Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Assembly Business

Establishment of the Independent Health Coalition

Letter from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about Executive Committee Decisions

Committee Business
Committee Membership — Committee for Employment and Learning
Committee Membership — Committee on Standards and Privileges
Pension Trustees

Private Members’ Business
Free Personal Care
Literacy and Numeracy
Domestic Violence
Fuel Poverty

Funding for Resurfacing of Roads in the Strangford Constituency

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: During the sitting on 22 May 2007, the Rt Hon Dr Paisley, the First Minister, raised concerns about accommodation for the public and the press at Committee meetings. I can inform the House that consideration has been given to addressing the difficulties recently experienced by members of the public and press wishing to attend Committee meetings.

Arrangements are now in place to provide a number of dedicated press seats in the Committee public galleries. Priority will be given, as far as possible, to members of the public who wish to attend Committee meetings. If, after 20 minutes, any of the press seats are unoccupied, those too will be released to the public.

The arrangements will be reviewed during the summer recess, bearing in mind the limitations of the Committee rooms. I am satisfied, Members, that this is a sensible way to try to resolve a very difficult accommodation situation for everyone in Parliament Buildings.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I thank you for that reply, and I am sure that the general public and the press will be grateful to you for taking immediate steps to solve something that was causing difficulty. Thank you.

Mr Speaker: The accommodation situation for everyone in this House is probably the most important issue that the Commission is dealing with at the moment.

Also last Tuesday, points of order were raised by Mr McNarry and Mr Kennedy concerning the attendance of the Minister for Regional Development on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Members will recall that I indicated at the time that precedent existed for such an arrangement, but I have given the matter further thought. Having done so, I can confirm that, on Monday 3 December 2001, the then Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Seán Farren, answered questions on behalf of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey. I further inform the House that Dr Farren gave an undertaking on that occasion that a written answer would be provided in the event of his being unable to answer any supplementary questions that were asked.

It appears to me that a clear precedent has been established in the Northern Ireland Assembly for one Minister attending in the Chamber on behalf of another, and I refer Members to page 46 of the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion’. I would not, of course, expect the situation in which a Minister attends on behalf of another to occur other than in the most unavoidable of circumstances, and I will continue to require written notification of a Minister’s absence.

I also undertook to consider Mr Kennedy’s suggestion that a Minister who cannot be present in the Chamber might be given an early opportunity, on his or her return, to respond by way of a ministerial statement to issues raised. Members will be conscious that any Minister may choose to make a statement at any time to the Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 18. I assure the House that I will continue to accommodate the making of ministerial statements in the House.

Mr Kennedy: Thank you very much for clarifying the points of order raised, Mr Speaker. Given that we are in a new Assembly — a more democratic Assembly, apparently — I ask whether consideration could be given to any change in the custom and practice that you have indicated, or to the precedent that you have outlined.

Mr Speaker: I think that most Members would agree that I gave the points of order that were raised a fair airing in the House last Tuesday evening. I wonder why those points of order were raised, but I must say that I am not prepared to answer any further points of order on the issue. The matter has now been dealt with, and dealt with completely. I understand where the Member is coming from, but I feel that I can add no more to what has been said this morning.

Establishment of the Independent Health Coalition

Mr Speaker: I wish to advise the House that I have received a letter from Dr Kieran Deeny, notifying me that a new political party was added to the Northern Ireland register of political parties on 16 May 2007. The new party’s title is the “Independent Health Coalition”. The Electoral Commission has confirmed that party’s registration. Dr Deeny has indicated that he wishes to be known, and to represent his constituents in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as a member and leader of the Independent Health Coalition.

Letter from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about Executive Committee Decisions

Mr Speaker: I inform the House that I have received a letter from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that advises me of three decisions that the Executive took at their meeting last Thursday. A copy of the letter has been placed in Members’ pigeonholes and in other places, such as the Library.

Committee Business

Mr Speaker: I wish to advise the House that the Business Committee has agreed that the three motions that appear on the Order Paper as Committee Business will be treated as business motions. There will, therefore, be no debate.

Committee Membership — Committee for Employment and Learning


That Mr Alastair Ross replace Mr Jim Wells as a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning. — [Lord Morrow.]

Committee Membership — Committee on Standards and Privileges


That Mr Alastair Ross replace Mr Adrian McQuillan as a member of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. — [Lord Morrow.]

Pension Trustees


That the following Members are appointed as the Trustees of the Assembly Members’ Pension scheme:

Mr John Dallat

Mr David McClarty

Mr Trevor Lunn

Mr Jim Wells

Mrs Michelle O’Neill. — [Rev Dr Robert Coulter.]

Private Members’ Business

Free Personal Care

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been selected and have been published on the Marshalled List; the proposers of the amendments will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.

I wish to advise the House that, following discussion at the Business Committee, I propose to reintroduce an arrangement that applied previously in the Chamber. Members may recall that when speaking times were limited to less than 10 minutes the Speaker would exercise discretion in allocating up to one additional minute to a Member who had accepted one or more interventions. I hope that Members will welcome the reintroduction of this arrangement, which applies immediately.

Mrs Hanna: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls for free personal care for the elderly, which was agreed in principle in the last Assembly, to be introduced as a priority within a set timescale.

In proposing the motion, I am not anticipating opposition from any part of the Assembly. I also wish to state that I accept the amendments tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party.

Free personal care has been debated on several occasions by previous Assemblies, most recently by the Transitional Assembly on 19 December 2006. All who spoke in that debate were in favour of the motion tabled, though there were some nuances of opinion and differences in emphasis.

The time for debate, discussion and analysis has passed. Members need to move the issue forward: to have it anchored firmly in the Programme for Govern­ment; to identify the funds needed for free personal care; to prepare the necessary budget; and to ensure that free personal care is implemented equitably and comprehensively across Northern Ireland within a defined period.

Personal care is defined as helping a person with feeding, toileting, washing, dressing and grooming; helping a person in and out of bed; help with mobility; and assistance with medication — matters which do not necessarily require the services of a trained nurse or other health professional, but which, by any realistic definition, are integral to and inseparable from healthcare.

The SDLP has supported the principles of nursing and personal care set out in the 1999 Royal Commission report ‘With Respect to Old Age: Long Term Care — Rights and Responsibilities’. Although that report is eight years old, the essential principles have not changed, and we in Northern Ireland are no further forward.

From a practical perspective, and speaking as a registered nurse who has worked in assessing domiciliary care for the elderly, I know that no health professional would disagree that it is impossible to separate nursing and personal care. The complexity of trying to separate the two elements is counterproductive and a bureaucratic nightmare.

10.45 am

The current system of separation creates great uncertainty about future care for elderly and vulnerable people who are at a stage in their lives when they should be able to take for granted the provision of free care when they need it. That has always been our understanding of the National Health Service. The NHS is still the most socialist, progressive and popular initiative ever taken by a UK Government. The elderly have paid National Insurance contributions all their lives; they expect to receive care at point of need, but it is not available to them.

Personal and nursing care are not separated when older people are in hospital, so why should they be separated when patients are at home or in residential care? There are obvious anomalies that can have awful consequences for families. For example, a patient suffering from cancer is entitled without question to free nursing and personal care, but the family of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — an increasingly common condition as longevity and the proportion of elderly people in society increases — can find that their relative is not entitled to personal care. A complex and spurious differentiation is made between health and personal care, and the authorities have interpreted the Coughlan judgement as not applying to mental-health needs —mental health is yet again the Cinderella of the Health Service.

Members will recall the Coughlan judgement, which was made in the Court of Appeal in 1999. The ruling was that as healthcare was a primary need for Mrs Coughlan, she was also entitled to personal care. At least two ‘Panorama’ programmes, the last in July 2006, showed that many elderly people were being forced to sell their homes because of perverse, bureaucratic and complex decisions by health trusts and Government that sought to undermine the impact of the Coughlan judgement by complicating matters relating to healthcare with bureaucratic nit-picking over words such as “complex”, “intense” and “unpredictable”. For example, trusts were saying that someone with a medical problem could be admitted to hospital in a crisis, but that if the patient’s condition were stabilised, under Government guidelines the patient could be deemed no longer to require healthcare.

It angers me that the bureaucratic prevarications, evasions and legal fees employed by the Government in England and Wales are racking up unnecessary costs which would go a long way to paying for the care required. ‘Panorama’ pointed out that people were being unjustly deprived of their homes to fund their personal care and cited a figure of around 80,000 homes surrendered in Great Britain. I have written to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to request a corresponding figure for Northern Ireland, but I have not received a straight answer.

The introduction of free personal care in Scotland was legislated for by the Scottish Parliament in 2002 and provides a useful template for the Assembly. At that time, implementation of the package was costed at £250 million. Usefully for us, the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee has reported on the experience of introducing free personal care, discussing the positive and negative aspects of the measure and indicating mistakes and lessons that we can learn from.

On the positive side, the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee found that free personal care had provided greater security and dignity. It had allowed for older people to be cared for more readily at home, eased the burden on carers and reduced delayed discharges, so freeing up NHS resources. It had largely brought an end to bureaucratic disputes between agencies over responsibility for the care of the elderly. It had led to fewer complaints to the Ombudsman about care of the elderly. Overall, it had been introduced swiftly and comprehensively.

On the negative side — and we can learn from this — the Scottish Health Committee found that the funding formula put in place was too complex, and that waiting lists were in operation. A lack of clarity in the guidelines for eligibility was noted, as was the failure to increase funding in line with inflation, and confusion remains over the exact remit of the policy.

The Scottish Committee’s report is certainly essential reading for Members of this House. I am sure that the Minister will learn from the Scottish experience and that he will ensure that any possible loopholes that permit mechanisms that effectively ration free personal care will be closed when the requisite legislation is drafted here.

I appreciate that the Assembly has no tax-raising powers and that it administers a block grant from Westminster. In the current year, expenditure will be in the order of £15 billion; I shall stand corrected if that figure is incorrect. I also appreciate that, if the motion is passed, the financial consequences will need to be costed. However, I anticipate that the cost of introducing free personal care will be a comparatively small percentage of the health budget — around 1·82%, which is about £80 million. The financial implications were costed during the last Assembly, and I appreciate that costs will have changed, but that is just a ballpark figure.

It is beyond dispute that the elderly population is increasing both in absolute numbers and in percentage terms. Age Concern has estimated that, by 2036, 24% of the population will be aged 65 or over. That is almost double the percentage in 1996. The Health Department has rightly put much more emphasis on the public-health agenda and has focused more on community and primary healthcare — doing the simpler things better and earlier.

We all know of older people who have been knocked off their feet, either because they need a podiatrist to attend to their feet or an occupational therapist to approve an adaptation to their home. We also know that older people thrive when they are kept active and physically and mentally alert. If we build on the public-health agenda, people will remain healthy, and we may end up looking at reducing the need for free personal care.

It is long past time to give older people the dignity and equality to which they are entitled and to remove them from the shadow of unnecessary worry when they have many other challenges to face. The Minister has many competing priorities, and I sympathise that he has tough decisions to make. I know that he will approach this matter sensitively, and he will certainly have my support. However, the previous Assembly agreed to introduce free personal care. Indeed, had it not been for suspension and other glitches, the money would have been available and free personal care would have been implemented by now. I believe that this Assembly will also demonstrate broad consensus. It is incumbent upon us to act on the matter.

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

“, to be addressed as a new priority within the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, and provided for in the 2008-2009 Budget onwards.”

I very much welcome the debate, and I thank Carmel Hanna for returning this matter to the Order Paper. It is a pity that Mrs Hanna’s party, and other parties, did not support me on 24 June 2002, when I stood in this very spot and pleaded with all Members, and the then Health Minister, to include my amendments to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill. Had that support been forthcoming, I have no doubt that free nursing and personal care would have been a reality a long time ago and that a great many of our senior citizens would have received that benefit.

My amendment gives us the opportunity to practise what we preach. Little progress has been made since the suspension of the last Assembly in October 2002. There must be no more equivocation or setbacks. My amendment states simply that the Executive Budget for 2008-09 should contain funding to introduce free personal care through the comprehensive spending review.

Free nursing and personal care for Northern Ireland have been debated on the Floor of the House before. On 27 February 2001, Mr Nigel Dodds, the current Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I tabled similar motions, the outcome of which would have led to the introduction of free nursing and personal care for everyone in Northern Ireland who required it.

In fact, the Assembly resolved:

“That this Assembly notes the decision of the Scottish Parliament to provide the elderly with free nursing and personal care and calls on the Executive Committee to make similar provision for the elderly in Northern Ireland and to promote greater well-being of the elderly in this part of the United Kingdom.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 9, p327, col 2].

The Assembly also resolved:

“That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to implement in full in Northern Ireland the recommendations contained in the report by the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care published in March 1999.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 9, p327, col 2].

The Royal Commission’s report was a detailed document that examined every aspect of the care of our elderly. Its recommendations were wide-ranging and far-reaching, and they included the cost implications of providing care for those elderly people who need it. One of the most obnoxious and objectionable proposals is that people should use savings, plus the value of their home, to pay for care. MLAs — and people elsewhere — totally disagree with the proposal that people who need care should be forced to sell their home in order to pay for it in their latter years. That must surely be regarded as repugnant and grossly unfair — people have worked hard and been prudent so that they can buy a home, often with the help of family. It cannot be morally justifiable to force those people to sell their home in their twilight years. The state should recognise that, by that stage of their lives, people here have made sacrifices to society, and it should therefore provide the necessary care.

Shortly after the Assembly agreed in February 2001 that free nursing and personal care should be introduced, the Executive commissioned an interdepartmental group to examine personal care. In August 2002, that group’s report was presented to the Executive, and, in September 2002, the Executive asked that further work be done on options and costs. Of course, the Assembly was suspended in October of that year and no further progress was made. I contend, therefore, that that report is lying somewhere gathering dust: nothing has been done, and it could be revisited.

The Royal Commission’s report is a blueprint for the way forward. All credit must go to the Scottish Executive, who accepted the Commission’s recommendations. Free nursing and personal care were introduced in Scotland on 1 July 2002 and have been successful so far.

I am glad that, in the recent elections in Northern Ireland, all the parties included in their manifestos a commitment to introduce free personal care if, and when, the new Executive were formed. Our new Executive have now been formed and are operational. I appeal to Members to support my amendment. It beefs up the motion, and, if agreed, it would give our elderly people and their families the peace of mind that they richly deserve. Let us all move in this new Assembly from promise to practice, and prove that we mean what we say.

The need for nursing and personal care comes to many of our constituents. The loss of the ability to care for oneself is distressing enough without the added indignity of being means-tested and charged for services that one would definitely not wish to have to use at all. We must treat our elderly with respect, dignity and fairness. We have a duty to provide what is necessary to meet their needs. We also have a duty to implement the excellent work that was carried out by the Royal Commission team, which included Professor Bob Stout from Northern Ireland. Only this week, he made an impassioned plea to the Assembly to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations so that our elderly and carers can benefit. Let us not forget that we will all be elderly some day.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McCarthy: Tony Blair himself said that he did not want to live in a country in which the only way in which our elderly could receive care was as a result of being forced to sell their family home. He also noted words that the author of the Royal Commission’s report used. He said that:

“The moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly”.

The author went on to say that those who are in the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the disabled — also need to be similarly treated.

I hope that the new Health Minister and Executive agree with those words, and that they adopt the Royal Commission’s findings and recommendations and implement free personal care for the elderly without further delay.

11.00 am

I ask Members to support my amendment. Enough time has been given to this important subject: the Executive — through the comprehensive spending review — must include funding for free personal care for 2008-09.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after the first Assembly and insert

“accepts the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Long-Term Care of the Elderly; supports in principle the introduction of free personal care; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to report on the fiscal, workforce and administrative preparations required to implement the policy; and asks the Executive to consider the costs and method of delivery in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review and in light of the other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.”

When the Assembly voted in 2002 to introduce free nursing care for the elderly, it was made clear that it would be a transitional position. That was agreed within the context of establishing the cost of free personal care and securing resources for its funding. It is important to remind Members of that, because it sets today’s debate in a proper context — one of fiscal responsibility. That responsibility is the whole purpose of the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment. The Assembly must make informed and responsible decisions, and I am asking the Health Minister to establish what the full cost of such a measure would be.

Today, the Assembly is engaged in unfinished business. That business must be finished responsibly, and Members must remember their accountability for public finances. When the subject was raised in the Assembly in 2002, I said that the identification and the procurement of adequate funding was the only issue that precluded action; that remains the case. That was the responsible course of action to take in 2002, and it remains so today. The Assembly must learn that wish lists — without the ability to procure the money to deliver them — are worthless. While I believe that the time for action is now closer, it is just as important that the Assembly should proceed properly by demonstrating fiscal responsibility five years on.

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

Our sister institution, the Scottish Parliament, has provided a good example of how a regional devolved body can make a real difference to social policy. It enables us to get away from the one-size-fits-all approach so often taken at Westminster with no account for regional preference.

In 2005-06, free personal care in Scotland cost 1·73% of the Scottish health budget, and that equates to the 1·85% estimate that the Assembly Health Committee reckoned that it would cost here in 2002. Despite some problems with its implementation, the Scottish policy is seen as one of the new Parliament’s successes. This year alone the policy has received a clear, if cautious, vote of confidence from an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee and from research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that:

“Scotland’s go-it-alone policy of providing free personal care for older people at home and in residential and nursing homes has created a fairer system without undue public spending.”

However, it is important that the Assembly take note of some of Scotland’s implementation problems. If an enabling Bill is introduced in the Assembly, such problems will need to be addressed for the implementation plan for free personal care for the elderly to work to its optimum. It is not merely a question of how much the free personal care will cost; the modalities of its implementation and delivery are equally important. As the saying goes: the devil is often in the detail.

Some people in Scotland who qualify for free personal care are experiencing some problems with their attendance allowances, while those getting free nursing care in England are not similarly penalised.

That appears to be partly due to a lack of communication between the Department for Work and Pensions in Westminster and the locally controlled Health Department.

Protocols must be put in place to avoid the manifest unfairness of people being paid an attendance allowance in England but not elsewhere. However, the discrepancy appears to be more than mere coincidence. Five years on, the quirks of delivering the policy have resulted in a massive erosion in the differential between Scotland and England — a differential that was wide several years ago, and seems to be much smaller today.

In England, contributions to nursing care for those who have been assessed as being in the highest band have increased to £133 per week. As people in England who receive nursing care do not lose their attendance allowance of £62·25 per week, the margins between the two countries are decreasing; Scotland’s funding provides £145 per week for personal care and £65 for nursing care. Those figures have not risen since 2002. A person could receive £195·25 in England compared to £210 in Scotland.

We need to consider that differential and establish whether the attitude of the Department for Work and Pensions is not a deliberate administrative act designed to frustrate a regional policy. We must establish the true extent of the differential. That is where a report by the Minister of Health on the fiscal, workforce and administrative preparations required to implement the policy, as mentioned in the amendment, would come into play.

In Scotland, the money that is transferred to local authorities to administer the scheme is ring-fenced. There are concerns that it might be necessary to do that here, as councils may be tempted to dip into the pot to offset other programmes. There are other issues from the Scottish experience that need to be addressed in a local Act. One issue is the apparent operation of waiting lists by some councils in Scotland. There is also ongoing uncertainty regarding definitions; for example, what constitutes food preparation and whether that counts as personal care. Clarity in a local Act would ensure that its operation would not be watered down and that the legislators’ intentions would not be frustrated. Essentially, we are asking for a better Act or a better course of action.

It is important that the social legislation enacted by the Assembly reflects the current configuration of society. Existing legislation reflects a very different Northern Ireland when, in 1971, some 45·9% of Northern Ireland households were owner-occupied. By 2001, that figure had risen to 68·8%.

The dramatic increase in home ownership in Northern Ireland will remove an increasing proportion of people from the publicly-funded personal-care safety net while those with modest savings and who own their homes, which they do not want to realise, will be left vulnerable to prohibitive care costs. It will destroy the lifetime savings of many families — savings that have already been taxed several times by Government — leaving many older people who have been prudent with their savings with no other option but to sell their homes or leave no assets to their families.

I suggest that that is just another health tax. Given the current levels of home ownership, that situation cannot be said to represent the welfare state, as it is such a departure from its founding principles.

I ask the House to support my amendment, which blends the desire for action on this front with a fiscally prudent and sensible way forward, remembering that we are spending taxpayers’ money.

Mrs I Robinson: When in opposition, it is certainly easy, if not always wise, to make ambitious demands. In positions of responsibility, things become more difficult. During one of the previous Assemblies I was delighted when free nursing care was introduced. At that time certain individuals tried to make political capital by saying that free personal care should also be introduced, in spite of the fact that money simply was not there to allow that. In the end it proved better to have half a loaf than none at all.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member give way?

Mrs I Robinson: I will not give way. The Member has had an opportunity to speak. I did not hear the SDLP or the Alliance Party indicate how they wish to raise the money for this, given that we have a fixed and finite budget.

As we discuss the motion, we must pay careful attention to the costs involved, and I say that as someone who is determined to see free personal care in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity.

An economic analysis of the introduction of free personal care in Scotland shows that the policy has cost more than expected. For example, in 2002-03 it cost £127 million rather than the £107 million that was planned. Similarly, in 2003-04, £143 million was spent rather than the £125 million expected. Nevertheless, this still represents only 0·6% of the Scottish Executive’s total budget of £25 billion, and can have had only a relatively marginal impact on spending in other areas.

Unfortunately, however, waiting lists have emerged in Scotland that have restricted the demand among elderly people for free personal care. A statistical snapshot, taken on a single day last February, showed that 4,005 people were waiting to be assessed and that a further 709 people had been assessed but were still waiting to receive a service.

The report anticipates that a major increase in the number of people aged 85 and over may lead to a potential tripling of the public costs of personal care by 2053.

Mr McNarry: With regard to the costs — and I understand the train of the Member’s thoughts, given the fixed and finite budget — is the Member, as Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, confident that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be able to negotiate successfully the financial package that we all await this year to boost spending on health in Northern Ireland over the next three years? That would be a great help towards meeting our needs.

Mrs I Robinson: I thank the Member for his intervention. Naturally, that will be decided by the Executive, and I am aware that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will push for additional funds, which I hope will be forthcoming. However, we have a finite budget, and we have to live within its means. It is very dangerous to raise the hopes of the public when it may not be possible to fulfil them.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mrs I Robinson: No, I will not give way. I am going on now. [Interruption.]

Mrs I Robinson: Another Member keeps interrupting, Mr Deputy Speaker, from a sedentary position. I have already indicated that I will not let him make an intervention. Please tell the Member to sit quietly. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mrs I Robinson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

However, a further shift towards providing more care services at home, combined with policies to promote healthier life expectancy, could significantly reduce the projected bill. Several wider lessons and conclusions can be drawn from the Scottish experience. Free personal care has the capacity to support clients’ wishes for person-centred care that is sensitive to individual needs. Shifts in the balance of care can moderate costs; it is important that projections of future trends do not merely reproduce existing models of the balance of care.

11.15 am

A new approach to costing care packages, which avoids problematic classification of tasks and their allocation to different budgets, could address many difficulties for individuals and for the delivery and costs of service provision.

Free personal care has made provision for those of modest means, especially women and people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, more equitable. For those groups, personal-care payments are no longer a burden, particularly towards the end of their lives when such care is vital. However they still face charges for some aspects of their care. There is a need for balance between nationally agreed priorities and local authority autonomy. I support the amendment.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion. In 2006 there were 181,000 women aged 60 or over and 101,000 men aged 65 years or over in our population. People of pensionable age make up 16·3% of the total population. Sixty-seven per cent of men and 60% of women aged 65 to 70 have a long-standing illness. A survey conducted by Age Concern found that 40% of older people believe that they are treated differently from the rest of the population because of their age.

Free personal care for older people should be supported and, once implemented, should be subject to continued improvement, updating and monitoring. The challenges presented by an ageing population impact on all aspects of society. By 2040 the proportion of people over 60 will have doubled, with a 57% increase in the number of people over 75. Therefore, in the provision and implementation of free personal care for the elderly, it is essential to get it right at the political and policy-making levels.

Many older people feel that politicians do not empathise with them, so we must listen to what they are saying and be proactive in addressing their needs, concerns and aspirations. Older people require both dignity and security in the way their long-term care needs are met. The views, needs and aspirations of older people must be taken into account fully regarding personal care. Personal care, both at home and in residential care homes, must be provided free at the point of delivery.

For elderly people, the need for long-term care is unpredictable and happens through no fault of their own. Certainly, the cost of good quality long-term care is very high, and most people cannot afford to meet it. For the majority of older people, the ability to pay for personal care is outside their means and therefore out of their control.

Most care for older people is provided by unpaid carers, many of whom are unaware of their entitlement to a carers assessment, which could improve the help they get and give them some respite. Improving help for carers may lead to a situation where some older people may not have to go into residential accommodation just as quickly, as it is often not the best option. Indeed, evidence from healthcare professionals shows that after going into residential accommodation, elderly people can become institutionalised very quickly.

I accept that the whole area of care is complex and expensive, but it is something that we need to address urgently. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Buchanan: I support the motion. Care for elderly people will only worsen if it is not properly managed. Therefore, politicians must ensure that those who require and are entitled to personal care receive the type most suitable for them. Politicians must seek to empower the elderly in our community, giving them the dignity and respect they deserve, particularly when they face the challenge of illness.

I welcome the call to put free personal care for the elderly high on the Assembly’s list of priorities, with the aim of resolving any outstanding issues as soon as possible. However, we must recognise that the introduction of free personal care would involve a major funding commitment by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The Scottish Executive have agreed to provide free personal care to people who are aged 65 and over, whether it is required at home, in hospital or in a care home. The Scottish Executive have also agreed to provide all those people with free nursing care. The statement by the Royal Commission in September 2003 welcomed the action that was taken in Scotland and encouraged other devolved Governments to consider taking the same step. The Royal Commission highlighted the ongoing problems with funding for long-term care, pointing out that most patients are under pressure to finance their own care, burdening both themselves and their families. We, too, should consider that point. Patients and their families cannot be short-changed. In order to avoid unnecessary confusion, it would be beneficial to define what is meant by the term “personal care”. The Royal Commission has set out guidelines that make a distinction between personal care and nursing care. It would aid the process if we had a clearer outline of such differentiations and clearer guidelines on the age at which people will benefit from the proposed free care.

Although patients can meet certain costs, the long-term implications have to be considered. External contributing factors need to be assessed because, in the current climate, the economy is growing and prices and the cost of living are rising, affecting the cost of care provision. We are an ageing population, and demand will therefore escalate, increasing the pressures on families who are coping with the needs of their elderly relatives.

Providing personal care at home, thus decreasing the number of elderly patients who are admitted to hospital, would, of course, be beneficial if the right practices were adopted to provide that care at a high standard. A high benchmark will have to be set for the quality of personal care, so that patients do not receive a second-rate service. It is worth considering how best to evaluate new management processes, and it is worth asking whether we have enough qualified, trained and experienced staff to deal with an increase in the number of patients, each of whom will have individual care demands.

As was discussed in the Transitional Assembly in December 2006, people could be expected to contribute towards living and accommodation costs, for example. However, when people have worked hard all their lives to ensure that there was provision when they needed it most, they should not be expected to pay for personal care. Our primary concern should be people’s quality of life. The service must therefore improve for everyone — the patients, the families and, of course, the staff who work so hard to administer essential care.

I support the motion.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, support the motion. As Kieran McCarthy said, the Assembly has debated this issue several times over a number of years, and all parties have called for the Executive to introduce free personal care. Kieran will be glad to know that our party — because the proposer of the motion has accepted both amendments — will support the motion.

I thank the proposer of the motion for securing today’s debate. As Assembly Members, we must commit ourselves to not allowing the issue to be forgotten. Free personal care must be introduced at the earliest opportunity. By 2020, more than half the population of Ireland will be over 60. In a previous debate on the issue, I stated that our society would be judged on how we treated our young people and elderly people. Children and young people are our future but, as Kieran said, the only certainty in life is that we will all get old. Therefore we will be judged on how we treat elderly people.

We must address discrimination in the provision of health services to older people. The introduction of free personal care is essential. We must also address the needs of carers — we have all heard their stories. I was formerly a member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, and I have listened to the families and friends of people who need care. They have told me about the work that they do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I commend all those people who are currently caring for family and friends.

We have an ageing population, and some people have complex needs. Care for the elderly is becoming more difficult. Many people want to continue to live in their homes, but they will need support for that. We have a duty to provide that support.

In a previous debate on free personal care, and again today, Rev Robert Coulter informed us of the cost of introducing free personal care in Scotland and of the possible cost here. He also said that the UUP made commitments in its 2003 and 2005 election manifestos, and that the issue is, in his words, “unfinished business”. I say to him: let us finish that business; let us work for the introduction of free personal care.

I was going to say that I welcomed the Minister’s attendance. He has popped out for just a few minutes, but he has probably the highest attendance record of all Ministers — he has been here every week. That is the reality of taking on the role of Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Health matters will impact on a daily basis. However, I want to commend the Minister’s commitments during a previous debate, in which he said that he would implement all the recommendations of the Bamford Review. Therefore I call on him to indicate today that he will implement — I am sure that he will — all the Royal Commission’s recommendations on free personal care.

Several Members referred to the Scottish model. What does free personal care mean in Scotland? Members highlighted some of the difficulties, including the failure of the Scottish Executive to enforce clear guidance in key aspects, such as the preparation of meals. Although we can take on board how the Scottish model has worked, we must learn from it and ensure that any mistakes are not repeated here.

In conclusion, I want to give a special mention to all those groups from the community and voluntary sector that have placed this issue at the heart of the Assembly. They have placed their trust in us. Therefore let us ensure that we take this matter forward and implement free personal care for the elderly at the earliest opportunity. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Easton: I am told that in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, high in the Himalayas, it is the expressed ambition of the King to govern in a way that contributes to the maximum well-being of his countrymen and countrywomen. That should be our mission in the Assembly, and no group of people is more deserving of consideration than our senior citizens.

I am glad to say that the DUP has an impressive record in placing the needs of older people at the top of its agenda. The warm homes scheme and the free public transport arrangements for those over 65 years of age are examples that spring to mind.

The DUP election manifesto set out a number of objectives that, if achieved, would help our senior citizens to enjoy an active and full life in comfort and security. It must be our ambition to honour our election pledges. Helping older people to claim benefit entitlements, preventing cold-weather-related deaths, and having in place measures to make people feel more secure in their homes are important objectives of this party. This afternoon, we will debate the issue of fuel poverty, and, in the near future, we hope to debate the extension of the travel scheme to include those over 60. We hope to support proposals on those matters.

It is, however, the matter of equal and free personal care for the elderly that is our current focus. Members will recall that the DUP backed the introduction of free nursing care, and that has benefited thousands of elderly people in Northern Ireland. That was an important step in the right direction, but it stopped short of tackling the difficult issues associated with delivery of free personal care for the elderly at the point of need.

We are all familiar with instances in which the savings of people who have prudently provided for their old age and the equity in family homes have disappeared like snow off a ditch when old people become unable to care for themselves or when support is not available or is exhausted.

That can be devastating, and it seems very unfair for families to feel penalised in that situation. Families are aware that those who do not own their own homes and have no savings or resources receive the full measure of residential and other care at no cost. It is easy for individual Assembly Members to court popularity by calling for measures that will have broad public support, without considering the financial and other implications. I am aware that we do not have unlimited resources. However, that must not limit our vision for the future.

This is a critical issue, and I believe strongly that we must focus our attention on the need to make a commitment at the earliest possible moment to introduce free personal care for older people in Northern Ireland. In considering that, it would be helpful to benefit from the experience of other communities, in particular that of the Scottish Executive and local authorities in Scotland. We owe it to those people, now advancing in years, to show respect for the contribution that they have made to society in very difficult times.

11.30 am

The quality of the lives of the older generation has been blighted by 40 years of terrorism and instability. The Assembly must do all in its power to ensure that the debts that are owed to them are honoured in their twilight years. Elderly folk must be treated with the care and respect to which they are entitled. I strongly support the call for the Executive to undertake a review to establish what resources are required for the implementation of free personal care for the elderly. Indeed, I want to know whether the Minister can afford it out of the existing health budget.

Mr B McCrea: I support the motion in the strongest possible terms. In particular, I support the amendment put forward by my colleague, the Rev Dr Robert Coulter. I am grateful to Mrs Hanna for bringing the matter to the attention of the House and giving the Assembly the chance to debate it. I am also grateful for the gracious manner in which she has accepted the amendments. It is a pity, therefore, that members of the Alliance Party have sought to introduce a totally unnecessary note of rancour to the debate. [Interruption.]

In order to avoid the interjections that are made, pathetically, time and time again — and if the Member will stop talking and listen — let me reiterate: the decision that was made in 2002 to introduce free nursing care but not free personal care was intended to be a transitional arrangement until the cost of free personal care was established. That point was made quite clearly by Mrs Robinson earlier in the debate. It is crucial that the resources be secured to honour that commitment. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that speaking from a sedentary position is not permissible. Members must ask the Member who is speaking whether they can make an intervention.

Mr B McCrea: In response to Mrs Hanna’s enquiry, I can say that, according to evidence that was provided to the Health Committee in May 2002, the cost of free personal care in Northern Ireland would be between £40 million and £50 million. That equates to around 1·85% of Northern Ireland’s £2·7 billion health budget for 2004-05 — in the region of what is being paid by the Scottish Parliament. I have taken on board the fact that there are issues with that that must be properly investigated.

Two Royal Commission reports on the long-term care of the elderly, in March 1999 and September 2003, have recommended the introduction of free personal care underwritten by general taxation and based on need rather than wealth. That is the fundamental point of the discussion. The Royal Commission noted that:

“It is true that some 70% of older people in long-term care get some state help with the costs. Many of these people will have had to use their not necessarily large capital, including the proceeds of selling their house, and so suffer the indignity of being reduced to penury before state support kicks in.”

That cannot be fair, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It should not be the case that people must sell their homes before they can get some form of support. It sends out all the wrong messages; that one should not save or buy a house. That is not the right way forward. Although many people enjoy the current boom in house prices, what benefit will it be to them when they must sell their homes in order to get support? Furthermore, one must pay through the nose in order to have that privilege.

In 1999, the Royal Commission made the key point that:

“The system at the moment helps people who are poor, demands that people of modest means make themselves poor before it will help, and affects people to a lesser degree the richer they are”.

Once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, that cannot be fair or just. The Royal Commission described free personal care for the elderly as being:

“in the best tradition of social policy in this country”,

ensuring welfare, security and dignity for those of modest means who work, pay their taxes, save and own their own homes.

That is at the heart of democracy. Therefore, I support both the amendment and the main motion.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I thank Mrs Hanna for bringing an important subject to the Floor of the House and those who spoke in the debate. Members clearly want to make progress, and, most importantly, the public whom we represent expect the issue of free personal care to be addressed. It is a huge bone of contention for people that, having paid taxes during their entire working lives, they may be forced to sell their homes to pay for care in their twilight years. It seems inherently unfair to many people that only those too frail to continue living independently in their communities have to face that situation. The current charging policy hits the most vulnerable and frail in society. That is why the UUP’s manifesto includes a commitment to introduce free personal care.

Bearing in mind what has been said this morning, Members must be clear on what is meant by free personal care. It involves payment to cover the cost of helping people with personal tasks that they would normally do for themselves, such as dressing, eating, washing, bathing, toileting, getting in and out of bed, moving around their houses and keeping safe.

In line with the recommendations in the Royal Commission’s report on long-term care for the elderly, it does not mean that all services in care homes would be free. People who live in care homes would continue to contribute, to the extent to which they are able, to the cost of living there, and, therefore, they would be treated in the same way as people who receive care services in their homes.

It is useful to bear in mind some of the headline figures to indicate the financial implications on the budget. The estimated cost of providing social care services is estimated at £252 million for residents in care homes and £134 million for those living in their own homes. The figure for charges to people receiving care stands at £78 million.

This is not the first Assembly’s debate on free personal care. Some Members have referred to the February 2001 decision of the former Assembly that the Royal Commission’s recommendations, including free personal care, should be implemented in Northern Ireland.

It may be helpful for Members if I outline progress subsequent to that Assembly debate. The Executive established an interdepartmental group to examine the financial and other implications of introducing free personal care. When the group presented its report in July 2002, it estimated the cost of free personal care at between £40 million and £60 million.

The cost of providing free personal care for those who are in residential homes is reasonably simple to estimate. However, it is difficult to estimate what can be described as the latent demand — the extra demand that would be generated as a result of providing financial support, because some currently informal care may become formalised. The experience in Scotland clearly demonstrates that that happens when free personal care is introduced.

The Executive requested that the group carry out further work, but the Assembly was suspended before it could report back. Despite continued calls from Assembly Members, the direct rule Ministers firmly held the view that because of the financial implications and potential wider impact on spending priorities, any decision on free personal care should be left to a restored Executive.

As the Assembly is now restored, Members have another chance to discuss and progress the issue. Some progress has been made on implementing several of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. In April 2002, a 12-week “property disregard” was introduced, which means that the value of a person’s home is not taken into account for the first 12 weeks after his or her move into a care home. That period was designed to allow people time to recuperate and regain as much capacity for independent living as possible, before having to make what is often an irreversible decision.

In October 2002, payments for nursing care were introduced. That means that £100 a week is paid by the health and social care trusts for those nursing home residents who are responsible for the full costs of their care.

It is useful to consider that the Royal Commission broke down costs into three components. The first component was accommodation and food, which was estimated to cost £235 a week. Secondly, personal care was estimated to cost £130 a week, and, thirdly, nursing care was estimated to cost £100 a week. Nursing care is provided free in nursing homes. Personal care in residential homes is not free, and that is the matter under debate. The view of the Royal Commission was that if one lives in one’s own home, or in a residential home, it is reasonable to expect one to make a contribution towards one’s own accommodation and food costs — food, lighting, heating, and so on. Support for food and accommodation costs is subject to graduated means-testing: if one cannot afford it, one gets support.

Payments for nursing care were introduced in October 2002. As other Members have pointed out, as far as the Executive is concerned, personal care policy is a work in progress that is moving forward.

Since 2002, the limits on the amount of savings or assets that are used to determine how much someone should pay towards the cost of their care — and consequently, how much financial support to which they should be entitled — have increased in line with the limits in England. Those figures now stand at a lower limit of £13,000, and an upper limit of £21,500. That is a form of means-testing. Taking those limits on assets into consideration, it would be very difficult to find a house that is not worth more than £21,500. The point is continually raised that when people become elderly and frail and require support, they end up having to sell their homes. That is clearly unfair.

It is important that I point out that those developments apply to all client groups, because this matter does not affect only the elderly. The 2002 work was based on the important assumption that the section 75 equality requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 would not permit the introduction of a scheme that was limited to specific age groups, irrespective of need. That important consideration must be borne in mind throughout all of our deliberations. Section 75, which governs our activities, states that measures cannot be confined to a specific age group. However, many of us view the recommendation that personal care should be provided free as of vital importance. That has not been delivered, and it is my intention to put that right.

I view personal care as one strand of the work that we must do to ensure that we treat our elderly with dignity and respect. For too long, care of the elderly has meant little beyond institutional care, isolated from friends and family. That is changing, but I am determined to accelerate that change. We know that, where possible, people want to maintain their independence and remain in their own homes, with appropriate assistance.

We must build capacity in our communities to support our elderly. We must provide services that stop our elderly from being unnecessarily admitted to hospital, simply because there are not sufficient services at a time of crisis. Helping elderly people to maintain their independence must be our primary concern. My Department’s reform and modernisation agenda is already seeing resources being redirected to the community to enable us to do that. Moreover, an extra £4 million is being invested in 2007-08 to further develop the flexibility and responsiveness of domiciliary care services in people’s own homes. That is a fundamental requirement for older people who have long-term conditions or other complex needs.

11.45 am

I remind Members that domiciliary care covers the costs incurred in a person’s residence, and includes personal care. Therefore, covering personal care has gone part of the way; however, that is not good enough. We must go all of the way. Part of the way does not help care-home residents who must pay for their personal care, and who are, in effect, punished for the misfortune of ill health or disability. In a civilised society that cannot be right, and I intend to do something about it.

As much as I should like immediately to implement free personal care, I should be negligent in my duties as a Minister were I to bring forward proposals for consideration by my Executive colleagues, without an up-to-date assessment of the costs and potential implications for other services. The most recent estimate, carried out in June 2005 for a direct rule Minister, put the cost at £45 million. However, that estimate was based on assumptions used by a Scottish Executive interdepartmental group in 2002 and amounted to little more than a superficial update. Such an important decision must not be taken based on assumptions and figures that are more than five years old.

An estimate of costs depends on the number of people in care homes and the likely increase in demand for formal care. In the two parts to that calculation, the first is reasonably easy and the second is much more difficult. The number of people in care homes remains fairly static, but the latent demand is difficult to ascertain. The Scottish Parliament’s 2002 report estimated the potential cost of the move from informal to formal care to be up to £23 million. That was the cost then of latent demand.

The model of free personal care used by the Scottish Executive for the past five years is available to consider. That means that there are five years of data to access, and it is important that Members take the time to do that. There is also an opportunity to learn from the practical experiences of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in tackling this issue. I want to ensure that my proposals are based on sound information about costs and volumes, to be clear that all potential options have been examined, and that the final decision is sustainable and in the best interests of the vulnerable people who rely on our services. Reports on waiting lists in Scotland must also be sought.

Dr Deeny: Did the Minister hear the leader of his party on Radio Ulster this morning, talking about the subject of costs? Furthermore, was he encouraged to hear a Member of the Scottish Parliament, on that programme, who said that there is a wonderful service for elderly people in Scotland, and who seemed pleasantly surprised to state that free personal care cost less than 0·5% of the Scottish Parliament’s budget. If that equates with here, should it not give all Members encouragement to move on this issue as soon as possible?

Mr McGimpsey: That is exactly what I am doing, and I will now set out the steps to move forward.

Whatever the final model, significant funding must be found and it must be sustainable. Therefore, I am commissioning a comprehensive update to the information relating to costs that will consider the lessons learned from Scotland and Wales and identify other potential options. I want to move forward as quickly as possible.

There are other options that did not form part of the original report. In particular, it cannot be right that the family home is sold to fund care. I have asked officials to report to me by October on the options that can be taken forward under the existing legislation and constraints, particularly with regard to the exclusion of the family home from financial assessment. That is one of the key issues.

Introducing personal expenses allowances and raising thresholds before asking for contributions are also being considered. Currently, if an elderly person has minimal assets, their only income is their pension, which is then taken off them and they are given back £20 a week for spending money. That is neither adequate nor fair. Therefore I am developing those three points, all of which are covered by existing legislation.

Primary and subordinate legislation must be passed and detailed written guidelines produced if any model that involves making a payment on the basis of assessment is to be introduced. Therefore with the best will in the world, the date that Kieran McCarthy outlined in his amendment is not achievable, although I will question my officials about that again. In fact, 1 April 2010 is the earliest possible date that free personal care can be introduced. That is the earliest date, going through the legislative process —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister’s time is up.

Mr McCallister: This is a timely debate that concentrates on an issue that should be an immediate priority for this Assembly.

The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to providing security, dignity and welfare for our older people. It believes that those values should shape our society’s approach to valuing and protecting the elderly as vital members of the community. Indeed, that has been a long-standing commitment of our party for some time.

The motion alludes to the fact that the previous Assembly agreed in principle to the introduction of free personal care for the elderly. Dr Coulter, my colleague Mr McCrea and Mrs Robinson spoke about the decision that was taken in 2002 to introduce free nursing care but not free personal care. That decision was intended to be — as the Royal Commission recognised — a transitional position while the cost of free personal care was established and resources for its provision were secured. However, it is my firm belief that now is the time for the Assembly to act, to take the next steps required and to deliver on this key provision.

Two Royal Commission reports — one in March 1999 and another in September 2003 — recommended the introduction of free personal care for the elderly. Such free personal care would be:

“underwritten by general taxation, based on need rather than wealth.”

As my colleague Mr McCrea mentioned, the Royal Commission made a very strong statement when it stated that:

“It is true that some 70% of older people in long-term care get some state help with the costs. Many of these people will have had to use their not necessarily large capital, including the proceeds of selling their house, and so suffer the indignity of being reduced to penury before state support kicks in.”

One of the most important statements in the 1999 report stated that:

“The system at the moment helps people who are poor, demands that people of modest means make themselves poor before it will help, and affects people to a lesser degree the richer they are and better able to afford the sums required.”

All Members who have spoken today mentioned that in July 2002 the Scottish Executive introduced free personal care for the elderly, the introduction of which was supported by all political parties in the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs Robinson quite rightly mentioned budgets and overspend. However, the Minister made clear in his statement that whatever results from any discussion of the matter must be sustainable.

In a previous debate on prescription charges, I asked why Northern Ireland should be any different from any other devolved region of the United Kingdom. Evidence that was provided to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety in May 2002 stated that free personal care in Northern Ireland would cost between £40 million and £50 million. As has been mentioned, that equates to 1·85% of the 2004-05 health budget.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: Given that the Member has been trying all day, why not? [Laughter.]

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member concede that before the recent elections both his party and the DUP — and everybody else — were quite aware of the funding requirements for free personal care, yet went ahead and said that they would introduce it? What is the delay? What is stopping him now from giving the people what was promised?

Mr McCallister: Did the Member not hear the Minister? He is not sitting very far away from him. I understand and accept that, because I am significantly younger than him, I am not in such a rush. [Laughter.]

The Minister has already made it clear that the earliest that free personal care could be introduced would be April 2010. Every party in the Assembly has commended the Minister on his attendance at health debates. He gave a full account of some of the progress that has been made on all of the issues and with regard to changes to the limits.

As I have said, free personal care has to be sustainable. There is no point in delivering it for one or two years and then finding that the Executive has run out of money. It has to be sustainable. Mrs Ramsey mentioned some of the failures of the Scottish system. We should look at some of the failures but also at some of the successes, learn from both, and move forward on the issue.

Dr Farry: It is fair to say that this has been a useful debate, if for nothing else then because it has been an opportunity for people to set out their positions on this important issue. We have moved from the situation in opposition, where everyone gave empty promises, to one where we face the challenges of delivery. It seems that we all agree on the principles of the issue, but there are different levels of commitment to delivering it. The Assembly seems to have no problem in supporting the issue when it is asked to do so in principle, but when challenged to commit, the Assembly baulks on every occasion.

The key issue is one of priorities. Members are right to speak of a fixed budget. The Alliance Party under­stands that we have a fixed budget.

Mr Weir: I note that the Alliance Party’s amend­ment refers to this as “a new priority”. Which of the current priorities are they going to drop in order to make this issue a new priority? Are priorities simply going to be added ad infinitum, so that nothing becomes a priority?

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his intervention; I was going to come to that point.

The Alliance Party will go further and accept that we are operating within tight fiscal constraints, with an unsustainable financial subvention from the Treasury. The challenge for the Assembly is to find the money within the existing budget, as with any other new spending priority that the Assembly might want to adopt. That is what happened in Scotland — the Scottish Executive found the money within their existing budget, without any new money from the Treasury.

The point is that we have a locally devolved Assembly. We are here as locally elected representatives to reflect the spending priorities of the people who put us here. We are not here simply to accept decisions made by other people.

Mrs Robinson talked about fixed budgets. If we are talking about fixed budgets, is that not an admission that the Assembly will not change the situation that existed under the direct rule Ministers? The key challenge is to put the issue into the comprehensive spending review. Within that, there will have to be a reassessment of all priorities.

Ms S Ramsey: I am conscious that there are two amendments and that the proposer of the motion has said from the outset that she accepts both. I would like some clarification of the difference between Dr Farry’s amendment and the Ulster Unionists’ amendment.

Dr Farry: I am glad to give that clarification. Our amendment gives a commitment to delivery on this issue. The Ulster Unionists’ amendment says that it will have to be considered among other priorities; it does not give a commitment at all.

Mr McCrea mentioned the challenge of finding between £40 million and £50 million to fund free personal care. I am glad to see that he has got the cost right on one issue — the Minster has referred to £45 million. Budgets change all the time — that is the point of the comprehensive spending review. We have to reflect different challenges and demands on the budget. We all know that there are pressures on health funding. We have an ageing population, and budgets need to change to address that.

12.00 noon

The DUP’s Alex Easton referred to Bhutan, which is one of the few absolutist monarchies in the world. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries and has a low life expectancy. I hope that Mr Easton’s comments do not reflect the direction in which Northern Ireland is going.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel has said that his target is to find efficiency savings of 3% in the forthcoming Budget. The Alliance Party, in its election manifesto, stated that £1 billion was being wasted annually in managing Northern Ireland’s divided society, which does not allow us to invest in the quality changes in public services that the people of this country demand. If the will is there, the money is available to address the inefficient way in which services are delivered and to find a new way forward. The Alliance Party is confident that the money can be found in the existing Budget limits.

It has been said that this issue must be dealt with in a transitionary phase. The issue of free personal care was introduced in the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and legislation was in place by 2002; there were Royal Commission reports in 1999 and 2003. It is now 2007, and we are told that free personal care will be introduced in 2010. That is 12 years from the Good Friday Agreement, in which the Assembly was first envisaged. How long is a transitionary period? Must an entire generation of our elderly people miss out on the opportunity for free personal care because the Assembly does not have the will to address fundamental financial issues and the question of delivery?

I urge the Assembly to back the Alliance Party amendment. The issue of free personal care must be addressed in the context of the comprehensive spending review. The people of Northern Ireland should have been given a firm commitment —not empty promises — about delivery a long time ago. The Ulster Unionist Party amendment waffles, procrastinates and gives no firm commitment. The Alliance Party amendment gives the people of Northern Ireland what they asked for and what all parties promised in their election manifestos. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I will have to ask the Member for Strangford what he had for his breakfast this morning.

Mrs M Bradley: As many Members have said, we will all grow older, and, no doubt, the majority of us will experience an illness of some description in our later years, some people more than others. However, for older couples, the prospect of one partner requiring personal care is frightening, given that for homeowners, their home will be either partly or wholly consumed by the Government to pay for the partner who requires care. That is blatant robbery of the dignity and self-worth of one partner and a basic roof over the head of the other partner. That scenario can cause health problems for the partner left at home; if that partner requires care, his or her home is well and truly gone.

The debacle of free personal care has been debated in the Assembly Chamber since 1999, and it is now high time that Members acted. People are genuinely suffering, physically and financially, and the Assembly has the power to ease that suffering or, at least, give those people the peace of mind that they will be looked after with the dignity that they deserve.

During the first mandate of the Assembly, my colleague Mark Durkan, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, allocated funding for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to implement a free nursing-care scheme. However, that first year’s money was returned unspent. The Health Minister and her team did not produce the necessary legislation on time, thereby missing a golden opportunity. That was a shameful and disgraceful mismanagement of fiscal opportunities, given that, when proposals were introduced, the Executive gave a commitment to provide money for free personal care.

Acting as a united front, we should not allow incidents such as that to happen during this period of devolution. On 19 December 2006, we sat in the Chamber and unanimously passed a motion that the incoming Executive would prioritise the introduction of free personal care in Northern Ireland. I call on all Members to give their full and unequivocal support to today’s motion to move this issue forward urgently.

We owe that much to those in our community who cannot fund their care requirements personally. People who are able to take on that expenditure are few and far between, so it is up to us to help in whatever way we can.

The people who need free personal care are those who have struggled for years to keep our country going while its heart and soul were being bombed out. Had it not been for them, it is more than likely that we would not have an economy of any description, poor though it may be at present.

Carers, be they family or friends, are under pressure, undervalued and underpaid — that is blatantly obvious. As a spokesperson for the elderly, I have a close working relationship with many charitable organisations charged with looking out for the welfare of older people. The issue of carers, and their role, is high on the list of priorities at every meeting.

Carers are normally overworked, yet many would not admit it, as it could be seen as a complaint that they must care for a loved one 24/7. The situation must be resolved. One national charity predicts that, by 2036, the percentage of the Northern Ireland population aged 65 and over will rise to 24%. By 2020, one in four European Union citizens will be aged 60 or over. We cannot wait until those figures become a reality before addressing the issue; we must do it now. Fore­warned is forearmed, as they say, so we must heed those figures and pre-empt the total meltdown of our care system.

Personal care is a highly emotive issue, and any family that lives with the uncertainty of care or respite provision does not have an easy time. I have personal experience of that, as I nursed my father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, until his death. However, not every family is in a position to provide care, and those families require urgent and immediate help. They do not need another series of reports; there have been enough of those.

I am under no illusion. Providing free personal care will be no mean feat or a cheap process. However, none of us in this Chamber signed up for a holiday, so it is time to stand up and be counted. According to statistics, one in four people could require that facility in years to come — that would be the equivalent of 27 out of 108 Assembly Members. That is a scary prospect, but our constituents are living with it day after day. We must not forget young people who are also affected by the situation.

We have the power to do something about it and we must act urgently. I welcome the Minister’s statements; 2010 is not far away, and I hope that everything will be properly in place to help those who need it.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Member for giving way. I am grateful that Mrs Bradley mentioned the Minister’s date of 2010. In line with the good debate thus far, and the sincerity and sensitivities expressed, does she agree that, in progressing the debate, it would be valuable if Members took account of the 2010 date? It is a realistic target and something to aim for. Members should therefore look more carefully at the amendment that gives a different date of 2008-09. That makes a great difference.

Mrs M Bradley: I agree.

All parties should come together to deal with the matter. I understand Kieran McCarthy’s emotions in relation to the motion. The DUP appears to have watered down its opinions on the matter, so I would like its Members to come on board. Let us all agree on the way forward for the good of the people who require free personal care. We all believe that it is necessary and important, so let us all support it.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, I will still put the Question on amendment No 2.

The Question is that amendment No 1 standing on the Marshalled List be made. All those in favour say “Aye”.

Some Members: Aye.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Contrary, if any, “No”.

Some Members: No.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Noes have it.

The Question is that amendment No 2 standing on the —

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been a precedent in this Assembly that, when a significant number of voices are raised, there has always been a recorded Division. On what grounds have you refused to grant a Division on amendment No 1?

Mr Deputy Speaker: One has to find out what the definition of “significant number” is, Mr Ford. The very clear indication of the House was that the Noes had it. [Interruption.] Order.

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was not querying your interpretation of the sounds made in the Chamber; I was making the point that there was a precedent in cases in which a significant number of voices were raised. Indeed, after a similar vote five years ago, the voices of only five Members were accepted and a Division granted. Clearly more than five Members shouted “Aye” today.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

12.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is my intention, therefore, to put the Question again.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: The Assembly divided: Ayes 48; Noes 47.


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 Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, 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, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Farry and Mr Lunn.


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

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Armstrong and Mr Buchanan.

Question accordingly agreed to.

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

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly accepts the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Long-Term Care of the Elderly; supports in principle the introduction of free personal care; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to report on the fiscal, workforce and administrative preparations required to implement the policy; and asks the Executive to consider the costs and method of delivery in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review and in light of the other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.

Literacy and Numeracy

Mr Deputy 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 who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been selected and have been published on the Marshalled List. The proposers of the amendments will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speeches.

Miss McIlveen: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that more than 20 per cent of children in Northern Ireland leave school without having achieved the appropriate level of performance in literacy and numeracy; acknowledges the findings of reports by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and Westminster Public Accounts Committee, which indicate departmental failings in strategic leadership and target-setting; further notes that the proposed Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce has yet to be established; demands this is done without further delay; and calls upon the Minister of Education to confirm details of the resources and timescale involved for the implementation of an effective revised Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.

I am happy to accept Mr Basil McCrea’s amendment, as the issue of literacy and numeracy is not exclusive to Northern Ireland.

On average, there are around 25,000 school-leavers each year. In 2003-04, 37·2% left school with three or more A levels, and 16·5% left with five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher. In 2004-05, 67,769 students were enrolled in undergraduate or postgraduate courses in Northern Ireland. That is the good news.

We often brag about the high standard of education in Northern Ireland. Our pupils consider some of the English board examinations to be easier options than those set by our own examining board. However, we need only scratch the surface and look beyond our high-performing schools to learn that 20% of our children leave school without attaining a level of competency in numeracy and literacy that will equip them adequately for life. What is more shocking is that the Department of Education was aware of that figure in 2001; that the figure has not shifted since that date; and that £40 million has been spent on tackling the problem. It does not appear to have been money well spent and the taxpayer is entitled to ask why.

It is apparent from the results of assessments carried out from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 3 that there is a significant decrease at each key stage. Therefore, as children progress through school, they seem to regress. As the Chairman of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) pointed out, the longer that schools have the children, the worse their results get. Quite astoundingly, 7,000 school-leavers — out of a total of 25,000 — are likely to leave secondary school with a below-expected level of mathematics.

Educational underachievement is particularly acute among boys in inner-city areas. In the Belfast Education and Library Board area, boys trail girls by an unbelievable 29% and the situation needs to be tackled. The problem is more evident in deprived Protestant areas than in deprived Catholic areas: only 17·3% of pupils in schools in those areas achieve A* to C grades in GCSE English. Even more astonishingly, only 4·4% achieve those grades in mathematics.

In 1998, the Department of Education published ‘A Strategy for the Promotion of Literacy and Numeracy in Primary and Secondary Schools in Northern Ireland’. The strategy was the subject of scrutiny by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts whose report was printed on 27 November 2006. The Committee said in its summary:

“progress in literacy and numeracy attainment levels has been manifestly unsatisfactory, and the Department has failed to show sufficient leadership in driving things forward.”

After the report identifies areas of deep concern — areas that should have been identified and addressed by the Department — it contains a number of conclusions and recommendations, and calls for urgent steps to be taken to improve the teaching of literacy and numeracy in schools. That need should have been evident from the lack of improvement in basic skills since 2001.

12.30 pm

The Department is encouraged to ensure that support is focused on schools in which the leadership and management of literacy and numeracy efforts is weak. It is clear from the evidence that well-managed schools with strong leadership provide the best chance of success for our children.

Thorough and rigorous research has been called for to identify and address the significant differences between the achievements of working-class Protestants and working-class Catholics in Belfast in GCSE mathematics and English. Why is there such a disparity, when there is reasonable consistency between equivalent schools in Glasgow?

It was noted with dismay that when targets were in danger of not being met they were lowered, or the timescale extended. From the oral evidence given to the PAC, it seemed that the reason for that was that appropriate research had not been done when setting the targets in the first place. That hardly imbues me with confidence. I back the PAC’s call for appropriate target-setting that communicates a clear message and for a consistent approach to those targets to be taken. Targets are supposed to be a tool of accountability. To adjust them willy-nilly makes a mockery of the whole concept.

The Department was criticised for its lack of benchmarking against comparable cities. Surely, not to benchmark is to lose a valuable tool for dealing with the issue of literacy and numeracy in schools. The plethora of information that is available from across the UK on what has succeeded and what has failed is such a valuable resource that not to have used it is tantamount to being unforgivable.

The PAC also calls on the Department to ensure that teachers have a thorough understanding of relevant literacy and numeracy initiatives; to encourage parents to have a role in their children’s education by engaging with and supporting schools; to gather and analyse data on attainment levels in literacy and numeracy in order to target improvement programmes effectively; to address the underachievement of boys, especially in the Belfast area, by drawing together research on best practice; and to narrow the gap between the highest and lowest literacy and numeracy performers in Northern Ireland schools.

In order to deal with the concerns that the PAC raised and the recommendations that it made, the Department announced that a literacy and numeracy task force was to be established in April 2007. April has come and gone, and still we have no task force. That is not good enough. Surely a Department whose knuckles had been rapped so hard would have ensured that it avoided further criticism. What else has not been done? Has the Department begun benchmarking? Is the Department providing more leadership to the education boards? Has the review referred to by the permanent secretary in his evidence to the PAC been completed? If so, does that mean that we now have realistic targets being set for our schools — targets that will not be adjusted because they are unattainable?

On 24 May 2007, the Minister announced an additional £3 million to enhance classroom resources for the foundation stage of the revised curriculum and an extra 20,000 laptop computers for primary and post-primary schools. Although extra investment is always welcome, surely the most fundamental concern is that that investment should be used appropriately. It must address the core concern of literacy and numeracy in our society. Without the establishment of the task force to address the concerns of the PAC, will we again see sums of money being thrown at a problem without a consistent plan capable of solving it? Are we to look at another six years in which 20% of our children leave school without basic literacy and numeracy skills? There must be value for money. An investment should always see a return.

It is clear that the 1998 strategy has not succeeded. It is clear that there have been gross failings in the Department. It is clear that the proverbial eye has been taken off the ball. The PAC criticised the Department for not showing strong enough leadership to the education boards; it is clear that the Minister should now show strong leadership to the Department.

I call on the Minister to establish the task force without further delay, to confirm what resources have been set aside for the implementation of an effective, revised literacy and numeracy strategy, and to tell us when we can expect that strategy to be implemented.

I commend the PAC for drawing our attention to the failings of the Department and for producing a report with such constructive and specific criticisms and recommendations. It is time that the Department of Education showed the Assembly that it has learnt its lesson.

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 1: Insert after the first “numeracy;”

“recognises that academic selection and social deprivation contribute to the problems;”

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé an-bhuíoch díot as an deis seo a thabhairt domh labhairt ar an ábhar thábhachtach seo. Members will have read the reports by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. The Department of Education, in its response to the PAC report, put up its hands, beat its breast and outlined how it intends to rectify the shortcomings in its former strategy. Members need to know as soon as possible how that will be done, and I am glad that the Minister is present.

The Minister is very welcome, and I hope that she will respond to Members’ questions. As the Member who spoke previously said, we need to know what will be done; we need the task force to be set up; and we need to know what resources will be available to it, because those will largely determine how effective the strategy will be.

I am concerned lest the new strategy should deal with the symptoms rather than tackle the root causes of the problem. Evidence shows clearly the strong link between social disadvantage and low educational attainment, which is the result of social deprivation. To address the problem of educational attainment, we must also address social deprivation.

Only 37% of school-leavers from the most deprived areas leave school with five or more GCSEs; the average across Northern Ireland is 61%. The skills base in neighbourhood renewal areas also compares very unfavourably when measured against that of the whole of Northern Ireland. In those areas, only 20% of people aged 16 to 65 are qualified to level 2, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 45%.

A review of the Northern Ireland literacy strategy, carried out on behalf of the Northern Ireland literacy steering group in October 2006, investigated substantial research on how neighbourhoods influence educational attainment. Tests for the existence of those effects on 2,500 young people in Scotland found a significant correlation between levels of deprivation in the home and the neighbourhood and levels of educational attainment. The study’s conclusions were that policies to alleviate educational disadvantage cannot be focused on schooling alone but must form part of a broader initiative to tackle social deprivation in society.

It is now generally accepted that the children who face the greatest obstacle when it comes to raising attainment levels are from disadvantaged families; they live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods or attend schools with many other disadvantaged children. In Northern Ireland there are 102,000 children living in poverty. That indicates the scale of the problems that lie ahead.

If social deprivation, which is one of the major causes of educational underachievement, is not addressed as part of a coherent strategy, the vicious circle of underachievement will continue into the next generation unabated.

That point is made in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s anti-poverty strategy ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’. I quote:

“Policy must break the cycle and the process that results in children who are born into poverty developing into underachieving young people with limited aspiration and low levels of educational qualifications and skills. They in turn become working age adults living in low incomes often in poor health and benefit dependence, with the prospect of a shorter, less healthy, comfortable and financially secure older age. They are also the adults most likely to be parents of children again born into poverty – with the cycle continuing. Policy must disrupt this process focussing on different priority needs and different times in people’s lives, from early years through to childhood, adult working life and later years.”

Reviewing the factors that account for the variance in educational attainment, it is evident that combinations of social disadvantage powerfully affect school performance, with a variation of up to 75% in attainment by 16-year-olds at GCSE associated with pupil intake factors. It is important to research the influence of those, and other factors, on educational attainment. Policies and strategies must be formulated to change attitudes and raise awareness of the role and value of education to the individual. Parents and communities must be provided with the resources and skills to change attitudes locally, and support must be given to the efforts of teachers and other educationalists in tackling the problem.

Tackling the multiple deprivations that have persisted in many areas for decades is obviously a priority for the anti-poverty strategy. Education certainly has a major role to play in that process not only through the formal education system but through the home and the wider community. That role should be carried out in conjunction with the Department of Health, the Department for Social Development and the Department for Employment and Learning. The proposed task force should reflect that multi-departmental approach.

Academic selection compounds problems further. Gallagher and Smith have highlighted that academic selection tends to produce a disproportionate number of schools that combine low ability with social disadvantage in their enrolments, thereby exacerbating the educational disadvantage of both factors.

Mr S Wilson: As problems with reading and writing start in primary school, and given that a reference has been made to secondary schools, how does the Member make the link between academic selection and the inability to read and write? Furthermore, as Catholic schools tend to perform better than Protestant schools in reading and writing at primary-school level, and considering that both sectors put youngsters through academic selection, how does he explain the difference at secondary-school level?

Mr D Bradley: The Member will be aware of the well known fact that academic selection skews the entire primary curriculum and has a detrimental effect on the learning ability of primary-school pupils.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr D Bradley: No. I have already given way, and I have more material to get through.

I do not accept Sammy Wilson’s claim that this problem cannot be tackled at secondary school. It is something that must be continually challenged throughout the primary and secondary sectors. School factors can raise attainment by up to 14 points at GCSE level for an average pupil, so schools are obviously a good place to improve children’s skills. However, a strategy that focuses solely on improving average school performance is likely to be less effective in reducing educational underachievement than a cross-cutting departmental approach involving communities, families, teachers and educationalists that addresses the causes of social deprivation as well as educational underachievement.

There is a broad consensus that early-years intervention is among the most effective means of improving educational performance and outcomes. Such intervention is likely to be an important facet of strategies that help to lift children out of cycles of deprivation and on to positive trajectories. The evidence is promising and suggests that well designed programmes are successful at raising educational attainment and have other positive outcomes in the future. The most successful programmes are defined by early and intensive intervention and include a follow-up component in the later stages of a child’s development.

A structured language framework is required, based on a logical model of language that describes the knowledge, understanding and skills appropriate at each year from primary 1 through to year 10. A good foundation programme is also needed, which includes a range of classroom teaching strategies, including phonics, modelled reading, and shared and guided reading, in addition to wave 1, wave 2 and wave 3 forms of intervention.

12.45 pm

Mr B McCrea: I beg to move amendment No 2: Insert after the first “numeracy;”

“recognises similar levels of under-achievement across the United Kingdom;”.

I thank Ms McIlveen for her acceptance of my amendment; her proposal has my full support. The modest amendment I propose specifically addresses an issue that was raised but not properly answered by the previous contributor, Mr Dominic Bradley.

The Minister of Education, Ms Caitríona Ruane, tells me that academic selection is responsible for poor numeracy and literacy in schools. That cannot be the case. The former Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell, said in September 2006:

“we can no longer tolerate the tail of underachievement. The bottom 20% for whom standards have failed to rise significantly since 1999 — their achievements, opportunities and aspirations are a national priority”.

That is the result of Scotland’s comprehensive system. The Scottish tail of underachievement is very similar to our own. Research conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1997 showed that around 20% of Scots are at the lowest literacy level, while official figures show that the proportion of Scottish pupils from manual backgrounds obtain either low qualifications or none. That is exactly the same situation as in Northern Ireland, except that it occurs within a comprehensive system.

In England, a similar situation prevails. A study conducted in 2006 by the Department for Education and Skills into the literacy and numeracy skills of new employees showed that one third of employers had to give remedial English and maths lessons. In response to that study, Richard Lambert, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that:

“The fact that one in three employers ran remedial courses for their staff in the last year is a sad indictment of how the education system has let young people down”.

The need to tackle literacy and numeracy rates is a profound challenge that confronts us all. To tinker with academic selection for pupils at the age of 11 is not to acknowledge the extent of that challenge. Were we to accept the abolition of academic selection tomorrow, it would make no difference to the literacy and numeracy issue that we face.

Mr Kennedy: Does the Member agree that the position shared by the SDLP and Sinn Féin is that academic selection should be abolished, and that because grammar schools achieve their cohort on that basis, the obvious conclusion is that both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are effectively advocating the abolition of grammar schools?

Mr B McCrea: That is the logical conclusion of the argument put forward. However, academic selection is not the focus of this debate. We are merely pointing out that the conclusions drawn by certain Members do not stand up to investigation.

The real issue to be tackled arises with the under fives. One of the points that I wanted to make when I asked for an intervention during Mr Dominic Bradley’s speech was that by the age of three, young people have developed 50% of their language skills, and by the age of five that has risen to 85%. If pupils are not helped by the age of five then it is too late, because they will spend only 15% of their optimum language-development time at primary school. By the age of six and a half, a high-performing pupil coming from a poor background will have lost all of the gains that a low-performing pupil coming from a good background will have got at the same stage.

Mr McCallister: Last week, I attended an excellent event organised by Mr Basil McCrea, at which Baroness May Blood cited figures to the effect that 4% of children from the Shankill, but 74% from North Down, go on to higher education. Does Mr McCrea agree that a major factor affecting those statistics is parenting skills?

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for allowing me to raise the discussion that we had with Baroness May Blood. When we were discussing the issues on the Shankill, she said that the problem arises from young people becoming parents at the age of 14. That is an issue of child poverty. If you give people support, they will do well in life. It is too late at the age of 11 — it is certainly too late at the age of 15. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one learns one language or another. It is about giving support to people. It is a cultural issue.

We ought to debate evidence, rather than people’s opinions and what they think. I have here a report that is supported by many child protection agencies: ‘0-5: How Small Children Make a Big Difference’. I will read part of it to you:

“The most important six years in a person’s life are up to the age of five. We really ought not to be born when we are. Our brains and bodies have been busy forming inside the womb, but while we have the requisite number of fingers and toes when we arrive, our brains have not nearly finished taking shape.”

It is an evolutionary thing that has to be sorted out.

The author of the report goes on to say that he had thought the years 0-5 were the key, but that actually it is the nine months when the child is in the womb. Parents suffer stress — and I do not just mean that they have had a difficult day — because they have no money to pay for their children’s education or their toys, or to feed themselves, let alone their children. Those are the issues that put a person under stress. The result is undernourished, underfed and underweight babies. All of the statistics show that those are the children who will have problems in later life. No amount of investment in later years will make up for the loss that those children experience at that stage. That is the real cause of problems with numeracy. Those cultural issues must be tackled.

Not only is academic selection a red herring, it is mendacious to bring it up. It distracts from the real issues.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I will give way, although the Member did not accord me the same luxury.

Mr D Bradley: Had the Member been listening to my speech, he would have realised that 90% of it was devoted to the very points that he is now making: that neighbourhood affects education, and that personal characteristics, prior attainment, gender, health, low income, parental unemployment, social class, housing and parents’ education all contribute to difficulties with literacy and numeracy. However, I also contend that the system of academic selection in Northern Ireland has a backwash into the primary schools that has a detrimental effect on literacy and numeracy.

Mr B McCrea: I was in agreement with the Member until six minutes and 57 seconds into his speech, because during that time he talked about social deprivation. We agree that those factors are the real root cause. However, he then moved on to give us a lecture about academic selection. Quite simply, the facts do not back up his statement. Had he actually said that social deprivation must be dealt with, I would have agreed with him. Had he said that he called for an all-party group bringing in the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for Social Development, I would have agreed with that. However, academic selection is a red herring. If Mr Bradley goes down that route, he is selling the young people of this country short.

The problem that we have had in the past is that we have had misguided policies led by people who did not know what they were talking about. We intend to get it right, and we will challenge information that is patently untrue. Regarding the language issue — parents, as well as children, suffer when they cannot communicate in English with the teachers because they have not had the training and the skills to do so.

Mr S Wilson: Has the Member noted that in his amendment, Mr Bradley has put academic selection first? Yet his evidence was so thin that he could only throw in a minute’s-worth at the end of his speech. The Member has quite effectively demolished that minute’s-worth in his speech.

Mr B McCrea: As ever, I am grateful to Mr Wilson for bringing those points to bear. The subject will not be discussed in 10 minutes; it will come forward as a body of information that will be discussed in the Committee for Education and the Committee for Employment and Learning.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Paul Butler. As this is Mr Butler’s maiden speech, I remind Members of the convention that it is heard without interruption.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún maidir le litearthacht agus uimhearthacht. Is pointe an-tábhachtach é seo, agus creidim gur ábhar uilepháirtí atá i gceist. I broadly support the motion. However, I am concerned about the high percentage of children who leave school after 12 years of education without adequate skills in numeracy and literacy. The motion calls on the Minister of Education to allocate resources to implement an effective, revised literacy and numeracy strategy. All Members must ensure that the Minister is given adequate resources and support by the Executive and the Assembly to deal with the unacceptably high levels of poor literacy and numeracy skills among our schoolchildren.

The gap between the lowest- and highest-performing pupils in our education system is worrying. Many children leave school after 12 years with inadequate literacy and numeracy skills, and often have difficulty finding work or training. There is a particular concern about literacy and numeracy in non-grammar schools.

There has been focus and debate here about academic selection and the transfer test, and that should not be the sole focus of attention as the problem is much wider. However, it must be acknowledged that the transfer test and academic selection have had an adverse impact on the educational experience of our children, particularly those in primary schools. Considerable time is spent preparing children between the ages of nine and 10 for the transfer tests, which has narrowed the teaching of the curriculum, and has had an impact on the 60% of children who do not attend grammar schools. The curriculum is warped, during those important years, to meet the demands of the transfer test. Ask any of the primary-school teachers who are under pressure to teach children for the test: those children with lower attainment levels are often left without the required level of support, because pressure is placed on teachers to deliver results for the higher achievers.

A culture of education must be developed to bring parents on board to support strategies to improve their children’s learning of literacy and numeracy. I welcome the steps already taken by the Department of Education to integrate schools more fully into the community, in particular the extended schools programme and other home and school liaison programmes.

Moreover, a high percentage of adults have poor literacy and numeracy skills. Research into adult literacy and numeracy shows that up to 24% of those aged between 16 and 65 — about a quarter of a million people — have poor literacy and numeracy skills.

Poor literacy and numeracy skills have an impact on the health of the individual and his or her family members. Research shows that there is a significant relationship between poor literacy and numeracy skills and the risk of offending. Much of the research carried out in prisons and centres for young offenders shows that a high percentage of people in those institutions have poor literacy and numeracy skills.

There is clear evidence that better numeracy and literacy skills in adults improves the life chances of their children and the development of their abilities and opportunities for social and economic inclusion. There must also be more joined-up thinking and action among those with responsibility, not just for education, but also for training, youth work and key related services, such as Health and Social Services.

We must also recognise the remarks of Marion Matchett, the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate. In her recent report, ‘The Chief Inspector’s Report 2004-2006’, she wrote:

“There is, though, evidence of a more worrying side to some young people’s lives. Growing up in our increasingly complex world brings difficulties and pressures unrecognised by, or unknown to, previous generations. Mental health problems and increasing obesity are emerging as major concerns. Tragically too, a number of young people … end their own lives or deliberately self-harm. The Bamford Review includes statistics showing that an estimated 20% of young people suffer ‘significant mental health problems’ ” —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up. Members will know that 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 1.00 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Mr Speaker: We will continue with the debate on literacy and numeracy. I call Mr Trevor Lunn, and I remind Members that this will be his maiden speech.

Mr Lunn: I welcome the debate and the opportunity to discuss an educational issue that goes beyond the debate on selection. Too much time and energy has been wasted on that one topic, and, since 1998, the previous Executive and direct rule Ministers have failed to deliver on the basic problem of school-leavers’ underachievement in literacy and numeracy.

I do not have a problem with the SDLP’s amendment, but it is a pity that, once again, academic selection is being thrown into the mix. It was not mentioned in the motion.

We cannot waste another decade. The problem can be dealt with, but some key points must be acknowledged. First, underachievement in education is linked to social exclusion and social deprivation. Furthermore, the Alliance Party sees another problem in the resources that are being wasted on our segregated system. Secondly, if one accepts the link between underachievement in education and social exclusion and social deprivation, each Department and each party in the Executive has a responsibility to tackle the issue and bring illiteracy rates down — at least to the levels in Great Britain. Finally, teachers are central to the implementation of any strategy and must be given the necessary freedom and the resources to do so.

The motion demands that the proposed literacy and numeracy task force be established. A task force is all very well, but it should not be used as an excuse for inaction by the Executive across all Departments.

The scale and nature of the problem must be made clear. The years since 1998 have been wasted, and the targets set then — which were subsequently lowered — have not been met. In 1998, accurate data to provide a baseline against which improvements could be measured were not available. Therefore we first need a commitment from the Executive to provide accurate figures for school-leavers and, indeed, the general population.

It is time that the debate was moved on. Underachievement in schools has lost out while the Executive have argued over academic selection. Although academic selection is important, it is well down the priority list when compared with literacy and numeracy — the damage is being done long before children reach any proposed selection date.

What is more important: the 25% of school-leavers who are functionally illiterate, or arguing about the 11-plus? The issue is not about how children are allocated to schools but the quality of resources available to them and their teachers when they get there. The debate on appropriate education goes well beyond transfer tests, and the Alliance Party hopes that the Executive will recognise that.

Despite the inconsistencies in the statistics, some things are clear: our problem is more acute than that in Great Britain, even though our system produces better top-end results than those achieved in Great Britain. In Belfast, 70% of boys leave school with a lower than expected standard in English, and 40% of children — mostly boys — have the same problem in mathematics.

Those statistics represent failure by the Government, whether it is Executive or direct rule Ministers. The Department of Education’s recent circular that followed the reports carried out by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the PAC acknowledged that problem, as did Michelle McIlveen, the proposer of the motion. However, they did not offer a solution. Lack of resources is the usual reason given for failures in public services. We spend more money per pupil than in England and Wales, but less appears to find its way through to the pupils. The reasons are clear: bureaucracy, duplication, maintenance of school buildings and the cost of running a segregated system.

Let us end the assumption of segregation in our education system and allocate savings to proper research, special-needs provision and to schools to spend as teaching professionals see fit.

If the Executive leave our segregated society untouched, they will not be able to deliver maximum funding and resources, and our problems will continue. The task force is a fine idea, but the responsibility lies with the Executive. The Executive should collectively set a goal of bringing levels up to Great Britain standards by 2011. Education standards and social exclusion cannot be tackled without addressing segregation. A governing party has brought this motion, and the Executive should achieve significant progress by the end of this Assembly’s term, or it will be judged a failure.

Mr Weir: At the start of the debate, I want to declare an interest in being a member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, although — [Interruption.]

A Member: Suspended!

Mr Weir: Open brackets, suspended, close brackets!

I welcome the motion, but I will first focus on the two amendments. The DUP is happy to support the Ulster Unionist amendment as it helps focus on the fact that, while we have problems, they are not unique to Northern Ireland. The average proficiency levels of numeracy and literacy compare reasonably well with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries — our real problem lies with the lower-performance pupils.

While the DUP supports that amendment, it does have a major problem with the amendment in the name of Mr Bradley dealing with academic selection and social deprivation. The DUP will not listen to lectures from the SDLP or Sinn Féin on this. Sinn Féin is in no position to argue on anything to do with numeracy considering that, last week, it had counted up to 10 and then found in fact that there were only four there in the first place. [Laughter.] Perhaps, instead of wasting time with the unionist outreach officer, it might reach out to its constituents in the South of Ireland and likewise the SDLP.

We are disappointed that academic selection is seen as the be-all and end-all: as if, if it is disposed of, all our ills will be cured. If academic selection were abolished tomorrow, it would not benefit the system and could well lead to its developing as it is in England, where the richest parents simply pay for some form of public-school education, thereby widening the gap of social deprivation.

The other part of the amendment clarifies the fact that social deprivation lies at the heart of this. We have seen the difference in the results between Belfast and the rest of the country, between boys and girls, and between the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast. This is what we should address. It is telling that the PAC report on academic selection stated that:

“We would caution against a simplistic view that structural change is the answer to this problem. The differences which we have highlighted between Roman Catholic and Protestant children in socially deprived areas suggest that there are much more profound difficulties at work than the system of selection. If the education system in Northern Ireland is to undergo major structural change, it is all the more important that underlying issues influencing educational attainment are not lost sight of and give the priority they deserve.”

This is where we need to concentrate our efforts. The Department of Education has lacked leadership, as targets set since 1998, as the PAC report and the Audit Office report show, have gone unmet. The DUP seeks an assurance today from the Minister that if there is greater focus on those targets, they will not be brought down artificially in some way, simply to say that those targets have been met.

Paragraph 11 of the Public Accounts Committee’s second report states:

“We were dismayed to find that when targets were in danger of not being met they appeared to be cynically lowered or had their timescale extended.”

If we are to see an improvement, it is important that it is real improvement rather than simply a moving of the goalposts. We can also learn lessons from what is happening across the water. The problem seems to be most acute in the Belfast area.

I share the PAC’s concerns that a great deal of readover with cities comparable with Belfast, such as Leicester, Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow, does not appear to have been done. Indeed, the PAC said that it was astounded to discover that the Department had made no attempt to benchmark the performance of Belfast against that of those cities.

It is important that we get leadership. We have seen the gap widen, and we do not simply need a task force established. Instead of rhetoric, we must see action to tackle the problem in order to improve our literacy and numeracy standards.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This is a very important debate, and the motion is worthy, in that it deals with a serious fault in the provision of primary education in the North. The headline issues are literacy and numeracy, and the statistics are staggering. The Assembly faces a huge challenge to respond to the concerns raised.

We are all aware that many other problems affect the quality of the education that we offer our young people, not least our experience of academic selection, poor accommodation, underfunding, and an ongoing failure to respond to the many calls for action from the teaching profession. It is small wonder then that so many teachers are demotivated and that so many young people emerge from the education system demoralised and ill prepared for the challenges of life and employment.

Other Members who have spoken have contributed to additional aspects of this important debate, as indeed have the Members who moved the two amendments. However, I wish to refute the oft-repeated claim — thankfully, though, it has not been made in the Chamber today — that we already have a world-class education system in the North. I am sure that many Members have heard that claim on the airwaves and in various debates. We do have many excellent schools, and we do have many fine teachers, who are dedicated to imparting an appreciation of learning to their pupils. We also have thousands of brilliant, clever and creative young people, but we do not offer them a world-class education system. To insist that we do is to be complacent and self-delusional. It is time to end efforts to protect and maintain the status quo in education. We must wake up and smell the roses.

It is clear that more needs to be done than simple compliance with the recommendations of the Audit Office and PAC reports. The education system requires a complete overhaul and a determined policy-driven agenda to account for the reality of a changing world. From primary to third level, the education system must be equipped for, and capable of, educating young people for the knowledge-based economy that we must strive to build.

Although I agree that the need to address the numeracy and literacy failure rates is vital — for that reason I support the motion — a broader, strategic approach is needed to revamp and refocus the entire education experience. That is why I strongly welcome the Minister of Education’s decision to authorise the deployment of 20,000 laptop computers and additional resources for language tuition. We must provide an education system that values every student and that gives a variety of options to match natural abilities. The brain drain of our brightest and best talents is testimony to a serious lack of connection between education and what is needed to rebuild the local economy.

I hope that the Assembly and our team of Ministers will endorse the imperative to develop an approach to education that will, in time, benefit all aspects of their individual briefs, whether in academia, economic development, health, agriculture, or construction and its allied trades.

Our approach should be governed by the knowledge that the challenge of forging a more prosperous and stable future begins in the classroom. I hope that today’s debate will see the emergence of a more holistic and realistic recognition of the failure of the status quo in education.

So no more idle claims about the existence of a world-class education system here. We could — and should — have one, and that is the challenge and opportunity. Go raibh maith agat.

2.15 pm

Mr S Wilson: I congratulate the Member who tabled the motion for raising the issue. It is important that youngsters leaving school are able to read, write and play their part in society.

It is disappointing however, to hear the response from the SDLP, which again has raised the red herring of academic selection. The proposer of the amendment should have read the House of Commons report on the issue. The Committee that compiled the report was, mostly, made up of Labour party members who were against academic selection, and Conservative party members who did not know what they believed, and yet — after departmental officials said that they would address the issue through structural change and do away with selection at the age of 11 — the report stated that the Committee would:

“caution against a simplistic view that structural change is the answer to this problem.”

The Committee highlighted the point on which the proposer would not respond to me. Why do youngsters at Catholic schools with academic selection perform better at reading and writing than youngsters at Protestant or controlled schools that also practise academic selection? It is nothing to do with academic selection; instead — as other Members pointed out — it concerns a range of complex issues.

The strategy that began in the last Assembly has failed, despite having over £40 million thrown at it, and millions more spent on special-needs teachers, classroom assistants and materials for schools. My worry is that, just as the previous Sinn Féin Minister for education failed to address the issue by throwing money at it, the current Minister is not showing much promise in her early pronouncements.

It is a little early to judge her; however, I will outline some of the topics the Minister has mentioned. She has publicly suggested that the age at which children start school should be delayed, despite all the educational research indicating — as Mr Basil McCrea mentioned — that children should begin their education early and develop, for example, their language skills. The most formative years are early in a child’s life.

In addition, the Department that the Minister oversees wants the enriched curriculum to cover the first couple of years, meaning that, rather than learn to read, write and count, children play with sand, build blocks, stick wee things through holes, dance and sing — anything but learn.

Mr Kennedy: We do that here too. [Laughter.]

Mr S Wilson: That may be the case, but it is not an accurate description of the Assembly. The Minister has to address the whole question of what happens in those formative years at school.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: Certainly, although I have only five minutes.

Mrs Long: Does the Member accept that those people who have experienced the enriched curriculum will not share his jaded view, given that parents and teachers have seen that, although there is not as much progress in the initial years, in latter years the scheme pays off?

Mr S Wilson: The Member’s interventions are always worthwhile, which is why I gave way. She highlighted the point that I made, because the Department and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) have refused to publish the results of the early pilot schemes. If one looks at schools in the Shankill area that took part in the scheme, and the schools in the Falls area that did not, the results are better from the schools in the Falls. I know that that example is only a small snapshot, but Members should bear it in mind. The full results of the pilot schemes should be published.

Another aspect of the Minister’s approach that worries me is her idea for children to learn another language at an early age. The Minister has not spelled it out, but I suspect that Irish is quite high on her list of priorities.

If we are going to spend money on language teaching, we should put resources into proper teaching methods so that youngsters can learn to read and write in the language that they will have to use in this country throughout their careers. We will judge the Minister on that.

The reports from the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Audit Office highlight many issues that have to be addressed. I trust that the Minister will address those issues and that we will have a first-class education system so that we can deal with the problems that we have been discussing.

Mr K Robinson: I declare an interest as a governor of two controlled primary schools in Newtownabbey.

I preface my remarks by congratulating the Members who have brought this important issue to the House. However, I remind the sponsor of amendment No 1 that, although social deprivation does indeed have an enormous impact on children’s educational progress, those children are already seriously disadvantaged before they enter primary school. Problems do not suddenly emerge when children are 11.

Many Members have referred to percentages and statistics that, in a cold and clinical manner, have focused on underachievement in numeracy and literacy. I should like to humanise the discussion of the impact of that underachievement. For an individual, the dramatic impact of failing to reach the required levels of proficiency in either or both of those skills can be devastating. We all know our initial reaction when we visit a foreign country but do not have any grasp of its language, but can Members imagine facing that prospect every day in their own land, or imagine being surrounded by pieces of paper or public signage most of which they cannot decipher? Can Members imagine that sense of isolation?

Literacy is one of the foundation stones of our modern society. An inability to master it excludes an individual from communication with others. It is little wonder that, if a person is faced with officialdom and is unable to comprehend what is going on, embarrassment and frustration can spill over into violence. That is what can happen to individuals, so perhaps we can begin to appreciate the cumulative impact on tightly knit communities that do not have the required proficiencies. It is little wonder that frustration breaks out into communal violence and feelings of total exclusion.

We must seriously address the scourge of multiple deprivation that so disfigures parts of our society and is particularly endemic in the Protestant working-class areas of our capital city. It is one thing to recognise the problem, but it is quite another to understand it and address it meaningfully and coherently. Anyone who has read the scathing comments in the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee’s report will have been struck by the forthright language. Indeed, if the Department of Education had been a school and had received an inspector’s report couched in such language, the head would have received his P45 and the governors would have been replaced instantly. The report acknowledges that underachievement among boys is a “cultural challenge”, and it urges the Department to take urgent steps to address the “very worrying position of boys” in the Belfast Education and Library Board area. Has the Department taken such steps? If not, I trust that the Minister will explain why not.

The Public Accounts Committee also raises the concern that:

“children in Protestant working-class areas may not be enjoying equal educational opportunities.”

If that is true, how long has the scandalous situation been going on? Was the Department unaware of the situation, or had it simply not addressed it? The Public Accounts Committee also stated that it:

“expects the Department of Education to take urgent steps to improve the teaching of literacy and numeracy”.

The question therefore arises: was that inadequacy being identified in regular inspection reports? If so, why did the Department not respond energetically to address problems with that core function? It would appear that the educational establishment has failed in its central objective of producing a literate and numerate population — one that is able to sustain and improve people’s quality of life and deliver the much vaunted “knowledge-based economy”, as referred to earlier. We hear that phrase quoted glibly on many occasions. The failure has condemned individuals and whole communities to a future with little prospect of self-improvement or employment, and it raises the spectre of increasing marginalisation. The outward manifestation of that despair, especially for young males, is the increasing risk of involvement in truancy, violence, street crime and gangs. The only graduation ceremony awaiting many young males at the end of that preventable process is entry into prisons and young offenders centres.

Low esteem, low self-confidence induced by low levels of literacy and numeracy, and low expectations create the cannon fodder for gang culture as surely as those factors did in the past, when they provided the foot soldiers for paramilitarism. In the new dispensation, those lads are the same vulnerable lads who are being ensnared by the shadowy figures who inhabit the world of drug dealers. Boosting literacy and numeracy levels and providing quality preschool education is a better long-term investment per head than having to expand our prisons to cope with the victims of this complex social problem.

Parents in those deprived areas will also need coherent, long-term educational support. The Department would be well advised to examine the retention of male teachers in the profession, as they often provide the only positive male role model that those boys may encounter.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

This is a very important debate, which is obvious from the passionate way in which Members are engaging. I welcome the fact that it is taking place. We have a big challenge ahead of us; we must eradicate poor literacy and poor numeracy once and for all. It is a blot on our society.

Is díospóireacht an-tábhachtach í seo agus cuirim fáilte roimpi. Tá dúshlán mór romhainn — caithfimid deireadh a chur leis an drochlitearthacht agus leis an drochuimhearthacht. Is crann smola ar ár sochaí iad.

The importance of all pupils gaining expected levels of literacy and numeracy cannot be overemphasised. Literacy and numeracy are the building blocks that will ensure that all children are given a fair chance. We must create the conditions where confident, articulate and creative young adults emerge from our school system. For too long, the education system has failed too many of our children. Now is the time to shout, “Stop”. Now is the time to make changes that will ensure that wherever children live, whatever community they come from, they are give the opportunities that they need to develop.

I welcome the comments of Michelle McIlveen and other Members about the cycle of deprivation and the need to break that cycle. We have an obligation to do that. Any strategy that does not deal with the link between social deprivation and educational attainment is doomed to failure. Any strategy that does not look at the importance of the role of preschool education is doomed to failure. Any strategy that does not address the issue of objective need is doomed to failure.

We have an enormous challenge on our hands. There are some interesting initiatives, such as the extended schools policy, but they need to be developed. The anti-poverty strategy, which Mr Lunn and Mr Dominic Bradley mentioned, provides a framework for a wider approach. No one can deal with this challenge alone. The Department of Education can and will lead, but it cannot do it alone.

In 1983, as a much younger woman than I am now — and I can see some Members practising their numeracy skills as I speak — I worked in Nicaragua for a few years. The country was just coming out of a dreadful war in which more than 80,000 people were killed. There was crushing poverty and disadvantage. The new Government set strategic targets, one of which was to eradicate poor literacy. The entire society became involved in this campaign. People from the cities went to rural villages and taught the peasants how to read. In doing so, they learned about parts of the country that they did not know existed. People in the towns worked with children in schools, community centres and some of the poorest shanty towns. In a few short years, they had achieved something incredible.

Nicaragua won the UNESCO literacy prize for the most effective literacy campaign in the world. I will never forget the shining, earnest eyes of some of those children, living in the poorest conditions, as they learned to read. The texts that they learned were tailored to where they lived. If the children were from rural areas, the texts were about the seasons and the soil, about when they should plant and harvest their crops. In other words, it was relevant to them, so they were stimulated.

At lunch before the debate, I joked that if young boys were taught literacy through discussion of football teams and where they are in the league, they too might be stimulated. Someone suggested that there was no better place to find numeracy skills than in a bookie’s office. I am sure bookies’ numeracy skills are better than any that we have. On a more serious note, the point that I am trying to make is that we need to make education relevant.

We too are coming out of conflict; we too need to put in place a strategy that works. Let us make poor literacy and poor numeracy history. That is a challenge for everyone in society, not just for disadvantaged schools or areas. We know what the barriers are and that they are often passed from adult to child, from generation to generation. It is particularly hard for those parents who lack confidence in their own basic skills to impart confidence to their children.

2.30 pm

Data reveals a gap in performance between the top-performing schools and those that perform less well. That gap is present among both selective and non-selective post-primary schools. There is a tail of underachievement in the primary phase. I agree with Peter Weir that data must not be doctored: a spade must be called a spade and the problem must be dealt with. Hiding statistics does not help anybody.

However, I will throw out a challenge: progress at Key Stage 2 has been steady, with 78% of pupils achieving level 4 or above in English in 2006 — an increase of 11% since 1998. Similarly, 80% of pupils achieved level 4 or above in maths — an increase of 8% since 1998.

Mr Dallat: Does the Minister agree that the previous Minister of Education lowered the targets for literacy and numeracy on three occasions? That might help to explain why the targets have been met.

Ms Ruane: I will answer that question later in my speech.

In 2006, 74% of children at Key Stage 3 achieved level 5 or above in both English and maths; a 3% increase in English and a 8% increase in maths. Those achievements are proactive. However, there is much work still to be done.

The recognised level of performance for entry to further education or onto the employment ladder is the achievement of five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, or an equivalent level 2 qualification. Some 37% of children did not achieve that standard in 2006. Underperformance is concentrated in the most disadvantaged communities. Being caught on the bottom rung of the career ladder because of poor literacy and numeracy skills is bad not only for young people, but also for employers and the North of Ireland as a whole. Each year, 4,000 pupils leave school without the necessary literacy and numeracy skills.

That is reinforced in the PAC report. Because he quoted from it earlier, I dedicate the following quotation from the report especially to Sammy Wilson:

“The importance of developing competency and confidence in the key skills of literacy and numeracy at an early age is reflected in the worrying statistics which show that the skills deficit among pupils in [the North of Ireland’s] schools increases as they progress through primary education and into the secondary sector.”

What happens between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3? Children are tested by the 11-plus. The entire primary system, particularly from age 9, is distorted by academic selection. To pretend that there is no link between that and underachievement at secondary school is to delude oneself.

Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: As you are the Cathaoirleach of the Education Committee, I will give way on this occasion.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Minister accept that the biggest drop in performance occurs between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, long before youngsters prepare for the 11-plus? The number of children who reach the target falls from 95% in Key Stage 1 to 76% in Key Stage 2. The real drop occurs before academic selection kicks in. After the 11-plus, performance only falls from 76% to 73%.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. The Member and I must debate that issue. Perhaps children are being put into school too early.

There must be an honest and open discussion on the effects of academic selection on the system. I make a heartfelt plea to Members to have a long, hard think about employing a system that has been abandoned everywhere else. I note the Tories’ recent abandonment of it. I ask Members to engage in that discussion with the best interests of all children at heart.

I welcome Mr Dominic Bradley’s important amendment. However, this is a huge issue that requires full debate at a later date. The 11-plus and academic selection cannot be helpful to literacy and numeracy if thousands of children are told at that level that they are failures.

Secondly, a strategic approach is required to deal with the 4,000 young people that are failed by the education system every year. That involves everyone: the Executive; every Department; society; schools that achieve results, and those that need support. It is crucial to target resources on the basis of objective identification of need, whether in Rathcoole or the Falls Road, the Bogside or Lurgan, the Shankill Road or Downpatrick, the Glens of Antrim or the Fermanagh Lakes.

Thirdly, children need to be empowered, and they must always be the focus of our efforts. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) made an interesting contribution to the question of democracy in schools, and I welcome Mitchel McLaughlin’s comments on a much broader framework for Assembly debates. Power and democracy are key issues that must be addressed. Bullying also impacts on poor literacy and numeracy and must be tackled. I welcome NICCY’s input, and I look forward to meeting Patricia Lewsley and her dynamic team. Only when children are empowered will their self-esteem and confidence grow.

Although Basil McCrea is not in the Chamber, he will be delighted to hear that a new, revised curriculum will be phased in from September 2007. Literacy and numeracy will be at its core, but it takes a far less prescriptive approach, and educators will have much more say in what is taught. The fun must be put back into education, and a broader view of education must be taken. The amount of sport, music, citizenship and more relevant learning in schools must be increased.

My Department is also putting in place a broader range of subjects for children and young people to create different pathways to higher and further education. I am surprised by what Sammy Wilson said. He must have missed my announcement of new language and sports programmes. For the record, Irish is only one of the languages being considered; ethnic minority languages are being considered too. I met with the GAA and the Irish Football Association (IFA) about working together to implement a dynamic programme.

Both programmes will operate on an opt-in basis, whereby schools would select their preferred sports and languages. As Sammy was speaking, I had a nice image of him playing in the sand, listening to music and learning Polish, but I will leave that for another day.

I remind Members that the United Nations and the EU play a crucial role in forming policy for this island. I hope that some of our people will be in Geneva to help with that process and to do so they will have to be fluent in a couple of languages.

The school improvement policy concentrates on how every school can be a good school through self-evaluation and self-improvement. Michelle McIlveen referred to two pieces of research that are under way. The first aims to identify what works to deliver higher levels of literacy and numeracy in comparator cities in Britain. The second is examining the differences in the literacy and numeracy outcomes between the controlled and Catholic maintained sectors, boys and girls, and high and low performing schools. I will initiate a third piece of research into levels of literacy and numeracy in comparator cities in the South of Ireland.

Dynamic leadership is essential in schools, as are links between schools and communities and between schools, communities and parents. One of the findings contained in the House of Commons PAC report related to the underperformance of pupils in the Belfast area. In 2006, only 35% of pupils in non-selective post-primary schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. To address the issue, the Department has engaged with the Belfast Education and Library Board on a proposal for long-term strategic intervention in those schools that draw the bulk of their pupils from disadvantaged areas.

However, Belfast is not the only place that has problems, and, wherever they exist, problems must be addressed in the same strategic way. For too long, the area west of the Bann has been ignored, and that imbalance must be addressed. I will carry out a comprehensive assessment of all areas across the North to ensure that no area is left out.

Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: Sorry, I have very little time left. On another occasion, I will give way.

To address effectively poor levels of literacy and numeracy, additional resources to the £1 billion total schools budget and the £6 million spent every year on particular initiatives directly related to literacy and numeracy are required. The Department is preparing bids for consideration under the comprehensive spending review, and I look forward to the support of all Members at every level when those bids are placed.

I will consider the recommendation to establish a task force to deal with poor literacy and poor numeracy throughout the North of Ireland. We should be thankful that that task force was not established in April 2007: it would have been a very different body, as it would have been established under a direct rule Minister. I will consider this matter further.

Education is one of the most important areas of public expenditure. If we get education right, matters such as the economy will — with a better skilled and more flexible workforce — improve. The proper provision of education will also have an impact on other areas such as health and benefits.

I look forward to working with the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the Executive. We are already sharing best practice through the North/South working group on literacy and numeracy.

Caithfimid todhchaí a chruthú dár bpáistí agus dár n-aos óg. Tá áiméar againn deileáil leis an cheist phráinneach seo is saol an Fheidhmeannais seo, na Comhairle Aireachta Thuaidh/Theas seo agus i saol na Chomhairle na Breataine-na hÉireann seo. If I have not covered all the points that have been raised during the debate, I will be happy to write to the Members concerned. My general point is that poor numeracy and poor literacy is a scourge on our society. If Nicaragua, a developing-world country, can win the UNESCO prize as a result of its action on the matter, surely we can take similar action.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that it is important that they speak through the Chair.

Mr Kennedy: I thank and congratulate the proposers of the motion, Miss McIlveen and Mr Ross, and I also thank Mr Basil McCrea for tabling his amendment. At the outset, I should indicate that I am a member of the boards of governors of Bessbrook Primary School and Newry High School.

We have heard much about the background to this matter, including details from the Northern Ireland Audit Office report and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report. I remind Members that, predating those reports, the Education Committee of the former Assembly —

Mr S Wilson: Of which the Member was Chairman.

Mr Kennedy: I was Chairperson, and Mr Wilson was a very distinguished Deputy Chairperson. He told me to say that. [Laughter.]

The Committee raised serious ongoing concerns about underachievement and standards in numeracy and literacy. Therefore the subject is not a new matter of concern, and we must place this debate in that context. The illiteracy and innumeracy problem that faces Northern Ireland is now on a frightening scale. We have a mountain to climb.

The main source of data on the matter, which is admittedly rather out of date, is the International Adult Literacy Survey of 1996, which was conducted by the OECD. That survey indicated that almost one in four Northern Ireland adults, at that stage, was placed in the lowest category of literacy performance. It was exactly the same for numeracy. It is worth spelling out that people in that lowest category are, for example, unable to read fairly basic everyday instructions on a medicine bottle, train timetables — or perhaps even a speech made in this Chamber. [Laughter.]

To place Northern Ireland’s problems in perspective, we are by no means unique. Sadly, the proportion of people who are in the lowest category — the one-in-four figure — in Northern Ireland was very similar to that in England, the United States of America, and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. That begs the question of whether poor literacy is a problem for the entire English-speaking world.

I was disappointed at the tabling of the SDLP’s amendment in the name of the Member for Newry and Armagh Mr D Bradley. It was unhelpful to introduce academic selection to the debate because, plainly, that is not a factor in anyone’s education until, at the earliest, the age of eight or nine.

2.45 pm

Simple logic confirms that the sooner problems with literacy and numeracy are dealt with, the better. The earliest possible time to do that is at nursery school or playschool. That is when problems begin to emerge and when the greatest effort must be made to deal with them.

I share the view of other Members, particularly that of Mr Lunn, that literacy and numeracy is a crosscutting issue. Responsibility falls primarily to the Department of Education, but the issue is also relevant to the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and others.

Numeracy and literacy goes beyond the issue of academic selection. I agree with Mr Weir that independent schools would undoubtedly arise with the abolition of grammar schools and academic selection. Nor will the abolition of academic selection do anything to improve social mobility for people from poorer backgrounds.

There has been the usual old, tired and rehashed ideology from Mitchel McLaughlin and the Minister of Education. Her contribution was high on rhetoric but low on detailed strategy. Members were told of Nicaragua. Action is required in Newtownards and Newry. Members must not get stuck in an ideological time warp.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm achoimriú a dhéanamh ar na hargóintí a rinneadh ar son an leasaithe. Sílim go bhfuil ár gcás cruthaithe — agus cruthaithe go láidir. The case for my amendment has been well made.

Mr McClarty: Is it not in order for a Member who speaks in a language other than English to translate what he has said to the other Members?

Mr Speaker: The Member is putting forward a proposal. It is up to that Member to get the message across, and I am sure Mr Bradley will do that.

Mr D Bradley: I had translated what I said. [Laughter.]I suggest that Members take a few ranganna oíche — Irish language night classes — and brush up on their Irish before they take me to task.

The case for my amendment has been well made, and even the Member for Lagan Valley, who took issue with me on some points, agreed that he would come 90% of the way with me. He was with me in the belief that social deprivation is one of the key causes of literacy and numeracy problems. Mr Weir expressed the same sentiment, and I welcome at least that degree of support from those opposed to me. For the information of those opposite, I actually said that academic selection compounds literacy and numeracy problems by producing a disproportionate number of schools that combine low ability and social disadvantage — thus doubling disadvantage.

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

From Sinn Féin, Paul Butler mentioned the gap between the lowest and highest performers in the school system. He described it as alarming and expressed the necessity to narrow that gap. He also mentioned the adverse impact of academic selection and how the backwash from selection adversely affects the primary school curriculum and the efforts of teachers to come to terms with problems of literacy and numeracy.

He also stated that 24% of 16- to 65-year-olds have poor literacy and numeracy skills. That is detrimental to their health and increases the risk of offending and reoffending. He also said that the life chances of children increase whose parents have better numeracy and literacy skills than others.

Mr McLaughlin refuted the claims that a world-class education system exists here. He mentioned the long tail of underachievement and the need for the whole education system — from primary level to third level — to equip people for the knowledge economy.

Any new strategy should not just implement the recommendations of the PAC and Audit Office reports and others. The opportunity should also be taken to initiate the type of research and cross-departmental approach that is needed to tackle the root causes of educational underachievement — which lie in social deprivation — in order to ensure that any future strategy works at family, community and school levels.

It is important, through research and evaluation, to maintain what is effective and to implement any new measures that are needed. The opportunity should be taken to assess the effectiveness of those existing TSN measures that are used to address underachievement as part of schools funding.

Any strategy that attempts to address educational attainment, without at the same time tackling the underlying social deprivation that causes it, is doomed to failure. Adopting that approach will result in continual strategising without ever achieving any worthwhile goals. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Ross: The debate has been lively, and a wide range of views has been expressed.

First, I concur with Mr Kennedy that, as entertaining as the Minister’s holiday stories were, perhaps it would be more prudent for her to concentrate on Northern Ireland rather than on further afield.

Also, further to her anecdotes about bookies helping children with numeracy, perhaps if those children studied election results, their numeracy skills would improve.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr S Wilson: That would certainly help with those questions that deal with minus numbers; subtraction might be useful, given the election results from down South.

Mr Ross: I thank the Member for that insightful intervention.

Despite the Province’s excellent education system, and I repeat that — the Province’s excellent education system — it is a sad fact that too many children in Northern Ireland leave school without reaching appropriate literacy and numeracy standards. I thank Basil McCrea for moving his amendment, and, as he said, the problem of underachievement in that area is not unique to Northern Ireland.

It has been stated that boys, particularly those who attend Belfast schools, struggle — two thirds of them fail to reach the expected level in English. The Department of Education has told the PAC that around 20% of children are unable to master the reading and writing skills that are expected of them. That is despite the fact that a great deal of money has been spent on the area.

In recent years, the Department of Education has frequently altered and adjusted its numeracy and literacy targets, but it has not been as committed as perhaps it could or should have been. Numerous initiatives to deal with failing schools have been introduced, and too often, just as those endeavours are beginning to have a positive impact, their funding is cut short. Clear targeting of specific areas of concern and a consistent and clear strategy are required

Members have given facts and figures on and reasons for underachievement. Indeed, ways in which the problem can be tackled have been suggested. However, the number of children in Northern Ireland who live in relative poverty is one of the most significant factors. Various reports have shown that such poverty has a severe impact on educational achievement.

As has been mentioned, it must be recognised that boys, particularly Protestant boys, are underachieving in school.

I find it disappointing that some Members opposite have tried to link educational underachievement with the selection system. That is a red herring. The education system in Northern Ireland consistently produces better results than those for England, Scotland and Wales. Undoubtedly, some schools are failing and need to be improved, but we do not do that by destroying those that are working. Rather, we need to focus our efforts on improving numeracy and literacy skills in the schools that are failing. Indeed, academic selection has been shown to be a way by which pupils from areas of social deprivation can improve their abilities and move upwards, out of poverty.

I hope that the Minister will accept that selection is favoured by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, is now secured in legislation; and that she will work with all of those interested and the Committee for Education in bringing forward a system of selection that will benefit the children of Northern Ireland.

As Mr Dominic Bradley has said in the second part of his amendment, we can clearly link underachievement with social deprivation. Although financial resources are important, we should not tackle the problem by simply throwing money at it. We need to lift aspirations, particularly those of children who live in areas of social deprivation. They need to see education as a means of escaping the poverty trap and a way in which they can give themselves the best opportunities in life.

For this to happen it is imperative that there is some degree of parental involvement and help at home. Encouragement and enthusiasm can help to lift a child’s attitude to school and learning. It has also been shown that sending a child to school having had a good breakfast can help to boost their performance and concentration, and that is relevant. One such project in the Sunnylands area of Carrickfergus in my own constituency was the “Parents and Kids Together” initiative, which included parents in the learning programme. The knock-on effect of that is that parents who perhaps lack some core skills have the opportunity to be in that learning environment.

Education must be accessible to all, irrespective of age, community background or any disability that a child may have. Breakfast clubs and after-school clubs can have some part to play in that, by ensuring that children have a good start to the day with a hearty breakfast and can have a suitable place to do their homework after school. Many of those projects can be run in conjunction with local businesses.

We have heard about early years education, and Mr Basil McCrea made a valid point about its importance. That is why my party does not want to see a move towards fun-based learning in early-years education.

Finally, I am concerned that the Minister would like children to start school a year later. Education is an asset, and the DUP does not believe that dumbing down the curriculum or giving some children less schooling would be beneficial.

It is also important that we not forget about those children for whom there are extra barriers. It is a sad fact that fewer children who are blind or partially sighted leave school with adequate qualifications than do children who are not. It is therefore important that the Minister also ensures that blind and partially sighted pupils have the same resources available to them as their sighted counterparts.

During the debate we have heard that leadership in schools is important. We must recognise that teachers in difficult areas often have a difficult task. There is a concern that, unless children are kept motivated, they will lose enthusiasm. It is therefore important that we have good teachers and good headmasters to keep them motivated.

Education is an important foundation of life. It is vital that every child be given the best possible start in life. The attributing of blame to academic selection in Mr Bradley’s amendment has meant that this House will most likely divide unnecessarily. I therefore encourage the House to support the original motion and Mr McCrea’s amendment so that the Assembly can send a united message that it is time that the Department urgently took action to tackle the problems of inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, I will still be putting amendment No 2.

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 notes that more than 20 per cent of children in Northern Ireland leave school without having achieved the appropriate level of performance in literacy and numeracy; recognises similar levels of underachievement across the United Kingdom; acknowledges the findings of reports by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and Westminster Public Accounts Committee, which indicate departmental failings in strategic leadership and target-setting; further notes that the proposed Literacy and Numeracy Taskforce has yet to be established; demands this is done without further delay; and calls upon the Minister of Education to confirm details of the resources and timescale involved for the implementation of an effective revised Literacy and Numeracy Strategy.

3.00 pm

Domestic Violence

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

Ms J McCann: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern about the level of domestic violence and its impact on children, and calls for the proper resourcing and full implementation of the government strategy ‘Tackling Violence at Home’; supports funding for local crisis and support services for families experiencing violence; supports an expansion of the network of refuges so that no man, woman or child in need shall be turned away.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Any work relating to domestic violence forms part of the promotion of human rights and the elimination of all types of discrimination. The impact of domestic violence on families is devastating. It is estimated that one quarter of all women experience domestic abuse at some stage in their lives and that almost half the women who are murdered are killed by their partners.

Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, and victims can be of any age, sex, race, culture, religion, education, employment or marital status. The violence can include physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Although both men and women can be abused, most victims are women and children.

Children and young people can often be the forgotten victims of domestic violence, and research indicates that 11,000 children in the North of Ireland are in the same room, or in the adjoining room, when physical violence occurs. In families where there is domestic violence, children are also frequently abused by the violent parent, which can have damaging long-term effects on the children’s mental health, sense of identity and ability to form relationships. For young people, there is an increased risk of self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse, and they may run away from home.

Elder abuse is also a form of domestic violence, and it has become so prevalent that Help the Aged has launched a high-profile campaign to help to stop elder abuse in order to raise awareness of the issues. Elder abuse is most common in the home environment, and those affected are usually neglected or abused by someone they know.

Domestic violence requires a response that takes account of gender-specific elements and the broader gender inequalities that women face. Political direction is needed to ensure that a clear, consistent message is provided, together with a co-ordinated approach to the prevention of abuse and the provision of services to families that experience domestic violence.

We must ensure that services and support networks, and especially refuges, are in place so that anyone who is a victim of domestic violence can access them easily. Last year in the North of Ireland, some 20,000 calls were made to the domestic violence helpline; 1,069 women and 1,026 children used Women’s Aid refuges. One in five women in Ireland has experienced domestic violence at some stage in their life.

Domestic violence is a major public threat, and the Tackling Violence at Home strategy could create a fundamental shift in the way that society responds to domestic violence. However, the full implementation of that strategy will require innovative thinking by all Departments and by those working in the statutory, voluntary, community and business sectors. One successful outcome of the Tackling Violence at Home strategy was a high-profile publicity campaign; that resulted in an increase in the number of victims who contacted the 24-hour helpline and other services.

Key issues regarding domestic violence have been identified: to prevent it happening in the first place; and to change public attitudes. It has also been recognised that any awareness campaign must extend to schools. Preventive work in schools is currently conducted on an ad hoc basis, so it is crucial that preventive programmes are introduced as part of the school curriculum.

There is also a need to shift the focus onto the abuser and to introduce new, and develop existing, compulsory rehabilitation programmes as part of the preventive campaign. Training mechanisms for the agencies involved in tackling domestic violence will ensure that the preventive element of the strategy will produce more positive results.

Recent statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of incidents of domestic violence being reported to the PSNI. It is believed that that has come about because of a combination of factors, which include the Government’s advertising campaign and the PSNI’s more proactive approach to recognising domestic abuse as a crime.

Despite changes to the legislation in 2004, there are still problems in the civil and criminal justice systems in the North of Ireland as regards domestic violence cases. Women’s Aid made several recommendations in respect of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which, unfortunately, were rejected. Those recommendations included widening the powers of the courts so that a breach of an occupation order would become a criminal offence, and removing the time limit on occupation orders, so that, in cases where violence had been used or threatened, an order would last until protection was no longer needed.

Although the 2004 Act has brought about some improvements, women still do not have confidence in the criminal justice system due to experiences many of them have had when they have attempted to prosecute their partners. Evidence has shown that there has been leniency towards the perpetrators of domestic violence and lower sentences than if the same crimes had been committed against strangers. Further steps are needed to ensure that violence against women overall, and domestic violence specifically, are given an appropriate importance in the Government’s policy on crime reduction and community safety.

Further changes are earmarked in strand two of ‘Tackling Violence at Home — Action Plan Number 1: 1 October 2005 to March 2007’, which include training for staff who work in the Public Prosecution Service and other justice agencies. This is to be welcomed, as it will result in women feeling more positive when they seek help.

The Department for Social Development’s co-ordinated working approach with organisations such as Women’s Aid to set up refuges is another positive aspect of how the strategy can make a difference. The availability of refuges saves women’s lives. Partnership working and inter-agency support will ensure that adequate provision of refuges and services to support the victims of domestic violence are maintained and developed.

I will conclude with a quote that shows the seriousness of domestic violence:

“If it were between countries, we’d call it war. If it were a disease, we’d call it an epidemic. If it were an oil spill, we’d call it a disaster. But it is happening to women and it’s just an everyday affair. It is violence against women.”

We need to give political leadership on domestic violence and ensure that the strategy is properly implemented and resourced. Therefore, I hope that Members will support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr I McCrea: This is a serious debate on domestic violence. The DUP shares the concerns expressed about domestic violence and the need to protect the victims involved directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, the steps taken to raise awareness about domestic violence are not enough to prevent it from happening, nor are they encouraging every victim to report incidents to the police.

According to ‘Tackling Violence at Home: A Strategy for Addressing Domestic Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland’, the police are responding to over 400 domestic violence incidents each week on average, and over 700 families have to be rehoused as a result of violence in the home. The document also states that most domestic incidents are not reported. Due to the sensitive nature of the issue, it is important that Members respond to the needs of those trapped in abusive or violent environments, by providing them with practical and emotional support during their rehabilitation.

Preventive measures, through continuous, targeted marketing campaigns to raise the profile of services available to those suffering from domestic violence, supported by ease of access to those services, are essential. Such campaigns could include educating children from primary-school age about domestic violence and making available informative literature and points of contact, should they need it.

Media campaigns and the promotion of agencies should continue and should not be threatened with closure due to lack of funding or Government support.

A prompt response to cases of domestic violence and thorough investigative work carried out by the relevant bodies, be it the PSNI or other specific agencies, would be needed to secure both the short- and long-term safety of the victims involved. Support networks must be readily available and implemented, which could be suited to individual cases, accompanied by child protection procedures. We must examine the resources available for support measures and action any changes that need to be made.

The Assembly cannot, and will not, tolerate domestic violence or any other form of abuse. We should do all that we can to ensure that those people who are trapped in abusive situations can avail themselves of options to protect themselves and their families. Sadly, the abuse of elderly people in their own homes and by their own families is on the increase.

Figures published by the Home Office reveal that domestic violence will affect one in four women and one in four men in their lifetime, and that 35 assaults will have taken place prior to the victim’s first call to the police. Research also shows that approximately 95% of victims are women and children.

What are the practical hurdles that prevent calls for help being made? How can services better aid the emotional constraint involved in making that first call for help? The Home Office has highlighted the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid 24-hour domestic violence helpline as a point of contact for victims. According to the Women’s Aid Federation, the helpline received 20,261 calls last year. That service should be supported as the demand is very high.

The population of Cookstown district, which forms part of my constituency, is approximately 32,000. In the past year, Cookstown Women’s Aid dealt with 1,042 calls for assistance. Of those, 42 women fled to the Women’s Aid refuge, bringing with them 41 children. In addition, 72 women were given the support to enable them to remain in their own homes.

Providing enough quality refuges to cope with demand to ensure that no one is turned away or made homeless as a result of domestic violence should be our objective. However, consideration must also be given to the provision of practical support to allow victims and their families to remain at home. The Women’s Aid floating service, funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, helps counter potential homelessness as a result of violence in the home. That service should remain as a lifeline for victims and their families.

We echo the welcome given by Women’s Aid to the inter-agency co-operation intended to alleviate the pressures on the refuge network and support the call for a more detailed implementation of the Government’s ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ strategy.

Mr McClarty: I am in total agreement with the wording of the motion. The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to strategies that free the victims of domestic violence from that cruel and wicked form of abuse. Domestic violence is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence in our society. It can never be justified or defended in any way. It is an evil blight that continues to haunt far too many families in Northern Ireland. Thus, we need an effective and sustainable strategy to confront domestic violence that will bring the issue into the open and tackle its root causes.

Whatever form domestic violence takes, it is rarely a one-off incident. More usually, it is a pattern of abusive and controlling behaviour through which the abuser seeks power over his or her victim. Domestic violence occurs across society regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, wealth or geography. Statistics show, however, that most domestic violence is committed by men against women. Victims of domestic violence suffer on many levels, such as health, housing and education, and lose the freedom to live their lives as they wish and without fear.

To read the definition of domestic violence is to realise the true horror of such crime. Physical violence includes slapping, punching, beating, kicking, and wounding with knives, often leading to permanent injury or, indeed, death. Emotional and psychological abuse includes constant criticism and public humiliation, such as being described as useless, ugly or worthless. It can also include threats to kill or harm the woman or her children; intimidation, bullying, being locked in or isolated from family and friends; the withholding of food or sleep and being made a prisoner in one’s own home. Sexual abuse includes being raped, sexual degradation and being forced to have sex in ways that hurt and injure.

In my constituency of East Londonderry, I have had to help rehouse women away from abusive partners on far too many occasions. Those are extremely harrowing cases to deal with.

3.15 pm

Members have mentioned the disturbing figures published by the PSNI that reveal the shocking reality of the problem. I am horrified by the fact that there has been a 36% rise in the number of domestic incidents reported in the past two years, with the most recent figures showing that the PSNI attends a domestic incident every 22 minutes.

Compared to the previous year, the number of domestic incidents reported to the police in 2006-07 has risen by almost 1·7%. In 2006-07, there were 23,000 domestic incidents. To put that into context: there were four times as many domestic-related crimes as there were drug offences.

‘Tackling Violence at Home’, which was published in October 2005, is an important document, which gives Government recognition to the fact that domestic violence is an issue of such immensity that it warrants a strategy and must be tackled on a cross-departmental basis.

Now that devolution has returned to Northern Ireland, the time is right for the Assembly and the new Executive to commit to ensuring that the ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ action plan is fully and properly resourced and implemented.

I support the motion.

Mrs D Kelly: For many years, the crime — and it is a crime — of domestic violence was a taboo subject. People either turned a blind eye or, in some cases, rationalised it. There was a general belief that what went on between a husband and wife was nobody else’s business.

Thankfully, it is now recognised that such attitudes are unacceptable, and the ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ strategy includes measures such as raising awareness and the need to provide education programmes for children and young people, and the general public.

However, despite some improvements, the number of reported domestic violence incidents continues to rise. For example, from 2003-04, there was a staggering increase of 36%, which accounts for a total of 23,059 domestic incidents. Last year, there was a further increase of almost 400 reported incidents. In 2003-04, three women were killed.

Behind each of those statistics lies a world that few of us can fully comprehend, where a person has suffered mentally, emotionally and, oft times, physically and sexually at the hands of someone in whom they placed their trust and love. Although the statistics record the number of incidents, they do not show the total number of persons affected.

The motion refers specifically to children, many of whom suffer the long-term consequences of violence in their homes. There is also the issue of learned behaviour, which applies to both victims and abusers. Children, after all, learn what they live.

Previous Members who spoke mentioned a wide range of issues. I want to use my time to support the motion in general and, in particular, to support the need to invest in the expansion of the network of refuges to ensure that help is available when it is most needed. After many years of suffering, asking for help is one of the most courageous steps that a victim of domestic violence takes.

The ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ strategy calls for specific measures for advocacy and for the creation of networks for children’s services.

I acknowledge the work of the community safety partnerships, which offer practical help such as panic buttons and additional home-security measures. Such measures make a difference. People need to feel safe in their homes and be confident that help will be available when it is needed.

The PSNI has a key role to play. Its strategy was discussed at the most recent Policing Board meeting. All the strategies, although well intentioned, will be judged by the difference that they make in real terms.

Given the joined-up action plan that is required across a wide range of Departments, agencies and the community and voluntary sectors, it is imperative that, as a matter of urgency, an inter-ministerial group on domestic violence is formed. On behalf of the SDLP, I call on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to ensure that the need to deliver on the ‘Tackling Violence in the Home’ strategy is on the agenda for the next Executive meeting. It is expected that the Assembly and the Executive will deliver for all the people of our society, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Dr Farry: I congratulate Ms McCann for tabling this important motion. It is heartening that I join Mr Ian McCrea and Mr McClarty in speaking to the motion and that the issue has not been left to female representatives to debate. It is an issue for all of society, so it is important that we all turn our attention to it.

The formal definition of domestic violence as set out by the Government is:

“threatening behaviour, violence or abuse … on one person by another where they are or have been intimate partners or family members, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.”

That definition illustrates the multifaceted nature of the problem. As Members have said, it is important to recognise that the issue is a much broader one than just physical violence, which is how domestic violence is often conceptualised. We must consider psychological intimidation, emotional problems, sexual abuse, financial control and denying one’s partner proper freedom and human rights.

Many, but sadly not all, offences can be viewed as criminal, but there should be no doubt about the severity of the problems, as they can lead to attempted murder and murder. Domestic violence can occur in a range of contexts. Although it remains the case that the vast majority of incidences are of a male acting against a female partner, we also must be conscious that the man is the victim in about one in four cases of domestic violence. A point that is often neglected is that domestic violence can also occur in same-sex relationships. Those with different sexual orientations can sometimes feel marginalised in the public-policy discourse.

The most important message to come out of the Assembly today is that domestic violence is completely unacceptable. It has consequences not only for the victims, their family members and the perpetrators but for society as a whole. The Government’s strategy, ‘Tackling Violence at Home’, is a reasonably comprehensive document, but the key issue is delivery and ensuring that the resources are there. It is critical that a balanced range of interventions is available, starting with education and awareness, through to support for victims and the formal use of the criminal justice system. For too long, domestic violence has been regarded as taboo, but gone are the days when what went on behind closed doors stayed there. What happens behind closed doors must be a concern for us all.

There has been a 36% increase in incidents of violence being reported to the PSNI. That figure points to victims’ increased willingness to report such incidents. However, the official statistics reflect only the tip of the iceberg. Much more must be done in education and awareness to give victims of domestic violence the knowledge and confidence to make a complaint and to dial 999 when they are in imminent danger. There should be no stigma associated with being a victim or with seeking help.

I am concerned that the officially reported statistics are heavily skewed towards incidences of domestic violence that involve physical force. There is not a general appreciation that much wider problems exist for which people should also seek help. Everyone has a right to feel safe in his or her home. Safety at home goes right to the heart of people’s sense of their personal security. When someone does not feel safe because of domestic violence, either the perpetrator must be dealt with or the victim must be given the courage to leave the former home and to leave the relationship. Priority should always be given to dealing with the perpetrator rather than to imposing more burdens on the victim. However, that will not always be the case. When someone needs to be rehoused, the resources must be available so that he or she can make that leap and be rehoused in safety.

One area of the Government’s strategy to which greater concern must be given is the issue of how to deal with perpetrators. Much attention has been given to ensuring that perpetrators receive very little tolerance and are properly dealt with by the legal system. However, the perpetrators of domestic violence may not always be readily identifiable. They may not have an obvious propensity towards violence or anger.

These problems may only happen in the family home. Sometimes people, who to all outward appearances are mild-mannered, may instigate a lot of problems domestically. It is important that we appreciate the range of potential perpetrators in society. Among those identified as perpetrators, there is a very low take-up of programmes addressing domestic violence. The danger is that perpetrators fall into the system only after a criminal case has been taken against them — and only once they reach that threshold are they referred for anger management or other forms of address, such as programmes run by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland.

It is important that we identify and encourage people who know that they are causing difficulties and that those people are supported when they try to seek help. As a society, we need to appreciate that this is a very difficult and complex problem with wide-ranging consequences. Our priority must be to provide the victim with support and to ensure that those who are responsible for abuse are held accountable, personally and before the law. We must understand the wider nature of the problem; a lot more research needs to be done. This is not simply a problem among people with a history of violence, or with a difficulty in controlling alcohol or substance abuse; it concerns people who have a wider range of difficulties that we need to sort out.

Mr Shannon: Ivery day in the Proavince atween 12 and 14 men er wimen state an attak bi’ aa’ pertner.

Maistly aw it is wimen baetin. But iver aa’ quartar o’ dimestick abuis is kerried oot oan men, although no needit kerried oot bi’ wimen.

Ther er iver three scor o’thes tak plaes aa’dae. Albins yin o’tha feertnin things aboot thes figures is that they gaun nae whor neer mirrer tha real thin.

Iver aw tha Proavince ther wus aa’ fawin aff o’ incidents o’ 6·1%. In my ain area o’tha Airdes ther wus aa’ raisin o’ 169 occurances that is iver 20% mare whuch taks intae accoont yin case o’ attempted murder an 25 threats er canspiren tae murder an iyer 260 tiems o’ actual bidily herm. An tha maist worrin aspeck is that aa’ muckle lok o’ times they irny repoarted.

Every day in the Province, between 12 and 14 men and women report an attack by a partner. While it is often portrayed as “woman-beating”, over a quarter of domestic abuse is carried out on men, although not necessarily carried out by women. There are over 60 incidents a day, and perhaps one of the scariest things about these statistics is that they nowhere near reflect the reality. Although over the entire Province there was a decrease in incidents of 6·1%, in my own area of Ards there was an increase of 20% — 169 more occurrences — including one case of attempted murder, 25 threats or conspiracy to murder and over 260 incidents of actual bodily harm. The most worrying aspect is that a huge number of incidents are not reported.

Domestic violence is no respecter of person; it covers a multitude of sins, if that is the right terminology, including anything from physical or sexual violence to emotional and mental abuse. Every year, over 11,000 children live in an atmosphere of domestic violence every day of their lives — that is, they are in the same room or the next room to where abuse takes place. I commend the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for the help that it gives the community and for the excellent work that it does for those people who need help. These statistics seem more like those of a Third World country, rather than of a seemingly civilised nation.

In Northern Ireland, there are over 60 domestic-violence incidents daily, and domestic violence has the highest rate of reoffending. Why is this? Is it because a high proportion of people charged with a form of domestic violence can still go home and do it all again? We talk a lot about drugs to our youth in schools, we take time and the money to ensure that our children are drug free — that is necessary and essential as the culture of drug-taking unfortunately grows. However, a call to the police is three times more likely to concern domestic violence than drug-related problems. I am not for a minute suggesting that we spend less time on drug awareness, but more attention should be drawn to the fact that too many people in the Province abuse their partners and their children and that such behaviour is unacceptable.

I have outlined the seriousness of this situation in the Province, but how do we combat the problems shown by these statistics, bearing in mind that thousands of other offences take place but are not reported? We must apply the reforms on tackling violence at home, and a report is a good way to start.

3.30 pm

Sadly, it is often easier to go home after an attack and hope for the best than it is to go through the long and often complicated procedure of being rehoused. More than 700 families are rehoused every year by the Housing Executive due to domestic violence. However, it is easy to see that that is nowhere near the real total number of cases. This matter often comes up in my office, and probably in the offices of many other Members across the Chamber. We must address this matter.

A clear starting point would be to show victims that there is a viable option, other than going straight back home to the violence. We must fully fund women’s shelters and homes that provide a short-term place to stay while waiting for long-term accommodation. I am reliably informed by a worker at a Women’s Aid hostel not far from my home that it has repeatedly had to turn away women who needed shelter, often sending them as far away as Lisburn. That results in children being moved away from all that they know, and results in mothers having to move away from their support network of friends and family.

It is important that we address this issue for the benefit of the next generation in the Province. They must understand that domestic violence is disgraceful, disgusting and completely unacceptable. Such violence can be stopped by openness and by ensuring that it is no longer seen as a private, behind-closed-doors affair. Domestic violence affects everyone in the Province in some way and, therefore, it is the responsibility of the people as a whole to put a stop to it. I support the motion.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion. I speak on behalf of Women’s Aid and other groups in my constituency.

Members have mentioned the need to prevent domestic violence. Emphasis and focus should be placed on the abuser or the perpetrator rather than, as happens in many instances, the women who are involved in incidents. In order to tackle the increase in domestic violence, the attitude of the courts, the justice system and the PSNI must change. Domestic violence is being perpetrated against women; it is a crime and it is unacceptable.

Women’s experience as victims, in many instances, is that they are themselves treated as criminals. It is totally unacceptable that only 4% of the perpetrators come before a court. There is something wrong in how the judiciary, the courts and the PSNI handle such situations. The current situation is unacceptable, and the message of the general public must be that women cannot be treated in this society in such a way.

I turn to the impact of the judiciary and the role of the family courts. Vulnerable women who have been the victims of domestic violence and who care for young children should be protected by the state. They should not be subjected to state bullying and intimidation by the family courts and by so-called welfare officers.

This week, one of my constituents could not attend a sitting of a family court. She submitted a doctor’s letter that stated that she would need to be admitted to a psychiatric unit unless she took a break from the considerable stress that she had been under — caused, largely, by the family courts. She did not turn up in court, and Judge McFarland ruled that the hearing should go ahead without her, despite the fact that he is not medically qualified to comment on her health. The judge ruled that the father of the woman’s child should be allowed contact. The child is five and does not know of his father’s existence.

The judge also ruled that the mother should be given two weeks to explain the father’s existence to the child. He further ruled that the mother is never to be allowed to leave Northern Ireland, despite the fact that she comes from elsewhere. She was threatened that social services would become involved and that the child would be taken into care if the child were made aware, either now or in the future, of his mother’s hostile feelings towards the father or the fact that she believed that the child had been conceived by rape, because that would be construed as emotional abuse. A penal order to commit the mother to jail if she did not comply with those rulings was issued.

All of that was done in the woman’s absence and without her being able to have her say, which even the most violent criminals are allowed to do. In the view of her GP, she is in a very vulnerable state and receipt of a letter from the court containing those types of threats could well have tipped her over the edge into suicide, perhaps taking the child with her. Would the judge have taken responsibility if she had taken that course of action? Women have committed suicide in similar instances.

In another example, a constituent of mine was hit by her ex-husband in the presence of many witnesses. She obtained a non-molestation order against him. On appeal by the husband, that order was lifted. The couple is also in dispute with the family courts. The husband has failed to attend the High Court on at least three occasions. When the court met to establish a new hearing date, the judge neither threatened to imprison the husband nor to hold him in contempt.

Those cases show a marked difference between the treatment given to the perpetrator of violence and that accorded to the victim. The role of the family courts should be to intervene where children are at serious risk rather than to provide a means for solicitors and barristers to make money. They should not encourage violent fathers to pursue contact with the family at the expense of the health of mother or children. All solicitors should have to encourage parents to accept mediation and to come to agreement. Courts should be the last resort.

Family courts should not have such extensive powers as they have at present; rather, their powers should be curtailed. They should not be allowed to use the threat of jail to force already vulnerable women to comply with rulings that are against the best interests of their children or to make victims of those involved in domestic violence and rape. They should not be allowed to make prisoners of women by preventing them from free movement within these islands. That has occurred in many instances. Women should not be threatened with the removal of their children for non-compliance with the courts. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Browne: I support the motion. Domestic violence has been a problem in our and many other societies. However, in recent years, thanks to the work of the agencies involved in tackling the issue and to media coverage, we are all much more aware of the problem.

However, we do not focus sufficiently on the impact that domestic violence has on children. While the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) provides a voice for children at statutory level, the plight of individual children, often in horrendous circumstances, needs to be heard. That is what I wish to focus on.

Children who suffer as a result of domestic violence not only have to leave familiar surroundings, toys, friends and relatives behind; they are often expected to settle, among strangers, into the unfamiliar setting of a refuge. That can lead to regressive behaviour, such as bed-wetting, attention-seeking or becoming withdrawn. It has a very bad effect on children.

Children need stability and continuity in their lives. Often in this situation, continuity is provided mainly by schools. However, when they are in a refuge, children are often unable to attend their school of origin either because of the distance or the cost of transport. That should not be allowed to happen. The manager of an independent refuge in my East Belfast constituency has campaigned for years to find a resolution to the transport problem, but without success. Rather, the issue has been passed between the education and library board and the health and social services board, each claiming that responsibility lies with the other. I hope that the restructuring of the education and library boards and health and social services boards will bring an end to different services and provisions based on postcodes.

I refer to the motion passed last week on social housing. The lack of such housing has a serious effect on victims of domestic violence. The longer victims stay in temporary accommodation, the more disruption is caused to normal family life. The longer they stay in hostel accommodation, the more availability of emergency accommodation for other victims is restricted.

Recently, the provision of overlap in housing benefit has been withdrawn. Families are now expected to move out of refuges and take up the offer of a tenancy without being given any time to apply for grants to furnish the new home. That results in families moving into new properties without the bare essentials and in some cases without beds.

If those families apply for private-rented accommo-dation, as an alternative to social housing, there is often a gap between the cost of that accommodation and the amount of housing benefit available to them. For people who are already on benefits, the need to subsidise the cost of private-rented accommodation places them in financial difficulties, and the long-term result is child poverty.

Many of the measures that we have heard about today are reactive. More preventive measures must be put into place. Rather than simply passing more money to existing services, the Assembly must ensure that services are as effective as possible and are focused on the most important needs.

Every Member must take responsibility for the way in which children are brought up and educated. Members will agree that that can only take place in a safe environment that is free from violence and aggression.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McCallister: The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and supports the motion. Today’s debate illustrates clearly the level of cross-party support for it.

The House must consider the approach to ending domestic violence. It is encouraging that the PSNI is taking a proactive approach to dealing with it, resulting in the 36% rise in reported incidents. That must continue, and Members must evolve that strategy and consider the elements that are working best.

Mr McClarty described the various aspects of domestic violence: criticism, public humiliation, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and financial control. As Lord Browne mentioned, we must not forget the effects that witnessing such violence can have on children.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is back in the Chamber, which illustrates how important the issue is to him. Tackling domestic violence is not the responsibility of one Department alone. The approach must be taken forward on a cross-departmental and inter-agency basis, making full use of Northern Ireland’s very active community and voluntary sector. Huge issues have been teased out in the debate, and we must co-ordinate them to find a more holistic approach to tackling this very serious problem.

Domestic violence crosses all sections and strands of society. Virtually no section of the community is untouched. Therefore, I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.

Mr O’Loan: I work closely with Women’s Aid in Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne and Newtownabbey — I apologise for the long list.

Women’s Aid is an outstanding organisation, with a high level of commitment. As well as having professional staff, it is run by many volunteers. It is a sad fact that it is still a very necessary organisation in today’s society. It provides a range of services, of which its refuge accommodation is the best known. It also provides floating support to women who have remained in their own homes. It trains vulnerable women to enhance their knowledge, self-esteem and confidence. It provides a court support service.

Women’s Aid is innovative. One of its programmes works with male perpetrators of domestic violence. It is pioneering a multi-agency risk-assessment conference, which is an important initiative to improve the quality of partnership protection for vulnerable women and to reduce the risk of repeat victimisation.

In my constituency, Women’s Aid is experiencing great difficulty in attracting funding to finish off its excellent Naomi Centre in Ballymena, even though finishing that project would make it self-sustaining.

I have already brought that, along with other matters, to the attention of the Minister for Social Development.

3.45 pm

The psychological, emotional and financial costs of domestic violence are huge. The financial costs alone are staggering. Government estimates of those costs, which include legal and court costs, healthcare, emergency housing and benefits, amount to £0·5 billion annually in Northern Ireland. That is an amazing figure, but those are official Government statistics. There are far-reaching physical, social, emotional and psychological effects on mothers and children. Five people each year die as a result of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, and 700 families are rehoused. The PSNI attends 60 domestic incidents every day.

Children are the silent victims. Some 11,000 children are living in violent homes; we can only begin to imagine the traumatic effects of that. I support the many practical points to support children that were made by Lord Browne.

The 2005 report ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ contains much that is good. Public attitudes to violence against women in particular have changed significantly in recent years. It no longer has the degree of acceptance that it once had. That is true of relevant professionals and wider society. However, it remains a crime that is largely hidden and seriously under-reported. Despite the fact that the identity of the perpetrator is usually known, there is a very low conviction rate of about 5%. More progress needs to be made in taking cases with or without the involvement of the victim.

The three-strand structure of prevention, protection and support in the report is a valid one. If there is more done to prevent domestic violence, there is every reason to hope that the costs associated with protection and support will be reduced.

Despite all the talk of partnership working in Government, much more needs to be done. The problem starts at the top, where four, or perhaps more, Departments have a role to play in the issue. At the point of service delivery, there is sometimes a lack of co-operation between agencies to put the needs of the victim and children at the centre of the action. There is no strategic approach to the issue of resources; if there is, I certainly have not seen it. Funding is granted on a hit-or-miss, try-here, try-there basis. There is a serious need for a more considered approach to the vital issue of funding. Those working in this essential area, including volunteers, deserve more support from the system.

The issue of elder abuse is closely linked. A study into the prevalence of the abuse of elderly will be launched in this Building, and throughout the UK, on 14 June. Members should receive an invitation to that event today. Elder abuse is another issue that has been hidden under the carpet and needs to be examined and responded to by the care and justice systems. There is a strong argument that specific legislation, such as that in Scotland, is required in Northern Ireland.

Domestic violence is one area where the Assembly can make a difference. I welcome the general support for the motion. Let us ensure that it is effectively addressed in departmental actions.

Ms Purvis: I support the motion and welcome the opportunity to debate this very important issue. I shall highlight a number of points, but I do not intend to rehearse many of the arguments that have already been made.

It has been long recognised that there should be a multi-agency approach to tackling the issue. Furthermore, education is the key to getting to grips with domestic violence. It was recognised some time ago that there was a need for the Department for Social Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and the criminal justice system to work together in order to tackle domestic violence. In recent years, much has been done to increase the reporting and reduce the rates of domestic violence.

The funding of refuges through the Supporting People initiative has been crucial to Women’s Aid. It is crucial to know that funding has been secured and that beds will be provided for victims of domestic violence, and it is to be welcomed. However, the needs of survivors are much more complex than a roof over one’s head. They include counselling, financial independence, advice services and education. Survivors of domestic violence face multiple and complex issues.

Research has shown that survivors face greater risks when they leave an abusive relationship. Many women — and men — have died as a result of leaving abusive relationships. That is when they are at their most vulnerable and when resources should be targeted where they are needed most. Support services are crucial when women or men are leaving abusive relationships.

Women’s Aid provides a vital service in dealing with survivors of domestic violence and is absolutely key to keeping domestic violence high on our political agenda. It is recognised that more women than men are affected by domestic violence. It follows, therefore, that the majority of services are provided for women. However, men are increasingly subject to domestic violence, yet there are no Province-wide services for men. Very often the statistics do not show the number of men in abusive relationships.

Accommodation services are not provided for men with children. A man can go to a hostel on his own, but he cannot take his children with him because there is insufficient accommodation. Separate accommodation is not provided for men and children who are leaving abusive relationships. There are no specific information services, support services, legal services, or helplines only for men. Full implementation of the strategy should include services for men.

Education is the key to tackling domestic violence. As some Members suggested earlier, there should be programmes to address the behaviour of perpetrators. Children should be taught in primary schools about what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable, behaviour in our society. Children live what they learn. Domestic violence is unacceptable. The Department of Education is failing to meet the action points that are outlined in its strategy. That must not be allowed to happen. We must not take our foot off the pedal with regard to domestic violence.

I understand that domestic violence crosses all classes and religions — and none. I am witnessing ever more instances of domestic violence in increasingly marginalised communities. That is horrendous. Frighteningly, it appears to be becoming more acceptable in those communities. A young couple sought help from me — a 16-year-old girl with a young child, and her 17-year-old partner. She was covered in bruises and he was covered in scratches. I asked them what had happened to them. They said that they had been fighting with each other. They thought that that was totally acceptable in front of a young child. That is happening more and more in marginalised communities. Violence between partners, of whatever nature, is perceived as acceptable. It is not acceptable behaviour. It is not OK.

Again, education is the key. The action plan should be reviewed to ensure that each Department is delivering, including the Department of Education. The issue cannot be tackled successfully without a cross-departmental approach. We need to keep our foot firmly on the pedal. I support the motion.

Mrs I Robinson: There is no question that domestic violence is one of the hidden crimes in today’s society, and one that has devastating effects for many hundreds of people each year. The results of domestic violence are catastrophic. It destroys families. It leaves deep emotional scars and, on occasion, results in death. When the subject is discussed the focus tends to be on the immediate victim, the person towards whom the abuse is directed. That is, of course, right. However, quite often, we forget the impact of domestic violence on the family of the victim — not least, the children.

The impact of domestic violence on child development depends on a variety of factors, such as gender, cultural background, the nature and extent of the abuse witnessed, the amount of support received, and age. There are various aspects of a child’s life that can be negatively affected by domestic violence, including health, intellectual development, family and social relations, emotional and behavioural development, education, social presentation and self-care skills. Essentially, all aspects of a child’s life can be affected.

Foetal damage can result from physical violence against the mother, including foetal fracture, brain injury and organ damage, and young children may suffer physical assault as part of the violence against a parent.

Parents who are depressed have been shown to respond less frequently to their baby’s signals or to modify their behaviour according to that of their infant. Research suggests that that can lead to delays in an infant’s expressive language and ability to concentrate on, and complete, simple tasks. Babies will largely develop their emotions and behaviour from those who are caring for them. A depressed parent who is experiencing domestic violence may withdraw emotionally, and that can be mirrored in the infant. Children as young as 18 months old can become upset and distressed during angry exchanges between parents.

With regard to children in the three- to four-year-old age group, a parent suffering from domestic violence will be limited in his or her capacity to protect their child from physical danger and provide the child with feelings of safety. The child may show a lack of interest in his or her environment and have poor intellectual development.

In the five- to nine-year-old age group, children are at an increased risk of physical injury, extreme anxiety and fear, which brings an increased risk of medical problems, including injuries and convulsive disorders. Children can also display other health-related symptoms, including stomach pains, headaches, asthma, allergies and disturbed sleep patterns.

In the 10- to 14-year-old age group, children may be left to cope alone with the physical changes that accompany the onset of puberty. If children have a parent suffering from depression brought on by domestic violence, that can increase the risk of psychological problems in the child. Children will fear being physically hurt in the abusive situation, and that can impact on the children’s education and academic competence.

For those over 15 years of age, the relationship between extreme parental behaviour and that of a child is complex. If a parent has been emotionally unavailable to a child, that child may not have had the opportunity to discuss contraception or how to behave in close personal relationships. Children in that situation may have grown up with inappropriate role models and a poor attitude to, or understanding of, sexual relationships.

The ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ strategy was launched by the NIO in 2003 and ran for a year and a half from October 2005 to March 2007. The strategy initially set out a number of initiatives to address domestic violence and to improve services to victims under the headings of prevention, protection and justice, support, and other priorities. The domestic violence unit, in conjunction with the regional steering group and its subgroups, was to be responsible for the development of future annual action plans at regional level to take account of changing pressures, priorities and available resources.

Domestic violence is an emotive issue, and it would need more time for debate. However, I am sure that it will be discussed in the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Mr B McCrea: At this stage of the afternoon, Members have probably heard all the statistics. I have remained in the Chamber because I care passionately about this issue. Members speak from the heart on issues that engage them, which is when the subject is brought home.

However, there is a danger of debating in terms of statistics, and there is a sad and tragic story behind every statistic. I will not try to fill the entire time that is available to me but instead highlight some of the issues that I feel are important. I hope that that encourages the development of a proper policy.

4.00 pm

First, it is worth pointing out the high incidence of domestic violence. Everyone is surprised to hear how many incidents are reported, but the actual number is much greater. Domestic crime represents 25% of all reported violent crime; however, much of it goes un­reported, so the problem is even bigger than we realise.

Someone mentioned earlier in the debate — forgive me, I have forgotten which Member — that one of the most courageous things that victims can do is report an incident of domestic violence and ask for help. Strange to say, I visited the neighbourhood of the proposer of the motion to talk to women there about this issue. Their cry for help was evident in the fact that they had come to the meeting, and they talked about the practical difficulties of dealing with domestic violence. For example, they mentioned that, even in the event of a very bad incident, they would not want a police car turning up at the house with full flashing lights, because that would raise all sorts of issues. We must try to work out how we can encourage people to report domestic violence and how we can support victims in a way that is appropriate to their circumstances and the environment in which they live.

It goes without saying that education is an issue. I have recently had cause to sit in the reception room of the PSNI station in Lisburn, while waiting to see other people. There is not much to read there, so I was struck by two posters that were on display, one dealing with the effect of domestic violence on women and the other with the effect on men. The story they told really made me think. That is an example of the importance of education and of bringing domestic violence out into the open, as Dawn Purvis mentioned. If we do nothing else, we must make it understood that domestic violence is simply unacceptable. It is the elephant in the room that we do not really talk about, but unless we talk about it and find ways of dealing with it, the situation will remain unresolved.

We talked earlier about the effects of poverty, and, in particular, the effects of child poverty. I can think of nothing more distressing for children than witnessing domestic violence in their home. The numbers of such incidents are quite significant, and Mrs Robinson mentioned how they can affect children’s development. People talk about stress, but stress is not having a hard day at the office — stress is seeing your mummy and daddy fighting. There is a proven link to neurological damage, which creates a cycle that is very hard to break and which carries on from one generation to the next.

In conclusion, it is important that we bring this issue to the fore, provide facilities to support those in most need of help, and identify ways of making it easier for people to report this crime — and not necessarily through the police, as I realise that that raises certain issues; although, in serious cases, the police must be informed.

I completely support the motion.

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion, and I thank the mover of the motion for tabling it. It has taken us about 30 years to get to where we are now, and I pay tribute to Women’s Aid and others in the voluntary sector who have petitioned tirelessly for recognition and for funding for the establishment of refuges. I congratulate, support and encourage the victims who have had the courage to speak out. It is very difficult for anyone to admit that they are not part of a happy family. Indeed, victims used to be told that they had made their bed and must lie in it. Thank God we are somewhat more enlightened now and are able to give some more support.

During the past 10 years, there has been some advancement in inter-agency co-operation; the establishment of an interdepartmental working group; the establishment of a regional steering group on domestic violence in 2004; the introduction of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998; the appointment of domestic violence officers in the PSNI; and the establishment of local domestic violence partnerships.

Nevertheless, domestic violence remains a problem in Northern Ireland. It occurs in all sectors of society, and it has damaging consequences for the victims — especially children. Members have heard the statistics: at least 11,000 children are living with domestic violence; domestic violence accounts for one in five cases of violent crime here; an average of five people are killed each year, and 700 families rehoused, as a result of domestic violence. The free telephone helpline receives around 20,000 calls a year, but many incidents still go unreported.

‘Tackling Violence at Home’ is an action plan published by the Health Department in October 2005, and it defines domestic violence as:

“threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional) inflicted on one person by another where they are or have been intimate partners or family members, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.”

Domestic violence has a devastating effect on the victims, and that is addressed in ‘Tackling Violence at Home’. The Government’s vision includes:

“The development of better, more equitable, accessible and effective service provision”.

As all the Members who have spoken today have said, those services must be cross-departmental. That is where the Assembly must get involved; Members must familiarise themselves with the range, appropriateness and standard of current provision.

The Assembly must answer some questions that are thrown up by the action plan. For instance, should all refuge provision be standardised? Everyone knows that each victim has different needs. Children who have witnessed domestic violence will be terrified, but will understand why their mother has taken them — usually in a hurry — to a strange environment. However, they will still miss their familiar bedroom, toys and friends, and they may have to change schools. They are vulnerable and need support.

There are also the children who have not witnessed the violence — the marital rape or verbal abuse — because their mother has protected them. In those cases, the removal to the refuge leaves the children bewildered, resentful and emotionally distressed; they do not understand why they are being moved from their home and separated from their father.

What about the older child — the lad or the teenager — who has witnessed the violence, and who has sometimes intervened to protect his mother and, perhaps, been beaten as a result? Where does he go? There are no appropriate facilities for children of that age. Refuges are not suitable for male teenagers. We must ensure that women in refuges are provided with the freedom and support to make decisions on whether to reconcile with their partners, if that is appropriate and if the prognosis is considered to be reasonable. Furthermore, information should be available to their partners on how to seek help from the Men’s Advisory Project.

Refuges are essential and have proved effective over time, but we must examine whether there is an equitable spread and whether there is adequate provision in rural areas. In some cases, especially in the best interests of the children, it may be desirable for the victims to remain at home with support from domestic violence officers. Also, the floating support —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mrs Hanna, your time is up.

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I reiterate what others have said and welcome the opportunity that this debate has afforded the House to support the motion and to send out the clear and unequivocal message that domestic violence is a crime that should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

Members have repeated the statistics many times, but they are worth repeating, because domestic violence is a problem that has a devastating impact on the lives of victims and their families. Eleven thousand children in Northern Ireland are living with domestic violence; five people — mostly women — are killed each year; 700 families have to be rehoused each year as a result of violence in the home. Those statistics are staggering. If those people were the victims of sectarian, inter-community or interface violence there would be a huge public outcry and enormous media interest.

It is the epidemic that nobody talks about, that no one seems aware of, and it needs to be tacked effectively now. Statistics show that in 2005-06, the number of incidents reported was 23,000; on average every week police attend over 400 domestic violence incidents and deal with 100 domestic assaults on men and women, and we know that there is serious under-reporting. These figures may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Sadly there are still outdated attitudes to this form of violence, as it was, to an extent, historically acceptable. Often victims continue to live with the abuse out of fear, or because they do not have the financial independence to leave, and children are routinely used as tools to control and keep the victims with their abusers. Often, victims are reluctant to pursue a case through the courts because of concerns about the consequences of a prosecution and the impact that they might have on the family. Family members may be reluctant to see a relative sent to jail or to see the family break up.

It is a form of violent abuse that affects people right across society, from all cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds and all age groups, and the vast majority of victims are women, although a significant number are men.

Violence in the home has a particular impact on the development of children, who are very much the silent victims. The long-term effects on children who suffer or witness domestic violence can lead to significant problems. A few weeks ago, we had a debate about looked-after children and examined their outcomes, and the outcomes for children from violent homes are very similar — poor educational achievement, mental-health problems, increased likelihood to be victims or perpetrators of crime and so on. It is dreadful scenario, a huge and urgent issue that costs an estimated £180 million each year.

‘Tackling Violence at Home’, a cross-departmental strategy addressing domestic violence and abuse was launched in 2005 with three key themes: prevention, protection and justice, and support. Prevention works with victims and offenders and raises awareness through media strategy. Protection and justice works towards garnering more legal protection for victims and families and works with the police, prosecution services and the probation service. Support deals with refuge provision and housing. The Housing Executive plays a key role in these matters. In addition, the regional steering group has been set up, representing the NIO, the Department for Social Development and the police and the Courts Service. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is evolving a strategy and producing an action plan. There are also the local domestic partnerships that support people on a community level.

A lot is being done — but a lot more needs to be done. Women’s Aid runs a number of refuges. There are currently 15 refuges and move-on centres and two women’s hostels which have 16 units, bringing the total to 160 family and single units across Northern Ireland. Ensuring that victims have a safe place to go when they are affected by violence is crucial. Today’s motion calls for an increase in refuge provision in Northern Ireland, and it is my intention that that and the appropriate support services refuges are made available to the victims of domestic violence.

4.15 pm

The Department for Social Development’s Supporting People initiative, carried out through the Housing Executive, has played a crucial role in the provision of emergency refuge and temporary accommodation to those who suffer domestic violence. Mrs Hanna asked whether more refuges were the best way forward. There is no doubt that refuges are needed for those victims of violence who are forced to flee violent homes, because they act as a haven, safe from harm and abuse, where families are able to rebuild their lives. Where the need for refuges is identified, it must be met.

The other question, raised by Mrs Robinson, is why families that have endured domestic violence should face further distress in being forced to leave their homes. It is the violent abuser who should leave. Children must be given every opportunity to remain in the familiar surroundings of their home and to stay at the local school with their friends. There is greater protection and support available now for families that wish to stay at home. Changes have been made to the law to improve enforcement of non-molestation restraining orders, which are aimed at helping victims. More needs to be done because of the fear and intimidation factor.

The Housing Executive and registered social landlords can now repossess properties from tenants whose cohabitants have been driven out by domestic violence. That means that when a wife and family leave, the Housing Executive and landlords have the ability to seek possession of the property in order to help the victims return to their home. I want to see that protection strengthened so that more families are able to remain safely at home. That is a major challenge for Government: how do you create protection for a mother and her children in their own home, when the threat is coming from within that home? That is a challenge that Government must tackle.

The 24-hour free telephone helpline service provided by the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation, which provides vital support and advice for victims of violence, is one of the initiatives happening under the strategy. Under the protection and justice strand, there have been a number of developments in support of victims, such as the police getting greater powers. With regard to prevention, we must get the message across to everyone that domestic violence is never acceptable, making it less of a taboo subject by ensuring that attitudes change across all sections of society. Recent public information campaigns can play a part in that.

Research reveals a staggering statistic that I was unaware of before looking into the issue: 30% of domestic violence starts during pregnancy. Abused women have a higher rate of miscarriages, stillbirths, premature labour and injuries to their babies. My Department has introduced a new policy to ensure that expectant mothers are asked about domestic violence when attending routine antenatal classes. We need to put more procedures in place around maternity care for early identification of women at risk. I intend to strengthen the process of identifying victims in the near future, so that anyone who attends an accident and emergency unit or doctor’s surgery with a physical injury is asked about domestic violence.

There are other initiatives being taken forward under the strategy: awareness training and mentoring for Health Service staff; counselling and anger-management services provided by the Men’s Advisory Project; support services for children who suffer domestic violence, delivered by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Guidance is also being produced for MLAs and MPs to help them to better identify victims of domestic violence and, consequently, provide information on the support services available. We need to tackle this hidden problem head on and bring it out in the open.

My party’s commitment is to secure extra resources to address domestic violence, and I will be approaching my Executive colleagues to ensure that the issue is given the funding priority that it deserves. The full implementation of the strategy that we have debated will have many potential benefits for the victims of domestic violence. I am determined that those benefits will be realised. Dolores Kelly spoke about taking this issue to a different level. To do that, I will seek the agreement of my ministerial colleagues to establish an inter-ministerial group on domestic violence. Cross-departmental work will be key. We will have to go above and beyond the level of officials and establish an inter-ministerial group.

Domestic violence is a crime and is not acceptable in any circumstances. A great deal has already been achieved but much more needs to be done to prevent violence in the home and to offer greater protection and support to victims and their children. Keeping families, including children, in their own homes when domestic violence occurs must be a major priority. We all must work harder to make that happen. We need to consider and then implement new ways of working that will support mothers and children to ensure that they do not endure the upheaval of leaving home. We also need to consider how we can work more closely with abusers, so that we can replace violent and negative patterns of behaviour with more positive ones. As we know, patterns of behaviour can self-perpetuate through the generations.

Working together, we can make a dramatic difference, making domestic violence totally and absolutely unacceptable in society. We must ensure that appropriate resources are in place to provide support for victims. I support the motion.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I am delighted to have been asked to speak on the motion and I commend my colleague Ms McCann on bringing the issue to the Chamber for a full and proper debate.

I start by reaffirming the fact that every person has the right to live free from abuse, neglect and exploitation, and also to live without the fear of any of those things. I remind Members that an Amnesty International report of December 2006 stated that the NIO direct rule Government was failing victims dismally. The report went on to state that there was a systematic failure to tackle violence against women. That is not a situation that this Assembly should inherit willingly. The Administration must act to ensure that protection and support is available for the most vulnerable members of society. To that end, I welcome the comments of Members today. I believe that we will make progress on this issue and make a difference.

Members have spoken of the need to protect victims and about how abuse of the elderly has become more prevalent. They have also spoken about domestic violence being a cruel and wicked form of abuse that occurs too often. A number of Members spoke of the need to tackle the issue on a cross-departmental basis. As has been said, domestic violence is a serious crime. There have been some improvements in services over recent years, but the number of people affected is still increasing. I welcome Dolores Kelly’s call on the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to deliver on the strategy immediately. Some Members acknowledged that domestic violence is not just a female problem. It is important to realise that it is a problem that we all have to deal with, not just the female Members.

I welcome what was said by Members about the need to remove any stigma from being a victim of domestic violence. We will need to address that in any strategy. A number of comments were made about the negative impact of domestic violence on children — the effects on their schooling and on their inner life. I am glad that we will be able to make progress on such issues.

Some of the statistics that Members have outlined have been startling. I will not go over them again, but the truth is that most cases of domestic violence are not reported. It is also true that domestic violence can happen to anyone — whether male or female, young or old, disabled or non-disabled. Everyone can be affected by domestic violence in its many forms.

I want to highlight the specific area of domestic violence towards older people and vulnerable adults in the home.

In recent years, increasing concern has been expressed about the abuse of vulnerable adults and a growing realisation of the scale and complexity of the problem. Although public awareness of the issue is growing, much needs to be done to provide greater protection for those people.

Adult abuse can occur in all walks of life. Some people are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, because they are already disadvantaged members of society. People who have learning, physical or sensory disabilities; those with mental health problems or who are chronically sick; older people and others, such as victims of domestic violence, are all vulnerable to abuse.

It is important that any person who is thought to be suffering abuse is treated as an individual and that any allegations are taken seriously, ensuring that the person’s dignity is maintained at all times. It is also vital that properly resourced support services are available for those who need assistance.

In conclusion, I fully support the motion and I am glad that there is cross-party support for it in the Chamber. Political direction must be given in order to deal with the major social problem of domestic violence.

Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern about the level of domestic violence and its impact on children, and calls for the proper resourcing and full implementation of the Government strategy ‘Tackling Violence at Home’; supports funding for local crisis and support services for families experiencing violence; and supports an expansion of the network of refuges so that no man, woman or child in need shall be turned away.

Fuel Poverty

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on fuel poverty. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Member who is proposing the motion will have 10 minutes to speak and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Cobain: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to review the strategy for the eradication of fuel poverty, particularly amongst pensioner households and households with children.

I thank the Minister for her attendance at the debate. As well as her departmental and Executive interests in the issue, she has a deep personal interest, and she will work with the Committee for Social Development to ensure that fuel poverty is eradicated as soon as is practicably possible.

I will repeat the question that I asked the Minister at the Committee’s meeting on 24 May 2007, because, as she knows, I do not believe that I was given a definitive answer. Will she honour the commitment given by the last Administration on fuel poverty, which is that by 2010, every child, disabled person and pensioner will live in a decent, warm home?

Unlike other policies, failure to deal with fuel poverty will result in an increase in the number of people who die from cold-related illnesses. Last year, the figure was 1,360. Several illnesses, such as asthma and heart and respiratory diseases, are either caused, or made worse, by a lack of heat in the home. Older people are more vulnerable than most.

Many homes with poor energy efficiency are also in poor repair. Older people are more likely to live in that sort of accommodation. The winter fuel payment of £200, which was once welcomed as a useful addition to older people’s energy budgets, has been eaten up by the huge increases in energy costs that have been imposed by energy providers during the past several years, and older people have been forced to make a choice between fuel and food.

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

Northern Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. That number will rise dramatically with the introduction of water charges, particularly among pensioners, individuals on low incomes and the working poor. Those charges are a regressive tax that will fall hardest on those who are least able to pay.

There are no recurring costs associated with fuel poverty: it is an entirely capital cost. We can, therefore, through various economic models, predict the cost and the length of time required to eradicate fuel poverty.

4.30 pm

The Minister and the Executive must demonstrate the necessary will to carry that through.

Several other issues must be considered alongside the fuel poverty strategy in order to ensure that all those who are eligible can access fuel poverty programmes. The first task is to set up a programme to provide front-line benefit advice to assist people who live on low wages, the working poor and those who live in near-benefit households, particularly older people. The programme must ensure that all those vulnerable groups have all the relevant information that is needed for them to access the programmes.

Clear links must be developed with those devising any new anti-poverty strategy in order to ensure that such measures address fuel poverty. No anti-poverty strategy could be complete unless it fully deals with that issue. There is a growing need for the fuel poverty strategy to be as flexible as possible, particularly for the rural poor, most of whom live in isolated rural properties and need special provision to deal with their particular needs. Greater emphasis must be placed on energy efficiency to ensure that all existing programmes are adequately funded. Many groups that could be classified as poor use pay-as-you-go meters. As a method of debt management, energy companies should promote such metering as a matter of good practice. Energy suppliers should target vulnerable customers by offering energy efficiency packages and, equally importantly, benefit advice. The Executive should encourage all Departments, the advice sector and any new council structures to advise and encourage individuals who are trying to cope with fuel poverty, particularly those living in social exclusion.

The Assembly could adopt a more radical approach to addressing fuel poverty by encouraging the energy industry to reduce tariffs for customers who are on low incomes and by imposing an affordability tariff — as is being considered for water charges. That would have an enormous impact on those living in fuel poverty by giving them the benefit of additional heating provision. The warm homes scheme has been quite successful but could be better targeted. With additional benefit advice, a growing number of those who are on low incomes, near-benefit households and older people could be reached.

Health professionals should encourage those on the front line to include instances of fuel poverty in initial care reports and to assist with the provision of possible sources of information on the subject. The Department for Social Development (DSD) should ensure that, before any funding is provided to the advice sector, there is specific provision for dealing with energy efficiency and fuel poverty.

The Housing Executive and housing associations should move as quickly as possible to ensure that low-income families and those living in fuel poverty have access to forms of renewable energy, because they represent the most viable long-term solution to fuel poverty. Landlords and owner-occupiers should be encouraged to access grants in order to ensure that renewable energy is available to as many households as possible.

The Northern Ireland levy should continue to support the warm homes scheme by topping up its funding by £1·6 million each year until 2010. The remaining funding should be used to provide a full package of energy efficiency measures, including cavity-wall, loft and tank insulation and an effective and efficient heating system for those qualifying households, which means that have no central heating, solid fuel or electric heating.

I have made a few suggestions but I am sure that, as the debate unfolds, Members will hear many more views on the subject. The fuel poverty strategy is unlike other strategies, and if the Assembly is unable to overcome fuel poverty in the foreseeable future, the number of deaths as a result of cold-related illnesses will continue to rise. That, I suggest, is unacceptable to everyone in the House.

Mr Hilditch: I support my colleagues’ motion, which calls for the Minister to review the strategy to eradicate fuel poverty. The motion is presented sensibly, and there will hopefully be a reasonable outcome. If the wish lists that are being brought forward through private Members business continue to grow, the Executive will be in crisis trying to meet those demands in the future.

As politicians, Members should be fully aware of the impact of fuel poverty on communities: the serious health implications for the elderly and young children; the vulnerability of those with disabilities and chronic illness; the impact on the environment; children’s educational attainment; social inclusion; the condition of the housing stock; the problems caused by cold and damp homes that force people to seek alternative accommodation; and imposing further setbacks to already disadvantaged communities.

Much background work has already been carried out, and it does not make pretty reading. Although figures can fluctuate Province-wide, the ‘Interim Household Condition Survey’, published in 2004, established that Northern Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty compared to other regions of the United Kingdom.

Considering the various types of house occupancy — owner occupied, privately rented, Housing Executive and housing association — some of the 26 council areas have a rate of fuel poverty approaching 50%. Carrickfergus Borough Council, in my constituency, has a public perception of little social deprivation and a degree of affluence, yet 23% of households live in fuel poverty — almost one in four homes.

The eradication of fuel poverty must be a top priority for the devolved Government. That became evident to me when I recently attended the launch of the Chief Officers Third Sector group (CO3) on behalf of the Committee for Social Development. During the networking opportunities at the event, many people representing the voluntary, community, charities and housing sectors raised their concerns and expressed the hope that the Assembly, and particularly the Minister for Social Development, will make the necessary progress to lessen, and eventually eradicate, fuel poverty.

The Department for Social Development’s fuel- poverty strategy was launched by the then Minister, Mr Spellar, in November 2004. Two and a half years into the strategy, it will be interesting to hear the new Minister for Social Development’s assessment of the targets set in the strategy, primarily the eradication of fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010, and in non-vulnerable households by 2016.

The fuel-poverty strategy was also aimed at encouraging a partnership approach to tackling fuel poverty involving Government Departments, public-sector organisations, those in the energy industry and, most importantly, those in the voluntary and community sectors. Again, it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s assessment of the strategy, considering that there was extensive consultation prior to its publication.

It has been suggested that, after the launch of the report, little attention was paid to the efforts, views and ideas of those who had been consulted. The strategy therefore failed to effectively deliver measures to tackle fuel poverty — and that is before any criticism of the lack of resources made available through the strategy.

From experience in my constituency, I wish to highlight two areas that have proven difficult: elderly owner-occupiers who just fail the means test; and those who, even though on benefit, rent privately and who must be of pensionable age to qualify for assistance. If those sections of the community sought alternative accommo-dation through social housing, the Housing Executive system would never cope and, indeed, might collapse.

There are other aspects of fuel poverty that could be discussed, but I join others, inside and outside the Chamber, in calling for a review and a rethink of the strategy.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome any discussion on the eradication of fuel poverty, and the motion will contribute to that.

Reports on child poverty have recently been published by Save the Children and Barnardo’s. In a specific example of fuel poverty from a Save the Children booklet, a mother tells of her experience of the social fund. She did not get a crisis loan and had to ask her oil company whether she could receive weekly heating-oil deliveries. She had the oilman write out a bill with the cost details, but because it was not stamped as being paid, she did not get the loan. She said that she would not have sought the loan had she not been in crisis. Members can only imagine the added stress in an already difficult situation.

Save the Children argues that the social fund should be more flexible. Barnardo’s has also made the point to me that, generally speaking, schemes to eradicate fuel poverty tend to be geared towards older people. If that is the case, perhaps that could be considered; however, a lot of evidence suggests that older people are still the group most likely to suffer from fuel poverty.

At the weekend I spoke with the manager of the Western Health Action Zone. She said that some older people on certain pensions do not qualify for the warm homes scheme and that they feel unfairly excluded. She feels that this should be addressed. She also made the point that winter fuel and cold weather payments should be paid in vouchers that are redeemable for fuel bills only.

Some older people are not always keen to adapt to change, living for the most part in maybe one room that can be heated to some degree, while other rooms remain cold and damp. Those older people do not always claim their entitlements. This could be because of stigma or the complexity involved in making an application. The manager of the Western Health Action Zone believes that a locally dedicated officer would be invaluable in such situations. It is crucial that such an officer be funded through mainstream funding.

However, in researching the fuel poverty issue, I was struck by the number of organisations and Government bodies that are engaged in tackling fuel poverty. There is no shortage of strategies either, whether currently operational, proposed or implemented. One group in particular, the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Advisory Group (NIFPAG), appears to be sizeable: it includes personnel from the health action zones, Energy Action Grants Agency (Eaga plc), Phoenix Gas and Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE). What role would it play in the context of the review proposed by today’s motion?

To give a brief outline, the advisory group’s remit is to consider and report to the inter-departmental group on fuel poverty, which is composed of senior civil servants from right across the Departments. The advisory group will report to that group on the effectiveness of current policies in delivering reductions in fuel poverty and comment on additional policies that may be required; identify barriers to reducing fuel poverty and propose solutions; comment on the Government’s findings on the nature and extent of fuel poverty in the North of Ireland and have oversight of the fuel poverty strategy, assessing the resources required, publishing an annual report and reviewing strategy as necessary.

It held its inaugural meeting in June 2005, and I presume that its first annual report came a year later — I could not actually get the date when I checked it on the internet. It is called: ‘Tackling Fuel Poverty: A Partnership Approach.’ The foreword describes the report as a “landmark publication” and, significantly, notes that:

“The Advisory Group is delighted that its Report will inform the work and priorities of the Inter-departmental Group on Fuel Poverty”.

Therefore, I am wondering whether work has already been done, and if so, what stage it is at. Does the proposer of the motion intend —

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

Mr P Ramsey: I welcome Fred Cobain’s motion and thank him for moving it.

I think everyone in the Chamber would agree that it is totally unacceptable that in 2007 large numbers of people in Northern Ireland are still suffering from fuel poverty — a result of low incomes, homes in poor condition and the rising price of energy.

In 2004 the number of households in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland stood at over 150,000 — almost 24% of Northern Ireland’s households. That number will have substantially increased and may well have completely eroded the reduction from 33·3% to 23·9% achieved between 2001 and 2004, despite the good work of the Department for Social Development, the Housing Executive and its partners in improving the housing stock so that there is greater fuel efficiency.

There is no doubt that low income levels coupled with energy price hikes have forced many people into the fuel-poor bracket. That is particularly the case for low-wage households. We must understand better the fuel-poverty landscape and the dynamics that affect it in Northern Ireland so that we can model the impact of energy price rises on fuel poverty.

4.45 pm

Recently, a fuel-poverty indicator was announced in London. It uses census and housing-condition survey data to map the distribution of fuel poverty across England, and will help target resources. It is particularly disappointing that no such initiative has taken place in Northern Ireland despite the same data sources being available here. I am sure that the Minister will help us to obtain that.

Until there is an accurate model, Members cannot be sure about the extent of the problem at any given time, how best to address it, and where to target resources. There must be downward pressure on electricity and gas prices through investment in infrastructure, the advancement of all-island and international energy markets and investment in the electricity grids to allow for greater international competition.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment should work vigorously to promote sustainable energy generation that is smaller-scale and locally owned and distributed using successful models, such as in Köln, Germany, and those in Denmark and Sweden. Farming communities could benefit by becoming suppliers of heat and power using energy crops, wind power and anaerobic digestion. Local generation of heat and power ensures greater price stability, reduces vulnerability to international fuel-price fluctuations and ensures security of energy supply.

The utility regulator must work with energy suppliers and meaningfully address the development of social tariffs, which will avoid the exclusion of lower-income groups from the best available tariffs — often referred to as the poverty premium.

Priorities for improvements in areas where there are poor insulation levels in households or low take-up of available programmes must be examined. The Housing Executive’s latest housing-condition survey shows that there are particular problems relating to the insulation of homes in isolated rural areas and inner cities. The most likely residents in such homes are elderly people or those in low-quality, private-rented accommodation, many of whom are vulnerable due to their age and economic circumstances.

The income threshold at which households can qualify for grants for energy-efficiency measures must also be examined. Many people who are working and whose income is below £15,000 a year are suffering from fuel poverty. Fifty per cent of households experiencing fuel poverty will have an income of between £7,000 and £15,000, and yet many will not be eligible for grant aid because they do not have a passport, or qualifying benefit. The income threshold must be raised if eradicating fuel poverty is to be taken seriously, and eligibility criteria in mainstream programmes, such as the warm homes scheme, need to be widened to include low-income households.

Funding should also be sought to allow advisers from the warm homes scheme, or other programmes, to carry out preliminary benefit checks to ensure that people in the homes they visit are aware, and are in receipt of, their full benefit entitlements.

It is disappointing that, despite the Chancellor’s announcement in the ‘Pre-Budget Report 2006’ that £7·5 million in additional resources to support area-based approaches to tackling fuel poverty — of which £1·2 million is to be provided for the devolved regions — we have heard nothing in respect of its deployment in Northern Ireland. That is another area that the Minister must examine. Surely, that would provide an opportunity to deploy resources to support benefit entitlement assessment with a priority towards rural areas where take-up of programmes, such as the warm home scheme, is lower.

Fuel poverty needs to be tackled from the perspective of household incomes, housing conditions and energy prices —

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

Mr P Ramsey: I support the motion.

Ms Lo: It is well documented that the main causes of fuel poverty are the combination of low income, high fuel prices and energy inefficiency. The groups that are particularly vulnerable have been identified as the elderly, people with disabilities and families with children. It must be acknowledged that the Government have done much in recent years to reduce fuel poverty by improving social-housing conditions, providing the warm homes scheme and winter fuel payments, and so on.

However, increasing energy prices over the past three years have probably offset those benefits. The recent increase in rates will also have an impact on low-income families and elderly people.

Last September, Help the Aged stated that more than 1,500 elderly people had died from cold-related conditions since 2000. In a report published last week, Barnardo’s, my previous employer, stated that almost 27,000 families with children were currently regarded as being in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. All those figures are unacceptable. Much more must be done, and a more focused approach, targeting low-income families and elderly people, is required urgently. That is why I wholeheartedly support the motion.

In June 2004, NIFPAG published a range of recommendations. The group called for more joined-up Government thinking, and it linked fuel poverty to the anti-poverty strategy, because of the prevalence of low incomes and fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education, the Department for Social Development, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Social Security Agency and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should all re-examine their policies in order to maximise the targeting of schemes and joined-up working.

A greater focus on energy efficiency solutions and carbon reduction is required to improve heating systems in Northern Ireland. Government and the regulatory authorities, in conjunction with energy suppliers, must explore the development of social tariffs that will enable a reduction in prices for low-income customers. The Northern Ireland Electricity pay-as-you-go type of metering technology should be promoted as good practice that provides benefits to customers by encouraging energy efficiency and offering discounted tariffs. Given the impact of low incomes on fuel poverty, the Government should also link pension payments, benefit payments and minimum wage levels to fuel costs.

The statutory and voluntary sectors must promote a greater awareness of fuel-poverty-related benefits and entitlements, particularly among hard-to-reach groups such as the new ethnic populations, so that they can alleviate the hardships of increasing fuel costs.

Mr Craig: I congratulate Mr Cobain and Mr Beggs for securing this debate on fuel poverty. Northern Ireland suffers greater fuel poverty than other regions of the UK because of higher fuel costs and lower average incomes. Undoubtedly, the biggest single contribution towards eradicating fuel poverty would be to increase the incomes of the lowest earners. All the figures show that levels of fuel poverty increase as income decreases, and even if all Northern Ireland’s housing stock were brought up to an acceptable level of fitness, around 17% would still remain in fuel poverty.

Oil and gas price rises have meant that people who were previously just under the threshold of spending 10% on their energy bills can now be brought into the fuel-poor category. Figures provided by the Department for Social Development show that owner-occupiers make up the biggest band on the fuel-poverty scale: over 50% of fuel poverty is endured by homeowners. Although fuel poverty among other sectors has fallen, the level of fuel poverty among homeowners has remained unchanged.

One third of the dwellings that are in poverty were built before 1919. Over 44% of those who are in fuel poverty are retired.

I am glad that the previous devolved Minister for Social Development took great steps to reduce fuel poverty, through the introduction of the warm homes scheme. However, it is right that we keep pushing for progress in this area. The Minister should review the strategy that has been put in place. There are areas where improvements could be made that would contribute further to the final eradication of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

I am surprised that my constituency of Lagan Valley, with just over 6% of the population of Northern Ireland, received only 3·5% of warm homes funding and had the third lowest take-up of new heating installations under the scheme. That is something that must be readdressed.

Energy efficiency measures are one of the most important areas to consider. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has published a report claiming that UK households could save up to £230 a year on their energy bills and cut annual carbon emissions across the country by more than 30 million tonnes just by heating homes and generating hot water more efficiently. For many households in fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, £230 a year would make a significant impact. The Minister must take that into account when carrying out any review of the fuel poverty strategy.

The warm homes scheme has proven to be a qualified success, Lagan Valley excluded. Although the heating element of the scheme has now been extended to those over the age of 60 who are in receipt of disability-related benefits, there are still possibilities for extending the scheme. Working households, in particular, currently do not meet the criteria for warm homes, but, if they are in work but only receiving a very low income, they can easily find themselves in fuel poverty.

The Minister has placed her focus on social housing; she has emphasised that several times. In the construction of such houses, she can help to ensure that the problems of fuel poverty are prevented in the future. The Minister should look towards ensuring that all new social housing built in Northern Ireland meets the EcoHomes standard.

I again congratulate the Members for bringing forward the motion and I hope that the Minister will be able to review the strategy for tackling fuel poverty in Northern Ireland and making it a thing of the past.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to talk about the overall issue of fuel poverty, but with particular reference to my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The Government’s targets of eradicating fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010, and totally by 2016, are a complete failure at this stage. Sixty per cent of those in fuel poverty are pensioners, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone has one of the highest proportions of elderly people and low-income families. Another contributory factor is that 12% of houses in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are deemed to be unfit for proper heating or human habitation, but people are still living in them. That contributes to fuel poverty and the difficulties of living in an environment that is acceptable by today’s standards.

A household is defined as being in fuel poverty if it spends more than 10% of its income on fuel and is unable to heat the home to an acceptable level. Often, low-income families are also in food poverty, as has been proved today.

Families no longer eat quality food, and that contributes to the difficulties. The cost of living — people may need two incomes for mortgages and cars — pushes costs such as fuel to the bottom of the agenda of family needs. Visiting a pensioner’s house would bring home to anyone just what cold temperatures some people are prepared to live in. None of us would be prepared to live in the kind of temperatures of houses that I have visited — and certainly not in the winter. Their need is great. Such people often end up in accident and emergency departments as a result of falls brought on by hypothermia. Those are all contributing factors, and those who are ill are not always able to make use of energy or heating grants.

5.00 pm

Fuel poverty is assessed on energy efficiency, income and fuel costs. The Department for Social Development’s ‘Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland’ stresses the need for homes to become energy-efficient through properly working, efficient heating systems, advice on conserving fuel and good installation. The warm homes scheme has addressed this since its introduction, but the system of accessing services often excludes the most vulnerable and needy in our society. Potential users must make direct contact with the authorities in order to access the scheme and surveys have to be carried out. Those most eligible for the scheme should be automatically offered the service rather than having to fight for it.

The winter fuel allowance for pensioners should be index-linked, and, with 60% of pensioner households involved, it should be extended to those on full disability living allowance to allow people who cannot move or have low mobility to live in warm conditions. Grant aid to upgrade heating systems should be easier to apply for and should be given priority; the Northern Ireland Housing Executive strategy document suggests that Housing Executive homes should have their heating systems upgraded and replaced by 2010. Removing back boilers and conventional methods of heating from some houses might have been a retrograde step, as people are now limited to oil fires only. Oil, unlike gas, has to be paid for upfront rather than monthly; many people find such upfront payment difficult.

Private landlords should not escape their duty to provide adequate, efficient heating in homes, although at present many tenants find that that is not the case. Homes have not been updated and tenants are living in substandard accommodation, yet they have no choice because they cannot make anybody accountable. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Storey: There is little doubt that the well-being of a society can be judged by the state of its poorest or most vulnerable members. Therefore the DUP supports the motion and thanks the Member who brought this important issue to the Assembly. If fuel poverty is one of the benchmarks for judging the state of our poorest and most vulnerable members, our society is far from well. Many of our citizens, through no fault of their own, are not beneficiaries of social justice nor do they get the helping hand that they have a right to expect. The motion is loaded against social injustice and cries out for fuel poverty to be made a priority — not merely an issue for yet another strategy that fails to meet its targets.

More than 100,000 homes in the Province in which the head of the household is over 60, suffer from fuel poverty. It is unacceptable that an estimated 2,000 people will die in the Province because they are living in cold houses and cannot afford heat.

Members should bear that statistic in mind as they debate the issue. Fuel poverty causes deaths in our communities, so it is a matter of the highest priority.

Members referred to the DUP Minister in the previous Assembly who pioneered the warm homes scheme. This Assembly must go further and develop a fit-for-purpose strategy to deal with the social injustice of fuel poverty, both among the elderly and in families with children. Research carried out a few years ago suggests that around 40,000 houses in the Northern Health and Social Services Board area were fuel poor, and it was estimated that over 4,000 homes fall into the fuel-poor category in my North Antrim constituency, particularly in Ballymoney. That is unacceptable in a time of greater economic prosperity. Questions must be asked and answers found, not only for my constituents, but right across the Province.

In Ballymoney, we have begun to address the fuel-poverty issue by aligning agencies and developing household-friendly strategies. The Ballymoney Warm Homes group, in conjunction with the borough council, has launched an affordable fuel stamp scheme to help homeowners budget efficiently so that they can afford heating oil. The scheme is supported by a local partnership and involves oil retail outlets. It is a good example of how simple homeowner-friendly schemes may be developed and can impact positively on households.

There are those who are economically hamstrung, such as the elderly, and impoverished families with children, who need more than advice. They need a helping hand.

I am glad that the Minister is present. The Assembly should urge her to empower her Department to develop a Province-wide strategy to encourage budgeting and saving for home heating oil. Furthermore, she should prepare a careful estimate of the funds required to support the elderly in that through the winter, and should factor that into her future budgets.

I ask the Minister to provide an update for Members on the pledge given by her predecessor, Minister Hanson, in July 2006 in the Long Gallery in this Building. On that occasion, he made reference to the provision of free solar panels for some 1,200 fuel-poor homes in Northern Ireland. We await the impact of that. I support the motion.

Mr Beggs: I too support the motion. In 1842, Edwin Chadwick presented scientific evidence to support his findings that deaths from disease were:

“powerfully influenced by the physical conditions under which the population is placed — as the external and internal condition of their dwellings, drainage and ventilation.”

Cold, damp homes contribute to illness and even death. I pay tribute to Northern Energy Action Northern Ireland for the compelling information in its booklet ‘Fuel Poverty: The Health Imperative’. In it, the group indicates that cold can be a killer, especially among pensioners. In temperatures of below 16ºC there is an increased risk of respiratory illness; below 12ºC, cardiovascular changes increase the risk of stroke and heart attack; and below 5ºC, there is an increased risk of hypothermia. Help the Aged estimates that, in 2004-05, 1,280 older people in Northern Ireland died from cold-related illnesses. That must not be allowed to continue.

In 2004, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive advised that heating a three-bedroom house would cost £1,711, using basic electricity. That cost might be reduced to as little as £395 if a modern condensing boiler system were used. All social houses must be upgraded to become well-insulated and fuel-efficient homes.

Fuel poverty is much wider than the social-housing sector. In the private-rental sector, many homeowners or tenants also suffer from fuel poverty. The warm homes scheme, administered by Eaga plc is designed to address that for those in the private sector who qualify, upgrading home insulation, or even providing complete central heating systems for some through the warm homes plus scheme.

However, according to the Northern Ireland House Condition Survey 2004, there was a decrease in fuel poverty in the social housing sector from 37% in 2001 to 18% in 2004. There have been dramatic increases in energy costs since then, however, and winter fuel premiums have remained static since 2000. There is a clear need now for the Chancellor to increase that in line with fuel inflation — not ordinary inflation, but fuel inflation.

The Northern Ireland House Condition Survey 2004 indicated that 71% of homes in fuel poverty are now in the owner-occupied sector — up from 51% in 2001. This worsening situation needs to be addressed.

With increasing numbers of tenants in the private-rental sector, there will also be a need to review policy and programmes to ensure that this sector is not overlooked. For some, the private-rental sector means high rents and poor housing conditions — clearly fuel poverty.

Pensioners account for 54% of the fuel poor. Most pensioners have low incomes and are living in older houses that are costly to heat. While many programmes have been run to encourage benefit uptake, it has been estimated that a third of pensioners have yet to take up their means-tested benefit entitlements. Some pilot programmes involving partnership working between statutory bodies and the community and voluntary sectors have been successful in encouraging uptake. Clearly that needs to be widely repeated throughout Northern Ireland.

There is a significant cost to the National Health Service for this inadequate housing. Cold and damp related illnesses have a knock-on effect, and tackling them will result in fewer visits to GPs and fewer prescriptions, and the winter pressure on our hospital beds will be lessened.

There are also educational costs associated with fuel poverty. Cold, damp conditions lead to mould growth, which exacerbates asthma and leads to wheezing. They can also lead to higher levels of bacteria and viral infection. Children suffering from fuel poverty miss school and can become educationally disadvantaged. There is a clear need for the percentage of children in families on out-of-work benefits for each constituency in Northern Ireland to be addressed. The Joseph Rowntree Trust has indicated that these figures are not available for Northern Ireland.

There is urgent work to be carried out here, and I urge the Minister to review the policy to reflect the changes that have occurred.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to remain quiet during speeches.

Mrs M Bradley: The issue of fuel poverty affects all realms of society, from the cradle to the grave. Older people are afraid to heat more than one room at a time and often wear outdoor clothes while indoors to keep warm. They do not eat properly so that they can afford their heating bills. This is not an unfamiliar story to young families either.

There is also evidence that those who live in what are classed as affluent areas are also suffering from the effects of fuel poverty. With ever-increasing interest-rate rises, and another one pending during the summer months, this problem will only get worse.

The real difficulty is in identifying those who are suffering from fuel poverty, and even then there is no guarantee that help can be given, particularly if one or other partner is currently employed. The unemployed at least have a fighting chance of receiving some type of help. However, many of my constituents are already in a lot of debt because of the disgraceful sham of the tax credit system. As overpayments occur on a continual basis, it has become common practice for the Inland Revenue to seek repayments through the child tax credit allocation, leaving little or no benefit going into the household. Those people are in real dire straits.

Speaking in my capacity as party spokesperson for the elderly, I have already requested that there should be an immediate increase in the winter payment this year. Fuel payments, and more importantly the basic state pension, must be reviewed as a matter of urgency to bring them into line with inflation.

Millions are spent on notifying the general public of unclaimed benefits by the older members of our society. If so much is unclaimed, the winter fuel payments can be increased. It will go some way towards saving a life, because this is how serious a problem fuel poverty is.

There have been and will continue to be deaths until something is done. Since the publication of the Department for Social Development’s fuel poverty strategy in 2004, the average income has increased by 6%, benefits have increased by approximately 2%, and fuel prices have increased by a massive 70%.

5.15 pm

Shamefully, nothing has changed since 2004. If anything, the number of homes that are fuel poor has increased. Therefore, it is vital that we review the entire strategy, as it is clear that there has been no improvement in the situation. In 2004, Northern Ireland had the highest rate of fuel poverty, and it may still retain that top slot. I support the motion, and I commend Roy Beggs and Fred Cobain for bringing it to the House.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Cobain and Mr Beggs for proposing the motion, which I support.

In 2004, households that were headed by older people were much more likely to be living in fuel poverty. Some 39% of people aged between 60 and 74, and 42% of those aged 75 and over, were more likely to be suffering from fuel poverty than younger age groups. Some 79% of dwellings built before 1945 have repair faults. Older people are more likely to live in older houses, which are less likely to be energy efficient. The Housing Executive’s Interim House Condition Survey of 2004 clearly demonstrates that a large proportion of older people are living in accommodation that is in an unfit state of repair, or below the decent home standard.

In 2006, some 6,000 homes had insulation measures installed, at a total cost of £11 million, and the winter fuel payment was received by 320,000 people. That is not an index-linked figure, as has been mentioned. However, it should be index-linked, because otherwise it is an arbitrary figure.

Despite those measures, the rising costs of oil, gas and electricity leave many older people on low and fixed incomes at risk of fuel poverty. A house is in fuel poverty if the occupants have to spend more than 10% of their income in order to maintain an acceptable temperature throughout the home.

Fuel poverty has even encroached on the Assembly. Recently, there have been complaints about the temperature in the Chamber — a Member described it as being like a stepmother’s breath on the back of one’s neck. On a more serious note, consider how difficult it is for a household in fuel poverty when one makes a comparison with the Assembly, which has large resources for heating.

Since 2001, some 1,500 older people have died of cold-related illnesses, which is an appalling statistic. A recent report from Save the Children indicates that almost 7,000 children in my constituency are living in poverty in the Newry area. A family of two adults and two children is considered to be below the poverty line if it has a benefit income of £289 or more.

Fuel poverty has an impact on the health of the old and the young, and that impacts directly on healthcare provision. There are many schemes in operation to help relieve fuel poverty — the warm homes scheme has been lauded, and has been effective. However, only a concentrated and properly funded initiative to tackle fuel poverty will have any effect. That includes the provision of affordable social housing, and a realistic rate for benefits.

An old and often-used cliché states that the measure of any society is how it looks after its most vulnerable members, namely the old and the young. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to fulfil that obligation. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Morrow: I welcome the debate. I would like to pay tribute to the Energy Action Grants Agency, which administers the warm homes scheme and which was established some years ago. That organisation does a superb job. In Eaga plc’s table for the Province’s 18 constituencies, my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone is near the top for take-up.

Therefore, the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone have benefited from that scheme, and I want to put on record the appreciation of all those who have done so, to date. Some Members have a working knowledge of the warm homes scheme and were quite close to it at its introduction. It has been of benefit to many elderly people; however, things have moved on. Perhaps it is time for some new ideas and for changes to be made. I also welcome the presence in the Chamber of the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie. I have little doubt that she will devote energy and enthusiasm to the issue. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

Another increase in gas or oil prices may be an inconvenience for some people. However, for many families across Northern Ireland, it can push them across a barrier, which results in their paying out more than 10% of their income on energy bills. That is something that must be checked. It is a situation that, as the motion highlights, is increasingly common for older people and for many working families on low incomes. It is a very real challenge for those in greatest need. We often read of older people who have to make the choice in winter between heating their home and eating.

Good work has been started by previous Ministers and by the introduction of a fuel poverty strategy here. However, I support a call for a review into the strategy as it would allow the Assembly to help implement changes that could make a real difference to people’s lives. Unfortunately, the Minister does not have control over the winter heating allowance payable to pensioners. Nevertheless, I hope that she will make representations to the Chancellor for an increase in that payment, on which many older people rely heavily.

Many people were confused after receiving the one-off payment for heating in 2005 — which was not repeated last year — because they believed it was to be a yearly increase in their fuel allowance. I ask the Minister to make some representation to the Chancellor on that matter too. I suspect that her call for an investigation into that payment would have some impact.

The Minister might also consider a review of the warm homes scheme. Although it is not a perfect scheme, it is a good one and has been very successful. It needs to be reviewed as some years have passed. In the case of households with children in particular, there may be some scope for the Minister to investigate how the scheme might be widened out with a review of benefits entitlement.

There are many people who could save a significant amount of money if they received some very simple home-insulation measures. While the Minister is very conscious of cost issues, the measures would ultimately pay benefits to the Northern Ireland Budget through a reduction in health costs, given the implications of living in poorly heated property.

A review of the fuel poverty strategy will be welcomed so that a proper investigation can determine its effects. As some homes are lifted out of fuel poverty, the focus should be shifted to those people who are harder to reach and much more vulnerable. Incidentally, there are many people who qualify for assistance but, unfortunately, do not take up the offer. The Minister, her Department, and those who administer the scheme have some responsibilities here. I have no criticisms of those who administer the scheme; however, I want a greater effort to be made in reaching those families who would qualify for assistance but who do not avail of the scheme, or do not know about it. That is not due to lack of publicity — it has been widely publicised. Nevertheless, I would like to see a greater uptake of the scheme.

I could say much more, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I realise that my allotted time to speak has expired and that you are going to tell me to quit.

Mr Deputy Speaker: You are absolutely right, Lord Morrow.

Mr Burns: I welcome the opportunity to speak about fuel poverty, and I am glad that that the issue has been raised so early in the life of this Assembly.

Fuel poverty is a serious problem in all our constituencies. We must ensure that we follow through with the targets that are set out in the fuel poverty strategy, which aims to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable fuel-poor households by 2010, and in all households by 2016. There have been significant developments to meet those targets in the past few years, and I welcome all initiatives to ensure that fuel poverty is eliminated.

Northern Ireland has been shown to have the highest rates of fuel poverty in the United Kingdom, with one in three households suffering from its effects. Research has shown that fuel poverty damages health and social well-being. It particularly affects people from vulnerable groups. Evidence has shown that people who live warm homes are healthier, and their children are more likely to reach their full potential.

Northern Ireland’s fuel poverty strategy was published in November 2004. It aims to end fuel poverty by the dates that I have already mentioned and to ensure that no household in the social rented sector suffers from fuel poverty. The main figures for the Housing Executive’s ‘Interim House Condition Survey 2004’ were based on the ‘Northern Ireland House Condition Survey 2001’, and, given the considerable time lag between then and 2007, significant developments have been made in dealing with fuel poverty. I call for the urgent publication of the ‘Northern Ireland House Condition Survey 2006’, so that we can envisage current conditions in the housing sector and view fuel-poverty rates in Northern Ireland.

There are several main causes of fuel poverty, including high fuel costs, low income and poor energy efficiency. The relevant Ministers must look at those issues, and their Departments must work together to ensure that development and improvement in those areas will lead to the eradication of fuel poverty.

Considerable progress has been made in reducing fuel poverty in Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2004. However, the constant change in fuel prices and the introduction of higher rates for householders does not show the aggregate picture of what has happened between 2004 and 2007. Hikes in fuel prices may even have made improvements null and void.

One of the most vulnerable groups affected by fuel poverty is the elderly. Help the Aged reported that 1,500 elderly people in Northern Ireland died in the winters between 2000 and 2006. There were 449 deaths in 2005-06 alone as a result of fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty leads to several adverse health effects. In 2004, the Health Promotion Agency said:

“People experiencing fuel poverty can suffer from many … conditions relating to cold homes costing the Northern Ireland health service around £30 million each year.”

New figures are available about the cost to the Health Service, but it is easy to assume that those figures are not decreasing sufficiently, if at all.

The number of people experiencing fuel poverty will increase with the introduction of the new capital-value-based rates. Older people who live alone in their family home are distraught about the situation in which they find themselves, and many are trying to reduce their fuel bills by living in, and heating, one room only. They are embarrassed to admit that they are struggling.

The Department for Social Development announced in January 2007 that the Housing Executive was to undertake the largest solar-panel installation scheme in Europe. That scheme will see about 1,200 fuel-poor homes benefit from a 100%-funded solar panel. That will reduce fuel bills and provide people with affordable and sustainable heating solutions. Some £70 million has been spent on tackling fuel poverty and £20 million has been spent on improving energy efficiency through the warm homes scheme.

5.30 pm

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I welcome the motion and the many contributions from Members. Time permitting, I will try to address all the issues that have been raised — if I cannot do so today, I will happily write to individual Members.

A household is in fuel poverty if, to maintain an acceptable temperature throughout the home, it has to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel. Fuel poverty impacts on all aspects of life: housing, health, the environment, children’s education and social inclusion. It leads to cold, damp homes. It forces people to make a choice that nobody should ever have to make, between food on the table and warmth in the home.

As many Members have said, fuel poverty can drive people into ill health, thereby placing a serious burden on our health services, and it can also impact on mortality rates. Those issues need to be addressed by my Department, and, on a cross-cutting basis, by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and, perhaps, others.

Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to tackle fuel poverty. Fuel poverty is, of course, influenced by three factors: poor energy efficiency, low incomes and high energy costs. Members will be aware of the vital role in tackling poor energy efficiency of initiatives such as the warm homes scheme and the Housing Executive’s improvement and maintenance programmes. In the last financial year, these programmes spent £44 million, which meant that around 16,000 homes were provided with energy efficiency measures.

In the past year, the volume of work carried out under the warm homes scheme has increased — the number of homes involved has increased from 8,250 to 10,000 — and the eligibility criteria for central heating systems have been extended to include those aged 60 or over who are in receipt of non-means-tested disability-related benefits. In addition, funding is now available for a number of fuel-poverty partnership schemes, which operate in conjunction with our main programmes and help to address the needs of those vulnerable people who might fall outside the scope of the warm homes scheme.

These schemes are also supported by Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE), which works in partnership with a range of statutory, voluntary and community organisations. Through the NIE energy efficiency programme, between 20 and 30 schemes are delivered each year to help customers to reduce energy use and, therefore, bills.

In 2007-08, NIE will manage a £4·5 million package of measures aimed at providing central heating and insulation to priority vulnerable households across Northern Ireland, thereby helping to provide affordable warmth to households that are not eligible for the warm homes scheme. I think that Mr Cobain referred to that. Those schemes depend very much on the drive and determination of those in the private and voluntary sector to tackle fuel poverty. I pay tribute to the members of those partnership schemes.

The success of those programmes is clearly shown by the fact that 97% of properties in Northern Ireland now have some form of central heating; 78% have some form of wall insulation; and 95% have loft insulation. As a result, the number of households in fuel poverty has fallen from 33% in 2001 to 24% in 2004.

A full survey was carried out last year, and I eagerly await the findings, which, unfortunately, will not be available until October. However, I will be meeting the Housing Executive next week when I chair its annual performance review, and I will specifically ask what the interim report tells us about the 2006 house-condition survey. I have already let the Housing Executive know of my intention to ask about that.

I am concerned that fuel prices have increased considerably in the past two years. Those increases have not helped our situation, though there were price reductions in gas and electricity earlier this year.

Many households with an annual income below £15,000 are likely to experience fuel poverty, and such provisions as the winter fuel payment, the introduction of pension credit and the various benefit uptake projects are aimed at helping to maximise household incomes. I hope that more people will avail of the benefit uptake programme that I launched two weeks ago. Research has raised concerns about the number of people who appear not to have claimed the support to which they are entitled. It is intolerable that vulnerable people are missing out on support that is rightfully theirs, and I am determined to address that issue in my time as Minister. The Social Security Agency’s benefit uptake programme for the year ahead will target the people who are entitled to support, for instance, those who have a disability or a long-term illness as well as pensioners, carers and families with children.

Benefits are only part of the solution. The best route out of poverty for most people and their families is work. However, some of those who experience fuel poverty are the working poor, and it is important that we do everything possible to address that growing problem. That is why I intend to commission further research into establishing the extent of the problem, and I assure the House that the findings and recommendations from that research will be fully considered. Through the national minimum wage and tax credits — £550 million per annum in Northern Ireland — we will also strive to ensure that people will be better off in work than on benefits.

Considering our higher fuel prices, there is now a more pressing need to conserve energy and explore new forms of renewable energy to help reduce the impact of the volatile fossil fuel market.

Mr McGlone: The Minister referred to the extensive levels of fuel poverty, and 76% of households that experience fuel poverty — among them young families and pensioners — have an annual income of £10,000 or less in many cases. The positive benefits of energy-efficient measures that the Minister referred to are being substantially undermined by the fuel prices that are escalating disproportionately to income. Has the Minister given any consideration to the use of bioenergy? It would have two advantages: the potential environmental benefit; and, importantly, it would provide a cheaper home-heating alternative to fossil fuels.

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr McGlone for his intervention. The Assembly is up to the challenge, and the environment and renewable energy fund is making a major contribution towards the development of technologies that will enable a more widespread use of renewable energy. That will not only contribute to environmental improvements; it will help us further reduce fuel poverty.

In response to Mr McGlone, I intend to explore the use of biomass heating in housing-association developments this year, but I will write to him with a more detailed response.

The environment and renewable energy fund has been allocated over £60 million for 2006-08, and it will allow us to test out technologies to increase the use of renewable energy: the use of solar panels; biomass energy in the form of wood-burning boilers; and the development of pilot community-based heating systems in social housing.

A fuel-poverty focus has been added to the fund, and, as a result, approximately 1,200 fuel-poor homes in the private and social sectors will benefit from 100%-funded solar panel installation in 2006-08, and that will lead to reduced fuel bills and make a significant contribution to the objective of creating affordable warmth.

It is only through the continued efforts of all who are involved that we will realise the vision of a society in which people live in warm and comfortable homes and are not worried about the effects that the cold will have on their health.

A great deal has been achieved, but there is more to do. I intend to reactivate as soon as possible the interdepartmental fuel poverty group, which will be under my chairmanship. That group will consider innovative ways of tackling fuel poverty. I am confident that, by working in partnership, we will continue to make significant progress in tackling the problem.

I want to pay tribute to the fuel poverty advisory group, to which Ms McGill referred, for its hard work over the past two years and for the time and effort that it has given freely to assist on fuel poverty. I hope to engage with it in the near future. I have read the group’s annual report, and I acknowledge that the previous Administration accepted 30 of its 37 recommendations. I will look afresh at the seven recommendations that were originally rejected to see whether there is any merit in their introduction. I am prepared to consider any proposal that will help to alleviate the scourge of fuel poverty in our community, and I would be grateful for the support of the Assembly and the Committee for Social Development.

Many issues were raised during the debate. Mr Cobain referred to a question that he asked me at the meeting of the Committee for Social Development the other day. I can say quite categorically that I wish to continue with the previous Administration’s target to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010. Lord Morrow asked whether I would make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I will be quite happy to do so and will forward a letter to him tomorrow. I firmly believe that pensioners deserve what they are entitled to. They face higher fuel costs and very high costs for other consumable products. If we have any concern for the public, pensioners should come first.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Ritchie: Mr McHugh asked how likely it was that the Department for Social Development would meet the target of eradicating fuel poverty by 2010. Notwithstanding the impact that higher fuel costs and lower incomes have in Northern Ireland, I intend to work towards that target. I will seek the support of the Committee and the Assembly in so doing.

Mr Cobain asked how much the eradication of fuel poverty would cost and how long it would take to achieve. Along with my departmental officials, I will continue to commit resources to the eradication of fuel poverty for as long as it takes. Currently, we are committing £40 million a year to that task. Mr Cobain also asked what action the Department had taken to ensure that those who are most in need receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. Under the warm homes scheme, a benefit entitlement check has been introduced. Originally, that check was to be only for those who qualified under the warm homes scheme, but there are plans to extend the check to all who apply under that scheme. I will take on board what Mr Cobain said.

I have addressed questions on the levy that is to be placed on energy producers by saying that Northern Ireland Electricity will provide and manage the £4·5 million package of measures that is aimed at providing central heating and insulation for vulnerable households across Northern Ireland. I am aware of other related issues, and I will write to Mr Cobain about those.

Mr Ramsey asked about the fuel poverty indicators that are used in Great Britain, and he asked why they are not used in Northern Ireland. They have been piloted in England, where an annual house condition survey is carried out. We do not carry out such a survey in Northern Ireland. The results of the 2006 pilot survey will be published shortly, and I will be talking to the Housing Executive about them next week. That will give us the opportunity to consider progress, and I will reconsider the value of measuring annually our progress in tackling fuel poverty.

Mr Ramsey also asked what measures were being taken to address fuel poverty at local level. Many groups are involved in such work — for example, Bryson Charitable Group, the Health Promotion Agency, Northern Ireland Electricity, Phoenix Gas and the energy efficiency advice centres. I will write to the Member about the matter.

I am aware that I have not answered some points that were raised, but I will write to the Members concerned.

5.45 pm

Mr Cobain: I thank the Minister and all Members who participated in the debate.

Every issue that has been debated today is a matter of financial priority for the Executive. Many Members are hopeful that, because of its local autonomy, the Assembly will be able to prioritise the needs of people who live in this part of the United Kingdom. As the Member for North Antrim Mr Storey mentioned, the issue of fuel poverty is different from other issues because if it is not eradicated the number of people who die from cold-related illnesses will dramatically increase in coming years. That is what makes the issue distinct from all the other matters that have been debated.

I took issue with the Minister’s comment that the best route out of poverty is through work. That comment cannot be applied to the working poor who, despite being in work, are still poor. For older people and pensioners who have worked all of their lives, working is not an option. When it is suggested that people should go out to work, we must be careful about to whom we are referring.

The vast majority of people who experience fuel poverty are those who are socially and economically deprived — a fancy term for “the poor”. Those people are the most vulnerable in society, and the Assembly must protect them. The way to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the fuel-poverty programme is through advice. I have listened to the Minister, and other Ministers in the past, say how unfortunate it is that so few people take up the benefits to which they are entitled. A large number of people who live in deprived areas are not always advised about benefits in a way that they can easily understand.

If the Assembly wants to ensure that as many socially and economically deprived people as possible benefit from the warm homes scheme, it should be done through front-line advice. The Committee for Social Development discussed that issue last week. It is essential that there is independent, free advice at source — in the community. The Assembly should encourage, promote and pay for advice programmes. I hope that the Minister will take that issue on board.

There is a need for new forms of renewable energy such as solar panels, which have the potential to reduce fuel bills for the working poor by up to 25%. They can be installed quickly at a fixed capital cost, and I encourage the Minister to explore that route.

The warm homes scheme has been successful. However, it must reviewed and extended to include all people who are over 60 years of age, not only those who are over 60 years of age and on low incomes. The scheme must also be extended to people with disabilities and young families. Although it is an additional financial burden, small amounts of money can make huge differences to fuel poverty.

Further consideration must be given to affordability tariffs. The Assembly is prepared to examine affordability tariffs for water charges; it is essential that they be considered for energy costs.

We must do whatever we can to improve the quality of life of those who are socially and economically deprived — the poor. No anti-poverty strategy could be complete without the inclusion of a fuel-poverty strategy. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to review the strategy for the eradication of fuel poverty, particularly amongst pensioner households and households with children.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]

Funding for Resurfacing of Roads in the Strangford Constituency

Mr Deputy Speaker: Today is the first time that there will be an Adjournment debate in this mandate of the Assembly. Therefore, I remind Members that there will be no winding-up speech, the Minister will have 10 minutes to respond, and the only Question to be put at the conclusion of the debate will be that the Assembly adjourns.

Mr McCarthy: I thank my colleagues on the Business Committee for allowing me to bring an important item of business to the Floor of the Assembly, and I am grateful to Members for staying in the Chamber at the end of a long and busy day. I also thank the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, for being here this afternoon for the debate. Many people who reside in the Strangford constituency and I regard the deplorable condition of many of the roads as a major problem. The same cry for help comes from the tip of the Ards Peninsula beyond Portaferry to the edge of the constituency beyond Saintfield, Carryduff, and so forth.

The constituents of Strangford are hard-working taxpayers and ratepayers. They expect, and deserve, their fair share of Government expenditure on whatever sphere of social activity may be under discussion. The subject of today’s Adjournment debate is the improvement of road surfaces, which is high on the list of the many complaints that I receive from local people. My constituents expect me and other elected colleagues to push for better conditions, and that is the purpose of today’s debate.

I put on record my appreciation for the work carried out on the roads by the local Roads Service section office. However, given its limited resources, it can only do so much. I am sure that the Minister for Regional Development will respond to any requests for additional resources by quoting statistics, and he will say that the Strangford constituency gets its fair share of the roads budget. Those who live there, and are out and about throughout the constituency, have a different view.

The Strangford constituency, as everywhere else in Northern Ireland, has, unfortunately, experienced its fair share of road casualties, and Members sympathise with all those families who have suffered. Every Member has a duty to do what is necessary to prevent further occurrences. If such prevention requires additional investment in road structures, the relevant authority must provide it. All too often, nothing is done until someone is killed or seriously injured, and then remedial action is taken. That is not good enough.

Many constituents and I are concerned about the poor condition of the A20 and A2 roads on both sides of the Ards Peninsula from Newtownards to Portaferry and beyond. Many people use those roads daily to travel to and from work. I can assure the Minister that, because of the many humps and hollows, twists and turns, sunken service covers, drainage and gratings, flooding, and so forth, my constituents are exhausted even before they reach work in the morning.

Something must be done. If increased tourism and business are to be supported and encouraged, more investment is needed on those roads. Such investment would provide value for money not only for residents of the locality but for visitors who come to enjoy the area.

The Ards Peninsula and the rest of the Strangford constituency have much to offer — outdoor activities, sports and stunning scenery. There is a racing track at Kirkistown, numerous golf courses, beautiful beaches, Exploris — the Northern Ireland Aquarium in Portaferry — and abundant caravan parks. All those activities require a good-quality road network, which there currently is not. Members must ensure that the tourism potential of the area is met and that constituents prosper.

I also appeal for vast improvements to the area’s rural roads. In Strangford, people suffer from facilities that were originally built for horses and carts. The road network must now cater for enormous tractors, silage trailers, combine harvesters, large milk tankers, and so on. The people expect better in the twenty-first century.

In recent times, water mains have been provided to many districts throughout the constituency. I acknowledge that that is a major investment, but it entails the ripping-up of many roads. That has resulted in an inadequately smooth or level surface being reinstated. Already, I have received complaints about the Ballyeasborough Road, Gransha Road, Loughdoo Road, Rubane Road, High Street in Portaferry, Main Street in Greyabbey — the list goes on and on. I expect that Roads Service officials will insist that nothing but the best replacement surfaces will be tolerated after the Northern Ireland Water roadworks are completed.

I must also highlight the concerns of local residents, who have had difficulty convincing the Roads Service to provide traffic-calming measures in areas where they feel that someone will end up being killed or seriously injured — particularly in housing developments. The same goes for requests for short lengths of footpath. I appeal to the Minister for Regional Development to ensure that investment is provided that enables every precaution that might avoid road casualties in Strangford — and in every Member’s constituency.

I cordially invite the Minister to visit my constituency to see for himself the daily nightmare that people who use its roads endure. I apologise to Members and the Minister for delaying their journeys home. I am sure that the Minister will travel home on good roads, and in the comfort and luxury of a limousine. The rest of us will have to struggle on with what we have got. I ask that the Minister consider the issues raised in the Adjournment debate.

Mr Hamilton: I congratulate Mr McCarthy for securing the Adjournment debate on this issue, which is of importance to our constituents. I am sure that, over the course of his time in office, the Minister will hear another 17 similarly well-put cases and representations for the resurfacing of roads across Northern Ireland’s other constituencies. However, in Strangford, there is some justification for making the case.

An answer to a parliamentary question to the previous Minister with responsibility for regional development, David Cairns, highlighted the maintenance expenditure between 2001 and 2006 for all council areas. In the Ards area, which covers the majority of the Strangford constituency, less than £20 million was invested in roads. In the east, people repeatedly hear about how bad roads are in the west of the Province. To illustrate that, for the same period, Fermanagh and Omagh received more than £30 million of investment for road maintenance. Given its population and the length of roads there, less than £20 million of investment in an area such as Ards is comparatively insufficient.

Understandably, Mr McCarthy concentrated on the Ards Peninsula, which is his stomping ground, but I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to life outside of the Ards Peninsula. Roads throughout the constituency, particularly on the western side of Strangford Lough and into mid-Down, also suffer from poor surfacing and standards.

6.00 pm

Moreover, I wish to draw his attention to the state of many urban roads. The Strangford constituency is a mix of urban and rural settlements, and the local section office recognises that many streets in towns, such as Newtownards, are in need of repair, but it does not have the resources to deal with them.

This is an important issue in the Strangford constituency for three reasons. First, as the proposer mentioned, there is tourism. Strangford Lough is beautiful, and regularly draws many tourists. There are many attractions, such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) at Castle Espie, Mount Stewart — both of which are in rural areas — and the Exploris aquarium at Portaferry. It is vital that roads to those areas are kept in a good state, not only for ease of access and attractiveness, but for the impression of the area that they generate.

Secondly, it is important economically. There are many small-to-medium-sized companies located in rural areas in the Strangford constituency, so there is an understandable need for good road access for those companies to transport their goods to market and import raw materials as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the proposer mentioned the commute into Belfast. The drive between any part of Strangford to Belfast is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating for those who commute daily. It is an area of relatively high employment, but, because of economic setbacks over the years and the decline of traditional industries, most people work in the Belfast area. That has an impact on the roads, many of which are totally unsuited to the volume of traffic and are, therefore, under strain.

Mr McCarthy mentioned the A2 and the A20 on the Ards Peninsula; in addition, the A22 from Comber to Belfast has always suffered problems with drainage and is ill-equipped for the amount of traffic that uses it.

It would be remiss of me, in a debate on roads in the Strangford constituency, not to raise the issue of the need for new roads, particularly in the context of the pressure on current roads to cope with the volume of traffic.

I thank the Minister for his reply to two questions that I put to him a few weeks ago about the anticipated commencement of construction work in the autumn on the southern distributor road in Newtownards and the Frederick Street link. I hope that they go ahead, because they are badly needed for investment purposes and for easing congestion.

There is also a need for the third phase of the Comber by-pass to be constructed. All these new roads and others will alleviate much of the pressure on existing roads and diminish the need for constant repair and maintenance on them.

I congratulate the Member for bringing this important motion forward, and it is good to have the opportunity to raise an issue specific to the Strangford constituency. I concur that the issue is regularly brought to our attention by our constituents. Although a few people want to talk about the strategic roads, such as the Comber by-pass and the relief roads for Newtownards, the issues that come to our doors are, by and large, about repairs, maintenance and the need for resurfacing. I hope that the Minister can address this issue in a way that is satisfactory to all in Strangford.

Mr McNarry: I want to talk about roads in general, and road surfaces in particular, in the other 17 constituencies. I ask the Minister why Strangford’s roads, particularly their surfaces, are considerably worse than those in the other 17 constituencies. Members will be relieved that I will not talk about the other 17 constituencies today. However, I ask the Minister to tell us why Strangford’s road surfaces are the worst in Northern Ireland.

Not only is Strangford the most beautiful constituency in Northern Ireland — it must rate on a par with many exceptional constituencies in the United Kingdom. Yet, somehow, I suspect that news of Strangford’s beauty has escaped the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which is unable to direct potential investors towards Strangford on a regular basis. Clearly, the Tourist Board has long forgotten where Strangford is, and the Department for Regional Development’s (DRD’s) priorities must lie elsewhere.

The only — and totally unacceptable — reason for that neglect must be that DETI, the Tourist Board and DRD are only too aware of the chronic state of Strangford’s roads and therefore steer clear of pushing investment or encouraging tourism in the numbers that the area deserves; and in the case of DRD it is too embarrassed to even commence with a wish list for road resurfacing.

The traffic-transfer system serving other constituencies that share carriageways entering most, if not all, parts of the Strangford constituency is a decent one. Thereafter, however, the condition of many of the roads deteriorates. Residents, local people and local road users are forced to use not just second-rate road surfaces but, in many cases, fifth-rate road surfaces. It is clear that the upkeep of our roads does not keep pace with road usage or with the needs of the family vehicles on the roads due to the almost non-existent regular bus service to the many villages and townlands throughout the constituency. I recognise that that does not fall within the Minister’s remit: at least, I do not think it does. Nevertheless, the car is the only way to get about.

I could use all my allocated time to simply list all the roads in Strangford that require resurfacing. However, I want to emphasise that driving in Strangford can be very dangerous: hazardous for drivers and hard on the vehicles. Many of the roads are tracks, and too many are full of potholes and poor repairs followed by repair after repair. They are uneven and greatly neglected.

Strangford deserves a commitment from the Minister and his Department. A positive review is required that challenges the internal departmental criteria of what is accepted as resurfacing and provides a new definition —

Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member accept that the situation is not totally the fault of the Roads Service and that the Planning Service is sitting on a major development plan for Castlebawn, for which we await a decision? The road infrastructure for that project — if it got the go-ahead — would relieve a great deal of the traffic congestion in Newtownards.

Mr McNarry: The Member’s point — she is also the Member of Parliament for the area — is well made, although it may be an opinion on which she and I will differ not too many days hence. I am sure that the Minister will take note of her views, but for the purposes of Mr McCarthy’s motion I wish to deal solely with the issue of road surfacing. Those are the matters that we are being asked to address.

I want to say to the Minister that the criteria that I mentioned when seeking a new definition must move away from the acceptable norm that road surfacing — as produced in Strangford — gives value for money. When we get down to it, a resurfacing job amounts to a scattering of stones covered with a tar membrane, which takes the workers an hour or an hour and a half, and away they go. That cycle is repeated over and over again; it cannot represent value for money, because the problem is not being solved.

When it comes to the resurfacing of roads, it seems that the Department has adopted a quick-fix mentality. In my experience, repairs last only a short time. That approach may be quick, but it is not a fix, and it is certainly not a solution. I urge the Minister to address the dire plight of Strangford, which suffers such lamentable roads. Constituents suffer them every day, as do Members who travel back and forth between the Assembly and the constituency. That is a matter on which the Minister will find unanimity. When Strangford’s Member of Parliament addresses the Chamber, she will probably refer to a volume of constituents’ letters that is even larger than mine.

The Minister must listen to our constituents, and change the mentality of his Department. The current approach is just not working.

Mrs I Robinson: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. Given the rural nature of the majority of Northern Ireland’s constituencies, it would come as no surprise to Members if all 18 constituencies should make a complaint similar to that articulated by the proposer of the motion.

I find it difficult to take Mr McCarthy’s complaint seriously, as most of his constituency work is concentrated in Kircubbin and Portaferry. I doubt whether he could tell me anything about the road infrastructure in Killyleagh or in other parts of the constituency.

Mr McNarry: He did mention Saintfield.

Mrs I Robinson: That was good. That is a part of the constituency, and I am delighted that Mr McCarthy recognises that. Perhaps he will visit Saintfield on occasion to see what is going on in that area.

Mr McNarry: He will not visit it for another four years.

Mrs I Robinson: It should not matter that there will be no election for four years. A Member’s work can make all the difference.

We all wish to see an improvement to the road infrastructure — we would be mad not to. We understand that a backlog of work built up over the years of the Troubles, which prevented spending on the infrastructure.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. I shall highlight but one example of improvement, and I make no apology that it was the work of my husband, who was then Minister for Regional Development. When he became Minister, the second thing that he did was to make a decision to build the Comber bypass, for which people had waited 40 years and had given up hope of seeing. One member of Ards Borough Council said that he would eat his hat if he ever saw the bypass built. We gave him a hat, with salt and sugar, in case he preferred it that way. He took the joke in good spirit.

That was the second decision that the Minister took; the first had been to build the Toome bypass, which afforded no additional votes for my party, given the area in which it is situated.

I must also flag up improvements to the road network in Greyabbey. However, half the roads in the village still require attention. I have written, as a Member of Parliament, to the Roads Service on numerous occasions to ensure that people who live on one side of the village are put to no unfair disadvantage.

I note that the roads of Kircubbin are exceptionally well maintained at present. That is not due to Mr McCarthy alone. The proof of my efforts is the thickness of my files with responses that I have elicited on that matter.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Member give way?

Mrs I Robinson: No. The Member is sitting, and he shouts at me, so I will not give way.

There have been vast improvements to the roads in the Kirkcubbin area. I am not here as a cheerleader for DRD; but I am delighted at the improvements that have been carried out. There is much more to be done. The coastal roads of Strangford carry 17,000 visitors to Mount Stewart over a weekend. The potholes cannot be that big, or they would not be going there.

6.15 pm

I urge the Minister to look more favourably at Strangford and at the need for further investment in its roads. There is a beautiful scenic route all the way through the Ards Peninsula, from Portaferry to Portavogie, passing Mount Stewart, into Comber, and then on to Killyleagh. If we want to see results from the so-called peace process, we must have the best roads to help attract tourism.

We must underpin a working relationship with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and other agencies in order to promote Strangford for the betterment of all of its people, and for the rest of the Province, where the current infrastructure does not allow a smooth journey to the beautiful scenic areas that we have to offer.

Members who represent Strangford will take up the issue of our rural community’s being disadvantaged in respect of public transport. Now that we have our own devolved institution, we can have a go at Ministers and ensure that they are accountable for the needs of our constituencies.

I am pleased that this debate on Strangford’s roads has been secured. I really have to bite my tongue sometimes when it comes to Mr McCarthy, because we often see memos that claim that he has done all sorts of wonderful things when, in fact, it was not him and he came in on the coat-tails. The DUP works very hard for its constituents and has four offices in Strangford — possibly rising to five — and four MLAs. Strangford is the first constituency in Northern Ireland to return four DUP MLAs. Going by those percentages, Mr McCarthy must have very little work to do.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to speak.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That was very entertaining — from a distance.

Mr Shannon: Tak aa’ drive alang tha boannie bricht shoars o’ tha Airdes Peninsula, luk at tha breath takin beuaty, tha awe inspirein sichts an the wee villege pubs sarvin oot guid food – but as yeer daein this ye haud beter hae yer bak-sippoat wi ye as ye joult alang roads that hisnae seen proaper woark kerried oot oan them fer mony muckle years.

In 2005 mony wus sut aside fer Coonty Doon an woark kerried-out. Bit tha ither sied o’ tha loch hiss’ bin sadly left ahint.

For those who have not followed those words, they mean: take a drive along the beautiful shores of the Ards Peninsula and see the breathtaking beauty, the awe-inspiring views and the quaint village pub serving great food, but, while you are doing that, you had better have your back support with you, Minister, for you will be jolted along some roads that have not seen proper work carried out on them for far too many years.

In 2005, money was set aside for Down and work was carried out, but the other side of the lough has been sadly left behind. My colleague Iris Robinson MP is absolutely right: some good work has been done, for which I give credit to the Department. Credit is also due to the local Roads Service office, which is very industrious and hard-working. Disappointingly, the money that is available to the local Roads Service offices has not kept track with inflation. The local office has had the same budget for the last five years — each year has been the same — but the demands on the roads have increased. A large net has been thrown out by this debate, and we must highlight those arterial routes where there are clear problems that must be addressed.

I too give credit to Peter Robinson for the Comber bypass, which has been a real plus. That shows that local accountability works, which is important. We are now looking towards phase 3 of that project, which is as critically important as phase 2.

The Castlebawn development has been lying idle for ages. Iris Robinson said that planning is a big issue, but there is a link road to the east of Newtownards, which does not seem to be any further on than it was two or three years ago.

There is also a large arterial connection between Comber and Carryduff, carrying on towards Hillsborough. The condition of that road must be addressed — if it has not been already — and I ask the Minister to take that on board.

In 2002, I requested a major investment for the A20 Newtownards to Portaferry road — I am still waiting. The queue of traffic driving up the Ards Peninsula any morning between 8.30 am and 9.00 am is often tailed back to the Maltings and on some occasions further back towards Finlays Road. The resulting traffic is an indication of the number of new-build homes and the demand for houses in the Ards Peninsula. Those issues must be addressed.

Members now have the opportunity to address the matter of co-ordination; Northern Ireland Water and DRD really need to work together. Northern Ireland Water digs up the road and resurfaces it one day and shortly after that DRD comes along and puts in new gullies and so on. Those two bodies do not seem to be working together.

There are other options — and I have already referred to the A20 — but those roads are just as winding and uneven and, subsequently, just as unsafe. I have been pressing for ages for improvements to the Mount Stewart Road, which connects Ards, Ballywalter and Carrowdore. After a slight shower that road becomes a grease pit, and cars travelling between 30 mph and 40 mph come a cropper. I have asked the Department to address that matter as well. However, the budget for the local office of DRD has not increased for the past five years, and that is worrying.

Some remedial work has been carried out on the Ards Peninsula. There have also been requests for footpaths; we have thrown the net wide, as everyone else seems to be doing. As a priority, I would like a footpath between Ballywalter village and Ballywalter Bowling Club. The club has 600 members, and the busy road connecting it to the village has no footpath.

I agree with other Members that the rural roads here are probably some of the worst around. They are cracked along the edges, and grass is encroaching on the centre of the road. Those issues must be addressed. I hope that when the Minister comes down to my part of the country — I am sure that he will accept my invitation — he comes in a car with good suspension. It will be needed to survive some of the roads in that neck of the woods.

Over the years, the A20 has been given what I call “reactionary repairs”, which usually means patching up the potholes and erecting defence barriers at accident black spots. That is DRD’s reaction to any problems, and that worries me. The A20 is the main road for the Ards Peninsula, and it floods in many places after heavy rainfall. The wall along the edge of the shore still has holes in it and needs urgent work, which does not seem to have been done. If the A20 is not used and another road is taken, that can add another 25 or 30 minutes to a journey. The issue is about commuting — getting people from where they live to their place of work.

Northern Ireland Water seems to be doing more work along the Ards Peninsula than anywhere else in the Province. I do not know whether that it true, but judging by the number of complaints that I receive, it seems to be the case. I have concerns about the time it takes Northern Ireland Water to lay new pipes. It has a response time for the final resurfacing of that road. However, in many cases, it would be have been more plausible for DRD and Northern Ireland Water to work together on resurfacing roads. People who live on country roads, such as Ballyeasboro Road, Tullymaddy Road and Kilbright Road North outside Carrowdore, have experienced difficulties with their cars, some of which have been damaged as a result.

The Minister must look at the whole of the Strangford area and not just the Ards Peninsula where I live and where those incidents have occurred. He must consider the whole area, including the arterial roads between Ards and Dundonald and between Comber and Carryduff.

For those of us who live in the area, Strangford Lough is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Ards Peninsula, if not the whole of Northern Ireland.

Mr P Robinson: The world.

Mr Shannon: I could not go that far — I can speak only about Northern Ireland. All those who live close by and around Strangford Lough deserve better roads. Some roads have had no work carried out on them since the 1980s. Investment in infrastructure is needed, especially on the A20. I ask the Minister to take those matters on board.

My comments are meant to be constructive. I said at the outset that much work has been done, but I must add that a lot more needs to be done to meet the demands of an increasing population and increasing traffic. I look forward to inviting the Minister, and other Members, to our area to look at what he can do. I advise the Minister not to bring a spade with him that day, but he should ensure that his car suspension is good.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am tempted to say that that is me told.

I thank Kieran McCarthy for bringing this debate to the Assembly today. I listened with interest to the descriptions of the Strangford area. In recent years, my only experience of the area has been flying over it in a plane, heading for Westminster or London. The last time that I drove up the peninsula was when I was about 10 years old and travelling with my parents.

Mr McNarry: It has not changed very much.

Mr Murphy: I was going to say that I suspected that that comment would draw the response that the roads have not improved since then.

From the air, the Strangford constituency is undoubtedly a very beautiful part of the world. Members have talked about its beauty, the state of its roads and how they are worse there than anywhere else. However, having listened to those comments, I am tempted to say how little we know about each other’s constituencies, because I also represent a very beautiful part of the world with equally poor roads. The former Minister for Regional Development and the current Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment toured my area at one stage, visiting various installations, and they can perhaps bear testament to the poor roads there — although the Ring of Gullion area is a place of great scenic beauty.

I hear what Members, particularly David McNarry, have said about the roads in Strangford being the worst of any constituency in the North, but, equally, other Members have balanced those remarks by saying that various other areas throughout the North have their fair share of bad roads. Often when we think of peripheral areas, we think of the border areas and west of the Bann; we do not get a sense of how peripheral the eastern side of Strangford can be. It is, to some extent, off the beaten track and away from the main routes into Belfast — that is certainly true of the peninsula.

I very much take on board what people have said. A lot of specific local roads issues were raised, and I have asked my officials to take a note of the Hansard report so that if I do not pick up on any points now, I can certainly get back to Members on them. I know that Jim Shannon has already written to the Department with questions on a number of the issues that he raised today, and I expect to get back to him on some of those issues. However, anything that I do miss in this summary will certainly be picked up on later.

Generally speaking, maintaining the surfaces and underlying structures of roads and footways is essential for the social and economic well-being of the North, and it is a high priority for Roads Service.

First, I should explain that the Strangford constituency covers part of two Roads Service divisions, eastern and southern — although, of course, I do not have to explain that to the Members present. The bulk of the constituency lies within the southern division, and comprises all the Ards Borough Council area along with parts of Down District Council and Castlereagh Borough Council. Roads Service funding allocations are issued on a district council basis, thus references that I will make to expenditure across Strangford are based on extrapolated figures for the respective council areas. As Members will be aware, Roads Service prepares annual work programmes covering the development and maintenance of the network, which reflect on availability of finances. This year’s work programme is currently being finalised in preparation for presentation to the respective district councils at the spring meetings attended by Roads Service.

In 2007-08, we will spend in excess of £4 million across the Strangford constituency, which will cover a range of activities, including local transport and safety measures and network maintenance. In addition, work is scheduled to commence on major roadworks projects in Newtownards — the A20 southern distributor road and the A20 Frederick Street link, which I think Simon Hamilton referred to. Both schemes will ease traffic congestion in the town considerably, and the work will progress beyond the current financial year and cost in the region of £11 million.

Programme expenditure on resurfacing in Strangford during the 2007-8 financial year will exceed £1·3 million. Resurfacing will target the more heavily trafficked roads and those roads in need of most structural maintenance in the constituency.

I assure Members that there is an equitable distribution of roads maintenance funding across the North. I accept Mr McNarry’s point about the definition of “resurfacing”. I hear of similar complaints in other areas, including my own constituency, about the method of resurfacing and its durability, and I will discuss that further with Roads Service officials.

In distributing the resources available for roads maintenance, which includes resurfacing, patching, gully clearing, grass cutting etc, allocations are made to four Roads Service divisions on the basis of need, using a range of weighted indicators tailored to each maintenance activity. Roads Service divisions use those indicators when apportioning funds across council areas to ensure equitable distribution as far as possible.

Resurfacing work is generally undertaken on a priority basis reflecting both the structural condition of the road and traffic volume. A system of regular inspections by Roads Service ensures that the essential response maintenance is identified and completed as necessary. Over the past few years, Roads Service has made considerable efforts in resurfacing and strengthening the main traffic routes across the North, particularly the strategic road network linking more heavily populated urban areas.

If more funding were available — and I am conscious that the Minister of Finance is in the Chamber — more resurfacing work could be carried out. In the last three years, funding for structural maintenance has been over £60 million short of the levels recommended in the regional transportation strategy. However, that must be seen in the context of correctly managing the overall Budget, which involves assessing competing priorities and making decisions. All Ministers, as much as they would like more money to spend, are bound by the collective priorities of the Executive.

In the last three years, £788 million has been spent on developing and maintaining our road network. Some £503 million has been invested in revenue activities including maintenance, with a further £285 million spent on capital. Up to 2015, the investment strategy for Northern Ireland envisages that some £1·9 billion will have been invested in road improvements, subject to the availability of resources in future Budget rounds, economic appraisals and statutory approvals. In the three years to the end of March 2008, some £196 million will have been invested in roads structural maintenance. I assure Members that Roads Service will continue to make strong bids for additional structural maintenance funds.

Several Members, Mr Shannon and Mr McCarthy among them, voiced concerns about the number of excavations that are being opened by utility companies. Some 40,000 excavations are opened each year. However, utility companies such as NIE, BT, Phoenix Natural Gas and NI Water have a statutory right to lay and maintain their pipes, ducts, manholes and cables beneath or over public roads.

The Street Works (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 gave Roads Service regulatory powers to control street works. However, Roads Service has no control over the number of openings made by utility companies. The 1995 Order is supported by a number of codes and practices with nationally agreed standards that utility companies and their contractors must achieve. I assure Members that sample inspections are routinely carried out by Roads Service to monitor the performance of utility companies at all stages of street works from the initial excavation to the end of the guaranteed period for the reinstatement.

However, that Order does not apply to private developers who are undertaking road improvements rather than placing apparatus as part of housing developments. Private developers operate under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 and the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, under a licence issued by Roads Service.

In order to manage street works, Roads Service has operated a computerised street works register and notification system since 2002. It is a powerful tool for co-ordinating and monitoring street works. It allows each utility company to send electronic notices of their intention to start work at a specific location to Roads Service and other utilities. The work can then be monitored and inspected by Roads Service.

Members will be aware that the Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 became law on 7 February 2007. The Order includes powers for Roads Service to charge for and issue permits to utility companies before carrying out street works. The Order also provides powers to set dates for street works, to specify the routes by which they are undertaken and to impose longer embargoes on further works following substantial road or street works.

Roads Service has begun the process of developing secondary legislation and is working with various utility companies, through the NI Road Authority and Utilities Committee, to introduce the legislation so that the amended Order can have some impact on the ground.

I understand that utility companies have undertaken considerable work in the Strangford constituency over the past number of years, which has caused some disruption to traffic. The work was mainly undertaken by what was, at the time, the Water Service and involved implementing significant infrastructure improvements in the area.

As already stated, Roads Service meets all agencies undertaking work on the public highway to co-ordinate the timing of works, the need for road closures, discussing alternative routes or contraflow arrangements. Any agency carrying out roadworks must fully comply with health and safety procedures while work is in progress. Some disruption is always inevitable, but every effort is made to keep it to a minimum. The statutory authorities are requested to reinstate the road and to maintain it to a suitable standard for a period of time following the completion of the works.

Some Members made specific points. I shall look at the Hansard report and reply in writing. Several Members mentioned the Comber bypass. The previous devolved Minister was congratulated on his involvement with that project. I hope that Members are as generous to me at the end of four years.

Mr Shannon: Give us an excuse to be generous.

Mr Murphy: I suspect that I will not get off to the same start as he did.

On phase 3 of the Comber bypass, there has been consultation on proposals for an additional £400 million of strategic road improvement schemes, which would be made possible through funding envisaged in the investment strategy for Northern Ireland in the period up to 2015. Over 80 formal responses to the consultation document were received, the vast majority of which supported the proposals. Many responses identified additional schemes for inclusion in the programme, including, I understand, requests for the provision of phase 3 of the Comber bypass and the Newtownards bypass. Work on analysing responses and reassessing the strategic route improvement programme is at an advanced stage, and I hope to update Members when that has been concluded.

Mrs Robinson mentioned work on Main Street in Greyabbey, which is divided into two sections. The first runs from the mini-roundabout in the centre of the village in a southerly direction as part of the A20, which was subject to a resurfacing improvement resurfacing scheme in 2001-02. The second section runs from the same mini-roundabout to its junction with North Street and the Ballywalter Road as part of the B5 route. That section has yet to be improved. The carriageway is in a relatively poor condition, having been opened and reinstated in many places by utilities over the years, in addition to patches where potholes have been repaired. There is also a problem with the cross-sectional profile of the street.

Mr McCarthy: Is the Minister aware that funding was available for that stretch of road in Main Street in Greyabbey around 18 months ago? For some reason, the funding was withdrawn and the work never completed. That is what makes residents so frustrated.

Mr Murphy: I take on board Mr McCarthy’s remarks. I shall consult officials and draft a response to his query. Funding is often proposed for various schemes but, due to budgetary restrictions, some must fall by the wayside. The Roads Service, in common with divisions within other Departments, bids for as much funding as possible but must reassess its priorities upon receipt of its budget. That may be what happened in that case, although I do not have the exact answer.

The work on the Greyabbey project will go beyond that of a normal resurfacing scheme. The costs will therefore be higher due to carriageway excavation and so on. That perhaps explains some of the problems in that area. The estimated cost of the entire scheme is £500,000. The work must be carried out in two phases and will span two financial years.

I am sure that the House will agree that maintaining the surfaces and underlying structures of the roads and footways is essential for social and economic well-being. The case was well made in relation to tourism infrastructure, and the importance that roads infrastructure plays in that. Indeed, I am aware of that factor in my own constituency. When the time comes for bids to the Department, I hope that Members will support the bids for additional structural maintenance funds. Go raibh maith agat.

Adjourned at 6.39 pm.

< previous / next >