an all-Ireland basis, we investigated journey times from Scotland, and the fastest times were still well outside what is needed here. I mentioned the options for the locations of such a service in terms of the all-Ireland study, which has now been commissioned, because we are not necessarily looking at one single location for such a service, and the group's terms of reference allow it to look at several options.
Can the Minister detail the progress that has been made on health promotion initiatives? I congratulate the North/South Ministerial Council on the successful folic acid campaign. Can the Minister copy the encouraging results of that campaign to Members?
Ms de Brún:
I welcome recognition of the success of the folic acid campaign. The North/South Ministerial Council welcomed the televised public information campaigns on folic acid and on physical activity. The Council was also informed about collaboration on smoking issues, about discussions on the introduction of an all-Ireland Healthy Eating Circle awards scheme and on the feasibility of the development of an all-Ireland food and nutrition strategy. An all-Ireland conference on physical activity has been arranged for 27 and 28 November 2002 in the Canal Court Hotel in Newry. The results of lifestyle surveys that compare information on general health and lifestyle throughout the islands will be published towards the end of the year. I have previously reported to the Assembly that consideration was being given to the appointment of dedicated programme managers. A programme manager will soon be appointed by the Health Promotion Agency to help to develop and co-ordinate a strategically planned joint health-promotion programme.
The Minister referred to an all-Ireland physical activity conference - rather than an all-Ireland physical activity and exercise evaluation - which MLAs might be asked to attend.
I have given some thought to a recent case in south Belfast that has some bearing on improving compliance with hygiene legislation. The current legislation is weak, so it would not be much to ask that compliance with that legislation be encouraged. The case involved a bakery that supplied food to local hospitals. It had broken nine food hygiene orders and was prosecuted. The magistrate allowed the case to be adjourned on three occasions, so perhaps consideration should be given to training the judiciary. The bakery continued to do business even though nine prosecution orders had been served. The maximum fine for breaking legislation is only £500, which is minimal for a business that can cause illness. That issue must be dealt with if there is to be compliance.
What is the maximum fine in the Republic of Ireland? Are fines much higher there than in Northern Ireland? If fines were higher, it would make more sense to ask for compliance. Businesses pay little attention to hygiene orders because the fines are not high enough.
I am heartened that research into cancer therapy is being undertaken -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Order. The Member is taking a long time to get to the question. I believe that you are about to preface a question.
I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the question is short. I welcome all-Ireland clinical trial activity, because it lends itself well to cancer research. Will the significant funding for cancer therapy research come from the block grant? What is the level of that funding?
Ms de Brún:
I am unsure about the precise range of activities in the field of cancer research on which the Member seeks information.
Following a review, funding of 1·9 million euros for clinical trials was announced in November 2002. Six awards were made, including two planning grants. Additional funding of 0·7 million euros was made available by the Department of Health and Children to support the next phase of the initiative in 2002, the call for proposals. A second call to hospitals was issued in February 2002.
The objective for the appropriate model for the development of clinical trials infrastructure in Ireland is to fund several centres to carry out high-quality clinical research trials to a level similar to that already achieved in Belfast City Hospital and to fund an all-Ireland clinical trials group to co-ordinate the trial activity of funded hospitals.
Regulation and compliance with hygiene legislation is a matter for the Food Standards Agency. I will raise that matter with the agency.
The Minister will be aware of concern about cross-border hospitals. In her progress report on continuing co-operation, was there any more enlightenment on where the cross-border development plan for the Cavan, Sligo and Erne hospitals, which has left Tyrone completely bereft of any hospital support, is going? Was that discussed at the meeting?
Dr Hayes's study contained a substantial body of information, especially from America, concerning helicopter transport in medical situations. I understand that helicopter transport has been extensively tested in America. The advice given to Dr Hayes was that light aircraft use was fine, but that helicopters were extremely dangerous in medical cases because of their unreliability in the air. Was that discussed at the meeting? Will she speak to Dr Hayes?
Ms de Brún:
The study that has been commissioned is on the feasibility, as well as the costs, of a helicopter emergency medical service. Members will be aware that successive North/South Ministerial Council meetings have discussed that issue and that the Ministers who have attended those meetings have endorsed it. There is, of course, cross-party representation from the Assembly at those meetings. We have decided to commission the feasibility study, including options for the locations of such a service. The study will consider all matters impinging on the feasibility of such a service.
On the question of developing better services, I do not agree with the Member's wording of his question, as frequently happens. I come to it with a slightly different outlook. However, I informed the North/South Ministerial Council health sector meeting that I had, in the plenary session of the Council that morning, referred to my announcement on 12 June of proposals for modernising hospital services and restructuring health and social services and that the strategy was tabled for discussion at the last meeting of the North/South regional hospital service group.
The Member will be aware that the permanent secretary of my Department and the secretary general of the Department of Health and Children have had specific discussions on the potential use of hospitals in the South by people from the Fermanagh and Tyrone areas. Minister Martin and I have also spoken about my proposals for modernising services and have agreed to meet for further discussion on those matters. It is important to note the report that was made at that meeting. As regards the ongoing work, a further meeting with Minister Martin is planned, as I have said.
The North/South Regional Hospital Services Group, which was established to consider the opportunities for developing partnerships, covers the wider regional and supraregional services, as that work is more localised. Minister Martin and I have agreed that the resources required for an examination of the specific use of hospitals in that area can best be taken forward by officials. A small team of my officials will visit hospitals in Monaghan, Cavan, Sligo and Letterkenny to discuss with clinicians and officers of the North Eastern and North Western Health Boards services that those hospitals might provide for people in Fermanagh and Tyrone. I expect the first stage of the work to be completed by the end of September.