Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern ireland assembly

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business
Single Equality Bill
Training for Junior Doctors
Assaults on Emergency Workers
Fishing Industry

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It has been brought to my attention that at some Committee meetings in this Building there has not been enough room for the general public or, on one occasion, the press. I ask you to look into the matter so that accommodation can be made available for those who wish to attend Committee meetings.

Mr Speaker: I will consider how the press and the public might be better accommodated. I remind the House that accommodation here is a very difficult issue. It will be a priority of the Assembly Commission in the coming months and years.

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wonder whether it is an absolute requirement that Members should wear a jacket when addressing the House. Has short-sleeve order been introduced yet?

Mr Speaker: The protocol regarding dress code in the House is very clear, and I should not have to remind Members about it.

Private Members’ Business

Single Equality Bill

Ms Anderson: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises that discrimination operates in many different ways and on many different levels and encourages the Executive to bring forward harmonising legislation, in a single equality Bill, for discussion and consultation at the earliest opportunity.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an ruin. In moving the motion and reflecting on our responsibilities, as Ministers or MLAs, to build a new society that guarantees equality for all in a shared future, Sinn Féin welcomes the fact that the single equality Bill is to be high on the agenda of the new Executive. Discussion on this key, cross-cutting exercise has been ongoing for more than six years.

As we look to build a new future for all of our people, let us equip ourselves with the instruments and competency to do so.

Members, we live alongside discrimination and exclusion every day. Some of the barriers that inhibit our development as individuals, communities, or communities of interest, can be blatant or unseen. For example, women continue to suffer discrimination in gaining employment; in salary levels in the workplace; and through under-representation in public life. We have only to look around the Chamber to see what we must do. There is a long way to go to achieve proportional representation of women in this Chamber, among others.

As a legislative Assembly, we have the obligation and the power to put in place an equality framework that looks to the future of our developing and increasingly complex society. In the North, the fragmented array of legislative instruments applies different standards of protection across the discrimination strands. That has proved difficult, confusing and costly for individuals who are seeking to assert rights, and for employers and service providers who seek to under­stand and observe their legal obligations. Confused law is no law at all, and when that is added to the fact that discrimination is, in many cases, a multiple-identity issue, then the case for harmonisation is compelling.

The legislation in force is a hotchpotch of different Acts that need to be brought together into one compelling Bill, which sets out clear protections against the discrimination of groups, especially children. We need a robust conciliation and interpretation of the different legal instruments, which will harmonise and enhance them to produce a Rolls Royce of legislation.

It is no protection against discrimination that the law should simply declare discrimination to be illegal and leave the burden on victims to bring justice for themselves or their peer groups. An effective anti-discrimination Act must stipulate, in enforceable law, the positive action that needs to be taken to ensure that discriminatory practices cease. It must include obligations on those who discriminate to undertake positive action to change existing practices that are discriminatory.

It has long been recognised that a “same-treatment approach” will never be enough to deliver substantive equality; and by that we mean equal outcomes. After all, people and groups do not start from the same place. Because of the discrimination and disadvantage suffered by certain groups, the playing field is not level, and additional measures are therefore needed to address those issues if equality is to be achieved. A combined affirmative-action/anti-discrimination model should be the baseline from which future legislative improvements are made.

It is clear to us that rather than merely affording direct and indirect discrimination, the single equality Bill must contain positive duties to promote equality of opportunity and deliver substantive equality in society of the type that protects everyone.

It is our collective responsibility to move that process on.

A consultation exercise in 2002 was to have been followed by a draft single equality Bill, but that did not happen. Instead, it was decided that a further consultation exercise should be undertaken to consider in much more detail the key issues and main policy options. That second exercise, which took place in 2004, was wide-ranging and detailed, as were many of the responses that were received from key stakeholders.

The second consultation document identified the overall aim as being the harmonisation of equality law into a single legal instrument, and set out the principles on which such an instrument would be based. Among the stated principles were:

“to acknowledge … human rights … in their broadest sense, … to demonstrate no regression from existing law … [and] to minimise the tendency for [the creation of] hierarchies of inequalities”.

Members should consider the process that is required from this point on. Two major public consultation exercises have already taken place and have secured substantive responses from all the key stakeholders, whose positions will not have significantly changed. Much work has already been done, which we must use and build on. I urge the Executive to introduce a draft single equality Bill that reflects the weight of submissions already received. It is vital that we progress this without any further delay and take the lead in developing a robust Bill that will prevent discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for all in the North.

We must legislate to respect the different needs of all the people who live here. If we merely plug gaps and, in effect, force the existing provisions into a single instrument, we shall end up with a cobbling exercise, not a harmonisation exercise, and that will offend the principles of minimising hierarchies of inequality.

Therefore, let us build on the First Minister’s remarks on 8 May about the past being the ways of yesterday. Let us set a course to make the discrimination and exclusion that many in our society have suffered, whether in the Shankill or Shantallow, the New Lodge or New Buildings, a thing of the past. Let discrimination and inequality belong to the ways of yesterday. I urge all Members to grasp the huge significance of what we do today. It is our obligation to do so. Our people deserve no less, regardless of their religious denomination or the colour of their skin.

Ba mhaith liom an rún a mholadh. I move the motion.

Mr McCausland: The issues of equality and human rights are important, and they should certainly be embedded in the heart of our vision for Northern Ireland. We can trace those issues back to the time of the Enlightenment, especially to the time of the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, one of our local folk, Francis Hutcheson from County Down, contributed much to the development of the Scottish Enlightenment. These are issues that we should feel comfortable with.

However, the motion gives me cause for concern. The issue of a single equality Bill is a long-standing one. The proposer of the motion has mentioned the extensive consultations that have already taken place on the issue — but how extensive and inclusive were those consultations? I suspect that if we went out into the centre of Belfast, or any other part of Northern Ireland, and asked people on the street what they knew about a single equality Bill, or whether they were aware of the consultations that took place or had been asked to contribute to them, the vast majority would say that they knew nothing about it.

10. 45 am

The reason for that could be that so much of the consultation has been conducted through what is generally described as “the voluntary sector”. I refer to some figures about that sector, which has taken such a key role through organisations such as the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) on those matters. The monitoring reports of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) for the years 2002-04 show an employment pattern of significant and increasing disadvantage — some might say, discrimination — against the Protestant community in the voluntary sector. The 2004 employment figures for NICVA, which is supposed to represent the community, show that only 40% of its staff came from the Protestant community, whereas 60% came from the Roman Catholic community. Other key organisations in that sector — for example, the Rural Community Network (RCN) — have reached the stage at which their representation from the Protestant community is less than 25%. Consequently, there is an issue about how inclusive and representative much of the consultation has really been.

There is another matter to which I wish to draw Members’ attention. We are grateful to the Equality Commission — the key organisation in the equality sector — for sending a briefing by email yesterday in which it calls for greater enforcement powers. It might wish to use those powers against itself. This is an organisation that is tasked with monitoring and changing employment patterns in every section of Northern Ireland society, yet it cannot get that right itself. Among its staff there is a 60% representation from the Roman Catholic community — only 40% are drawn from the Protestant community. That is a deterioration from 2002, when Protestants represented 44% of the workforce and 56% came from the Roman Catholic community.

Key organisations in the voluntary sector, and the Equality Commission itself, have significant work to do to make themselves fit for purpose, so that there can be real debate and engagement on the issue of equality, the type of legislation that is required and, indeed, the sort of commission that is needed. We must get those matters right. It is an absolute disgrace that the Equality Commission, year after year, has abjectly failed to improve the position of its own employment pattern.

Before proceeding with a single equality Bill, we must demand that the Equality Commission and the voluntary sector, which represents — or so it claims — communities across Northern Ireland, put their house in order. For that reason, I oppose the motion.

Mr Kennedy: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I want to make some preliminary remarks in respect of my new responsibility as Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre. I shall then outline some personal remarks on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Committee of the Centre has met on only one occasion since restoration and has not had the opportunity to consider a single equality Bill. I shall therefore limit my comments, as Chairperson, to more general observations on the proposal for a Bill to harmonise equality legislation and on the role that the Committee may wish to take on that issue.

I expect that the Committee will attach considerable importance to equality issues and will be provided with a detailed briefing on the work of the equality directorate in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) at the earliest opportunity. The Committee has provisionally included in its work programme a discussion of policy issues that relate to a single equality Bill.

In advance of more detailed consideration by the Committee of the Centre, I nevertheless wish to signal the Committee’s interest in the single equality Bill and its expectation that it will be involved in discussions and consultations on the Bill and related policy matters.

In its early consideration of policy matters that relate to the single equality Bill, I expect that my Committee will wish to be entirely satisfied, most importantly, that the objectives of the proposed Bill are clear, unambiguous, and understood by all those who have a relevant interest. Without such clarity, it will be impossible to assess whether the provisions of the Bill will achieve the intended outcomes.

I have no doubt that my Committee will wish to see robust evidence that the Bill will produce real and tangible benefits for all those whom it aims to protect. I anticipate that my Committee will wish to be reassured — while welcoming, in principle, the value of harmonised legislation — that the provisions of the Bill are practicable and will be implemented without unnecessary bureaucracy.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)

I turn to my own view and that of my party. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that, for too long, the issue of equality in Northern Ireland has been the subject of a politicised mantra, and that, for too long, it has been used as a political football, particularly by Sinn Féin. The equality issue has been used to somehow justify ideological agendas that belong to yesterday. Just as we must build a new society in Northern Ireland, we must confront the challenges of securing equality of opportunity for all. We need an equality agenda that deals with the twenty-first century and that is not stuck in the past.

There is a good case for a single equality Bill that brings together equality protections, simplifies procedures, and rationalises the numerous and, at times, extremely burdensome provisions of existing legislation. There is an economic and social imperative to guarantee equality of opportunity. A prospering economy and a fairer society require equality legislation that is robust and flexible, secures equality of opportunity for all, and provides effective remedies to unfair discrimination. That is why the Ulster Unionists will support a single equality Bill that provides appropriate equality safeguards.

Mrs D Kelly: My party and I support the motion, unlike Mr McCausland, who appears to lack knowledge of the membership of the voluntary and community sector. I wish to begin by placing on record my thanks to the community, voluntary and private sectors for their valuable contributions to the single equality Bill process to date.

Mr McCausland: Does the Member accept that the figures that I quoted were all taken from annual reports that have been published by the Equality Commission?

Mrs D Kelly: Indeed, but those figures relate to the employment make-up of those organisations, not the membership make-up. I am aware that many community and voluntary sector members represent the loyalist, Protestant and unionist sector. Anyone can pick out statistics to make particular points.

It is unfortunate that, for some in the DUP, equality is still a matter for Catholics. I hope that the DUP will take an objective interest in its own communities, which suffer from inequality in many ways.

I will now return to my original point. The community, voluntary and private sectors responded in detail to the consultation on the issue, and brought to the table ideas and facts we can depend on: if only the response from the Government were so dedicated.

Under direct rule, the single equality Bill was occasionally degraded and treated as a political pawn, as was much else. That was disgraceful, given the position of all parties on equality and rights. However, it would be unforgivable were that situation not to improve now that we have control of our own decisions.

The eyes of the world are upon us now, as they will not be again for some time. This is our chance to show that Stormont will offer a regime of equal opportunity and that no one will be discriminated against in the way that so upset our history. I am deeply concerned that if we continue as we have started, we will let ourselves, and our voters, down.

Never has it been clearer that there is a mandate in the North for power to be shared, and to be seen to be shared. A single equality Bill must reflect the wish of the people. No Member is here on a mandate of discrimination. However, unwillingness to co-operate with the creation of the Bill, and lack of effort and drive, are a backhanded show of support for the discrimination that tore our society apart in the past.

As I said earlier, the response to consultation on the single equality Bill was remarkable. A variety of intelligent and well-argued responses covered a multitude of positions, but represented much shared ground as well. In light of that, the consultation report that was released in March — quietly, and to a select few — was, to put it mildly, frustrating. Various reasons have been suggested for the paper’s brevity, lack of detail and absence of imagination, but none was convincing.

Indeed, the matter has been on the long finger for too long and the Assembly must move quickly on it. However, that is no reason to ignore the progress that has already been made: quite the opposite. Even the framing of the process has, suddenly, gone into reverse. It was clear that the remit of the Bill was to mainstream legislation and to harmonise as far as possible — not as little as possible. However, that is what we hear from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — in a whisper, of course, so as not to upset anyone.

I wonder how comfortable the people who elected us would feel about their rights and liberties being handled in that way. I suggest that the public likes its politicians to behave openly and accountably, to get on with the job of working together and to come up with the kind of results that befit their salaries. Let us inject some common sense into our approach, and get on with doing just that.

Working together accountably means engaging with the detail of the local framework, while remembering the considerable protection given by European legislation, on which we can all rely and agree. However, it is not necessary to look continually over our shoulder at Westminster. We must do something impressive and directional in the Assembly, and present that to Westminster as evidence of our capability.

The North is currently a global leader in terms of equality legislation. Is that a reason to be half-hearted, or outright resistant, when engaged with improving the system? I think not. Let us keep the ball rolling, and capitalise on the one area in which we really excel. Let others come to us to learn about best practice.

I urge the Assembly to take a consistent view of all areas, and urge Members to remember their parties’ policies.

Mrs Long: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I welcome, in general, the wording of the motion. However, my comments will make it clear that I take issue with some of what the proposer of the motion said in moving it.

The Alliance Party welcomes the opportunity to comment on the matter. The party has, for some time, supported the introduction of such legislation, and its members are pleased that that will be taken forward.

A single equality Act should amend, standardise, harmonise and extend equality law in its application, not only by extending the scope of the existing regimes but by further innovative thinking and development. New areas of equality of access to employment and services must be considered. Also, as medicine progresses, for instance, there will be increasing discrimination on the basis of genetic predisposition. We must be aware of such developments now as we review the legislation.

There should be no regression in what we do; protections should be upwardly enhanced as we harmonise.

There should not be a hierarchy between forms of discrimination. However, the Alliance Party believes that too much prevalence is given to religious and political matters above all others in Northern Ireland. That leads not to equality but to discrimination against those for whom religious and political affiliations are not an issue.

11.00 am

The Alliance Party believes that our approach to equality must be governed by certain principles, and I will put them on the record. The individual citizen is the foundation of society, and all individuals are of equal worth and should be treated as equal citizens. Individuals are also members of religious, ethnic, cultural and regional communities. Those identities are open and fluid, and people can hold a range of identities and loyalties to different structures and different levels of government.

Citizens have different needs, and equal treatment requires full account to be taken of difference. When equality ignores difference, uniformity of treatment leads to injustice and inequality. Society needs to be cohesive, as well as respectful, of diversity, and it should nurture diversity while fostering a common sense of belonging and shared identity among its members.

On that basis, I will touch briefly on three issues. First, although I am in favour of the principle of equality of outcome, I cannot subscribe to the notion that it should be engineered. It is important that we end discrimination rather than choose to reverse its direction or target; we should seek to end discrimination completely. To merely reverse the direction and change the targets of discrimination would be destructive and discriminatory towards others. Furthermore, we should not rest at saying that equality of opportunity is sufficient. We should not shy away from taking affirmative action to build capacity and to encourage participation. We can do that and yet stop well short of positive discrimination.

Secondly, on the issues of fair employment and equality monitoring, it is vital that we continue to adequately review and monitor equality in employment and recognise the importance and improvements that have been made over the years. However, the use of community background, particularly the residuary method for identifying people with a community with which they have chosen not to identify themselves, for the purposes of monitoring is an unacceptable breach of human rights.

People have the right to define their own identity, and that right should be equally respected whether the identity common in this society or rare. The cornerstone of equality is that everyone is treated equally. Therefore, those who choose not to associate themselves with a community designation must have their choice respected as much as those who choose to associate with a designation. To continue using the residuary method of designation for monitoring purposes undermines the basis of equality in society. We must therefore review how equality is monitored in order that people are not discriminated against.

Thirdly, the motion states that:

“discrimination operates in many different ways and on many different levels”.

However, I want to address one way that is pertinent in this place. The lack of equality in the Chamber between Members who choose to designate themselves as unionist or nationalist and those who choose not to so designate is a matter that the Assembly must take seriously. In previous debates, Members have discussed the need for increased diversity in the Chamber. It is therefore vital that the voting mechanisms of the Assembly are reflective of that diversity.

The discrimination in the Assembly’s voting system must be addressed so that those of us who choose to define ourselves in more inclusive ways are not ignored or counted as less important in key votes. The current voting system dismisses a positive statement of our identity as a member of the United Community group as simply “Other”. Until that inequality in the Chamber is dealt with, it will be difficult for us to have credibility on the issue of equality outside it.

Lord Morrow: The DUP has great concerns about the motion. My colleague David Simpson and I sought to table an amendment to the motion that would have resulted in universal support in the House. It is regrettable that it was not accepted, but we must debate the motion as we see it.

I listened to the proposer of the motion and was appalled to hear her be selective in who would benefit from a single equality Bill and who would not. I remind the Member that there are many victims out there, and she would know something about them.

They were not mentioned. They are not to be included. My party would include them, and would defend and uphold their rights. For that reason, we sought to table an amendment.

No political party is opposed in principle to an equality Bill. However, these issues seem to take legs, and to go in all directions. They often lose the focus of what they are supposed to deliver. We must ensure that it is the public — those who are not being treated equally — who benefit in the end; not barristers’ bank accounts. We used to criticise the amount of equality legislation and its impact on workloads, and we talked sarcastically of the development of an “equality industry”. Things have deteriorated to such an extent that that situation now exists. The “equality industry” has become a professional term. One website for diversity managers, equal opportunities and social inclusion workers advertises itself as the “home of the equality industry.” Is that what we seek? Is that the equality we set out to achieve? Hardly; yet there are many lawyers who are only too happy to see that industry continue and mushroom even further.

In his recent blog on the website of ‘The Guardian’, Peter Tatchell argued for a comprehensive equal rights Act in Great Britain, that would ensure that:

“all forms of discrimination were tackled in a uniform and coherent way.”

He went on to stress that upgraded protection should be provided on the basis of :

“marital status, social background, genetic inheritance, physical appearance, area of residence and medical condition.”

Just where would any finance minister begin to deal with every individual who might have a gripe about any of those issues?

In 2002, R Brubaker agued that potential benefits to individuals were being lost on account of a phenomenon which he termed “groupism”. He stated that:

“an equality industry, or set of vested interests have exaggerated the importance and significance of group social identities at the expense of the individuality of the people concerned.”

He maintained that that was “harmful to minority social groups”. The vested interests of the equality industry, to which he attributed groupism, have been created by state recognition of social group statuses and their inscription into equality measures.

Recognition by the state generates its own dynamic in the agendas and the positions of organisations claiming to represent minority groups and individuals. The new equality “mega-quango” across the water, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, is up and running. It is estimated that it will spend about £50 million a year. Trevor Philips will become the chairman, but of his 13 fellow-commissioners, three are trade unionists, two are academics, three are civil servants — or quangocrats — and three are professionals in non-governmental organisations. Only two have jobs in the wealth-creating sector. They will be paid salaries of between £130,000 and £134,000.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I congratulate my colleague Martina on tabling the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to take part in debate. A variety of legislation attempts to deal with inequalities in all areas of life. Sometimes that leads to unnecessary confusion. A single equality Act has the potential not only to harmonise equality law, but to extend the scope of equality legislation.

A single law can address the interests of everyone and provide a framework for achieving equality for everyone. However, much more than a commitment is needed to prohibit discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity.

Any single equality Bill must be underpinned by equality of access, of outcome, and of condition.

Last week, we debated the under-representation of women in public life and the consequences of that for the development of policies that are sensitive to the needs of women. There are many areas of life in which women face discrimination.

I wish to concentrate on the elements of a single equality Bill and any related consultations that are of particular significance to women. I support the broadening of marital and family status to include all persons with dependents, whether they are married, single, or cohabiting — including opposite-sex and same-sex couples. That would provide a greater degree of security for many people through entitlements to pensions and other benefits, and in the general treatment that they receive.

The under-representation of women in large sectors of the economy is of critical importance. That issue cannot be tackled effectively without affirmative action that is directed at the structural barriers that prevent women from participating equally within the labour market. Despite the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and other equal pay legislation, there is still a problem of low and unequal pay for women. Women earn on average only 81% of male full-time earnings, and female workers remain disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs.

The recommendations of the equal pay task force on flexible working patterns, the provision of childcare, and the tax benefit system must also be examined and potentially addressed by a single equality Bill if we are to achieve equality of outcome.

Pregnancy and maternity continue to be a chief basis of discrimination against women. There has been a clear increase in the number of cases that has been taken to employment tribunals. Clarification is needed in the single equality Bill so that direct discrimination on grounds of pregnancy is defined as direct discrimination on grounds of sex.

If the single equality Bill is to be effective as a tool for enforcing the rights of all groups to equality of treatment, and for preventing all forms of discrimination, there must also be effective protections against victimisation and harassment.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Ms J McCann: No; I only have a short time to complete my remarks.

In the short period of available time, I have succeeded in highlighting only some of the important measures for ensuring equality of opportunity and outcome for women. The task of tackling deeply rooted discrimination and changing attitudes must be at the core of any commitment to end all forms of discrimination, particularly against the most vulnerable in society. I hope that the Executive will publish a draft single equality Bill for discussion and consultation at the earliest opportunity. I support the motion.

Mr Campbell: I imagine that every political party, in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, is in favour of equality legislation, provided that it delivers what it is supposed to — a more equal society. My party does not oppose a single equality Bill in principle, but examination of what fair employment legislation has, in practice, delivered in the past leaves us with a jaundiced view of what such a Bill can achieve.

For example, we have seen the passing of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, and the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 — both pieces of legislation that would no doubt be endorsed by those who are promoting the single equality Bill. Implementation bodies emerged from those pieces of legislation: the Equality Commission and its predecessors. What results have the Equality Commission and the legislation that provided for it produced in Northern Ireland?

11.15 am

The Equality Commission is supposed to oversee issues regarding gender, religion and race. There is no doubt that the problems that continue to exist with gender are improving. It might be argued that they are not improving quickly enough, but they are improving. Issues to do with race need more work, but they are improving. The one area in which there is no improve­ment is the one that the hon Member for North Belfast Mr McCausland mentioned: the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. There is no improvement there; in fact matters are getting worse in spite of legislation that was made in the House of Commons and supported by those who say that they are in favour of equality. That makes the DUP very jaundiced about a single equality Bill.

The Equality Commission in place today does not rail against the discrimination of members of the Protestant community who apply for jobs in the police force — it actually supports that. It says that that is good. The Equality Commission is supposed to be against discrimination, yet it is in favour of it, and we are asked to support legislation like that. The Equality Commission that exists today does nothing about the worsening Protestant under-representation in the Civil Service. It recognises the issue but does nothing about it — and people want us to support an Equality Bill that would replicate that.

It is easier proportionately for a Roman Catholic to become a member of the Police Service than it is for a Protestant to become a housing officer, but there is no implementation of the 50:50 rule as regards recruitment to the Housing Executive. Under-representation is becoming worse because of legislation that we were told would deliver equality.

Those people who are prepared to say that they want equality for all should begin to turn the magnifying glass on the area where a lack of equality is getting worse and tell us what they plan to do about it.

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that those who expound the virtues of equality need to ensure equality for Christians in Northern Ireland who have grave reservations about legislation that has been introduced that discriminates against them because they hold a particular religious view?

Mr Campbell: That is the case, and I thank my hon Friend for his point. Many in the Christian and evangelical community feel that they are being disadvantaged, and legislation that the Assembly is considering must address that. A Minister said yesterday that we have got to feel comfortable with the wording of legislation — but it also has to deliver the goods. If a single equality Bill could do that then the DUP would support it, but past experience shows that such a Bill would not, and that it would actually make matters worse for my community. Come up with the goods that will deliver pure and genuine equality, and we will support them.

Mr Elliott: Who could argue with the wording of the motion, which states:

“discrimination operates in many different ways and on many different levels”?

Of course, it does. What concerns me is that mostly when republicans talk about equality and discrimination, one would think that they are the only people who are being discriminated against in the Province. That is far from the truth, and other Members who have spoken have alluded to that. The Member who moved the motion, as Lord Morrow said, almost talked of selective discrimination and selective equality. I am concerned that we will bring forward equality legislation that will actually discriminate against a section of the community in Northern Ireland.

Victims have been mentioned, but they have often been ignored in the equality process. What equality and rights did the families of the victims Fred Love and William Hassard in Fermanagh have when Sinn Féin/IRA erected a monument to an IRA murderer right beside where their family members were murdered by the IRA?

What rights and equality did the people who were killed in the Enniskillen and Omagh bombs or the Kingsmill massacre have? We could spend all day asking about the equality that those victims had. I am interested in hearing from Sinn Féin Members how they propose to address equality for those victims but, as yet, I have not heard anything.

Mr Storey: The IRA statement of 2005 endorsed the IRA campaign, describing it as “entirely legitimate” and handed over the baton to the party that sits opposite. Does the Member agree that the serious question must be asked of the party opposite whether it is of that view today?

Mr Elliott: I cannot disagree with the Member’s comments, and I thank him for them. That question needs to be answered by those Members on the other side of the House — not by me. Those people are now in the Government of Northern Ireland, sitting in the Executive of this Assembly. Have they changed? They serve as Ministers acting on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen and her realm. I hope that they have changed; if so, I want to hear it clearly.

Any single equality Bill should not deal only with the issues of inequality and discrimination that I have mentioned — and I have talked about some negatives. The Bill should set a positive framework for the promotion of equality especially for traditionally marginalised groups, such as people with disabilities and those with learning disabilities. Effective remedies for inequality must place an emphasis on disability. The distinct nature of disability inequality demands a focused approach in order to recognise the long-term social, economic and institutional nature of the discrimination and disadvantage experienced by disabled people.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in December last year and signed by our UK Government. The Convention, which is awaiting ratification at Westminster, offers clear progress on a range of areas. Those include raising awareness, protecting the integrity of the person, personal mobility, independent living, access to information and many more.

The single equality Bill may not, as yet, be able to legislate for the changes that will arise once the UN Convention is ratified by the UK. However, it is important to strengthen disability protection from the outset in anticipation of ratification. I therefore call for proactive and inclusive support for anything that emerges from this equality Bill. However, those on the other side of the House should realise that if there is to be equality, it will be for everyone, not only for those who seem to believe that they are the only people who have been discriminated against.

I was quite interested in the comments of the Member for West Tyrone Barry McElduff who asked if short-sleeve order had been introduced in the Chamber. My recollection is that it is an army regulation — I wonder in what army Mr McElduff picked that up.

Mr Dallat: Mr Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your elevation to high office.

The introduction of a single equality Bill presents new opportunities to go much further than harmonising anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, it is an ideal opportunity to extend protection well beyond that demanded by European Union directives. Furthermore, it is our opportunity to frame Northern Ireland’s equality legislation more positively and to include proactive duties to promote equality of opportunity. In a world that is full of inequality, there is a need to demonstrate that, beyond a shadow of doubt, this is a fair place where reasonable adjustments are made in order to recognise disability and where there is fair participation by two communities.

The underlying principles of the single equality Bill must include a commitment to the following core principles: upward harmonisation of existing anti-discrimination and equality coverage; fulfilment of the Belfast Agreement mandates; adherence to European law and international best practice; provisions in accordance with existing equality duties under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and a positive, unified conception of equality — something that I have not heard this morning.

Several issues arise from the effort to harmonise existing laws. In particular, there must be no watering down of those laws. The added protection offered by section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 must be ring-fenced. Protection must be given to marital and family status, and there must be a clear understanding of what is meant by “disability”.

I share many people’s concern that adequate protection is not offered to those who continue to experience the wrath of the paramilitary groups that still terrorise communities. It is unacceptable that families, having been intimidated out of their homes, are given nothing more than a piece of paper from the PSNI advising them that there is information that suggests that their lives are at risk. It is unacceptable that those families are left homeless — often for long periods of time — with little intervention from the Housing Executive or the Northern Ireland Office. That is not equality in any democracy. My heart goes out to those families who continue to experience inequality caused by terror groups who do not seem to have discovered that their day has gone — I hope, for ever.

Enforcement is all-important; any legislation that is not followed through is, to all intents and purposes, as useless as a handbrake on a canoe. The SDLP believes that there is an ideal opportunity to complement the Bill with a single equality tribunal, and that an independent equality appeals tribunal is justified. None of that rules out the increasing role for mediation that was suggested in the consultation paper.

There should be a recognition that considerably greater statutory powers and resources will be required if an outcome-based approach to equality is to take root. In that respect, as in the fields of enforcement and monitoring, the Equality Commission has shown itself to be of great value.

Finally, let me emphasise the need to promote the extension of positive action measures to all grounds. Positive measures should be allowed, so as to ensure fair participation or good practice in order to facilitate full equality in practice. In these circumstances, and in an atmosphere of partnership, all our citizens are winners and there are no losers. Equality is no longer a demand — it is a right, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and emulated by genuine democracies throughout the free world. Sadly, there is much still to be done. Equality is not the remit of one party or another, but of all of us.

Here, at least, we can make a difference — although it is long overdue. In other parts of the world, through famine, disease, war, and unfair trading practices, there is no equality, no justice, and no hope. Let us go forward positively, accepting that in the past many people in both communities did not have equality — not even the right to live.

Finally, I was interested to hear Mr Storey calling for the rights of religious groups. A very short time ago he complained about a religious icon on Royal Mail postage stamps. I think that that underlines Mr Storey’s hypocrisy.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún, agus ar dtús ba mhaith liom cothrom na Féinne a thabhairt do Martina as an rún a chur romhainn.

I commend Martina for proposing this motion. She also raised the matter at a meeting of the Committee of the Centre last Wednesday afternoon. She has highlighted the fact that the current legislation is very fragmented and that it needs to be pulled together and strengthened in the form of a harmonised single equality Bill. Martina also said that there was an obligation and an opportunity to do that now and that we have the power to deliver on the matter. The Executive can lead the way in this matter if they, and the Members of this House, have the political will.

It has also been pointed out that, to date, consultation has been extensive and that substantive contributions have been made to at least two major consultations so far.

11.30 am

Nelson McCausland said at the outset of the debate that he supported equality. However, I was counting the seconds until he said “however” or “but”. It was like one of those goals that is scored in the first minute of a football match. Nelson was very quick to qualify his support for equality by immediately reaching —

Mr Storey: If the Member is so keen to ensure that others are precise in their definition and support of equality, will he now condemn the IRA’s 35-year murderous campaign and admit that it could not be described as having been in the interests of equality?

Mr McElduff: I thank the Member for his irrelevant intervention.

However, when Nelson McCausland spoke in support of equality, I was counting the seconds until he said “however” or “but”. He then said that he was against the motion. If Members were to read the motion, I do not know how they could be against it yet claim to support equality. The motion states:

“That this Assembly recognises that discrimination operates in many different ways and on many different levels and encourages the Executive to bring forward harmonising legislation, in a Single Equality Bill, for discussion and consultation at the earliest opportunity.”

How a Member can suggest in one breath that he supports equality but in another that he will oppose the motion defies my understanding.

The DUP needs to show more maturity in examining motions. The important matter is not from where the motion has come; it is about its substance and whether a Member or party agrees or disagrees with it. The DUP should stop the silly practice of objecting to Sinn Féin motions and instead examine the substance of the issue at hand. A Latin phrase can be applied to that practice: the DUP could be said to be playing the game ad hominem. That party should therefore look at the issues, not from where they emanate.

When Danny Kennedy spoke as the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, I was conscious that we have not yet had a full opportunity to discuss single equality legislation at Committee level. Danny asked the interesting question of whether such proposed legislation would result in tangible benefits. I think that it would. He also asked whether equality legislation is a political football or a politicised mantra. The motion is searching for equality: it does exactly what it says on the tin. It is about introducing composite and harmonised equality legislation that focuses not on yesterday’s agenda but on tomorrow’s. Some unionist contributors to the debate seem to be nervous about recognising that discrimination either existed in the past or exists now and has been suffered extensively in the past by nationalists, among others, across the board.

Dolores Kelly defended the reputation of the voluntary and community sector. The debate was being taken in a different direction at that time, so her contribution was very valuable.

The DUP should be more objective and examine aspects of its own community, such as education. It is well known that the unionist political parties, particularly the DUP, are doing a very bad job of representing Protestant and unionist children and young people who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. We need only listen to —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am delivering my winding-up speech.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr Simpson: Although we clearly do not want to see anyone being discriminated against, the new Administration must tread carefully. In recent years, Northern Ireland has spawned an equality industry. In the 10 years since 1996, 4,735 cases of religious discrimination at work were reported, with just 50 of those being upheld.

Staff costs and fees were estimated at £2·2 million, and none of that total included the cost of getting legislation passed or appointing equality watchdogs. Of course, to Sinn Féin, and, also, to the SDLP, minor details such as efficiency or budgetary constraints appear to be of little concern. They might well relate to a former Congressman of the United States who once said:

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Where has all of this got us? We are now in a situation where Christians who run guest houses have the choice of allowing practices to occur under their roofs that they find objectionable, or of being dragged through the courts, or of selling up. Those choices will be faced in the full knowledge that parties in this Chamber approve of every penalty faced and every hardship endured by those families.

It is also the case that if anyone in any part of Northern Ireland sees a news report about an assault in another distant part of the Province and decides that, regardless of evidence and how it was reported, the assault was a hate crime, that viewer can pick up the phone and report his or her perception to the local police. The incident is then recorded by the PSNI as a hate incident, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. There is a danger that if such a proposal were not handled correctly it could make the situation worse. It could multiply costs, turn even more ordinary, law-abiding people into criminals, find ever-new ways to set aside the right to expression and freedom of speech, and further restrict civil and religious liberty.

It is no surprise that such a proposal is made by Sinn Féin’s spokesperson for Protestant and unionist outreach. That is a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one. If someone from the proposer’s background thinks that she can reach out to unionists, she must think that she can sell snow to Eskimos.

The Executive must consider a number of points, including the basic question of whether such a Bill is necessary or desirable.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Simpson: No, I have almost finished. The Member had her opportunity.

The Assembly must look at the whole question of costs and efficiency, and, indeed, consider whether some new piece of crippling legislation is needed. It should also set about undoing some of the bad legislation that has already been passed, and make right some of the deep wrongs that have been done in the name of equality.

I reaffirm the DUP’s commitment to genuine equality for all. The DUP will not be supporting the motion, as it would put us deeper into the mire that we are already in. I urge every Member to do likewise.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your new position.

I am pleased to address the Assembly on the matter of equality. Equality and anti-discrimination measures are cornerstones of international law. The legislation already in place to protect the vulnerable defines our standards as a community. The mark of an advanced society is that it tackles inequality and protects the vulnerable.

Equality is an important principle. It is a priority to work together to eliminate inequalities. The concept of having new equality legislation has been around for a considerable time. Work was begun by previous Administrations, and the first Programme for Government identified a single equality Bill as an objective. Consultations took place to seek views and to evaluate what a single equality Bill might look like, because it is recognised that this is a large and complex area.

Direct rule Ministers made it clear that their preference was that a Bill should be taken forward by a restored, devolved Administration. When launching the 2004 consultation, John Spellar said that, ideally, he would like to see the legislation brought through the Assembly so that those who had initially decided that there should be legislation would have the opportunity to debate and shape it.

Since 2004, there has been much progress in strengthening different areas of equality legislation. That has resulted in extra protection on the grounds of gender and for those with disabilities. Recognition of the importance of this issue and a commitment to making progress on it were included in the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006. Now that there are functioning, devolved institutions, the Assembly can finally focus on bringing the legislation forward.

I thank all the contributors to the debate today. Nelson McCausland asked how extensive and inclusive the consultation has been — the Equality Commission survey of 2006 showed that there was 92% support for a single equality Bill and that a majority recognised that discrimination occurred on many grounds and in many ways. We are currently talking to a wide range of stakeholders including employers’ representatives, trade unions, the Churches and the voluntary and community sector. The 2004 consultation was wide-ranging and targeted the same groups.

Dolores Kelly argued that OFMDFM is suggesting the implementation of minimal harmonisation in the community. Proposals for the extent of harmonisation have yet to be put to the Executive, and there is no presumption of minimum harmonisation.

Several MLAs argued for extending the grounds to provide new protection for areas of marital status, genetic predisposition and victims. In bringing forward proposals for a Bill, the Executive will consider the case and the evidence for introducing new grounds.

Gregory Campbell spoke about equality legislation having to be comfortable for everyone. Equality legislation is about protecting everyone’s rights. By implementing equality legislation, the Assembly must ensure that all rights, without exception, are protected.

What is the purpose of a single equality Bill? Equality is a right regardless of gender, religion, race, political opinion or other defining factors. Any equality legislation must effectively embrace diversity and enable people to fulfil their potential.

Mr McNarry: The Member who moved the motion, Ms Anderson, mentioned ‘A Shared Future’ and social engineering. Does the Deputy First Minister agree with me that it would be helpful if the Office of First Minister and the Deputy First Minister clarified whether or not there is official endorsement of ‘A Shared Future’, given that his predecessors were unable to endorse it in the past?

In addition, does he agree that it would be useful to know if the Office of First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is responding jointly to today’s debate? Finally, does he accept that, regrettably, in the light of his party’s tone during this debate, my party has altered its opinion of the nature of, and the reasoning behind, this motion and is unable to support it.

The Deputy First Minister: Whether a party decides to support or oppose the motion is a matter for that party.

Today, I am speaking on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

11.45 am

As many Members know, and as the motion states, discrimination can operate in many different ways and on many different levels. It is not always easy to recognise prejudice and intolerance, but it is all too apparent to those who suffer as a result of discrimination and inequality. In June 2006, the Equality Commission commissioned an independent survey of 1,000 adults, ‘Awareness of Equality Issues amongst the General Public’. The findings indicate that some 17% of the adults who were surveyed felt that they had been treated unfairly or had been harassed in the previous three years. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

The Deputy First Minister: It is therefore important that we address discrimination issues for all parts of our community. It is essential that we continue to build an inclusive, progressive and equal society, and that we welcome and celebrate diversity and difference.

The first public event that was organised by the First Minister and me took place in Stormont on 9 May, when we invited people from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities who have chosen to come here to live and work among us. We wanted to thank them and all those people who have brought their skills, expertise and unique culture into our society. We spoke to people from all ethnic backgrounds, and the fact struck me that we are all united in our desire to make this society a better place in which to live and work. At that event, the First Minister and I made clear our determination to tackle and stand against all forms of prejudice and intolerance. We wanted to show that the Administration celebrate and welcome diversity. That event was about showing political leadership in a tangible way, and it was a clear statement of our opposition to inequality and discrimination.

The business sector has also recognised the benefits of maintaining equality standards. If a society is based on inequality and discrimination, the best person does not always get the job or promotion.

I wish to take a little time to put the concept of the equality agenda in context, to outline some of the progress that has been made to date, and to describe briefly the way ahead. My officials are engaged in a series of meetings with key interested groups. Those officials are listening to the views of those groups and are keeping them informed of our current thinking. I am conscious that that work has been ongoing for the past eight years, so there is a justifiable sense that the issue must be resolved early in a way that makes a real difference.

The Administration intend to present proposals to the Executive for their earliest consideration and approval. Those policy proposals will detail the range of available protections, any changes that we consider necessary or desirable, and the arrangements that will be put in place to ensure the continued effectiveness of any possible provisions, examining, in particular, the role of the Equality Commission.

What is our thinking, and what are our principles? There is a strong argument about the need to streamline and consolidate the legislation into one legal instrument. Our purpose in considering the issue is to ensure that the most effective protection is available to all people.

Much work lies ahead, but we remain absolutely committed to the view that equality is a right and that it is good for individuals, the community and the economy. It is our intention that any possible equality legislation will provide an effective framework for everyone in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society. We need to send a signal to all people that our future will be based on justice, equality and protection from discrimination.

I welcome today’s debate and the focus that it has brought to this important area of work. I look forward to working constructively with the Assembly on this vital issue.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that they must all switch off their mobile phones, however attractive their ringtone.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. As the proposer of this motion, I appreciate the fact that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are present for the debate. I have listened with keen interest to many of the contributions. It is important that all Members recognise that this motion is a serious attempt to put in place a law that will be effective for everyone in society. I am not at all singling out the nationalist and republican section of our society; I am talking about the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community, the nationalist and republican community, and all those who do not identify themselves in those ways. This legislation should be introduced for everyone’s benefit.

Despite what David Simpson said about me and the work that I am involved in as director of unionist engagement, I know from conversations that I have had with many people from the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community that there is an appetite for engagement. Inequality and disadvantage definitely exist within that community. I care as much about the fact that only 2% of children in the Shankill area pass the 11-plus as about under-representation in Shantallow and elsewhere. I care about all our children across this society. It is unfortunate that the UUP has arrived at the conclusion that it has.

The motion states:

“That this Assembly recognises that discrimination operates in many different ways and on many different levels and encourages the Executive to bring forward harmonising legislation, in a Single Equality Bill, for discussion and consultation at the earliest opportunity.”

As Members, we have an obligation and a duty to put in place an equality framework to address the fragmented array of legislative instruments that are causing confusion across society. Let us build on the opportunity that we have. Let us take advantage of where we have come from and all that has happened since 8 May. We have a duty and responsibility to build a genuine shared future on equality. For that reason, I ask Members to reflect on the motion and to support it. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 42; Noes 45.


Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P Maskey and Mrs McGill.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Craig and Mr McQuillan.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As Members know, the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunchtime today. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.06 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Training for Junior Doctors

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and has been published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for a winding-up speech.

Mr Ford: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls for assurance from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that junior doctors will be offered appropriate training to ensure that their careers, and patients’ care, are protected.

As others have done, Mr Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your reappointment to your office. We look forward to seeing you preside over real business, rather than your duties of last summer.

Before discussing the motion, I must first declare an interest: I am the father of two junior doctors, both of whom have been affected in different ways by the disaster that is the so-called modernising medical careers (MMC) scheme. However, as the motion makes clear, my friend Kieran Deeny and I are also seriously concerned about the scheme’s effects on patient care.

The MMC scheme had all the hallmarks of a modern Government project: it addressed a system that, although working, could undoubtedly work better. However, instead of incremental changes, the scheme proposed massive and radical changes, many of which had limited justification. Among those changes was the new medical training application service (MTAS), which depended on a new and untried computerised scheme to administer applications for jobs on behalf of every junior doctor in every region of the United Kingdom. The information technology failed continuously — now where have we heard that before in Government projects?

The term “junior doctor” conveys a rather misleading impression. The term actually covers all doctors other than hospital consultants and general practitioners. It does not mean only those doctors who are just out of university; it means the vast majority of doctors who staff our hospitals and who provide life-saving care for our constituents 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

In an effort to address the problems that ensued from the scheme, different ad hoc schemes have been developed in each of the four nations of the UK. There has been a desperate attempt to ensure some continuity in the National Health Service when doctors are due to take up their new posts in early August. In the meantime, every significant body of medical opinion — not just the junior doctors themselves, but the royal colleges and representative groups of consultants — has expressed its opinion on the fiasco. Those opinions have ranged from concern to absolute horror.

Two days ago, the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), Mr James Johnson, felt obliged to resign apparently because he had not expressed his concerns forcibly enough. For those of us who had never before seen the medical profession rising up, as a whole, to protest, that was an indication of how serious the situation is.

The Department of Health in Whitehall has set up a review, but the review team is, “top-heavy with DoH apparatchiks” — not my words, but those of a large group of medical professors in a letter to ‘The Times’ last week.

In one respect only has the scheme been different from a classic new Labour scheme. This Government does not apologise — not even for the Iraq war. However, the Secretary of State for Health was forced to apologise to doctors for the distress that she had caused. So far, no apology has been made to patients for the harm that they may be caused. In such circumstances, it is little wonder that doctors are so upset and annoyed, and it is little wonder that the acronym MMC has had a number of spin-offs, of which the politest is probably “making medics cry”.

We are clearly in the middle of an ongoing crisis; so what is to be done? I welcome the actions of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety here. In particular, I welcome the reopening of the interview process. Those who were denied first-round interviews by the deeply flawed process — flawed in its implementation and designation — will now have the opportunity to be considered for their other choices. Even that compromise is deeply flawed.

In no other field of employment, particularly in the public sector, would it be acceptable for candidates for the same positions to be interviewed under different conditions, with no proper shortlists, on widely different dates, probably by different panels, and with those who are called to the second round of interviews inevitably tagged as the failures from the first round. That hardly reflects equal treatment of all applications, which is surely a prerequisite of any public appointments procedure.

I know of cases of doctors who have failed to be called for interview for posts in specialisms in which they have experience and have passed postgraduate exams. However, those doctors were interviewed for posts in their lower choice specialisms, for which they were less qualified and experienced. The system is fundamentally flawed.

Even the letters of offer from various specialties leave candidates with unacceptable dilemmas. Should candidates accept early offers from their second choices, or should they hold on in the hope that, due to others turning down offers, one of their first choices becomes available? That scenario would be difficult in any job. However, it is not a one-off job application. The current design of MMC means that that issue cannot be redressed later.

Currently, interviews are supposed to cover a seamless progression from the newly instituted foundation-year programme through to consultant grade. Therefore, the system works fine when junior doctors get the positions that they want and realise their ambitions during the first stage of the process. If they achieve that initial step, they know that they have begun the seamless progression.

However, what happens to the majority who do not get the post that they want or do not get any post at all? What happens to those who fail at their one and only attempt to begin a career for which they have trained for several years and in which the general public, as taxpayers, have invested heavily? The current system is not only damaging to the prospects of the individuals concerned — it is seriously damaging to public welfare and the public purse.

I am not a lawyer, but I know a little about employment matters. It seems to me that any doctor who fails to get the post that he or she wants, as a result of this deeply flawed and variable process, could almost certainly have redress through the courts. However, I do not get the impression that people wish to take those cases through the courts. Rather, they want to be treated fairly, to have the opportunity to make progress in their careers, and to contribute to society. They do not want to seek compensation because of their failure to achieve those objectives.

The willingness of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to take the issue seriously is a positive sign. I am grateful to him for attending a briefing in the Long Gallery that was organised by Northern Irish Medics, and for his recognition that this matter requires urgent action. Today, he has the opportunity to add substance to that commitment.

It is clear that the current year’s process is so flawed that it cannot possibly be used as the basis for the future career patterns for the nearly 1,000 junior doctors who want to serve the people of Northern Ireland. It would be unacceptable for any doctor to lose his or her career, and the Minister has previously confirmed that, at this stage, more than 100 doctors could be affected. It would be almost as bad if doctors were forced into second-choice training posts or non-progression staff grades, with no further chance of starting on new career paths.

The current process compresses two years into one. With the introduction of the F1 and F2 training posts for those who are just out of medical school, there must be no question of doctors being refused posts on the basis of over-qualification. As a potential patient, I would rather visit an overqualified doctor than an underqualified one.

The Minister has stated that it is not possible to return to the previous training scheme. That may be the case, although there are many who wish that it had been returned to a few months ago.

Doctors — and the entire population — have a right to expect the Minister to confirm that he will ensure action on several key points for the future. His first priority must be an assurance that when new appointments are made this August, there will be no compulsory redundancies among those junior doctors who wish to continue working in Northern Ireland. That will require the Department to initiate an urgent review of medical staffing across the region, in every grade.

His second priority must be the full option for transfer among posts next year. In other words, this year’s appointments, under the current flawed process, of junior doctors who are dissatisfied with their posts, should be effective for one year only.

The third priority is that there must be recognition that the current number of posts proposed for the future is inadequate to provide for the needs of the NHS in Northern Ireland, and for those who are currently engaged in medical training. It must be ensured that adequate posts are available to provide the care that our constituents require.

I further ask for the Minister’s agreement to set up a review group in Northern Ireland to examine the conclusions of the national review of MMC, as well as an assurance that such a review will be broadly representative of the medical profession and the wider community, instead of being stuffed with departmental apparatchiks.

I thank the Minister for his attendance and for taking the matter so seriously. I commend the motion, and I have no problem with the amendment that Dr Coulter will propose, as it merely adds some flesh to the motion that Dr Deeny and I tabled. I ask for the support of the House and urgent action from the Minister.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“; and that there is a review of junior doctor workforce planning, to be reported to the Assembly.”

The crisis over junior-doctor training is potentially the most damaging that the Health Service has faced since its inception some 60 years ago. The level of breakdown that it represents, and the extreme damage that it has done to morale among our junior doctors, is difficult to exaggerate.

I know that the new Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is deeply committed to solving the crisis, and I compliment him for attending a mass lobby by junior doctors in Parliament Buildings on 16 April. That showed his good intentions towards the professionals in the Health Service, as did his pledge at that meeting to put the junior-doctor training problem high on his agenda. That made a huge difference to the morale of our junior doctors who, up to that point, had been ignored by officials and direct rule Ministers. I understand that the Minister met with junior doctors again on 3 May.

It takes, on average, £250,000 to train a doctor. That means that any level of unemployment among doctors represents a massive waste of public money. Up to 200 junior doctors could be unemployed as a direct result of the training system in Northern Ireland, and a further 212 could be unemployed in two years’ time when fixed-term specialist-training appointments run out. The maths of that is straightforward: 200 times £250,000 equals £50 million of public money squandered, which is indefensible.

Across the UK, the problem is even worse. There are 32,000 eligible applicants for only 18,500 jobs. That represents a crisis of massive proportions. Indeed, to define the current situation as a crisis is a massive understatement. The UK Government’s position on the matter is best described as a rout. One element after another of their position on MMC has collapsed. The chief executive that headed the MMC operation has resigned. The chairman of the BMA has also resigned, as the House has already heard from Mr Ford.

After making some tremendous mistakes, which included sending doctors to two appointments on the same day in different parts of the country, the computer system that was built for the BMA was eventually abandoned, after the details of thousands of doctors were leaked.

For the first time in my long career, I have heard responsible doctors talking of strike action, which has not happened in 4,000 years of medical history.

2.15 pm

What alarms me most is that, in the midst of this crisis, we are losing some of our best young doctors. I have had reports of mass recruiting by the state of Victoria in Australia. Hospitals there are recruiting many of our best young doctors, most of whom will never return to this country.

Even more alarmingly, I have had reports of some of the best medical students from our top medical schools abandoning medicine altogether. Many have gone to work in London in financial services and other careers. This whole episode has been a gross betrayal of the vocation of many junior doctors by a cynical and exploitative UK Government.

It is high time that the Government got their hands off medical training. This surely must be the lesson learned from this dismal episode. Medical training should be a matter for the professionals and no one else. Medicine is a serious, life-and-death business. Petty bureaucrats who lack proper medical training should not be involved in it. Control of medicine and medical training must be returned to the professionals.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up. My apologies, it is not.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I thought that you had given me 10 minutes at the beginning, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Spending must be on front-line services, and key decisions must be made by a medically qualified, clinically aware leadership. I know that the Minister has taken steps to end the worst excesses of the modernising medical careers (MMC) catastrophe; he did so within days of taking office. It was important for us to break with the rapidly deteriorating English MMC situation, and the Minister was decisive in doing just that. He has the best interests of the Health Service, its patients and professionals at heart, and the future of the Health Service in Northern Ireland is much safer now that it is out of direct rule hands.

I thank the proposer of the motion for accepting the amendment. I believe that the House fully supports the motion.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Storey: All who have been in contact with the medical profession recently will be aware of the grave concern this issue has caused among junior doctors. The Assembly should note the high level of dissatisfaction among junior doctors regarding the changes to the postgraduate training-course application process.

Today, we are also reminded that this is the sort of issue that is of ultimate importance to the people that we represent. It would be easy for the House — as it has done in the past under the Hain Assembly — to blame others; to say that others are responsible for this problem. If devolution is to mean anything to our communities and constituents, it is as an opportunity to ensure that we learn from mistakes, and that we put in place processes that are manageable and that can deliver.

Everyone accepts that the introduction of a new system of training for junior doctors has been a chaotic mess. It may yet bring an end to the political career of the Secretary of State for Health. We await the outcome of that matter.

The online application process was a fiasco, and recent security breaches resulted in the personal details of applicants being made widely available on the Internet. That does not inspire confidence in multimillion-, or perhaps, multi-billion-pound IT systems that are being introduced in the NHS. We should issue a note of caution to our own Minister to ensure that any new proposals for new processes do not fall foul of the same problems.

There are reports that the initial application tests were so poor that a nurse applied for a training post for hospital consultants. The result of the judicial review sought by Remedy UK is due later this week. No posts across the water are being offered until the second week in June, but here in Northern Ireland offers were sent out by email last Wednesday night — the night before the Health Committee had the opportunity to discuss the issue at its initial meeting the next day. That was done in the full knowledge that this debate was to take place today.

We need more doctors, not fewer; I think that we are all agreed on that. There is a concern that the service offered in our hospitals will be undermined by a shortage of experienced doctors currently employed in the NHS.

The Department has argued that the controversial system of run-through speciality training posts was the only way to allocate posts for 2007-08. Many doctors do not share the view that run-through posts are key to having sufficient doctors working this August. It has been explained to me that that was not necessary: the Department had the option of making appointments for one year only. These would have been fixed-term speciality training posts. I welcome the Minister’s presence for this debate and will be interested to hear from him what consideration was given to that option.

The use of single-year appointments could have ensured that doctors were in post for 2007, while the longer-term appointments could have been held over until a fairer and more reliable recruitment process had been put in place. Furthermore, it would have meant that postgraduate medical education remained compatible with training in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Will the Minister give my constituents in North Antrim an assurance that he will review these changes in order to ensure that the Department employs the most effective recruitment policy, in the interests of effective healthcare and the well-being of patients? The level of concern has been so high that it has even been argued —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up, Mr Storey.

Mr Storey: It has even been argued that the medical training application service’s online recruitment process could present a risk to patient safety. I trust that that will not be the case.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I was cautious about calling the Member’s time in case I got it wrong again.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am delighted that this motion, and the amendment, is before the House and that the Minister is present to hear what appears to be cross-party support for junior doctors.

I am sure that, since our election, we have each heard representations from the British Medical Association and Irish Medics about training and the securing of posts. Recently, as David Ford and Rev Robert Coulter said, a few of us held an event in the Long Gallery where we heard at first hand of the difficulties experienced by junior doctors and by their families. Today the Assembly has an opportunity to record its support for the motion and the amendment and, crucially, to support the junior doctors, who are the bedrock of the future of the Health Service.

Any review must look at the number of speciality training posts, with a view to expansion. It is critical that the number of training posts be linked to care for workforce training, not only to support and protect the careers of junior doctors but to protect patient care. Today we can see that there is cross-party support for junior doctors, and for the motion and the amendment.

The key issue is that we must not lock junior doctors out of training. That would be bad for them and for the Health Service. We need to ensure that junior doctors are able to avail of appropriate training — specifically, that they are able to reapply next year at the appropriate level, so that they are not locked out permanently. There needs to be more useful and meaningful employment for them here. We need to support the junior doctors, at a time when their morale must be very low, to ensure that there is no more displacement and that we do not lose our finest to Australia. We need to ensure that the financial investment that we as a community have made is secured here.

Everyone agrees that this saga has gone on too long. Members need to take charge of the situation and ensure that the needs of our junior doctors and our Health Service are protected now and in the future. Go raibh maith agat.

Dr McDonnell: I will be brief, because the proposer of the amendment has made many of the points that I wished to make. I would like to emphasise that our National Health Service, with its many faults, is still one of our most precious public assets and is highly valued by all our constituents, regardless of their politics or the party they support.

Having formerly been a junior hospital doctor, I wish to put on record that they are not students — they are not even housemen. Junior hospital doctors are also not hospital consultants. They are medical people who have been housemen, who have completed their initial university education and training and who have spent a year in the hospital system. They are in the process of building a lifelong career in a particular speciality.

Until now, there has been a fairly logical progression, in steps of two or three years at a time, from houseman to senior house officer, registrar, senior registrar, and so on, which took eight to 10 years to complete. That medical training is in the process of changing, which is where the MMC scheme has come in. There will be instant consultants — the new system is suggesting that training can be completed in five years rather than the previous eight to 10 years.

The new system is OK, broadly speaking, if one accepts that some flaws need to be ironed out. It may work better in England, due to circumstances in many of the English regions, but it will not work well in Northern Ireland or Scotland where a much more localised system has worked well in the past. I believe that the MMC scheme may be one short cut too far.

The intention is to put newly qualified housemen into a fixed, intensive career path for five years. However, that will remove many opportunities for them to specialise or do six months in areas of interest. Rather than receiving a rounded medical training, they will be getting very intensive, focused training running through their careers.

2.30 pm

My main concern is that many junior doctors are either married to, or cohabit with, other doctors, and some of them have children. The new system could send one doctor to the far north of Scotland and the other to Land’s End, leaving their children somewhere in between. At this point, those children do not know where they will be going to school in September. Many doctors will lose out due to the inadequacy of the system.

Mr Easton: The people best qualified to analyse and assess the weaknesses and strengths of any organisation are those who work in it. They know the problems and are often best able to identify the solutions. That is the case in the Health Service. Junior doctors and other medical practitioners are saying in no uncertain terms that the Government’s modernising medical careers (MMC) initiative has led to massive discontent in the profession throughout the UK.

The evidence suggests that the current crisis could lead to an exodus of highly- and expensively-trained young doctors from all over Northern Ireland and the UK. The present process is fatally flawed — and fudging decisions and tinkering with the process will not produce the efficient streamlined system that is required. An independent review of the situation in Northern Ireland is required in order to deliver a system of training and allocation of posts that is competitive yet equitable.

In particular, the system must be tailored to the specific needs of the Province. The Assembly must ensure that young doctors in Northern Ireland have the right to a validated system that ensures that applications are matched to appropriate training positions and that no cohort of trainees is disadvantaged.

Those young doctors carry heavy responsibilities in their day-to-day work, and it is incumbent on the Assembly to ensure that they are content and satisfied with their conditions of service in a profession that can be hugely demanding. Specifically, young doctors must be provided with equal opportunities to acquire the skills and experience necessary to create a twenty-first century Health Service.

To avoid the profession suffering extreme damage, attention must be paid to the opinions that doctors are expressing so publicly. If Members respond to the challenge speedily and sensitively, a workable solution is possible, and we must take on board the opinions of those who have the expert knowledge and experience needed to devise such a solution.

I call on the Minister to do all in his power to ensure that junior doctors in Northern Ireland have equal and direct access to appropriate training to ensure the protection and development of their careers and the well-being of the patients whom they serve with such care and dedication.

Mrs Foster: As colleagues have said, this issue is very important. It is not often that doctors contact politicians — I do not know why — but because of how strongly they feel about this issue, many have done so. The impact on their morale must not be underestimated. It is difficult enough to try to run an efficient Health Service without the staff being made to feel unhappier and adding to the many pressures under which they work.

As Dr Coulter said, the last thing that Northern Ireland needs is an exodus of more local doctors to other parts of the world. He mentioned Australia, and I am sure that other countries also benefit from the expertise of doctors from Northern Ireland. As Members know, there has been much talk about the brain drain. The loss of junior doctors is adding to that problem, which should cause Members increasing concern.

I have a concern that relates specifically to my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. As the Erne Hospital does not have any registrar grades, it usually takes in about six senior house officers each year. Those six young doctors have more than two years’ experience, to enable them to deal with any issues that may confront them.

My particular concern is that, under the new system, those senior house officers will not have gained two years’ experience. That will put a lot of pressure on the young doctors and on the consultants who will have to provide back-up cover. The most important concern for me, as a representative from the area, is the patients who will visit the hospital. I know that hospital staff will continue to be professional and to do their best. However, that concern must be recognised. I trust that the Minister is aware of the issue with regard to the Erne Hospital.

More generally, the Assembly must ensure that junior doctors are not denied the opportunity to acquire training posts and, in effect, be locked out of the system. It is imperative that next year there are sufficient training posts to accommodate those who have been unsuccessful this year. Crucially, spending a year in a post that they might not ideally have wanted must not be allowed to be a disadvantage in obtaining a training post. For some time, my party has argued for better workforce planning across the NHS. The problem is indicative of the need for that.

Equally, career guidance at every stage of a person’s medical career must improve drastically, be that at school, university or at postgraduate level. It is essential that trainees are able to obtain employment in England, Scotland and Wales, because Northern Ireland cannot afford to be out of step with training on the mainland. I hope that the Minister will respond to some questions in his remarks. For example, are there any circumstances in which clinical experience can actually prove to be a disadvantage to applicants? What effect will the changes to MMC posts have on the cost of doctors’ salaries to the local NHS? I would be grateful if the Minister responded to those questions. Unfortunately, due to time pressures, I will not be able to remain in the Chamber. However, I will be able to read his comments in the Hansard report.

I am glad that the motion is being debated. I congratulate the proposers and Dr Coulter for his amendment. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Mrs Hanna: As health spokesperson for the SDLP, I welcome the opportunity to support the motion and the amendment, to express my concern about the plight of junior doctors who are caught up in the new application system and to offer them my support. I agree with the proposers of the motion that the Assembly must call on the Minister to assure the House that junior doctors will be offered appropriate training in order to ensure that their careers and, importantly, the safety of patients, are protected.

Junior doctors are angry and demoralised by the unfairness of the system, which fails to select the best applicants for jobs and threatens to damage the careers of thousands who are left without a place on the training ladder. Members are aware that the application system has been ridden with problems; with reports of lost applications, applicants being considered for specialities that they had not applied for, and serious security breaches.

I welcome the Department of Health’s decision to ensure that all eligible junior doctors who submit an application will be interviewed and that there will be a workable solution. A specific long-term review of the heavily criticised online system must also be carried out. That is absolutely essential if patients are to be provided with the best doctors and the highest standards of care and treatment. Our doctors and specialists of the future deserve high-quality medical training. A commitment from the Department of Health to supply that will convey the message to junior doctors that they are valued. It must be ensured that no doctor in training loses out on a career as a result of Government mistakes or poor workforce planning.

There is a fear that taxpayers’ money is being wasted if our locally trained doctors are attracted or, indeed, forced to take up employment abroad. The National Health Service simply cannot afford to allow that crisis to continue.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Events over the past couple of months have proven to be difficult for doctors in training and for their families. I am familiar with the issues, having heard them at first hand before I took up my ministerial post. I welcome the opportunity that this debate offers to comment on this important matter.

Much has been said about the recruitment process for junior doctors. I will set out what I will do to address the difficulties.

Before that, I wish to clarify that the priority of my Department, and of the Health Service, is the continued provision of safe, effective treatment and care for patients by a range of healthcare professionals, including junior doctors. The measures that have been taken, which I will now outline, ensure that continuity of care.

The retention and development of the skills in the healthcare workforce is an important consideration, and I will take some moments to put that issue into context. There has always been an annual round of recruitment, and therefore competition for posts. There have always been doctors who have been successful in securing training posts and some who have not. In addition, I wish to emphasise the distinction between the recruitment process for training posts, known as the medical training application service (MTAS), and the restructuring of postgraduate medical training, known as modernising medical careers (MMC). The aim of MMC, which was launched in 2003, was:

“the end product of the training process, whether a hospital doctor or a general practitioner, should be a high-quality, well-trained and accredited doctor who can deliver the care and treatment patients need in the modern NHS”.

All Members can support that aim.

The first stage in the reform of training saw the introduction of foundation programmes. Those programmes are available to medical graduates in the first two years of their careers, and they enable them to develop basic practical skills and competencies in medicine, which include clinical skills; effective relationships with patients; high standards in clinical governance and patient safety; the use of evidence and data; communication and other necessary management skills and decision making; and a wider understanding of where and how medicine is practised. Again, all Members can support what is on that list.

In August 2005, 230 medical graduates were the first under MMC to enter foundation programmes in Northern Ireland. It is that group of doctors, with others, who now seek to enter the next level of training. Feedback from recruitment to foundation training has mostly been positive, although there have been reservations.

The UK-wide MTAS was used successfully as the recruitment vehicle for foundation doctors for 2007. However, that system proved to be anything but satisfactory or successful when used for recruitment to speciality training. Problems began to emerge in February 2007, when applicants were advised of the results of the shortlisting process. Events moved quickly, and, because Northern Ireland was in a direct-rule situation, the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, called for a review of MTAS to be carried out before the end of March. My Department kept in contact with the Department of Health review team throughout that period.

At the same time, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) locally got the BMA, consultants and health trusts to agree to a more suitable and acceptable approach, which was announced on 5 April — again, pre-devolution. DHSSPS abandoned MTAS at that point.

In Northern Ireland, all eligible applicants have been offered interviews for each job for which they applied. Those interviews are under way and follow a process that is identical to earlier interviews. The Department has assured the BMA, and I assure the Assembly today, that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that equity is maintained for the entire interview process — one of the points that Mr Ford made. Offers of appointment started to be issued on 27 April and continue as each set of interviews is completed, and the process will be completed by the end of May.


There have been calls for the abandonment or postponement of the process. Practically, that is not possible. Any further delay in the recruitment of over 600 junior doctors, would seriously jeopardise the ability of our local Health Service to operate from 1 August, the date when doctors take up their posts. Furthermore, the delay would prolong the anxiety of junior doctors, bearing in mind that many of them still await the results of interviews conducted last March.

In effect, the practical steps necessary to keep the system going must be determined, while, at the same time, addressing the flaws that have been identified this afternoon. The consequences of delay are far-reaching. Doctors will not be recruited to take up posts in August. Existing contracts will expire, leaving doctors without a post, a place in a training programme or anything else. That will leave our trusts with a destabilised and depleted medical workforce and will place an unprecedented threat on the ability of the Health Service to function. Patients could be put at risk and essential treatments delayed, and patients and patient care must be protected.

Allowing the continuation of the recruitment process and the issue of job offers ensures that the trusts are able to fill the posts in August. There will be stability, and patients can have confidence that there will be continuity of high quality, safe and effective services.

Along with other Members, I appreciate that the MTAS recruitment process has brought high levels of concern and uncertainty to a dedicated and committed workforce. This year, just over 600 training posts are available; that is roughly the same number as last year. There have been no cuts in the training places; however, as I said earlier, competition for posts is not new and, as with any competitive process, it is inevitable that some doctors will be disappointed.

Locally, our labour pool has been fairly constant, and the recruitment process in previous years has not generated significant unemployment. The system used this year has opened up applications, and many doctors living and working outside Northern Ireland may have applied to work here. It is too early in the recruitment process to estimate how many, if indeed any, locally- based doctors will be without a post. Apart from those designated as training posts, doctors who are unsuccessful can apply for a range of other Health Service posts, for example, clinical fellowship posts. The situation is no different from that of last year.

The delay in completing the recruitment process has had a knock-on effect for others. The local deanery, the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency (NIMDTA), received around 900 first-preference applications for Northern Ireland. With over 600 training posts and approximately 170 additional posts, it is clear that a number of applicants will have to pursue their second, third or fourth preferences. That may mean taking up a post outside Northern Ireland.

At present, offers are being made to successful doctors. They will take up their posts in August 2007. At this stage, it is impossible to pledge that every doctor who wants to take up a post in Northern Ireland will get a job here. However, I will take all reasonable steps to address any significant surplus in the local medical workforce. I assure the Assembly that I believe in retaining the important skills and potential of these people in Northern Ireland.

I am aware that doctors who are unsuccessful in securing a speciality training post are concerned about being locked out of further opportunities to enter training in their chosen speciality. The rigidity of that aspect of the process will be examined.

Therefore, I now announce a local review this year of the process. That will analyse the difficulties, take account of the lessons learned and chart a local approach to the way forward, including the lessons learned from changes to the training and recruitment processes.

The Secretary of State for Health, the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt MP, announced a national, independent review of the reforms to date, to be chaired by Sir John Tooke, and we will analyse carefully its findings.

However, it is also important that a local review examines the local problem. I am a great believer in local solutions for local problems, and the Department is looking at ways of addressing the concerns of the local junior doctors.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, in agreement with the BMA — the consultant body on local trusts — has acted early in an effort to minimise the concerns of the local medical workforce. Up to now, interviews have been offered to all doctors who have applied for a post in Northern Ireland, and offers are being made. Further difficulties regarding the rigidity of the process have been recognised, and the local review that I requested will address the whole process — including the difficulties and concerns about any potential surplus in the local medical workforce. The Department will contribute to the independent national review, and it will continue to work closely with trusts, the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency — the deanery — and the BMA to agree the way forward. Steps have also been taken to ensure the stability of the Health Service and the delivery of its services.

An attempt to answer, for example, Mr Ford’s four questions, may be based on the fact that we are taking forward a local review, and medical staffing issues will be part of that. The inflexibility of the process about which Mr Ford asked, and the number of medical training posts kept regularly under review, will also be examined. The review will not be local apparatchiks from the Department under the Tooke review, as Mr Ford suggested. It will involve key stakeholders from the Health Service, and that is an important factor.

The Department has taken steps to address the concerns of junior doctors. The problem has been ongoing since February. It is most important to ensure continuity within the Health Service, and we must ensure that 600 junior doctors get posts and that those posts are filled in August. Otherwise, the Health Service will be seriously destabilised. There are still difficult issues to address, but I am confident that the measures already taken, and the local review that I have requested, will address the problems that have arisen. I assure the Assembly that meaningful steps will be taken to ensure that a recruitment process for speciality training will be put in place — one in which our Health Service patients and doctors can have confidence.

Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for his statement. My colleague Dr Coulter mentioned the distress that had been caused to the junior doctors and health professionals by the problems in the Health Service, and the blow to the profession’s morale. Therefore they will be relieved to hear that the Minister is following up, with actions, on the concerns that he had on this issue before taking office.

There have been many issues and concerns raised from Members on both sides of the House. It appears that everyone supports the Ulster Unionist amendment and wants to see a locally accountable review of how best to move forward from the whole fiasco and sort out the problems that it has left.

Mr I McCrea: Does the Member agree that the best way forward is to knock this on the head? Should we not accept the Minister’s review, take on board its proposals and, finally, implement them, but allow the junior doctors to take up posts now?

Mr McCallister: The Minister cannot stop the review. It must take place, and the Minister has assured the House that it will be quick and that it will continue. He has also given guarantees that the doctors will be placed in their new positions and that the interview process has already commenced. I do not accept that that will cause much of the problem.

My colleague Mr Elliott had hoped to attend to express the concerns of doctors in Erne Hospital. Unfortunately he cannot be here because the Committee on Agricultural and Rural Development is meeting. It is unfortunate that Committees meet when there are important duties to attend to in the House. Mr Elliott is most disappointed that he could not be here.

Rev Dr Coulter eloquently described the damage to morale caused by the over-centralised process, and Dr McDonnell the chaos engendered by sending doctors to different parts of the country. It is a comfort to all Members that the Minister is reviewing the situation, and is determined to have safe and effective treatment and follow-up care for patients, so that no patient is put at risk. That is the crux: no one wants to see patients endangered because of this mix-up. I have therefore no difficulty in supporting Dr Coulter’s amendment.

Mr McNarry: Does the Member agree that it is a total and absolute disgrace that we bring a Minister into the Chamber and less than 25% of Members attend? What sort of message does that send to the public on such an important health issue? Members cannot be in the Chamber, and cannot participate in the debate, because of commitments to Committees. The Member will agree that it is time that something was done about that. Members alone should decide which issues have primacy in this House.

Mr McCallister: I could not agree more with my colleague. Mr Elliott has been lobbied on an issue that is important to him and to all the people of his constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone. That he cannot attend the debate because of duties in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development should be a matter of concern to all Members. What should take priority here, the Assembly in plenary session or a Committee? The system should be that Mondays and Tuesdays are set aside for plenary sessions of the Assembly, and Committee business conducted on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have, therefore, no difficulty in agreeing with Mr McNarry, and I express my discontent just as forcibly as he has done.

I support and commend Dr Coulter’s amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call on Dr Deeny to conclude and wind up the debate on the substantive motion.

Dr Deeny: Thank you for allowing me to participate in the debate, which is of obvious interest to me in a professional capacity. It is good to see that the Minister has attended the debate on this important issue. Points have been well made by Members right across the House.

My mother, who is now 82, used to tell me when I was growing up that there were only two important things in life, both of which began with the letter “H”. They are — in order of importance — happiness and health. I used to think that she was off the plot. However, as I grew older, I realised that she was absolutely spot on.

I hope that we are looking forward to a happier time in this part of the world: whether you call it Northern Ireland, or the North is entirely a matter of choice —

A Member: Or here. [Laughter.]

Dr Deeny: Or here. That is entirely a matter of choice.

I hope that a brighter and happier future beckons all of us. Being happier, we should then turn our attention to the second of the two “Hs”, our health. The last thing we need is a situation where health professionals and doctors are leaving our shores.

I have no wish to repeat what other Members have said, but I will advert to comments made by others to remind people of how serious the issue is. Junior doctors have serious concerns. They have declared that the medical training application service and the modernising medical careers system are seriously flawed; that they should be abandoned; and that, for this year, we should revert to the previous system.

3.00 pm

In a report, Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer in England, promised that medical training would be “flexible in design and operation” and “respond to changing service needs”.

I shall give Members some recent, if not up-to-date, figures. Of the 2,687 applicants to be interviewed for medical jobs in Northern Ireland, 1,162 have been interviewed and 1,525 are still to be interviewed. There are 906 first-choice applicants and 386 specialist training run-through posts; doctors who get those go on to become consultants. There are also 231 posts that are fixed-term specialist training appointments (FTSTAs), and there are 617 posts in other fixed-term, dead-end jobs.

As Rev Robert Coulter correctly mentioned, between 200 and 300 junior doctors could be unemployed this year. There is potential for further unemployment in two years’ time when the FTSTAs come to an end. I must again highlight the vast amount of money that could be lost to the Northern Ireland economy as a result.

As a doctor, I am delighted that this issue has already been discussed in this Building, at an event in the Long Gallery. As I said then, this issue is about junior doctors, but it also concerns patient care — patients should always come first in the Health Service. I am deeply concerned that doctors are being rushed through the system. Doctors are being promoted to consultant level far more quickly than years ago. I am not saying that the system was right years ago, but, including five years as a student, it generally took 11 years to become a full-time consultant.

Those doctors who are GPs like to be able to refer patients to Health Service professionals with lots of experience who we can trust to be good. My concern is that this system is a cheap, quick-fix solution by central Government, intended to increase consultant numbers in order to meet targets set by waiting-list initiatives. We GPs are ticking boxes more than we are seeing people. That serious concern is shared among medical professionals. It takes a lot to get any doctor off his or her butt, but 10,000 to 12,000 of us marched in London this year in protest at this situation. That shows the level of concern. I was scared by research that suggested that 70% of junior doctors had considered leaving medicine as a result of the changes.

The MTAS computer system has produced different results in different parts of the UK. I point out to the Minister that the recent announcement that the MTAS computer system has been shelved will not affect the situation, as the same process is running offline. We should not get confused: the uproar about information being divulged online has been dealt with; however, the process itself is still wrong and needs to be reviewed. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, candidates are being offered interviews for all four of their choices. In England, all interviews are being honoured, with an additional guaranteed interview for the applicant’s first choice of post.

The MTAS computer system was suspended on 26 April and declared no longer operational on 15 May. In England, the second round of interviews will be conducted by each local deanery in order to be fair. There is no plan for a second round of interviews in Northern Ireland; all jobs are to be appointed in the first round. The Minister has said that that will be reviewed, and it should. As David Ford said, people who miss out on jobs in the area of their medical expertise and interest in the first round will not get another opportunity to apply. That is clearly unfair.

A judicial review at the High Court has been ongoing in recent weeks, brought about by the junior doctors’ pressure group, Remedy UK. The report is due to be made public tomorrow.

The computer system has been abandoned, but the selection and recruitment process that it supported remains and will continue offline. That issue needs to be examined. There should be a second round of applications in Northern Ireland as there is in England. By the way, the abandonment of the MTAS system was not a decision but a statement of fact, as the computer system was not working and is not working.

As my colleague David Ford said — and I heard the Minister saying that the matter is going to be dealt with in the review — there has been serious concern about interviews being carried out in two batches, at different times, with different panels, and in different circumstances. Clearly those interviews are not considered to be equitable, and the matter must be looked at.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said that it is right and fair that there should be competition for admission to any specialist training, and I echo that statement.

There is another concern that has to be dealt with. Experience is a very wonderful and much needed quality, and I have mentioned the importance of experience in all professions and walks of life, particularly when dealing with people’s lives. However, in the MMC programme, experience is a barrier to appointment at the lower levels, and experienced doctors are finding it much more difficult to gain appointment at lower levels unless people drop out — that is their only chance.

Training will be shorter under the MMC programme and will result in less-experienced consultants being in charge of patients. Measuring competencies will not replace experience.

The MMC programme has been inflexible, and training has been underdeveloped. Indeed, the training methods that are expected to replace the traditional apprenticeship model have yet to be developed. The MMC programme is to undergo a thorough review, and as Sir John Tooke, the head of the review, has said, it is crucial that the inquiry seizes the opportunity to examine the broader context underlying the recent difficulties and not just the mechanics of the process. It must scope the fitness for purpose of the current arrangements in the light of the rapidly evolving healthcare environment. Let me be clear: this is an inquiry into the MMC programme.

To conclude, recruitment should continue, with all jobs being given a one-year fixed term to allow for fair competition next year for the run-through consultant positions. Upper limits on the experience bar to entry should be removed at all levels. Next year, we should have an increase in the number of posts at higher levels to be fair and competitive. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety should undertake a full review of medical staffing across Northern Ireland to include not only training posts but staff and trust posts as well. I encourage Members to support the motion and the amendment.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls for assurance from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that junior doctors will be offered appropriate training to ensure that their careers, and patients’ care, are protected; and that there is a review of junior doctor workforce planning, to be reported to the Assembly.

Assaults on Emergency Workers

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Member who moves the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. There are two amendments on the Marshalled List. Members who move the amendments will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for their winding-up speeches.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Government to introduce legislation in Northern Ireland to make it an offence punishable by imprisonment for a period not exceeding 9 months, or by a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or both, for all persons assaulting emergency workers engaged in the pursuit of their duty or impeding persons assisting such emergency workers. These emergency workers are to include all registered nurses, registered midwives, registered medical practitioners, ambulance crew, fire fighters, prison officers, social workers and mental health officers when they are in pursuit of their duties, either on or off hospital premises, or such place where they normally might pursue their professional activity.

I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“believes that legislation should be introduced in Northern Ireland, at the earliest possible moment, to make it an offence punishable by imprisonment for a period not exceeding 9 months, or by a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or both, for all persons assaulting registered nurses, registered midwives, registered medical practitioners and health workers when they are in pursuit of their duties, either on or off hospital premises, or such place where they normally might pursue their professional activity.”

There is so much that could be said on this issue that 10 minutes will not allow me to cover everything.

I originally intended to introduce this as a private Member’s Bill during the time of the Transitional Assembly, at which point I would have been in the position of needing to call on Her Majesty’s Government to introduce what is essentially a law-and-order measure and therefore solely within their competence.

However, it is envisaged that policing and justice powers will be devolved to this Assembly, perhaps in the not too distant future. In consequence, I am calling on the Assembly to make a clear and unequivocal statement that it intends to act in this matter when it is within its competence to do so.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

I also originally intended to introduce a comprehensive emergency workers Bill that would have covered all classes of emergency workers. However, I have since restricted this to registered nurses, registered midwives, registered medical practitioners and social workers. This is because I have since been advised that new enactments have been passed at Westminster in the past year to cover the eventuality of attacks on ambulance workers and firefighters. These have appeared in the form of the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006, which refers to ambulance workers, and The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which refers to firefighters.

That is why I am introducing an amendment at the same time as I am introducing this motion before the House today. It does not mean, however, that I have abandoned my attempt to introduce a comprehensive Bill to cover all classes of emergency workers. However, I still believe that it is necessary to make legislation simple, understandable, consistent and comprehensive.

That will be a matter for the time when the Assembly has devolved policing and justice powers. For now, let it suffice that the Assembly make a clear and unequivocal statement that it is going to do something about assaults on health staff when it is in a position to do so and that it will, by creating a new category of crime — and I emphasise a new category of crime — make clear how seriously it takes this problem.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, states that:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.”

I also contend that it is the responsibility of the Government to create a regime of law and order that contains penalties that will act as a real, effective and specific deterrent to those who would threaten the security of a person at work, thereby creating an atmosphere in which individuals feel secure in the execution of their duties at work.

Nowhere is the Government more in dereliction of their duty than in guaranteeing the security of the persons of health workers engaged in the normal course of their duties — whether on hospital premises, on an emergency call or on a mercy mission. This includes the security of nurses, doctors and all health workers in accident and emergency wards and on emergency call-out.

The litany of violent incidents involving attacks on health workers has become a depressingly regular feature on the news. Whether it is a knife-wielding hooligan attacking a security guard at the Ulster Hospital in March 2006, or shots being fired at an ambulance in the Dunclug estate in Ballymena in May 2006, or a lady doctor being attacked in the accident and emergency department of the Ulster Hospital in January 2006, all of these incidents are unacceptable. They are a wake-up call that action is needed.

A survey of 4,996 doctors across all disciplines and places of work was carried out by the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland in November 2006. The survey was subsequently published under the title ‘Violence in the workplace. The experience of doctors in Northern Ireland’ in November last year. Some 44·4% of hospital doctors said that violence in the workplace was a problem.

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Fifty-one point four per cent of doctors in accident and emergency departments described violence as “very much a problem” in their workplace. Sixty-three per cent of senior house officers said that they had reported incidents of workplace violence. Those findings, from a survey of nearly 5,000 doctors, show that there is an absolute need for the new measure that I am suggesting.

Assaults on emergency workers are a sign of the breakdown of the norms that govern the proper operation of our society. If the matter is not addressed in a robust and effective manner, it will lead to a serious breakdown of the fabric of society. Therefore, early and effective action against violent attacks on health workers is not just about protecting workers from assault, however commendable that may be: it is about drawing a line in the sand for the whole of society. It is about saying clearly that that line must not be crossed, that it is the boundary of what will or will not be tolerated, and that it is one of the immovable norms that govern the way we all lead our lives in our society.

A charge of common assault is no adequate redress for a physical attack on a health worker. It is not just a question of penalties; it is a matter of the definition of the crime itself. There is nothing common about assaulting a nurse, doctor, or health worker engaged in attending to those who are not able to help themselves. It is not just a matter of assault; it is a different class of crime altogether. Indeed, it is beyond the pale.

When I considered the problem some time ago, what struck me about it was that existing law was inadequate to deal with it. What we were really doing was fitting old laws on assault to what was, essentially, a new situation. In the past, people did not assault nurses, doctors, ambulance workers or firefighters, so there was no need for a specific law to deal with such assaults.

It is a new class of crime. It is different from assault because it involves attacking mercy workers. It is a crime against society and against the norms of society. It is not just a matter of someone throwing a punch at another person or attacking another person, however violently. Therefore, it is a crime that should not come under the classification of common assault. It is very uncommon assault. It is a crime that offends against all that makes for a decent civilised society.

It was at that point in the thinking process that I realised that a specific new law was needed to deal with attacks on health workers, and not a mere tinkering at the edges of existing law. A piecemeal adaptation of existing law would totally fail to recognise that there was a separate and frighteningly new problem and would not tackle the scale and seriousness of the issue.

Law-making should begin with the problem, rather than simply tacking it on to an existing and known crime. Otherwise, it fails to identify when serious new problems arise in society and often, in consequence, fails to adequately deal with them. That is what I found so refreshing in the approach taken to the problem in Scotland. Scotland has a new Parliament, with a new way of doing things. It is not hidebound by all the flummery and woolly old-fashioned thinking that has so befuddled law, law-making, and law enforcement in our country. In Scotland, by grouping these attacks on nurses, doctors, ambulance workers and firefighters into a new emergency workers’ law, Scottish society proclaimed that it had a problem and showed what it was going to do about it.

I call on all right-thinking people in the House, and in the country, to support the motion.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: Members may be aware that a delegation from the Senate of Canada is visiting Parliament Buildings today.

Some of the delegates have taken their seats in the Gallery. On behalf of the Assembly, I extend the warmest welcome to the hon Noël Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate of Canada, and to the Senators and other distinguished guests.

I call Ms Carál Ní Chuilín to move amendment No 1.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh ár gcuairteoirí. Your pronunciation was better than the Deputy Speaker’s yesterday when he got my name wrong; however, he is not here.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I also welcome our Canadian visitors.

I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“deplores all attacks on health care workers and emergency workers when they are in pursuit of their duties; supports the work of the Zero Tolerance Strategic Group; and further recognises that an effective strategy to reduce attacks on our emergency workers should include legislation, community engagement and participation, education and media campaigns; and calls on the Executive to support this approach.”

Although I have moved amendment No 1, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to the motion. We need to lead by example on community engagement and participation. We must go beyond condemning attacks by getting involved with the community and by standing with the emergency workers. Fire Service workers in north Belfast, and also in Derry, have the mobile phone numbers of Sinn Féin elected representatives, and any time that they have been attacked they rang us, and, along with residents and community activists and workers, we led by example to ensure that we did all that we possibly could to reduce such attacks.

Likewise, when nurses leaving the Mater Hospital in north Belfast were being attacked by stone throwers, we met staff at the hospital gates and walked them to the bottom of the Cliftonville Road.

The Tar Isteach youth group, which supports the community by painting murals, is also calling for an end to attacks on healthcare and emergency workers. Those workers must be protected, respected and supported.

Therefore amendment No 2 does not go far enough. Although Rev Coulter explained that existing legislation covers Ambulance Service and Fire Service workers, his amendment still falls short of the essence of the motion.

However, this debate gives all Members an opportunity to unequivocally support all those workers. It also gives us an opportunity to develop education and media campaigns. We all have the chance to support our emergency workers — after all, they are the people who supported us in all conditions and on whose support we constantly rely. I call on the Executive to support that approach. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Easton: I am contributing to this debate as someone who served in the Health Service for 14 years before becoming an Assembly Member. I have had ample opportunity to experience at first hand the professionalism and dedication of those who serve the public by working extremely hard in accident and emergency situations. We in Northern Ireland are privileged to have the selfless dedication of workers of a high calibre who are highly trained and experienced.

Throughout my life, the ordinary people of this Province have been required to conduct their lives against the background of brutal terrorism and destruction. The impact of that is still with us, and it is manifest in the aggressive and often violent behaviour that characterises our society. It is made worse by the underlying pressures on young people, with the result that many of them have little or no respect for authority.

We hear reports on an almost daily basis about outrageous attacks on doctors, nurses, security staff, Ambulance Service personnel and firemen as they perform their duties.

Their lives are threatened, and the lives or well-being of those they serve in crisis situations are also put at risk.

As elected representatives, we must make it clear that such behaviour is totally unacceptable and that the culture of mindless thuggery cannot be tolerated in a civilised society. In seeking to change that culture, legislation must be introduced that ensures our support for people to go about their work in serving the whole community free from the threat of fear or violence.

We must respond to all forms of criminal violence in a way that emphasises our abhorrence of such behaviour. We may wish to punish attacks on emergency workers and Health Service personnel with particularly severe penalties.

The retribution exacted by society through the legal system must reflect the seriousness with which such crimes are regarded. We owe an enormous debt to those who serve us in the emergency services, and they are entitled to our unequivocal support.

Mrs Hanna: I support the sentiments of the motion and the two amendments. However, the first amendment appears to change the motion entirely, and the second amendment takes the focus completely off emergency workers — as has been explained. I attempted to amend the motion, but felt that we required a new title — if not a new motion — to ensure that it was more inclusive. Nevertheless, I certainly support the sentiments.

Emergency workers and healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable to attack due to the special nature of their work. Not only are the lives of the workers at risk, but if they are assaulted, attacked, obstructed, or hindered in any way from carrying out their duties, then the lives and personal safety of those they are attending in a professional capacity are also at risk. We must include healthcare assistants and student nurses, and we must ensure that we do not exclude any pertinent staff unintentionally.

As has already been said, the Assembly does not have the authority to pass legislation until justice and policing have been devolved. Nevertheless, the proposed legislation alone is not enough. It must be part of a wider package of measures that will address the causes of attacks on healthcare and emergency workers and provide solutions to reduce the problem in a real and meaningful way. Relevant representative bodies and agencies must be consulted heavily, so that a comprehensive package is produced.

The increase in violence has been brought about by various factors, including the fact that violence is often used as a means of solving problems, and an increase in drug and alcohol use. Many studies carried out in healthcare settings have implicated staffing patterns as contributors to violence due to a shortage of front-line staff. Employers of healthcare workers — primarily the health and social care trust chief executives — must assume a full and accountable responsibility for such issues, as well as addressing other contributory factors. Assaults are higher at night when staff numbers are reduced, and also in accident and emergency departments, where the likelihood of tempers being frayed due to long waiting times is a factor.

The rates of violence on healthcare and community service facilities are much higher than the documented rates, as episodes of violence are often unreported. Many victims believe that they are to blame and initially think that the violent act was a result of some inadequacy on their part. It is important that the mental cost of violence on the victim is recognised — even if there is no physical injury. Professional counselling services must be offered automatically.

I welcome the re-establishment of the zero tolerance strategic group, and the PSNI’s pilot scheme at the City Hospital has proved helpful. It should be noted that the Royal College of Nursing has called for improved hospital security and design.

3.30 pm

Managers must be advised that the revision of adequate measures to prevent violence need to be given a high priority. Some safety measures may seem expensive or difficult to implement, but they are necessary to adequately protect the health and well-being of health and care workers. The Department must show leadership by condemning violence against its staff.

The current volume of attacks is totally unacceptable, and it is continuing to rise. Measures must be taken to improve security and to forge a closer liaison with the PSNI to ensure that culpable offenders are prosecuted and face the rigours of the law. The Department has a legal and ethical responsibility to guarantee the safety of all healthcare staff. The Assembly must urgently get to grips with this matter. Such violence and aggression are totally unacceptable in any civilised society.

Dr Deeny: As the only independent Member of the Assembly, I welcome today’s Canadian visitors to Parliament Buildings. I have visited Vancouver three times, most recently last year, and I know how friendly the Canadian people are.

I agree with the previous contributor, Carmel Hanna, that violence against Health Service workers has reached almost epidemic proportions, and that it is totally unacceptable. I agree with other Members who said that protection from such violence must be extended to all front-line health and emergency workers.

I have heard increasing reports of workers in other professions who have to deal with abuse, such as teachers. The Health Service is beginning to take that problem seriously, but that is not the case in the teaching profession. Teachers are often left to their own devices to deal with such problems. However, that is a separate issue for another day.

This debate is not intended for discussion of the causes of violence against emergency workers, but it is worth mentioning that the lack of discipline that has become prevalent among young people is manifesting itself as a lack of respect for those who try to help them, with the result that workers are being attacked. That is disturbing. Such behaviour was not much of a problem when I started working in the medical profession almost 27 years ago — now it happens regularly. Indeed, a few years ago, the life of a female colleague of mine was put in danger outside an out-of-hours health centre.

Violence is a problem in the workplace for half of all doctors, as the Rev Dr Robert Coulter said. Doctors who work in hospitals are most likely to report an experience of violence in the workplace, followed by GPs.

Our ideas and strategies for tackling abuse should not be confined to the consequences of physical violence. Verbal abuse is rife, and is an equally important problem.

Staff at my medical centre have encountered such verbal abuse. Members of the public have threatened the reception staff, saying, for example, that if a certain course of action were not taken, there would be consequences. Currently, we have no way of proving that such abuse has occurred, although in some out-of-hours centres, telephone conversations are recorded. A CCTV system was recently installed at our medical centre, primarily to deal with vandalism. Such measures are being taken across the Western Health and Social Services Board area in an attempt to deal with theft and vandalism, as well as the abuse of medical staff.

I have some figures on verbal abuse: in 2005-06, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service reported 61 cases of verbal abuse, and one of the Belfast healthcare trusts reported 902 cases. The most frequently cited reasons for violent attacks on doctors were: dissatisfaction with the service provided; intoxication from alcohol or drugs; and personal problems.

It is important to mention that in fewer than half of cases was action taken subsequent to the violent incident. Therefore, on some occasions, employers and health authorities do not provide sufficient backup.

Those of us who have been working with the public for years see this as a reflection of our society. We practise defensive medicine, we worry and we sometimes side with the perpetrator rather than the victim. Employers and health authorities must stand up for their staff.

It is worth noting that the figures that I have mentioned apply only to cases that have been reported. Many instances of verbal and physical abuse go unreported. Within the past month, I have received a letter from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety saying that we should have zero tolerance by the end of September.

I urge all Members to support the motion and the two amendments.

Mr Moutray: Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is still a violent place in which to live. Although there is less paramilitarism and terrorism, the news is still filled with reports of vicious assaults and crimes. It is difficult to be sure whether the Government’s turning a blind eye to lawbreakers over the years has contributed to this development, or whether it would have happened anyway.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this violence is the number of attacks on hard-working healthcare staff. Those attacks are a blight that shames and disfigures our society. In the past year, in my constituency of Upper Bann, there have been 71 verbal attacks and 70 physical attacks at Craigavon Area Hospital. Beyond the hospital setting, in the community, there were 62 verbal attacks and 30 physical attacks on staff working for the Craigavon and Banbridge Community Health and Social Services Trust.

Emergency workers have the lives of other people in their hands, and often their great responsibilities are not reflected in their remuneration. They are forced to put their own lives at risk because of threats of violence. Attacks on these staff must be utterly condemned. It is despicable that violent acts should be committed against those serving the community in such vital roles. Those attacks cannot be allowed to continue; all agencies must work together to eradicate them.

Some individuals seem to regard healthcare workers as prime targets. It is disgraceful that those who serve the public on a 24/7 basis — often under highly pressurised circumstances — find themselves at risk of personal injury. Every effort must be made to instil confidence in staff and patients that everything possible is being done to protect them. These are public-sector employees, so there is an onus on Government to protect them. Hospitals can be isolated places, particularly at night.

Every year there are several thousand assaults on National Health Service workers across the United Kingdom. Society must send out a message of zero tolerance of those attacks. The punishment should, in this case, undoubtedly fit the crime. This issue deserves the support of the entire House. I support the motion and ask other Members to do likewise.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin ar ionsaithe ar oibrithe éigeandála. The issue of assaults on emergency workers needs to be highlighted in the public arena. I thank the Rev Coulter and Mr Gardiner for tabling the motion. Sinn Féin recognises the intent and sentiment underpinning the motion but feels that it does not provide the required holistic approach.

Sinn Féin agrees that greater support and protection should be afforded to emergency workers, who all too often are in the front line and face attacks at work. The figures for violent incidents between 1 April 2006 and 30 September 2006 show that violent attacks against healthcare staff are on the rise. More than 3,231 attacks were reported in that period, compared with a total of 2,806 in the previous six months.

Appropriate sentencing for attacks on emergency workers is of the utmost importance, but a holistic approach must be applied to the issue — such an approach is lacking in the motion. The focus of any strategy that deals with attacks on the emergency services must prioritise prevention as a primary way in which to stop those incidents from occurring in the first place. Legislation in itself will not solve the problem.

A strategy to deal with attacks on emergency service personnel can be broken down into five areas: education; the use of media; participation; community engagement; and legislation. The Fire and Rescue Service is one agency that is already striving to tick all five of those boxes, and we commend all those in the service who are being proactive on that issue.

When I was on the Fire and Rescue Service board, I was greatly impressed by the number of cadet schemes that the service carried out. Those schemes involved direct engagement between the Fire and Rescue Service and young people who were involved in antisocial behaviour. Local community groups and/or individuals referred participants in the schemes to the service.

The local intervention fire education (LIFE) scheme is a five-day community engagement project aimed at 14- to 19-year-olds. Those young people have been referred by local community groups, which believe that they would benefit from a week’s interaction with Fire and Rescue Service personnel at a local operational station. Those young people have been excluded from school or society, or are in danger of becoming involved in antisocial behaviour. A main aim of the LIFE scheme is to build a better understanding between young people in our community and Fire and Rescue Service personnel.

The education of our youth — the group most often involved in attacks — must become a priority. Attacks on emergency workers need to become socially unacceptable. Funds should be allocated to community engagement initiatives that allow for a greater comprehension of the effect attacks on its vital resources have on the whole community.

Sinn Féin fully supports the work of the zero-tolerance strategic group, which was established in 2005 to develop and promote best-practice guidance in order to achieve a cultural shift in the approach and attitude towards emergency workers and to help to eradicate violence from the workplace. That group has developed an action plan that ensures that measures are in place to support staff in the emergency services.

The Fire and Rescue Services Order 2006 is strong legislation. Article 57(1) states that:

“Any person who assaults, resists, obstructs or impedes —

(a) a fire and rescue officer in the execution of his duty”

— or her duty — is guilty of an offence. Article 57(3) states that any person guilty of such an offence shall be liable:

“on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to a fine, or to both.”

That is legislation that firefighters, with whom we have consulted, would not want to see diluted in any way whatsoever.

The Ulster Unionists’ amendment deals with only certain groups of emergency workers. Sinn Féin believes that there should be all-encompassing legislation to deal with attacks on emergency workers to ensure that all emergency workers are equally protected. An approach that sees different pieces of legislation drafted for different sets of emergency workers would not make sense but create imbalance and confusion.

The problems will not be solved simply by slapping on tough sentences. Yes, tough sentencing and zero tolerance are needed, but without the introduction of proper preventative strategies that involve community engagement, outreach and efforts to achieve a cultural change, we will not see a sizeable reduction in the number of attacks on emergency services. Sinn Féin believes that any legislation on the matter must take account of all emergency workers — [Interruption.]

Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an leasú.

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but I must remind Members to turn off their mobile phones, please. I know that, on occasion, we all forget to turn them off, but it is important to remember to do so.

Mr McKay: I support amendment No 1.

Mr G Robinson: In the past, there have been almost 6,000 attacks on health trust staff across the Province: 1,681 verbal attacks and 4,245 physical attacks. That is an absolute disgrace.

3.45 pm

The DUP supports the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the law’s zero-tolerance approach towards offenders. It is a sad state of affairs when uniformed police are employed to protect staff in accident and emergency departments in Northern Ireland. All staff must be encouraged to report any abusive or violent acts that are perpetrated against them. They should not shy away from involving the PSNI.

In March, Belfast City Hospital released figures that show that two of its accident and emergency staff were attacked every week. In my constituency of East Londonderry, there have been 54 verbal attacks and 110 physical attacks on members of staff of the Causeway Health and Social Services Trust. Across Northern Ireland, there were over 5,000 attacks. A British Medical Association (BMA) study, ‘Violence at Work: The Experience of UK Doctors’, sought:

“to explore the incidence of violence against doctors in an attempt to understand better the extent of such incidences and the impact such violence has on the lives of doctors.”

Violence in the workplace is a problem for almost half the doctors who responded to the BMA survey, and more than one quarter of respondents felt that the situation had worsened in the previous year. Two out of five doctors indicated that they had experienced violence over the previous 12 months. Some had been attacked or threatened more than 20 times. Those most likely to be attacked worked in psychiatry and obstetrics. Most attacks took place in a ward or in a doctor’s office. Twenty per cent of attacks occurred outside normal working hours. The most frequent excuse for violence is dissatisfaction with the service provided. We must have a zero-tolerance approach. Attacking innocent staff members is totally unacceptable, and that message must be sent out, loud and clear. I support the motion and the Ulster Unionist Party amendment.

Mr Gallagher: The motion is about a serious, worrying and dangerous emerging trend. Both the motion, in the name of Bob Coulter, and the amendment, in the name of Carál Ní Chuilín, reflect the fact that there are several dimensions to any solution that will adequately deal with the problem of assaults on emergency workers.

The use of violence, whether it is assault, threat or intimidation, anywhere in the workplace is a serious matter. However, attacks on emergency workers are particularly deplorable and completely unacceptable. As the proposer of the motion mentioned, some of the worst attacks have been on firefighters and ambulance staff; those attacks have been highlighted in the media. The attacks are not confined to urban settings; they can occur anywhere in Northern Ireland. The same goes for accident and emergency units, where there have been some vicious attacks on staff. Those attacks have occurred at hospitals across the North, and they have not only been on medical staff but on staff working in administration and on reception.

The situation is so bad that some healthcare trusts have had to employ security staff at certain hours, particularly at weekends, to protect their medical staff. That means that resources that should be providing care and filling gaps in the Health Service are being used for that purpose. We all have a duty to do more to protect those workers, because the situation is grave. Jail sentences must be considered as an appropriate punishment for the worst offences, and thought should be given to other forms of punishment for less serious offences. It is worrying that the ongoing attacks on ambulance staff and firefighters, in particular, are sometimes directed against them by schoolchildren, who can be as young as eight or nine years of age.

Because of that, some thought and backup resources must be given to delivering education programmes. I have no doubt that some of the young people responsible for these attacks are caught up in such acts because they do not understand the full consequences of their irresponsible behaviour. Through enlightenment and educational programmes, many young people would learn respect for those who are in the front line of delivering emergency services and, very often, save lives in so doing.

We must do everything possible to stamp out assaults and thuggish behaviour towards emergency workers. A package of measures should be introduced to help end such behaviour.

Mrs Long: I wish to concentrate on the issues between the two amendments, and I welcome the opportunity to make even a short comment on this most serious of issues. Attacks on emergency workers place staff in danger, as has already been said; but they also risk patients’ lives, waste resources and place the wider community at risk. I welcome the fact that the Assembly is trying to tackle the issue.

I have difficulties with both amendments to the motion. Although the Sinn Féin amendment is to be commended for its breadth of approach in seeking to tackle the issue, it fails to consider a legislative tool in order to effect change. The Ulster Unionist amendment is strong in that it proposes a legislative tool, but it is rather deficient in the short, specific list of people that it would cover. Having considered both amendments, I tend towards that of the Ulster Unionists on the basis that it better establishes the principle of an aggravated offence in respect of assaults on emergency workers. If that principle were to be established, it would be easier to add in other workers than to have to establish the principle in the first place.

I have outlined why I shall support the Ulster Unionist amendment. However, I wish that it had been possible to come up with a composite amendment to better reflect that the problem requires not only a legislative tool, but the broader approaches mentioned in the Sinn Féin amendment. It is unfortunate that, on this occasion, a composite form of words that adequately reflects the aims of both amendments could not be found.

Mr Dallat: Although it is not customary to refer to anyone in the Public Gallery, Mr Speaker, I thank you for dispensing with that convention today. I wish to extend a welcome from the SDLP to our Canadian friends. For many years during the Troubles, Canadians did not visit. Now that they are returning, I hope that they bring lots of inward investment.

Like Mrs Long, the SDLP believes that there are deficiencies in both amendments to the motion. We are struggling to decide which one to support. However, the SDLP does not for one moment question the intentions of Rev Robert Coulter, who has given many years of commitment to the Health Service.

Assaults on emergency workers are often physical, resulting in serious injury. However, they are also verbal, leaving no evidence or grounds for complaint or sympathy. That is fundamentally wrong, and it has led to long-term psychological scars in some of our finest emergency workers who have been off work for long periods of time, in some cases indefinitely.

On a Sunday morning recently, I unexpectedly had to take a member of my family to the accident and emergency department of the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine, where the care and attention received was first class. However, only a few hours earlier, the hospital had been the scene of much abuse.

Emergency staff must run the gauntlet of abuse from people who lack appreciation of a Health Service that is under stress and lacking resources, but committed to saving lives. It is unfortunate that the practice of abusing emergency workers has become a way of life — a form of cowardice meted out by people who have neither the manners nor the patience, nor even the lowest level of basic tolerance, towards doctors, nurses, social workers and others who are dedicated to the care of society.

Similarly, it is impossible to understand why Fire and Rescue Service personnel are attacked daily as they answer emergency calls. Who would stone a fire crew and their appliance? That is difficult to understand, but it happens.

Who would beat up a prison warden who is committed to the rehabilitation of those who have carried out serious crimes? The answer is: the very people who are given all the resources and opportunities to begin anew.

The Assembly must take affirmative action to end the abuse, assaults, threats and other forms of violence that emergency workers experience daily, particularly at weekends. However, until we obtain control of criminal justice matters, we cannot take affirmative action. In the meantime, we can offer only platitudes.

Every weekend, accident and emergency departments and police cells are filled with people who stretch those services to their limits. Society as a whole must rediscover the need to appreciate the work of public service workers, particularly those who are employed in the emergency services. There should be a public outcry every time an ambulance, a doctor, a nurse, or a fire crew is attacked. However, that will happen only when we realise that the continued abuse of emergency personnel will force them to withdraw their services from a society that appears to stand idly by while they suffer in silence.

Let the motion kick-start a new campaign to educate and inform all those who would physically or verbally attack emergency personnel. Television information campaigns are not enough. We must follow through on this matter, and, by our own example, we should seize every opportunity to educate and inform, and to raise the level of appreciation and admiration for our colleagues in the emergency services. At the same time, we must shame the attackers.

Although sentencing may be one option for us to consider, we could also give consideration to community service for culprits, perhaps making them work alongside emergency personnel in order to bring home the unpleasantness of mopping up blood and vomit in an accident and emergency department, or picking up the broken glass after a fire tender has been bombarded with stones.

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way? [Interruption.]

Mr Dallat: I do not have enough time.

Mr F McCann: Is the Member listening to the Ulster Unionists, or is he going to make his own decision? [Laughter.]

Mr Dallat: Much as I would like to give way, the Member has just succeeded in putting me off my speech.

Finally, I repeat that until we take control of criminal justice, we cannot be of service to those emergency workers of whom we speak so passionately. I apologise to Mr McCann.

Mr F McCann: It was better when it came from the heart, John.

Mr Speaker: Order.

The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I thank the Rev Dr Robert Coulter and Sam Gardiner for proposing the motion on such an important matter. I also place on record my support and admiration for the work that is carried out by our emergency personnel, often in very trying and difficult circumstances.

It is appalling to think that those who dedicate themselves to saving lives and to public service should be subjected to physical and verbal abuse. That includes Ambulance Service staff, doctors, nurses and those in the front line in accident and emergency departments, as well as other staff in the health and social care sector and in the Fire and Rescue Service. Although they do not fall within my area of responsibility, I include Prison Service personnel and the police, all of whom have served all the people of Northern Ireland without fear or favour throughout the 30 years of the Troubles.

Despite heightened publicity and public awareness, statistics for the past year show that attacks on emergency workers continued to increase. There were 5,926 attacks on health and social care workers, the majority of which were physical assaults — a 6% increase on last year’s figures. Of all of those attacks that we can identify, 130 were against ambulance staff, 107 were against doctors, and, alarmingly, 3,377 were against nurses.

The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service was also in the firing line. Last year, it reported seven personal injuries and 37 attacks on appliances, which is wholly unacceptable. I support any reasonable measure that is aimed at ending such attacks.

4.00 pm

Mr Shannon: Does the Minister agree that the Fire and Rescue Service’s cadet scheme is first class and takes young people out of estates? Another scheme, run by community safety partnerships and funded by the councils, gives young people from the estates an opportunity to work together in teams, to experience discipline and to make a contribution. Will the Minister consider introducing such schemes across the whole Province? Schemes in the north Down and Strangford areas have been very beneficial, and I am sure that many other areas could benefit too. One Member spoke about such schemes earlier. The schemes are good, and I would appreciate help from the Minister.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Shannon for that. As has been said, the NI Fire and Rescue Service board and the Fire and Rescue Service understand that there is no one-size-fits-all remedy. A composite of remedies and measures is required. Mr Shannon mentioned some remedies, and legislation can also be a remedy. I will discuss those issues in due course.

When staff are doing their jobs out in communities, it can be difficult to identify the people who might be attacking or threatening to attack them or their vehicles. However, even when inside buildings or institutions, staff can be subject to unacceptable and inexcusable levels of abuse. Currently, there are some things that can be done for them.

Mr F McCann: Will the Minister take an intervention?

Mr McGimpsey: I will sit down again, but then I want to get through my speech.

Mr F McCann: Every contribution today has talked about education and a strategy for dealing with problems, but that is lacking in the Ulster Unionist Party’s motion. Cáral Ní Chuilín’s amendment covers a number of factors not covered by the motion. It covers how we can involve the community.

Mr McNarry: On a point of order. I want to ask about procedure.

Mr F McCann: I ask the Minister to use his good offices —

Mr McNarry: How relevant is the intervention?

Mr Speaker: Order. It is unparliamentary, when one Member has the Floor, for another Member to try to intervene and stay on the Floor. Continue, Mr McCann.

Mr F McCann: A number of factors have not been taken into account in the motion. I have been trying to work out where the “9 months” in the motion came from, because it is contrary to what the Fire and Rescue Service has said it would require, and it is also not what the zero tolerance strategic group would like. There is therefore logic in supporting the wider amendment tabled by Cáral Ní Chuilín. Does the Minister agree?

Mr McGimpsey: Mr Speaker, I will endeavour to —

Mr McNarry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr McGimpsey: Yes.

Mr Speaker: Point of order.

Mr McNarry: With respect, the point of order is past now. It was about how relevant the intervention was, and I was able to gauge an answer to that in a few seconds. The intervention became a speech in support of a particular party.

Mr Speaker: Members should know that, under Standing Orders, it is up to a Member to decide whether he wants to give way. If he does give way, the Member can expect many things, as we have seen on previous occasions.

Mr McGimpsey: That is very helpful, Mr Speaker. Thank you — I will endeavour to battle on. To get back to this serious issue, there are things that we can do for staff who are attacked. In November 2006, legislation passed at Westminster made obstructing or hindering emergency workers a criminal offence for the first time. Under the provisions of the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006, which extends to Northern Ireland, a person guilty of doing so is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 or £5,000 on the standard scale. In addition, a criminal justice Bill that will make it an offence to create nuisance or disturbance on National Health Service premises will be presented for its first reading in Westminster in July. It is intended that that, too, will apply in Northern Ireland.

As Mr Shannon mentioned, the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 has provided for specific penalties on conviction of those responsible for assaults on, or obstruction of, fire and rescue workers and those who assist them. That is the standard for which we should aim in terms of legislative protection for the emergency services.

The problem is that Northern Ireland needs one consolidated piece of legislation. The Assembly must consider how best to respond to those who are found guilty of unacceptable behaviour against the emergency services. I am sure that Members have looked at the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which makes it an offence to:

“assault or impede persons who provide emergency services; and for connected purposes”.

Therein lies another useful phrase. One of the problems, as Carmel Hanna said, is the difficulty of defining the term “emergency workers”.

Fra McCann mentioned the Sinn Féin amendment. Unfortunately, it excludes social-care staff. Therefore, if the amendment were made, social-care staff would be excluded. I am sure that that was not the intention, but it highlights the difficulty of defining who should be included in the protected group. The Scottish Parliament have gone for “emergency workers”, and that is what we want to do through composite legislation.

It is wrong to believe that legislation and stronger penalties are the only answers. There must be more to the solution than that. In fact, there is more to it than that. For a successful prosecution, for example, a complaint must be made, the perpetrator identified, and the case taken successfully through the legal system. Not every healthcare worker wants to face that process. Therefore, we need to be able to provide support to staff and not rely on those individuals who have been affected by violence to bring proceedings against the perpetrators.

In such matters, employers are key to lending support. However, “carers” taking people to court seems to contradict the ethos of caring. Therefore, while there is a need for tough legislation, there is an equal need for sustained community action.

Several initiatives are already being taken. Members have mentioned the publicity campaigns, personal alarm systems for lone workers, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and increased security in accident and emergency departments. Most of all, I am happy to endorse the zero tolerance approach, initiated by my predecessor and adopted by all health and social care employers, against violent or abusive behaviour towards staff.

I understand that the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service is willing to consider a pilot scheme to install CCTV in fire appliances. It is, of course, an indictment of our society that such measures are necessary, but we must deal with the problem. We must direct our primary focus at patient care, which means that we must protect all those who work in the healthcare system.

Therefore, although legislation is important, the main focus must be on reducing the number of attacks. That is most likely to be achieved by focusing on community activity, with, as Jim Shannon suggested, fire officers from local stations going to talk to schools and local groups.

The figures that I have quoted show that more needs to be done to protect our emergency workers. Such unacceptable levels of violent behaviour must not be allowed to continue. Today’s debate is a welcome contribution to raising the profile of the issue. However, even if the Assembly agrees the motion, as elected representatives we must not think that we have resolved the matter or done as much as we can. We should ask ourselves how best to provide leadership in our constituencies. We must pay tribute to the community groups and community workers who do so much work and make such a contribution to protecting health service workers.

Members will be familiar with images of violence recorded on CCTV in accident and emergency units. In most instances, the attackers are patients, many of whom have mental-health problems or other difficulties or traumas. It is not simply a matter of enacting legislation, because prosecutions are often inappropriate.

I am happy to accept the aim of the motion to take more direct action. However, legislation is by no means the end of the story. Tackling nuisance will go some way to address the problem, but I share the view expressed by other Members that we need to go further. I will consider the example set by the definition in the Scottish legislation and make composite legislation to protect all emergency workers and promote a culture of zero tolerance towards violence and abuse directed at staff.

There is an unacceptable level of violence in Northern Ireland towards emergency workers and other staff working in public services, and all Members agree that it must be eradicated or reduced as much possible. The measures that I am considering with the Assembly must be taken forward.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím a thabhairt tacaíochta don leasú a chuir Carál Ní Chuilín os comhair an Tionóil. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt don Oirmhinneach Coulter agus don Uasal Gardiner as an ábhar seo a thógáil inniu.

Tá ár meas agus ár n-aire de dhíth ar na hoibrithe éigeandála — agus go háirithe ár dtacaíocht iomlán.

I support the amendment for the reasons outlined by my party colleagues Daithí McKay and Carál Ní Chuilín. Rev Coulter and Mr Gardiner deserve our thanks for bringing such an important issue to the Floor, and I welcome the many contributions made today.

In response to Rev Coulter’s motion and amendment, Sinn Féin is not opposed to new legislation but, as Daithí McKay has already stated, my party implores the Assembly and the Executive to conduct a detailed examination to identify the most effective action and legislation. It is also important to identify what additional complementary measures are required to assist the ending of attacks on emergency workers. We cannot, and should not, rely solely on stronger legislation to end such attacks.

I welcome the Minister’s presence in the House and particularly his commitment to listen to all reasonable proposals — and Sinn Féin’s are entirely reasonable. We all know what we mean by the term “emergency workers”. The Sinn Féin amendment did not include social-care workers; it is also worth pointing out that Rev Coulter’s amendment did not mention them either. The Minister should take note of that.

The Sinn Féin amendment seeks to put proper emphasis on the required measures. The first step is to ensure that attacks on emergency services become a matter of public debate. That will require engaging with communities to highlight the issue and to bring the emergency services into personal contact with the community, particularly young people, who are the main perpetrators of the attacks. The scheme devised by the Fire and Rescue Service, which Daithí McKay mentioned, highlights the need not only to create awareness of the problem but the importance of establishing practical measures to end it. That can be replicated across the sector.

Carál Ní Chuilín highlighted the recent spate of attacks on Fire and Rescue Service personnel in Derry, who have been drawn into the area because wheelie bins have been set on fire — acts that have been widely condemned in the community. However, the response to those attacks is different from the past. It has been led by the leadership of the Fire and Rescue Service in Derry and has included public debate, good media coverage, and a number of community fora. All political parties and local councillors have supported the initiative.

Crucially, a number of practical measures have emerged, including Fire and Rescue Service visits to certain areas to deliver educational and familiarisation exercises. In addition, several local people provided the Fire and Rescue Service with their mobile phone numbers so that they could be contacted in the event of similar fires, to provide information about the nature and threat of the fire. The initiative has also ensured that Fire and Rescue Service personnel were seen as friends and neighbours, as well as providing a valuable service.

There was a noticeable reduction in the number of attacks, but, importantly, there was greater communication between the services and the community.

4.15 pm

I accept that that is not a panacea for all the attacks in accident and emergency departments, as do other sector workers across the range. However, community awareness and ownership will, in the long term, prove a more successful means of tackling such problems than simply creating more and more legislation.

As public representatives, we must offer more to our health and emergency services than the promise of legislation; they deserve our support. Thus, Sinn Féin’s amendment asks the Executive and the Assembly to build upon the good practice of the Fire Brigades Union’s strategy, stretch it across the other sectors and put in place the resources necessary to achieve that across the Six Counties.

Sin mo mhéid. Iarraim bhur dtacaíocht don leasú.

We urge Members to support the amendment.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for his attendance and his input into the debate. I thank also all the Members who participated in support of the motion moved by my hon Friend Rev Dr Robert Coulter.

Certain points stand out in the debate that deserve our attention. The key point was a comment made by Dr Coulter that attacks on nurses, doctors and health workers never happened in the past. They are new and deeply shocking incidents and, as such, merit the creation of a special new offence under the law. As Dr Coulter put it, common assault is a category of crime that is not adequate to describe these events; they are, as he said: “most uncommon assault”.

No matter what debate may take place about whether assault means a physical or verbal assault or both, the fact remains that it is an increasingly common pattern of behaviour that we must do something about. To allow it to continue, unremarked upon and without legislating for it, would be negligent.

We all appreciate that the Assembly will not obtain the power to legislate on this matter until policing and justice powers are devolved. That does not mean, however, that we should not declare our intention to legislate as and when power is devolved to the Assembly. The Assembly should make a statement of intent.

We appreciate that since the motion tabled by Dr Coulter before the Transitional Assembly, Westminster legislation, in the form of a private Member’s Bill — later extended to Northern Ireland — and an Order in Council have legislated in part for attacks on emergency workers, such as ambulance drivers and firefighters.

That does not mean, however, that the Assembly, when it gets devolved policing and justice powers, should not introduce a comprehensive Bill to cover all emergency workers, both those referred to today in the amended version of that private Member’s Bill — doctors, nurses and health workers — as well as ambulance drivers, firefighters and other emergency workers.

Our colleagues in Scotland introduced comprehensive legislation, which created a new category of offence with greater tariffs of punishment, to deal with the problem. New legislation could supersede all earlier legislation, and that could be made plain in an annex to the main Bill.

We are marching increasingly alongside our colleagues in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Our First Minister is currently establishing cordial relationships with his counterpart in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond.

The Scottish way of doing things, by creating a comprehensive Bill and a new category of offence, which is punishable with higher tariffs, might well recommend itself to this House. It seems a more logical way to proceed than allow the situation to be covered by random enactments.

The situation that this measure seeks to address is very serious and cannot be treated lightly. There is a positive need to set attacks on nurses, doctors, midwives and health workers aside from ordinary criminality. That is why Dr Coulter and I will seek assurances from the Executive, and specifically from the First Minister, that once policing and justice powers are devolved, they will move swiftly to introduce a new law that protects health and emergency workers and creates new punishment tariffs for attacks on them.

Such an Executive-sponsored Bill would reflect the entire Assembly’s widespread condemnation of those attacks. It would be a unanimous expression of the collective political will of all the parties and public representatives in Northern Ireland to cherish and value health and emergency workers and to create punishments that are much more severe than those that are associated with common assault for anyone who attacks those workers.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that amendment No 1 standing on the Marshalled List in the name of Carál Ní Chuilín is the Sinn Féin amendment. Amendment No 2 standing on the Marshalled List in the name of Dr Coulter is the Ulster Unionist Party amendment. Before we proceed, it is important that we get the procedure right.

Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will put the question on the motion as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly believes that legislation should be introduced in Northern Ireland, at the earliest possible moment, to make it an offence punishable by imprisonment for a period not exceeding 9 months, or by a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or both, for all persons assaulting registered nurses, registered midwives, registered medical practitioners and health workers when they are in pursuit of their duties, either on or off hospital premises, or such place where they normally might pursue their professional activity.

Fishing Industry

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. [Interruption.]

Order. Quite a number of Members are moving about.

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the convention that, when you are addressing the House, every Member should be in his or her place, or at least be seated? That assertion has been repeated umpteen times, but it is conspicuous that some Members are here simply to defy your authority on that.

Mr Speaker: I have tried, as you may have noticed yesterday and today, to take my seat during debates — and when they are finished — in the hope that Members who want to move in and out of the Chamber will do so then. Unfortunately, it seems that people start to move in and out when I rise to my feet. Let us therefore have some respect for whoever is in the Chair.

I have received correspondence from the private secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development expressing regret that the Minister is unable to attend today’s debate —

Mr McNarry: That is a shame.

Mr Kennedy: She is fund-raising.

Mr Speaker: Order. She is on a visit to the United States on departmental business. The Minister has, however, arranged for the Minister for Regional Development to attend the debate on her behalf.

One amendment to the motion has been received and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and 5 minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister to wind up in a debate that is not their responsibility departmentally?

Mr Speaker: The Minister’s not being here today was raised in the Business Committee. I have received a reason for non-attendance from the Minister’s office. It is not out of practice for one Minister to attend on behalf of another, as Executive responsibility is collective.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask you to give additional consideration to the point that I have raised, as it upsets an important principle. It is a big departure from custom and practice when any Minister can be substituted from another Department and can expect to answer to an important Assembly debate that is not their direct responsibility. I ask you to reflect upon the matter and to bring forward a more considered view.

Mr Speaker: In the past, it has been the practice of this House that Ministers fill in for each other for various reasons.

Mr McNarry: On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. You mentioned that the Business Committee was aware of the unavailability of the Minister of Agriculture; however, its members were not aware of a substitute. Should the instance occur again, would it be in order that the Business Committee should be made aware of a Minister nominating another Minister? You refer to Executive responsibility; if a Minister wished to nominate a substitute perhaps they might look to OFMDFM to speak for the Executive, rather than somebody from their own party who has more specific knowledge of roads than he does of fish.

Mr Speaker: I will bring back a further report on the issue.

Dr W McCrea: The Minister was unable to attend, as she is on official business, and we accept that that is so; her non-attendance is no discourtesy to the House. However, I ask you, Mr Speaker, to look at it very carefully as it does not just apply to today’s situation, but should form a principle for Ministers in the future. A Minister has been substituted who has no portfolio for the occasion.

Mr Speaker: As I have said, I will report back to the House on this.

Mr Shannon: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the struggle that the fishing industry is subjected to and calls upon the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to urgently appoint a committee to oversee the fishing industry and ensure that their best interests are catered for at the highest level.

There ir twa differ clesses o’ faschermen – thaim at fasch fer crack an’ thaim at fasch fer fasch. In oor province there ir men wha need faschin – no fer the crack fer tae get a day ir twa awa tae sport wi’ thair freens, bit tae feed thair femmelies – the saime es thair faither an’ es faither afore him did. Faschin isnae an oot o’ date joab – look tae Icelan’ an’ the Nordic States an see hoo they ir thrivin’. Hit’s a guid chuse o’ career – especially gien the roughness o’ fasch we hae in the Airish Sea.

4.30 pm

There are two types of fishermen: those who fish for sport and those who fish to earn a living. In the Province, some rely on fishing, not as a sport or a way of spending a day relaxing with friends but as a means to feed their families, just as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Fishing is not an outdated job — look how Iceland and the Nordic states flourish. It is a viable career choice, especially considering the bounty in the Irish Sea.

Why, therefore, do fishermen in Northern Ireland struggle so desperately? There are literally plenty more fish in the sea, yet hard-working men, dedicated to providing a good life for their families, sit idly at home. They watch the rapid reduction of their money and wonder should they simply take a job in the local fibreglass factory or Asda store. The EU’s interference in their careers, combined with a lack of strong and proper representation to stand up to such intrusion, are to blame.

I must express some frustration and anger about the Minister’s first visit to Greyabbey in my Strangford constituency, which also includes Portavogie. She outlined her aims for the farming industry — and rightly so. I do not dispute them, but she did not mention fishing, for which she also has a remit. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to my concern about that, either personally or through her substitute in the Chamber today, the Minister for Regional Development.

For many years, fishing has been the poor relation in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). Hut 5 on the Stormont estate is renowned in the fishing industry; people often wonder what exactly happens in the fisheries division that is based there. I tabled today’s motion because an industry-led committee to answer the industry’s questions quickly and adequately is required.

The restrictions on white fishing, such as the Irish Sea being off bounds, in an attempt to renew cod stocks, mean that those men have little chance of feeding their families without help. It is not that they are lazy or refuse to adapt. Rather, the EU’s seemingly futile directives mean that their boats are banned from fishing for 10 weeks, during which time the families must exist without a wage. They are not in that situation because they want to be, but because of a decision that was made without any thought being given to them or attention being paid to their valid and important opinions.

When similar restrictions were applied to the Scots, the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD), which is the Scottish equivalent of DARD, issued tie-up packages to the affected fishermen to enable them to survive. DARD did the same thing for a few years but then stopped, citing first that it was illegal and then that it was not cost-effective.

To do what is right is rarely the cheap option. However, that does not negate the fact that those men are being stopped from doing their jobs. They have not chosen that line of action, and they should not be penalised, but no one is doing anything to change it. That is why Members must endorse the motion. Apathy towards the fishing community is killing it slowly, and those at the highest level of Government, who have allowed the restrictions to be applied, are most responsible for the decline. It is high time for those at the highest level to rectify that wrongdoing, note the importance of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland and attend to its needs. That has not been done for the past five years, and it is not overly dramatic to say that the fishing industry simply will not survive a further five years of the neglect and apathy to which it has been subjected.

There is no doubt that some half-hearted attempts have been made. Despite the decline in white fish, there has been an increase in quotas for other fish stocks such as nephrops, to which fishermen should be able to transfer their fishing. However, some vehicles do not easily lend themselves to such a transfer, and that issue must be addressed. In 1999, some 40 trawlers fished full-time for white fish. By 2006, that figure had dwindled to eight trawlers. How much lower can the figure sink before action is taken? Soon, fishing will be merely a recreational sport and no longer a career in Northern Ireland, while it flourishes in other areas where nowhere near as many restrictions apply.

In Portavogie, which is in my constituency of Strangford, fishing is the biggest employer. When the net is cast for fishermen in Portavogie, those who are employed in the industry do not necessarily come from the town but from the surrounding villages. It is the Assembly’s duty to ensure that those men are not left high and dry again. Fishing has been a mainstay of the Province for centuries, yet it may now die out due to decisions made by people in Brussels who do not understand, or even care to understand, the fishermen and the problems that they encounter in their livelihoods.

The drift away from fishing by the young is particularly worrying. To fill that gap, Lithuanian and Polish workers are taking their place. However, they want full-time work. When conditions are bad at sea and full-time work is not available, they will move on to new pastures where work can be found. Where will the next generation of fishermen come from if it cannot be proved that fishing offers a viable career for the young, and not just a job for the sake of the good old days? At present, fishing cannot be shown to be a viable career. We must strive to ensure that the industry is given the opportunity to flourish again.

Recently, the Strangford Lough Fishermen’s Association — representatives of which are present in the Gallery — sent me a letter outlining its valid fears. As I carefully considered them, it struck me that if proper representation were made or, indeed, if there were a method by which that could be done, most of the problems would be solved. I have written to the Minister, Michelle Gildernew, seeking a meeting. I await a date for that meeting. The people whom I represent look forward to it.

It must be understood that the EU has reduced the amount of fish that can be caught and, therefore, the income that is brought into fishermen’s households. It has all but eradicated the confidence that those hard-working men have that the measures implemented by the Government have been to anybody’s benefit but that of the scientists whose grants are continually funded without question.

Morale in the fishing industry is the lowest it has been for many years. The Department listens to the information supplied by scientists who continually flag up statistics; it is vital that the practical hands-on knowledge of fishermen be given equal credence. When fish show up on the scanners of fishing fleets, that cannot be ignored, no matter what results the scientists have come up with. The fact remains that the men on the boats are seeing huge shoals of fish that they cannot touch; they have been told that those fish do not exist. These men have been doing the job for much longer than the EU has been dictating to them. Their reports should be given the same weight as those of the scientists, if not more.

The crux of the matter is that there is no body that is composed of fishermen and that can state and prove their case. Dedicated people who attempt to make representations at Brussels are, in many cases, brushed aside. That must not continue. Representatives such as Alan McCulla from the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation and Dick James from the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation are crying out for a committee to be set up comprising fishermen, people who have a future in fishing, their elected representatives and Government officials who are dedicated to doing their best to achieve what is best for the industry. That should be granted as a matter of urgency.

No longer should fishing be the poor relation of agriculture. Fishermen are entitled to, and must have, the ear of the Minister. The way to do that is through an accountable committee, created to relay fishermen’s knowledge and fears and their proposed solutions to problems that are faced by the industry to the Minister, who, it is hoped, will subsequently be able to represent them with full and clear understanding of the situation. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Undoubtedly, there have been problems with previous representation in Brussels. However, proper representation is needed here as well.

I am happy to accept the amendment, because it complements the motion as a way of making progress. The facts show the problems that fishermen face. Those problems are not self-inflicted: they have been inflicted by faceless people who are unaccountable to the people of the Province. A way of offsetting that is to set up a committee that will care and will ensure that fishermen are no longer under-represented. The men who I see in the harbours are not faceless; they are men who have homes to heat and children to feed. Those men and their families are the people who are so adversely affected by EU directives, and they must have a voice in the Assembly, at the highest level of Government, which will carry on and be heard in Brussels.

Mr McCallister: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“recognises the challenges facing Northern Ireland’s fishing industry and will facilitate the creation of an all-party fishing industry group to promote the interests of, and secure a sustainable future for, the fishing industry and fishing communities.”

I am pleased that the proposer of the motion has accepted the amendment.

For a long time, the fishing industry in my constituency of South Down has provided a solid income for many fishermen and their families and played a crucial role in bolstering the local economy. However, times are changing and Ulster’s fishermen increasingly face arduous and gruelling financial hardships. Over the winter, fishermen in South Down endured the worst season on record. In the run-up to Christmas, thanks to the bad weather, the local fleet only managed to put to sea on a few occasions.

Ms S Ramsey: I thank the Member for giving way. I hope that I will not eat into his time, but I notice that the clock has not started. The Member will probably be given additional time.

This is a serious debate, and I wish to commend the proposers of both the motion and the amendment, but I could not let this opportunity pass. The amendment mentions the setting up of an all-party group to deal with the fishing industry. I am concerned about whether the fish will be male or female, because last week the UUP would not support an all-party group to deal with women’s issues in the Assembly, saying that there were too many working groups.

Mr McCallister: I am sure that if the Member wishes to join the fishing group we can look into it, although I am not sure how many fishing families she represents.

The bad weather in the opening two months of this year provided for a difficult winter for the fishermen in South Down. That resulted in severe hardship for those who rely on the sea for their living, compounded by the fact that many of those who tried to claim benefits were refused help.

For too long, the fishing trade in Northern Ireland has been an inferior partner to the agriculture industry, and the Government have not made it the priority that they should have. Last year, at the disastrous fisheries council in Brussels, where the quotas that the industry will depend on next year were set, Northern Ireland’s fishermen lost out to other fishermen in the European Union. The negotiations were conducted behind closed doors. No one, except those in the room, knew what was going on and what deals were being concocted between and within member states.

The failures of the European Union’s involvement in our fishing industry are plain to see. The UK’s whitefish fleet is an example of that. The following is from a speech by Struan Stevenson, a Scottish Conservative MEP:

“It is a sad indictment of the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that after 20 years of quota cuts, TAC (Total Allowable Catch) restrictions, de-commissioning schemes, lay-offs, tie-ups, emergency closures and redundancies, we have seen 60% of the Scottish whitefish fleet scrapped and thousands of jobs destroyed, despite the fact that the core tenets of the CFP were aimed at preserving and protecting fish stocks and maintaining and enhancing jobs in the fishing industry.”

I agree entirely with Mr Stevenson. There is no level playing field in Europe. Directives come from the EU, and there are great disparities in how they are interpreted and implemented in the different member states.

Although it is an accepted fact that much of the policy that impacts on the fishing industry is decided in Brussels, I believe that it is now time for the Assembly to do more than has been done in the past. I want the Assembly and the newly formed Executive to formulate a united approach to fishing policy, with the core aim being for the industry to be properly represented and protected.

Since taking up my position as an MLA for South Down, I have been contacted about several issues, such as compensation for Strangford Lough fishermen — an issue that has been ongoing for several years — and Kilkeel harbour, which has been an issue for 25 years. I firmly believe that an all-party fishing industry group in the Assembly is a proper first step that can promote the interests of the fishing industry and help to secure a stable future for vital fishing communities.


Fishermen from these idyllic places are not asking to be treated differently to others; they are seeking a fair livelihood for themselves and their families. For these reasons I ask the House to support the amendment.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I thank the Member for moving it for debate. I am not 100% sure about the amendment — the model looks weaker than that set out in the motion.

People working in the Irish fishing industry must have their say in the future of the local seafood industry, and the Assembly must provide imaginative and workable ideas, which can reverse the extremely regressive policies of previous Administrations. In supporting the motion, it is vitally important that Members work together to improve the plight of hard-pressed fishing communities in the North of Ireland.

The Assembly must therefore examine ways of developing an integrated all-Ireland approach to fishing, or the dramatic decline of the seafood industry will be impossible to reverse — not only in the North, but throughout the island.

The British Government have failed local communities in this matter, as they have in many others, and Members are faced with an industry that is on its knees because of successive quota restrictions and longer tie-up times.

In my constituency of South Down, the decision to allocate fishing towns and villages, such as Kilkeel, Annalong and Ardglass, priority rights from the integrated development fund, and the setting up of a steering group, which is representative of local councils and the fishing industry, were positive initiatives and steps in the right direction — but much more needs to be done.

A holistic approach must be adopted to address what is an extremely complex issue. It is important that people working in the seafood industry have an input into shaping its future. Strategic alliances will succeed in promoting a coherent action plan and are essential for the industry to develop.

Clearly, the North can benefit from closer co-operation with the Twenty-six Counties, where strategic development is located within the wider context of rural development.

There also needs to be greater emphasis on the protection, or conservation, of stocks to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry, particularly in relation to the white-fish fleet.

Fleet renewable subsidies in the South have attracted critical comparisons from the North’s fishing industry. Many representatives who have participated in negotiations in Brussels view fleet renewal as an essential element of fleet restructuring.

Fish are a renewable resource and one for which there is an increasing demand from consumers. The future for the industry should therefore be extremely positive. Despite this, the fishing industry in the North of Ireland is in crisis. Clearly the British Government’s priority focused on England, Scotland and Wales. The National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament recognise the importance of supporting their negotiating teams in Brussels, as, of course, do the Irish Government. The Northern Ireland Assembly must take control of this issue and fight for a better deal in Europe.

For too long the Six Counties has suffered from the piecemeal approach adopted by successive British Governments. We now need locally elected politicians to work in partnership and on a North/South basis. It is important to develop the all-Ireland institutions, because when one compares the investment made by the Irish Government in its fishing industry with the investment being made in the North, it is clear that the North of Ireland’s interests would be better served if the issue were tackled on an all-Ireland basis. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P J Bradley: I am glad that the proposer of the motion has accepted the amendment because I was unsure which of the two to go with. As my decision would have depended on what was said, I am happy that a compromise has been reached.

Sea fishing is an industry comprising people who specialise in what they do, and their skills are beyond question. Members from constituencies on the County Down coastline know well that those specialists provide a living for themselves and the in-harbour and on-land employments associated with the fishing industry.

For more than a decade, the fishing industry has been subjected to many and varied threats, and efforts were made by politically-driven groups to assist where possible. For a short period, I was a member of the fisheries task force, which was led by elected representatives from Newry and Mourne, Down, Ards and North Down councils. I understand that that task force has finished its work, and if that is so, it may be time to consider setting up an all-party fishing industry committee.

Such a committee — if formed — would not be given a statutory role, but it may have an informative role to play through giving evidence to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development when matters pertaining to the fishing industry are on the agenda.

I remember occasions during the previous Assembly when Alan McCulla of Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation, which is based in Kilkeel, and Dick James who represented the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, which is based in Portavogie, addressed the Friday morning sessions of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. Those men represented 150 to 200 members of their respective organisations, and their input was invaluable. They provided the Committee with first-hand information, and increased its knowledge of the industry and its problems. Unfortunately, most of their visits related to the threats to the trawlermen, their families and the industry.

As agriculture spokesperson for the SDLP, I have recently made references to the lack of parity between the farmers of Northern Ireland and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. I have also referred to the millions of euros of Government handouts that have been given to farmers and food processors in the South.

Today’s motion encouraged me to log on to the website of Bord Iascaigh Mhara — the Irish Sea Fisheries Board — to check how the fishing industry in the Republic is being treated by its Government. I learned that four complimentary integrated programmes form the core of the board’s grant-aid support to the sea fisheries sector. Like its counterpart here, a decommissioning scheme was available to the Republic’s fishing industry, which offered grant-aid to fishermen who wished to withdraw from the fleet permanently.

Fishing fleet development measures are also in place in the Republic, which provide grant assistance to promote investment in the existing fleet and improve safety, quality and efficiency of fishing gear and fuel on board vessels.

I have recently spoken to a number of people in my constituency who were, or are, involved in sea fishing. Many of them were critical of the lack of real support that they received from the UK Government. It was explained to me that some trawlermen are putting to sea in 30-year-old boats, while those of Clogherhead — a few miles south of Kilkeel — are putting to sea in modern, 1,000 horsepower trawlers.

There is also a supporting measures programme in place in the Republic for sea fisheries development. That programme provides grant-aid to support a total investment of up to €33.8 million over six years to benefit fishermen, their families, vessel owners, producer organisations and other industry-associated groups.

I also learned, from the Bord Iascaigh Mhara website, about an available diversification programme, which provides up to €9·2 million for investment over five years in assisting diversification from the commercial sea fisheries sector into sea angling and marine tourism. The main elements include the provision of safety equipment and the introduction of new and modernised second-hand vessels.

If — or should I say when — a new committee is in place, its first exercise should be to seek delivery of incomes for Northern Ireland fishermen equal to those being achieved by other fleets around the coast of Ireland.

I accept that some Members may have political difficulties in promoting a common fisheries policy on the island of Ireland, but considering the nature of politics, and given the new era into which some believe we are entering, it should be possible — with the support and encouragement of DARD, the co-operation of the Republic’s Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and its Ministers, and the MEPs — to structure an all-island strategy for the reform of the common fisheries policy to ensure the future of the fishing industry and fishing communities.

Our fishermen and their families deserve the Assembly’s full support. I support the motion as amended.

Mr Ford: I apologise to the proposer of the motion for not being in the Chamber to hear all of his opening speech, however I did catch some of it elsewhere.

As a former member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I confess to a distinct sense of déjà vu. Some issues that apply to the fishing industry are not well known across the community. Although those relating to agriculture and rural development may well be encompassed by Members who do not represent purely urban constituencies, some issues concerning the fishing industry and fishing communities are noticed all too often only in the two constituencies that depend most on fishing. It is important that we do not wait for the usual December crisis time: we should seriously consider an issue as important as fishing now.

As a former member of that Committee, I recall the frequency with which the former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Bríd Rodgers, would attend to talk about her ambitions, yet we knew that she would end up in the back row of the UK delegation — with a relatively limited role within that delegation. She would return to the Committee a week or two later and effectively apologise that nothing better could be done.

There must be long-term engagement, seeking not simply to crisis manage, but to take fully on board the issues. Mr P J Bradley mentioned the effective lobbying at times by the two fishing organisations led by Mr McCulla and Mr James. However, there is no point in their lobbying if they speak only to a small group of MLAs once or twice a year whenever a crisis arises.

That is why it is valuable that Mr Shannon has tabled the motion. Although we are talking about a small number of communities, there is a significant employment issue, both with respect to fishing and to fish processing. Members are aware that fish processing had been declining in those communities. Were I not sitting beside Naomi Long, I might mention that fishing is now more significant to the Northern Ireland economy than Harland and Wolff. However, Belfast-centric journalists do not seem to notice that there are issues of real concern to small-scale industries elsewhere.

I welcome the motion and appreciate the concerns that it expresses, but the tone of Europhobia that accompanied Mr Shannon’s remarks do not help when we seek to engage in issues of conservation and employment. We must ensure that engagement from this region and from the Assembly is based on best, sound scientific advice. If that means that we need different scientific advisers to ensure that such evidence gets across in Brussels, so be it. However, it is not helpful to express difficulties solely in terms of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who do not know what is going on.

I am concerned at the way the original motion is phrased. I am unsure what is meant by “a committee to oversee the fishing industry”. Therefore Mr Shannon’s acceptance of the amendment brings considerable advantages. Let us be clear: responsibility for supporting the fishing industry lies with the Minister — or, this afternoon, with another Minister who happens to be here — and the Department, supported by the Assembly, and in particular, by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. That is where the responsibility should lie. I am not sure what a wider committee could do. There is a danger in suggesting that we should set up another Committee to take away from the statutory functions of DARD. However, the proposal to establish an all-party working group ensures that there is forward movement in the Assembly and that Members are acting together. The amendment improves the motion in that respect.

Unfortunately the amendment does not call for the Minister to take action as the original motion did; it might have been better to phrase it differently. However, we have highlighted that there are issues that need to be addressed and that are of concern to the Assembly as a whole. It is important that pressure on the Minister is maintained, regardless of how the motion is phrased.

It will be interesting to hear from the substitute Minister. I trust that his presence is an indication of a specific DRD responsibility that impinges on DARD in this respect, although I am aware of no such responsibility. It is important for the Assembly to send out a message of support to the fishing industry. While we must consider the overall economic needs of Northern Ireland, we should not get sucked into ignoring the needs of smaller communities that are suffering at present.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I welcome the opportunity to speak on an important issue. I am delighted that my colleague has brought the matter before the Assembly.

For too long, the fishing industry of Northern Ireland has been the Cinderella, always in the background, always expected to work hard, and yet always an easy target for cutbacks and regulations. Why is that so?

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Very simply it was because no one seemed to care about an industry that was considered by many to be in decline, an industry that was seen by some as old-fashioned, an industry overseen by a Minister who believed that he had more important portfolios to attend to and therefore was not able to exercise his imagination or give his mind to dealing with the issues facing the industry. Yet fishing always has been and always will be a part of Northern Ireland’s way of life. Year after year, men risk their lives to put food on our tables, and how we ought to thank them for that. But how do we thank them? Let me give you some of the facts and the figures.

On 19 April 2006 my hon colleague and fellow Member of Parliament, Mrs Robinson, secured a debate in the House of Commons on the fishing industry. With her permission, I will read an extract from the Hansard of that debate and put it on the record of this House:

“In 1993 213 commercial fishing vessels were registered in the Northern Ireland fishing fleet, but by this year that figure had fallen to a staggering 130. Whereas there were 44 white fish boats in the Northern Ireland fleet five years ago, there are now only 12. In Portavogie, where there were once more than 100 boats in the fleet, there are now just 40. Between 1999 and 2003, the average profit before depreciation of a Northern Ireland-based white fish trawler fell by 76 per cent. to just £10,400. The average profit of a nephrop trawler fell by 48 per cent. to £15,600.”

In spite of all this, in 2005 Northern Ireland-registered boats landed fish totalling £27.3 million. Again, as is the case in the whole of agriculture, those with the most sweat on their brow, reap the least harvest.

Are things getting any better? Is the DARD Fisheries Corporate Plan 2006-09 the visionary directive it is stated to be? In December 2005, the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council decided to reduce still further the already low quotas for many key Irish Sea fish stocks for all the main fishing grounds of the Northern Ireland fleet, although with a helpful increase in the nephrops quota. The council also, for the seventh successive year, closed areas of the Irish Sea to white-fish fishing from the 14 February to 30 April 2006. During 2006, further restrictions were imposed on the number of days licensed fishing vessels were permitted to fish within the cod recovery zone. This included the Irish Sea, where those constraints translated into a further 10% reduction of effort for nephrop vessels and a 15% reduction for white-fish vessels.

How much can our fishermen rely on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and its new Minister? During a recent presentation to my Committee, senior officials outlined the Minister’s priorities, but fishing did not even get a mention. Not one word. So where is the priority? The Minister has declared herself to be rural champion, but my Committee will not judge any Minster on what she says but on what she does. Unless she wants the fishing industry to go the same way as her pig industry, she will have to do something very quickly about the situation. The officials outlined the Department’s five goals, but I believe that the Minister’s primary goal with fishing should be to save and protect it as an industry and to ensure that fishermen have an income for the future, for their families and for the betterment of our country’s economy.

Mr Hamilton: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue, especially so early in the life of the new Assembly. It is important not just because of fishing’s economic impact, but because fishermen and others working in the sector will tell you that they feel that they get second-class treatment by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The proposer of the motion has already referred to a prime example of that Cinderella status. In her first press statement, the new Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development made not one mention of the fishing industry — not one sentence on an important area of responsibility in her Department.

That snub follows in the finest traditions of the former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Lord Rooker, who could not find a free date in his diary to go to Brussels to assist in the negotiations to set the fishing quotas for 2005.

The fishing industry is a much smaller sector than farming. However, as Mr Ford said, in those parts of the Province where fishing is the number one industry, this issue is of paramount importance and means a great deal to people. Certainly, the fishing industry deserved a reference in the Minister’s first public utterances. The DUP’s support for the motion, as amended, is an attempt to end that second-class status.

As is stated in the motion, the fishing industry is being subjected to a very real struggle to survive. A once thriving industry in the County Down towns and villages of Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass, it is a shadow of its former self. Those difficulties and stresses have already been documented and repeated in the Chamber today.

Despite those many difficulties, the fishing industry contributes significantly to the local economy. Although traditional catches such as cod, whiting and plaice may have fallen in value and volume, between 1993 and 2004, a total value of £207 million was landed by the Northern Ireland fleet. In the first three months of this year — three months that are difficult for fishermen because of the weather — £4·6 million worth fish have been landed. Obviously, that amount is enhanced when the fish are processed and value is added. Therefore, even during its dark days, the fishing industry still makes a major contribution to the local economy.

The importance of the industry can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the fishing villages themselves. Places such as Portavogie, in my constituency, are all but dependent on the fishing industry for employment. That is not just on the boats, but in onshore jobs, such as processing and engineering, and in support organisations such as the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation Limited. Of course, many of the jobs in shops and other services in my constituency are dependent on the money that is generated by the fishing industry.

Due to the centrality of the fishing industry to the economies of places such as Portavogie, and the difficulty of ending dependence on the industry for jobs and local economic growth, I have wholeheartedly supported the work of Ards Borough Council and the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority in schemes that the Member opposite mentioned earlier. Through a successful application to the Integrated Development Fund, a £1·5 million capital works programme and development master plan for Portavogie has been established.

The master plan is aimed at enhancing tourism potential in the area, creating several small business units to assist with diversification, and improving the local environment. It is hoped that the master plan will consolidate existing jobs and create new ones. Schemes such as this are essential to the future development of our fishing villages. I hope that the new Minister will fully support them in the future.

Sometimes it seems as though the fishing industry is under assault from all sides. If fishermen are not being bashed by Brussels, they are being let down by the Department with responsibility for fishing, or they are being subjected to silly and stupid stunts by so-called environmentalists — some of which occurred in the North Sea in recent days.

Myself and other Members are unapologetic defenders of the fishing industry.

Dr W McCrea: Will the Member take encouragement from the fact that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development decided today to invite repre­sentatives of the fishing industry to its next meeting?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for making a good and valid point. Fishermen and others in the industry will be encouraged, not only by what he has just said, but by his previous comments on the motion. It is important that those in the fishing industry learn that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment will put the future of the industry at the top of its agenda, ensuring that it receives priority attention.

As I said, myself and other Members, including the Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, are unapologetic defenders of the fishing industry. We will do all that we can to fight for fishermen in the face of European intrusion, Government inaction and the insensitivity of certain environmentalists.

Hopefully, the House will agree the motion, and following the formation of an all-party group, I will do all that I can to revitalise an important part of our local economy.

Mr Savage: I warmly welcome the debate, and I consider it a privilege to speak on the matter.

When Lord Rooker, who was referred to earlier, was responsible for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland’s fishing industry was often overlooked. Many Members will remember that in December 2005 he left our fishermen high and dry when he failed to attend the annual meeting in Brussels of the EU Fisheries Council, which allocates fishing quotas for the year ahead. That was the final straw for many.

I hope that the new Minister will be more proactive in Brussels in defending our Province’s fishing industry and in supporting the work of our MEPs, especially that of my colleague Jim Nicholson. For more than 17 and a half years he has fought in the European Parliament on behalf of our fishermen. I know that many Members have assisted him in that work. He is always there, and that is very near and dear to the hearts of many. As a Member of the European Parliament it is his duty to attend that Parliament and to defend our industry. Perhaps the Minister will elaborate on what she will do to further the industry’s interests in Brussels.

Mr Elliott: To which Minister is the Member referring? I do not see her in the Chamber.

Mr Savage: My colleague knows very well what I am getting at.

Many of our fishermen’s woes arise from the EU Fisheries Ministers’ meeting each December. I want that annual charade to end. Every year, the European Commission promises to settle that ridiculous situation; such a settlement is long overdue. Yet, every Christmas, we face drastic quota cuts. It is time that the European Commission started listening to the people who work in the fishing industry.

The common fisheries policy, in its present form, is not capable of creating a viable, sustainable industry for our fishermen. Our fishermen matter — they are very important people. They make a vital contribution to the local economy, and they ensure that the fishing industry has a future. That is crucial to the sustainability of many communities in the Strangford and south Down area, such as Kilkeel, Ardglass and those communities that are along the County Down coast.

I warmly welcome the amendment, which was tabled by my hon Friends. The point has been well made that the creation of an all-party fishing group would, at present, be better able to pursue the interests of fishermen and the fishing industry. All of us are stakeholders in ensuring that a sustainable future is secured for our fishermen. Clearly, the Assembly must consider how we may scrutinise more effectively the actions of Whitehall and, more importantly, those of Brussels when it comes to fisheries policy. Perhaps a fact-finding visit to our counterparts in Scotland would be a worthwhile exercise — we could share ideas and concerns. People in the fishing industry all have problems. I therefore support the amendment.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the Minister for Regional Development responds to the debate, which should properly be responded to by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, I raise, again, the issue of ministerial substitutes. I ask you, Mr Speaker, to consider the entire issue in advance of the next plenary session.

I also offer, what I hope is a helpful suggestion, which is that in the event of any Minister being unable to be present in the Chamber to respond to a debate that, on his or her return, he or she should be provided with a copy of the relevant Hansard report. He or she should be given an early opportunity, by way of a ministerial statement, to respond to the issues that have been raised. That would be a more appropriate and satisfactory way of dealing with the non-availability of individual Ministers. I ask you to take that suggestion seriously and let the House know your view at the outset of next business, early next week.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

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Mr Speaker: I have heard what the Member said, and I will respond to the House. I am sure that the deputising Minister has heard a clear message from the House, and I am sure that the appropriate Minister will possibly make a statement.

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It appears from Mr Kennedy’s constant interruptions that he is more interested in the six o’clock news than he is in the plight of the fishermen. The Executive told the Business Committee that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development would not be available for this debate, yet the proposers were still prepared to move the motion.

Mr Kennedy is a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and the matters that he has raised today would be better dealt with there.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With respect, these matters are for you, as you preside over the conduct of business in the Chamber. I raised a point of order for your consideration and ask you to reflect on it.

This is not about trying to get on the six o’clock news; it is about the good conduct of business in the Assembly.

Mr Speaker: I have already agreed to come back on your point of order, Mr Kennedy.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise for the deep disappointment that my presence has caused. [Laughter.]

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Murphy: The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was not available and that was known before the motion was moved. However, it was decided to go ahead and debate the motion, and I am pleased to be able to respond.

My colleague Michelle Gildernew asked me to stand in for her today and to respond to the debate. The Minister is in the United States to promote the agrifood sector as part of the Rediscover Northern Ireland programme. She wanted to be present for the first debate on fisheries in the restored Assembly, but, unfortunately, the timing of the debate did not allow that.

I commend Jim Shannon and Simon Hamilton for tabling the motion and securing the debate and for representing the concerns of the fishing industry. I assure them that my colleague Michelle Gildernew and I share their concerns and that we are determined to work with the industry to secure its long-term future. Officials from DARD will study Hansard carefully, and if I have missed some of the points, Michelle Gildernew will pick up on them later and respond in correspondence or in any other appropriate way.

Shortly before taking up office, Michelle Gildernew met the key fishery stakeholders to hear at first hand about the main issues facing the industry. At that meeting she stressed several key points in her approach to fisheries. She made it clear that she wanted to secure a sustainable future for the industry, for it to be more attractive to young people, and to maximise the contribution that it made to the economies of coastal communities. She stressed that to achieve that she would work in close partnership with the key stake­holders and promised to be a strong voice on behalf of fishermen both in dealings with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London and with the appropriate bodies in Brussels.

I listened carefully to the points that were made during the debate, and it is clear that much of what was said reflected concerns about the level of fish stocks and falling quotas for the main white-fish species and their impact on the viability of the fishing fleet and processing plants. That is the biggest challenge to the survival of the industry and its future development. However, if that challenge is met, there is scope for significant development.

The market for seafood is buoyant, and there has been growth in the demand for fish and fish products of all types. Consumers are increasingly aware of the nutritional and health benefits of eating seafood products. It is imperative for the industry to grasp the opportunity that that market presents.

Among the issues raised was the impact of the common fisheries policy. My colleague the Minister has already stated that she intends to be a strong voice in Europe and will take a lead role in the development of our negotiating position for this year’s vital December Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Preparations for this year’s council have already begun, and the Minister and the Department will be working closely with industry representatives over the coming months to deliver the best possible outcome in December. High on the first list of priorities will be the Irish Sea fish quotas and resistance to further cuts in fishing efforts. We will argue for increases where they are sustainable and will strongly resist further cuts in fishing days in the context of what has been done already to reduce effort.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, William McCrea, mentioned cod recovery measures. There is concern that the existing Irish Sea cod recovery measures have not worked. The European Commission is undertaking a review of these and other similar arrangements in EU waters. That will be an opportunity to develop management arrangements that are more appropriate for the Irish Sea, and will enable the rebuilding of stock to sustainable levels.

A considerable challenge lies ahead, and the Department, fishery scientists and the industry must work together to achieve a positive outcome. The basis of such an approach has already been established. The industry-led nephrops working group involved catchers and processors, and worked closely with the Department and its scientists to help secure a 70% increase in the nephrops quota for 2007.

Many fishermen are sceptical of fishery science. However, robust science was the key to persuading the Commission’s advisers that last year’s increase in the nephrops quota was sustainable and justifiable. We must continue to strengthen our scientific knowledge of the Irish Sea fish stocks, and support research that will lead to better management decisions and better opportunities for our fishing fleet.

The Irish Sea data enhancement pilot project is an example of what can happen. The idea was promoted initially by industry, and a subsequent proposal was put jointly to the Commission by the UK and Ireland at the last December council. That is an important piece of work, and has the potential to influence the way that fisheries in the Irish Sea are managed in the future. It is significant, too, because it brings together industry, scientists and government from all jurisdictions, with a shared interest in seeing the development of sustainable fisheries in the Irish Sea. The project will result in improved data for fish stocks and that, it is to be hoped, will make a valuable contribution to the review of cod recovery measures.

Jim Shannon expressed views on tie-up aid. There are strong views about decisions by direct rule Ministers to refuse to provide tie-up aid for vessels targeting white fish in 2006-07. We want to have a sustainable and profitable fishing industry with a long-term future. We are committed to assisting the industry to adapt to changing circumstances and exploit sustainable fishing opportunities. Although no aid was provided in 2007 to allow vessels targeting white fish to tie up, I was pleased to note that a grant of £220,000 has already been provided through the Northern Ireland Fishing Task Force to white-fish vessels to assist them in diversifying to other sustainable fisheries. A further £370,000 is sought to extend this scheme. I cannot comment on the position for next year; that decision is dependent on the outcome of the cod recovery review process, and future management arrangements.

From 2000 to 2006, almost £25 million has been committed to the fishing industry under the Programme for Building Sustainable Prosperity. We expect the new European Fisheries Fund to provide around £24 million over the next seven years. This summer, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be consulting on the NI operational programme for the European Fisheries Fund. The Department will fully involve the fishing industry to ensure that the funding provides well-targeted support to improve the competitiveness of the industry, and to help the coastal communities that depend on the industry for their livelihood.

Small inshore vessels, targeting mainly shellfish, now comprise over 58% of the vessels in our fishing fleet. The sector has the potential to provide an enhanced contribution to the industry, but it is essential that it is developed in a sustainable way.

Earlier in the year the inshore fisheries stakeholder advisory group presented its report on the review of inshore fisheries to the Department. The Department is considering its recommendations, with a view to developing a draft inshore fishery strategy for wider public consultation.

John McCallister mentioned the problems at Kilkeel harbour. I fully appreciate the points made on access to the harbour in difficult weather conditions. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has agreed to fund a technical study to establish if a breakwater is feasible, to gather the information required to develop a business case, and to justify the cost of around £13 million.

Mr McCallister also mentioned compensation for fishermen in Strangford Lough. The aid available is affected by a ban on mobile gear, which has been mentioned. I understand the frustration felt by these fishermen. A proposal made to the European Commission for reasonable compensation failed to secure approval for state aid, and other mechanisms for support have not been identified. My colleague Michelle Gildernew will be happy to meet with the Strangford Lough fishermen to listen to their concerns and to consider the scope for assistance.

The motion proposed by Jim Shannon and Simon Hamilton calls on Michelle Gildernew to appoint a committee. There is also an amendment to include an all-party group to oversee the fishing industry, and to ensure that its best interests are catered for at the highest level.

The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee will have an important role to play in developing the debate and ensuring that the needs of the fishing sector are addressed. However, it is also vital to involve key stakeholders from the fishing industry as we develop strategies and policies to underpin the development of a sustainable fishing future for the region.

I have mentioned a number of examples of how the Department is already working closely with the industry to ensure that its views are heard and that the industry can contribute to decision-making about fisheries management. It is vital that the Department, the fisheries scientists and the industry all work together to ensure that there is a profitable, sustainable fishing industry that will be attractive to younger people so that they can continue to exploit the natural resources available in the Irish Sea for future generations.

Michelle Gildernew has promised to be a strong and effective representative of the North’s fishermen at the highest levels in Government. She is committed to working closely with industry groups and to involving them as she plans and prepares for negotiations in Brussels in December.

During this year, her Department will also develop proposals to strengthen the inshore sector. One of the recommendations of the stakeholder advisory group was the establishment of an independent inshore fisheries group to focus on inshore fisheries and to work with the Department on developing this sector. Michelle will want to consider this proposal carefully in the context of today’s debate and ensure that effective arrangements are in place for stakeholder involvement in fishery matters.

I am sure that Michelle will take into account many of the constructive points made during today’s debate as she seeks to develop a more cohesive approach with the fishing industry over the coming months. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Elliott: I thank and congratulate Mr Shannon for tabling the motion and my colleague John McCallister for tabling the amendment.

I also welcome the Minister’s announcement of his commitment — or, at least, the Department of Agriculture’s commitment — to the fishing industry. Although his speech did not address all of the issues, it certainly gave a broad general commitment to the industry.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is in America promoting something called Rediscover Northern Ireland. I am pleased that she is doing that and that the Minister who is here has managed to bring himself to say “Northern Ireland”.

The agriculture and fishing industries sit very well together, because they have similar difficulties and problems. It has been said that fishing is often the poor partner of agriculture. I believe that there should be no poor partner; both industries are difficult for those who are involved in them, with lots of hard work, and they deserve a proper return for their efforts. That is why this Assembly must commit itself to the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr Ford from the Alliance Party mentioned déjà vu — the sense of “here we go again”, back to the same old argument. The challenge for this new Assembly is to do something about it. We cannot continue to shut the fishermen out. I would welcome the appointment of a committee to promote the fishing industry, but any such committee should work in tandem with all concerned — the industry, the scientists and the environmentalists, as the Minister said. We often hear those groups speak with three different voices, but a cohesive approach is essential if further progress is to be made.

The Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Dr McCrea, talked about how fishing is the Cinderella of the agriculture industry, and there was talk of how the Minister before the previous Minister often had other engagements that appeared to be more important than fishing industry engagements. I hope that those days are gone and that the new Ministers are committed to the fishing and agriculture industries.

5.30 pm

Unfortunately, some of the schemes that have been set up in the past have not proved to be successful. In fact, they have been definite failures for the fishermen of this Province. The word “quota” has been used by every Member who spoke during the debate. That word is used throughout the agricultural industry — there are milk quotas and fishing quotas.

How would the manufacturing industry like quotas? How would the textile industry like quotas? Quotas are necessary at times, provided that they are fair and equal. The difficulty is that, as we have heard so often, Northern Ireland does not get an equal slice of the cake in Europe. Other countries in the European Union have openly flouted quota systems. Italy has flouted the milk quota system for years, and it appears to get away with it, but the same does not go for Northern Ireland’s fishermen or agriculturalists, who must stick rigidly to the rules that are laid before them.

P J Bradley mentioned young people who often criticise current policy, and I cannot disagree that that is a problem. The challenge for the Assembly is to do something about that and encourage young people back into the fishing industry and the agricultural industry. I support the motion and I call on the House to do likewise.

Mr Shannon: I thank Members for their valuable contributions. The debate has clearly highlighted the problems that face the fishing industry, and the impact that those problems are having. I thank the Member for South Down John McCallister for tabling his amendment. The debate on the motion and the amendment has encompassed all the main issues, and I hope that we can make a difference for the fishing industry.

The setting up of an ad hoc committee would provide an opportunity to bring everyone with an interest in this matter into the process. I hope that that would include the two representatives of the fishing industry who were mentioned by the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. It would be useful if those who are involved in the industry could provide us with the necessary information to help us to make the right decisions.

Mr Clarke of Sinn Féin was correct to point out that the seafood industry is important. The fishing industry is not just about the fish in the sea or the fish that are caught — it is also about those who process the fish onshore, who bring economic benefits to their area. Mr Clarke said that the main areas that would benefit were Strangford and south Down. He also said that the fishing industry was a valuable resource, and it is, but he also referred to it as an industry in crisis, and that has been a theme of all the contributions of those who have spoken in the debate.

I thank P J Bradley for his comments; he obviously has knowledge of the fishing industry. He referred to the thousands of families that are suffering from financial stringencies because of the problems in the fishing industry. He also mentioned the further processing of fish onshore. Because that processing can provide economic benefits, we must try to develop that aspect of the fishing industry. Mr Bradley also referred to wider delivery of income for the Province.

Mr Ford said that we should not wait for the impending crisis in December. His comments were clear: Members who do not represent constituencies such as Strangford or South Down, but who are members of the Agriculture Committee, should take an interest in fishing and not ignore it simply because there is no fishing industry in their own constituencies. Mr Ford made valuable comments about the elevation of fishing to higher levels in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and he also called for direct representation of the fishing industry.

I thank the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, William McCrea, for his comments.

I welcome the fact that representatives from the two leading fish producers’ organisations in Northern Ireland will meet with the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. Alan McCulla and Dick James know the fishing industry inside out, and can explain the issues to the Committee. I know that Willie McCrea, as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, will push things forward, in his words, to save and protect the industry.

I thank my colleague Simon Hamilton for his comments. He said that the fishing industry was of paramount importance in Strangford, and so it is. It is one of the major employers in the Strangford area. In proposing the motion, I said that, although Portavogie may be at the centre of fishing in Northern Ireland, the net — to use a pun — goes beyond Portavogie and pulls many others into the industry.

Mr Hamilton mentioned the fishing initiative in Portavogie, and there are similar schemes in Kilkeel and Ardglass. Those are important, and diversification may be one answer. However, the fact is that a fisherman wants to fish. That is what he is: a fisherman first and foremost.

I thank George Savage for his remarks on the common fisheries policy. He also referred to the European influence. I hope that Mr Ford will forgive me, but I am a bit cynical about Europe. It cannot be said that I should not feel that way, given the manner in which some decisions are made in Europe to the disadvantage of Northern Ireland’s fishing industry. That cannot be ignored either.

Tom Elliott, in his winding-up speech on the amend­ment, mentioned effects on the fishing industry. He does not represent a fishing area; I am not aware that he has any boats out in the Irish Sea. There is a different sort of fishing industry in his constituency. Even though he does not represent the fishing sector, he clearly understands the issues, for which I thank him.

It is important that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development becomes established, so that it will be ready to win the battle to help the fishing industry. The “acting” Minister, Mr Murphy, mentioned Rediscover Northern Ireland. In the light of what has been said about “here” and “there” this week, I am very happy that he has discovered Northern Ireland — we are moving forward.

I believe that there is a commitment to the fishing industry at ministerial level, but time will tell. I have asked for a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to discuss Strangford Lough, and I hope to have that meeting shortly. Mr Murphy said that that meeting would go ahead, and I look forward to meeting the Minister, because there are issues that must be addressed.

I am not entirely happy with the initial response that was given on behalf of the Minister, because we are looking for compensation for the members of the Strangford Lough Fishermen’s Association. However, we will have the meeting and see how we can put forward those concerns. The Strangford Lough fishermen will put their case vociferously.

Mr McNarry: Will the Member be present?

Mr Shannon: Yes, I hope to be there. I look forward to the meeting, because it gives us an opportunity to deal with the issues. I am not sure whether I heard him correctly, but I believe that the Minister-in-waiting, or stand-in, if that is the correct terminology, mentioned compensation for those involved in the white-fish industry. I will check Hansard to see exactly what was said. If that was what was said, Hansard will confirm it. However, we look forward to the meeting with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who will have the opportunity to respond.

The Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development also made the point that, more often than not, our representatives in Brussels — no disrespect to Lord Rooker or other Ministers — did not do the job for Northern Ireland’s fishing industry. We have always felt aggrieved about that. It was a slight on the industry and a source of frustration. I look forward to having a Minister with a dedicated portfolio who will fight hard for Northern Ireland’s fishing industry. I will take the comments that have been made to date as a commitment to the industry, and we look forward to participating in that work.

The development of a strategy and the identification of key movers in the industry were also mentioned. There are key movers in the industry, and the further development of offshore processing is a primary concern for the two main fish producers’ organisations.

As I said earlier, fishermen want to fish. Not everyone wants to diversify; many would rather do the job that they have been asked to do.

We look forward to monitoring the commitment that the Minister has given today, and we look forward to the fishing industry being given a real shot in the arm. That industry is a major employer that creates jobs. It can do good and provide an economic boost, not only for the Strangford and Down areas. I ask Members to support the motion.

We look forward to the response of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I hope that, when she returns, she will give a commitment to setting up such a committee. If we have that committee, we will be able to sort things out.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the challenges facing Northern Ireland’s fishing industry and will facilitate the creation of an all-party fishing industry group to promote the interests of, and secure a sustainable future for, the fishing industry and fishing communities.

Adjourned at 5.41 pm.

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