NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Monday 4 June 2007
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many Members, and the wider public, want to know when the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will make a statement about the junior Minister’s comments, and whether he will have anything to do with equality issues in the gay and lesbian community.
Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order. The Member knows that if she wants a debate in the House on any issue, the appropriate procedure is to submit a motion to the Business Office.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 1/07] to make provision about social security and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Welfare Reform Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A Cheann Comhairle, will Members be able to respond to the Minister for Social Development’s comments this morning?
Mr Speaker: Only the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development is permitted to take part in the debate.
Ms Ritchie: The Welfare Reform Bill proposes to put into law the same social security provisions as the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which was passed recently at Westminster.
By definition, social security Bills are exceptional. The unique position of social security, child support and pensions is specifically recognised in the Act that created the Assembly and from which it draws its powers to pass laws. Under section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I have a duty to consult with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, with a view to maintaining single systems of social security, pensions and child support between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognises the long-established principle of parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on social security. I acknowledge that the parity principle is, to some extent, frustrating to an Assembly that is keen to pass its own laws and form its own policies. However, the Northern Ireland social security system is not self-financing. The cost of paying benefits in Northern Ireland is subsidised heavily by Great Britain.
For example, in 2005-06, to meet its benefit obligations, the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund needed a transfer of £185 million from the Great Britain National Insurance fund. In the same period, expenditure on non-contributory benefits, which are demand led and financed from taxation revenue, was more than £2·26 billion. The funding depends on parity. Therefore, when Members ask what reason we have for maintaining parity, the answer is that there is approximately £2·4 billion worth of reasons.
This issue is centred not simply on the money; there are important administrative reasons for maintaining parity. Owing to the fact that there is, in effect, a single system for social security across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Department for Social Development and the Department for Work and Pensions share computer systems for the payment of benefits. If we were to consider breaking parity, we would not only have to pick up any additional benefit costs, we might have to fund new computer infrastructures. Just think for a moment of the huge teething problems that that might cause. Therefore, I hope that the Assembly will appreciate the sound financial reasons for maintaining parity.
The Bill introduces a new employment and support allowance to replace the existing incapacity benefits. The new allowance will help to give individuals more appropriate support to enable them to stay in, or return to, work.
The Bill also provides a framework to reform and improve the design and administration of housing benefit, including the introduction —
Mr O’Dowd: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ritchie: No. I have barely started, and I wish to continue. Perhaps the Member’s questions will be answered as my speech progresses.
The improvements to housing benefit include the introduction of a local housing allowance for the private-rented sector. The Bill also includes measures to clarify the law relating to disability allowance and attendance allowance; extend loss-of-benefit provisions; tackle benefit fraud; and clarify various aspects of existing legislation to make it simpler to administer and easier to understand — something that Members will welcome.
Parity covers not only the content of the legislation, but, as far as possible, the timing of its implementation. To ensure that certain of the Bill’s proposals are implemented at the same time as in Great Britain, the necessary powers must be available as soon as possible.
The Welfare Reform Act 2007 received Royal Assent on 3 May 2007. Some of its provisions came into force on that date, with further substantive provisions due to come into force on 3 July, two months after Royal Assent was granted.
The corresponding Northern Ireland provisions cannot come into operation until the Bill has completed its passage through the Assembly and received Royal Assent.
Most of the remaining provisions will be brought into operation by a series of commencement Orders. For instance, section 58 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which provides an easement of the “relevant employer” condition and makes it easier for persons suffering from certain dust-related diseases — including mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions — to claim compensation, is due to be brought in on 24 July 2007. Section 59, which widens the group of dependants who may make such a claim, comes into operation on 3 July 2007. The Northern Ireland equivalents of these provisions are included in clauses 52 and 53 of the Bill.
Members will be aware of the consequences of some of these terrible, and frequently terminal, diseases. In order for Northern Ireland claimants not to lose out on these easements, it is vital that the provisions come into operation as soon as possible after the Westminster Act. People in Northern Ireland, who pay the same rates of National Insurance contributions and income tax as people in Britain, have the right to expect the changes to apply here with the minimum of delay.
Although the local housing allowance changes are not due to come into operation until April 2008, in Britain, powers to make regulations providing for the introduction of the new local housing allowance will have been exercised by October 2007, subject to an exception that I will explain later. It is important, therefore, that the Northern Ireland regulations be made as soon as possible after their British counterparts. The process for deciding local housing allowance that is provided for in the Bill differs substantially from the present method for housing benefit. The detail will be set out in the regulations, and the staff of the Housing Executive and of Land and Property Services, who will operate the new arrangements, need to familiarise themselves with those processes before their introduction in April 2008. Welfare rights bodies, which advise and represent appellants, will also need time to prepare for the new system.
For the reasons that I have outlined, therefore, I am asking that the Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure set out in Standing Order 40(4) so that Northern Ireland law on these matters can be brought into line with that in Great Britain with the minimum of delay.
The granting of accelerated passage will mean that there will not be a formal Committee Stage. However, I have discussed the Bill’s provisions with the Committee for Social Development. The Committee has some concerns about the proposal to pay local housing allowance directly to tenants. I too have reservations; it could lead to tenants’ getting into debt and, possibly, to more evictions. That is why I have given a firm undertaking to consider the matter further and to return to the Committee before I seek to make the necessary regulations to give effect to that proposal. In short, I will propose regulations to give effect to direct payment to tenants only if I think that it will work properly.
I will take further advice on that and on the assessments that are under way in GB. I want to make that absolutely clear, and I have already told the Committee for Social Development as much. Northern Ireland is lucky in that housing benefit is not paid using the same computer systems as in GB. The retention of the current system, whereby payments are made to landlords, will not break parity in any significant way. Therefore, we are in the happy and exceptional position of having some leeway.
Experience shows that social security Bills are likely to be a regular feature of future legislative programmes. However, I do not, and will not in the future, seek accelerated passage lightly. In this case, there are good, pressing reasons for accelerated passage, not least of which is to allow people who suffer from asbestos-related conditions to benefit as soon as possible from the easements in the Bill.
The Bill was originally an Order in Council, which was due to have been passed at Westminster. Given that it did not complete the legislative process before 8 May 2007, I am introducing the Bill instead. This is, therefore, an exceptional situation, and, in future, more time should be allowed to consider social security Bills.
There will, of course, be opportunities for all Members to make their views known, and for the issues to be fully discussed, at Second Stage, Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. I look forward to hearing Members’ views on the Bill.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): On 24 May, the Minister attended a meeting of the Committee for Social Development to explain her reasons for requesting that the Welfare Reform Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure. The Minister also outlined the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted. The Committee listened carefully to the Minister at that meeting.
The Committee is well aware that the Bill represents a parity measure to parallel the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which applies to Great Britain. The Committee understands the importance of maintaining parity to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland benefit from reforms at the same time as they are introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, at the meeting with the Minister, the Committee left her in no doubt that it could not support her request for accelerated passage if the proposed change to the method for paying housing benefit would go ahead without further consideration by, and consultation with, the Committee.
The Bill provides for regulations to be introduced by the Minister to establish the norm that housing benefit be paid directly to the claimant, not the landlord — which is the current practice. It is envisaged that the payment of housing benefit to claimants would promote personal responsibility and empower claimants to budget for themselves; help workless tenants to develop the skills that they will need when they move into paid work; encourage claimants to open bank accounts; and promote financial inclusion and payment modernisation.
Obviously, the Committee welcomes any measures that would help to empower people to budget for themselves and assist them in returning to work. The Committee recognises that people who receive housing benefit live, necessarily, on relatively low incomes and that they sometimes struggle, with good reason, to prioritise their money.
The last question that we want people to ask is whether they should heat their homes so that they are comfortable and safe for themselves and their children, or whether they should pay the rent. The Committee has concerns that the payment of housing benefit directly to claimants, some of whom are already struggling, could result in rent arrears and a rise in evictions. That would undoubtedly put pressure on an already overburdened social-housing sector.
Having listened to the Committee’s concerns, the Minister undertook not to introduce any regulations that would change the current method for payment of housing benefit until she had considered the matter in greater detail and had held further discussions with the Committee. The Minister has outlined her position on that matter.
Despite the Committee’s misgivings about direct payments to housing benefit claimants, it welcomed the Minister’s assurances that the provisions of the Bill are beneficial, and the Committee is satisfied that that is the case. The Committee will, of course, consider the practical implications of welfare reform in greater detail in the future.
In light of the Minister’s unequivocal undertakings, the Committee supports the Minister’s request that the Welfare Reform Bill be granted accelerated passage.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Welfare Reform Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
Mr Speaker: I advise the House that the Business Committee has agreed that the motion will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate on the motion.
Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This matter is of great importance to every elected representative and member of the community in Northern Ireland. What mechanism exists for the consultation of Assembly Members who are not members of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee?
Mr Speaker: It is entirely a matter for the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to decide how it will inform party leaders and other parties of its business. That is not the business of the House.
Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since you have ruled that there will be no debate in the Chamber, may I ask the Committee Chairperson, through the Chair, why this motion is being brought before the House at this early stage, when there is no demand from the community for the transfer of policing and justice powers and the criminal investigation into the Northern Bank robbery, carried out by the Republican movement, Sinn Féin/IRA —
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat.
That is not a point of order. Mr Burnside has been an Assembly Member for quite a while and a Member of another House for a shorter time, so he should know about procedure. This is a procedural matter, which the Committee has rightly brought to the House to be dealt with and approved.
Mr Dodds: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that the Business Committee recommended, and decided unanimously, that this be treated as a business motion and that if the Member has a problem with that, he should take it up with his party’s representatives on the Committee?
Mr Speaker: The Member is quite right: Members should not bring to the Floor of the House for debate issues that should be dealt with by the Business Committee. It was agreed by the Committee and by the Whips that this is the best way forward, as it is a procedural matter.
The Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (Mr Donaldson): I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to report, by 29 February 2008, on the work which needs to be undertaken, in accordance with section 18 of the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 —
(a) as to the preparations that the Assembly has made, and intends to make, having regard to paragraph 7 of the St. Andrews Agreement, for or in connection with policing and justice matters ceasing to be reserved matters;
(b) as to which matters are likely to be the subject of any request under section 4(2A) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that policing and justice matters should cease to be reserved matters; and
(c) containing an assessment of whether the Assembly is likely to make such a request before 1 May 2008.
If the Member for South Antrim has a problem, he should consult his colleagues who sit on the Business Committee, which agreed unanimously that this motion be presented to the Assembly. It is a procedural motion, and I am surprised that Mr Burnside did not check his facts before raising such a supercilious point of order.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to report, by 29 February 2008, on the work which needs to be undertaken, in accordance with section 18 of the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 —
(a) as to the preparations that the Assembly has made, and intends to make, having regard to paragraph 7 of the St. Andrews Agreement, for or in connection with policing and justice matters ceasing to be reserved matters;
(b) as to which matters are likely to be the subject of any request under section 4(2A) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that policing and justice matters should cease to be reserved matters; and
(c) containing an assessment of whether the Assembly is likely to make such a request before 1 May 2008.
Private Members’ Business
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 speak and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.
Mr Elliott: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses serious concern at the unjustified delay in payment of Single Farm Payments to some farmers and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to initiate the Single Farm Payment timescale for 1st December to 31st March each year; and to ensure that no farm inspections relating to the Single Farm Payment scheme take place outside the timescale of the scheme.
It is my duty to declare an interest as I am a farmer and in receipt of single farm payment. I want to thank the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who has just taken her place in the Chamber, for being present to hear the debate and the departmental officials who are also here.
The single farm payment scheme came into effect in 2005, and this is the third year that it has been in operation. It was the result of the decoupling of agriculture subsidies from production. It was hoped that this new one-stop shop for subsidies would help to simplify the process; however, since its inception, there have been problems. Some of those are only to be expected after a seismic shift in the system, with even experienced form fillers finding significant difficulties in the completion of the necessary paperwork.
However, there have been other unjustifiable delays that could have been avoided through changes to the procedures used by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to administer this funding.
Many who are not from agricultural or rural backgrounds may not realise the significance of the single farm payments, but far be it from them to suggest that this is a matter of farmers having their noses in a trough. It is a means of helping to maintain an agriculture industry in the Province. Recent figures show that farm profits in Northern Ireland are in the region of £190 million, but the single farm payments come to £220 million, which means —
Mr Burnside: I too must declare an interest — and this is on the Register of Members’ Interests — in that I am a farmer who received a single farm payment last year, though not this year.
There are many administrative problems with this. Will the Member ask the Minister to investigate the number of lost and mislaid application forms? Many farmers in the Province are not getting their payments because of some administrative problem in the Department.
Mr Elliott: I have no difficulty with asking the Minister several questions on that front, whether it be about lost application forms, or about failure to properly administer entitlements that have been transferred to new owners, or about single farm payment applications that have not been sent to producers. Clearly I have a number of questions there.
I was saying that the single farm payments are clearly relevant to Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry. As I said, farm profits are in the region of £190 million, whereas single farm payments are something like £220 million. That tells me that there is a real net loss of some £30 million. We farmers do not want to have to rely on single farm payments or subsidies. What we want is the proper market value for our produce, but unfortunately we are not getting that. Big industries, big retailers and, indeed, big processors are making big profits while the farming industry survives on a very meagre allowance.
The spiralling costs and worries that arise from not being able to meet the mounting pile of final demands for bank loans and other bills affect entire family circles in the farming community. Mr Bradley, the Member for South Down, recently put down a question for written answer and was advised that:
“At 16 May 2007 [fewer than 94% of] applicants had either been paid their 2006 Single Farm Payment or been advised that a payment is not due because of ineligibility or the application of penalties under scheme rules 2,456 applications have not yet been finalised; not all of these claims may subsequently be eligible for payment. Validation of the 2006 applications continues and the objective is to pay out at least 96.14% of the budget by 30 June 2007”. — [Official Report, Vol 22, No WA2, pWA3, col 1].
I will return to that later, because I believe that 30 June is too late in the year.
Since the introduction of single farm payments, many farmers have contacted my office about them. Many are totally frustrated by the delays, which are often due to something minor that could be addressed quickly and without a penalty being imposed. However, they are not always dealt with efficiently by the Department. Many complaints even date back to the 2005 scheme — two years ago. At that time, many farmers were penalised because of the dreaded duplicate fields problem, brought about by simple mistakes on the parts of owners and tenants who both unintentionally claimed for the same fields. I estimate that that cost the industry in the region of £2 million, with a number of individual farmers losing their single farm payments — some for as many as three full years.
The motion is in no way designed to lambaste the Department of Agriculture’s staff, but, rather, the system that it employs. Through regular contact with many staff in Orchard House and other departmental officials who are involved in the operation and processing of single farm payments, I know that many of them are dedicated to their jobs and, in fact, have a lot of sympathy for farmers. Many of those officials work overtime to try to resolve as many issues as possible. In spite of that, they often bear the brunt of a farmer’s frustration, which, in many instances, is justified. However, that frustration is misdirected because in many circumstances the hands of the staff are tied by the protocols and procedures under which they operate.
I do not want to sound entirely negative, so I must praise the initiative set up by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, DARD Direct, which is based at Inniskeen House in County Fermanagh. That provides a one-stop-shop for all DARD queries, and despite some teething problems, for customers and staff, efficiency and practical conditions for customers have been improved.
Members must consider some possible solutions. There is a problem with resources and the streamlining of work that the staff are required to do to deal with the simple aspects of the scheme, and I do not want to see staff or the Department of Agriculture requesting additional resources. However, staff must be better targeted at the needs of the customer, and that may, on occasions, require a diversion of functions for some staff. If the processes are properly resourced and streamlined from the outset, there will be a more rapid processing of applications, a resolution of problems and, ultimately, payment of moneys.
The deadline for the completion of the integrated administration and control system forms for this year’s payment was a few weeks ago. However, there are ongoing issues being attended to from the 2005 and 2006 applications.
Farm inspections, their ensuing problems and reports are often cited as reasons for delays in payments being made. Therefore, a concerted effort towards getting those completed earlier would help the situation — particularly as DARD has said that there will be a 50% increase in claims this year. That increase will mean that the number of farms inspected will rise from 5% to 7·5%. At a time when we are hoping that the new Administration will mean a reduction in the inspection regime and red tape, this is another disaster for the industry because there is even more red tape and bureaucracy. That will impact hugely on the efficiency of the payment scheme, and considering that there are some 40,000 claims in Northern Ireland, there will be a notable increase in the workload for the inspectors.
Further to that, the separate inspections that are carried out on different dates and times —
Mr S Wilson: I appreciate the Member’s comments about the inspections, the number of staff required to carry them out and the detail into which they go, but how does he suggest that the Department should deal with fraudulent applications if inspections are not to be stepped up?
Mr Elliott: The problem with the system is that many fraudulent claims may slip through the net, and the Department may not know anything about them — many ordinary farmers who merely want to go about their daily business are penalised. The Department has not caught up with those who are making fraudulent claims, so a new system is required to enable that to happen.
All farms are subject to animal identification inspections, and they undergo at least one testing per year for tuberculosis (TB), brucellosis or both. There is no reason for those inspections not taking place on the same date, thus saving a double visit to a farm.
There is also an opportunity to pay farmers some of the money that they are owed earlier. That would help alleviate some of their problems.
Mr Speaker: Mr Elliott, your time is up.
Mr Elliott: With respect, Mr Speaker, I had two interventions, and I think that I should have the opportunity for one more minute, but I accept what you are saying.
Mr Speaker: Only Members who have fewer than 10 minutes in which to speak will get a further minute if they give way to another Member.
Dr W McCrea (Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development): I would like to be associated with the sentiments that have been expressed by the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr Elliott. I am grateful that this important matter is before the House.
The introduction of the single farm payment was hailed by the EU as the new way forward for agriculture. Under the common agricultural policy (CAP) reform package, the single farm payment scheme replaced 11 schemes with one single payment scheme. Farmers were to have greater freedom to farm to the demands of the market, as subsidies would be decoupled from production and environmentally friendly practices would be better acknowledged and rewarded. That was the plan in 2003, before the introduction of the scheme in 2005.
How well have the farmers done since the introduction of the single farm payment? That we are having this debate is an acknowledgement that many farmers in Northern Ireland have fallen foul of regulations. I agree with the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Elliott that we are not criticising individual members of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. However, I genuinely believe that there are problems at a senior level in that Department, in the area of policy-making.
Down the years, the Department has been assiduous in its gold-plating of legislation that comes from Europe rather than dealing sympathetically with farmers’ problems; especially when the single payment scheme was first introduced. I cite the example of duplicate fields — an issue that has already been mentioned. When, in the first year of the scheme’s operation, a landowner inserted the name of his tenant into his integrated administration and control system (IACS) form — and the person who was renting the ground also submitted an IACS form with his own name on it — there was absolutely no desire on either party’s part to make a fraudulent claim; rather it was a misunderstanding about the new procedure. When we spoke to Commissioner Fischer Boel about that issue, she said that the problem was not EU rules but the interpretation of them. I agree that it is a problem of interpretation.
There is also a new problem, that of field variance. It seems that payment may be withheld even if farmers are only 0·01 hectares out in their calculations. People may believe that money from Europe goes into farmers’ pockets. I understand that, but I must point out that it is their rightful payment; it is not something that has been gifted. Therefore, they deserve to have it.
When officials from the Department appeared before the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, they said that they had successfully processed 94% of payments and hoped to have 98% cleared by the end of June. It seems that the 6% who have not received their rightful entitlement will just have to wait. The departmental officials almost boasted that they had processed 94% of claims, but what about the 6% of farmers who have made claims and not received payment? They have had to borrow money from the bank while they await the arrival of the cheque from the Department. I suggest that if we were to tell departmental officials that 6% of them would have to wait six months for their wages, there would be a hue and cry, so why delay the rightful payments to the farming community?
When the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development met departmental officials, it was informed that there is a suggestion that the number of farm inspections may be doubled over the coming year. It has been acknowledged that there is a problem with the number of inspections on farms at present, yet now we are told that the answer to some of those problems is more inspections. There needs to be a good dose of realism injected into the Department. Senior departmental officials need to wise up and realise that they are penalising the largest single industry in the Province, and the backbone of our prosperity over the years.
Farmers’ backs are against the wall, and they are being forced further and further into despair. The House must declare today that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should get single farm payments into the hands of the farmers. That money is rightfully theirs, and that it where it ought to be.
Mr Speaker: In case any Members are trying to watch the business in their own rooms, I have to inform them that the system has broken down. Attempts are being made to repair it.
Mr S Wilson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. How will you convey that information to those Members who are trying to watch, since they will probably be unable to hear what you say?
Mr Speaker: I hope that they are listening somewhere in the Building.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This debate is of serious concern to farmers and the agricultural community, and I remind those who might find it difficult to listen to debates on agriculture that the countryside is as important to them as it is to anyone else. It is not just for farmers, the Minister and the Department.
It is important that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has a position on the matter, and I speak as a member of that Committee. The Committee is not unanimous on this motion, while we may go forward as saying that the Committee said this, that or the other on this issue.
I tabled an amendment with regard to the timescale in the motion, but it was not accepted. The wording of the motion creates difficulty, and more effort should have been made on that. The timescale gives rise to a situation in which farmers may end up worse off. Rather than a timescale of four months to resolve all the difficulties in the issue, 12 months has, so far, not been enough for the Department to complete matters for many farmers. I should not like to see farmers, who were required to have absolutely everything right, restricted to four months. That is what Departments do; they will confine them further, and that could cause great difficulty. I do not want that to happen.
I support the farmers’ organisations with regard to the cutting of red tape. Bureaucracy has been a great detriment to farmers and to the future of farming, and I ask the Minister to consider the matter. As a farmer, I should declare an interest in the debate.
How Departments interpret the rules made by the EU is of vital importance. Some farmers have had to wait 10 months for money on which they depend, yet it seems that I can get the thing resolved with one phone call. There is something seriously wrong there.
I often wonder whether there are members of departmental staff who move from somewhere else in the Department and then find jobs in this extra 50% of policing of farmers. In some instances, it is just that. The size of a tractor in a field is measured, or a small area of gorse. We all know that gorse grows from year to year, so while there might be a large area in one year, in two years’ time there might be only a small plot of an acre. That is knocking farmers out of their right to payments.
Those matters should not be treated as difficulties, and officials should not be sent out to measure for hours on end, causing the farmer worry, stress, and a loss of money. The inspections should be cut. I do not want to see another 50% extra staff spending all day in making difficulties for farmers on their land.
I have no doubt that the Minister knows exactly what I am talking about. I do not want things made more difficult for farmers. It is of vital importance that the matter be resolved; that is why it has been discussed in the Committee and why I welcome this debate. I have difficulty with the timescales mentioned in the motion, and deadlines may cause further difficulty.
Simple things such as the length or size of fences, and bends in fences, have been given as reasons for farmers’ not having received their rightful payments. That issue must be looked at. Instead of getting into an antagonistic debate about single farm payments, the Minister and her Department must do some work to explain to farmers and farm organisations how the matter can be resolved and returned from a European level to a ministerial level. The important thing is for farmers to receive their money. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Burns: I support the motion and thank Mr Savage and Mr Elliott for bringing the issue to the Assembly. I have no personal farming interests to declare: I do not receive any single farm payments. However, I support the rural way of life, and in my rural constituency of South Antrim, many farmers are experiencing extreme difficulties with the single farm payment.
The delay in receiving the single farm payment is of great concern, particularly to those who are suffering as a result. The main reason for those delays is the weight of bureaucracy in the Department, and, due to even more internal bureaucracy, the lack of resources to process claims. In 2005, when the single farm payment was introduced to combine all the previous types of payment, it changed to a payment based on landownership rather than production. The system is unique to Northern Ireland and has resulted in a disproportionate number of applications in comparison with other EU countries.
Northern Ireland must comply with EU regulations, but that is not the issue. Instead, the issue is finding a way to comply with regulations without making the system more complicated and cumbersome for local farmers. Older people, some who live alone, find it very difficult to complete the application forms: a lady whom I know had to hire a solicitor to fill out the application, which left her with further unmanageable debt. Farmers also face fines for late applications, which reduces, or in some cases wipes out, the payment that they finally receive.
Inspections are another problem affecting the single farm payment. Not only is the inspection system complex and time consuming, it is unsuccessful. Farmers have complained that inspectors act like they are strictly policing them, instead of offering advice and help. Due to the increase in the number of inspections, a review of the system must be initiated to prevent further delays.
Farmers are experiencing great difficulty in getting answers to even the simple questions that they have about their applications. If farmers want to adjust their applications after submission, it is difficult to even contact the staff at Orchard House. Politicians must ensure that there is an immediate reduction in bureaucracy, so that the single farm payment helps farmers, as was the intention of its introduction. We must insist that the £15 million that is due to be paid out reaches the farmers who need it to relieve the debt and distress that they are experiencing.
Although the Department is meeting the majority of payments, to leave some people with nothing is not good enough. The Department must address that situation by developing and revising the systems to ensure that no farmers lose out. I support the motion.
Mr Ford: As with most Members who have spoken, I have an interest to declare. Although the modest amount of single farm payment that my wife receives does not make a great deal of difference to my finances, it is listed in the register of interests.
On behalf of the United Community group, I support the motion, and congratulate Mr Elliott for his introduction to it.
The debate has reached the point where it is unnecessary to repeat everything that has already been said. However, the fact that, two weeks ago, almost halfway through this year, 6% of claims for 2006 were outstanding, is an indication of the problem with single farm payments. Its introduction, in 2005, was more complex in Northern Ireland than it was, for example, in Scotland or Wales. There were good reasons for that, given the mixture of full-time and part-time farms, and land let out and taken in conacre. The Department wanted to ensure the payments were fair, which, unfortunately, introduced some complexity, and, in many cases, area-based issues have created problems. As the Department examines the future of single farm payments, it must consider ways to simplify it and ensure that the payments are dealt with. DARD must prevent fraud, but it is also time that the Department distinguished between fraud and minor clerical errors that are made by people whose full-time employment is not to fill in complex forms but to farm.
The fundamental problem is what the farming community views as a perceived lack of sympathy. That does not come from the individuals who administer policy, because they operate within the rules, but the perception of the gold plating that has been going on for too long must be addressed.
I have heard the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development speak as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on several occasions. She supported the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) campaign against red tape. Shortly before the elections in March, representatives from all five parties spoke to UFU members in Cookstown, and there was considerable sympathy for the plight of farmers and the UFU five-point plan. The Minister has been in position for several weeks: she has had the opportunity to familiarise herself with the problems and to sort out what is necessary and unnecessary. She spoke about that issue at the Balmoral Show a couple of weeks ago, and I hope that she will soon have more to tell the House about how she intends to address the problems that she has seen for herself.
The issue is not about the Assembly’s passing the motion but rather how the Department responds. I hope that the Minister can inform the House, first, about what is being done to ensure that the issue of the timing of payments is dealt with, and, secondly, how she intends to deal with minor discrepancies such as duplicate fields or land being taken for road-widening schemes that hold up entire payments over issues that amount to no more than 1% or 2% of it. Perhaps part payments should be considered; farmers are already accustomed to receiving part of their wool-clip money in one year, with the remainder being paid the following year. If part payments were made, farmers would know that they would receive at least a proportion of their money on time, even if there were concerns about minor discrepancies.
When will the Minister tell the House that she will act to move Northern Ireland away from the gold-plating culture to ensure that farmers here are treated on equal terms with those in GB, the Republic and the rest of Europe? The fundamental issue is fairness for the people whom Members represent.
Mr T Clarke: I congratulate Mr Savage and Mr Elliott for tabling the motion. Single farm payments are important to the farming community, and I am glad that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has already acknowledged that by pressing this issue with departmental officials.
DUP members on the Committee intend to ensure that the issue is not dropped and will closely monitor the Minister’s words today. Although DUP Committee members will welcome any assurances that she can give, they will want to ensure that the assurances are backed up by actions. Single farm payments are not supposed to subsidise agricultural production, but many farmers do rely on the payment to keep their businesses running. The movement away from the old system of various payments for different enterprises to one single payment increases the relevance of that payment to many farmers, making it all the more important that they receive it promptly.
It is unacceptable that the window for payments is so large. There is no reason why the Minister should not move to ensure that payments are processed within a much tighter timescale, such as that outlined by the proponents of the motion.
It may be possible for DARD to tell us that over 90% of payments are processed on time, but that still means that many millions of pounds are in the Department’s pockets rather than in the hands of the farmers to whom they belong. The farmers’ banks and suppliers do not tend to work to a timescale in which there is no guarantee of when the finances will arrive.
The majority of DARD staff, whether they carry out field inspections or pay out money in Orchard House, work extremely hard to get the money paid as quickly as possible. However, the policy staff in Dundonald House must do more to ensure that EU rules are implemented locally with minimal penalty deductions and payment delays. They often delay payments through their lack of pragmatism in the implementation of EU rules.
Since the Minister took office, she has done much to examine procedures in the Republic of Ireland. Last year, the vast majority of farmers in the Republic had received their single farm payment by Christmas. Is the Minister willing to set a real challenge to her Department to guarantee that a similar percentage of farmers will receive their 2007 single farm payment in Northern Ireland as in the Republic of Ireland? Anything less will be seen as a failure by both the Minister and her Department.
The Minister has already announced that extra personnel have been put into the system; it is hoped that they will clear the current backlog. That is welcome. As she has recognised that there are problems in the system, it is vital that she should take steps now to ensure that they are not repeated next year. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals today; I assure her that the Committee will not drop the issue but, rather, will monitor it to see that she delivers.
Mr Speaker: I apologise to the Member for omitting to mention that that was his maiden speech.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I agree with all the contributions that have been made; Members have articulated the position of the rural community very well. I must add that farmers are currently under threat of significant financial penalties on their single farm payments resulting from unintentional errors in their applications. Difficulties have arisen in cases where both the active farmer and the landlord have claimed for payment on the same field. Thousands of applications have been affected, and the matter must be resolved. The Minister recognises that and has been dealing with the issue since she took up office.
Ireland’s unique conacre system has led to huge difficulties for both farmers and landowners. Some farmers have lost a significant amount of their single farm payment for last year. Small farmers are often the worst affected, because this duplication query on their farm can comprise a large percentage of their overall claim and lead to a much larger penalty. This can result in the cancellation of the entire payment. Farmers should not have to face these financial penalties, given that the system was new and extremely complicated and that most errors are not made through direct malice. I concur with those Members who said that a percentage should be paid when small errors have been made. I think that all Members agree that the money should be in the farmers’ bank accounts, not the Department’s bank account.
As my colleague Gerry McHugh said, there is a difficulty with the time constraints. I am unable to support the motion because of that. My colleague wanted to submit an amendment to say that he welcomed the initiation of the joint Department of the Environment and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development review of departmental procedures, including those that relate to farming and farm payments, with the aim of reducing red tape and bureaucracy by 25%.
The motion as proposed will not benefit farmers, particularly given the tight timescale. It will not allow the flexibility that farmers require, especially in terms of errors on their forms. These undoubtedly well-intentioned UUP proposals would hurt farmers. More restrictive timescales will damage farmers and will lead to more constraints being placed on the entire agriculture community.
Sinn Féin supports the UFU campaign to cut red tape. Sinn Féin also campaigned for the introduction of a farmers’ charter, similar to the one that is successfully operating in the rest of Ireland. That charter must have at its heart the flexibility that is required by farmers in the face of red tape and bureaucracy.
I thank the Minister for attending the debate. It is important that the Minister states how she will reduce the amount of red tape. Farmers must be allowed to farm, and I want to hear the Minister tell Members of extra measures that she will introduce to increase flexibility for the farming industry.
Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr William Irwin. I remind Members that this will be Mr Irwin’s maiden speech, which should be heard without interruption.
Mr Irwin: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate Mr Savage and Mr Elliott on proposing the motion. I declare an interest as a farmer and as a recipient of the single farm payment.
The introduction of decoupling and of the single farm payment system in 2005 was undoubtedly the single greatest change to farming since the UK joined the Common Market. Everyone was told that the introduction of the single farm payment system would give farmers the freedom to farm. From personal experience, and from those of my local constituents, I know that that is not the case.
I believe that a common agricultural policy no longer exists in this country. Owing to modulation, farmers in Northern Ireland will experience higher cuts from their single farm payments than those in other regions of Europe and the UK. However, that will, no doubt, be the subject of a debate in the House another day. Farmers are also facing a more stringent interpretation of EU rules, compared to other parts of Europe. It is vital that DARD rein in the policy-makers, and ensure that farmers are no longer penalised for accidental minor discrepancies on their single farm payment forms.
Last year, a significant number of farmers did not get paid a single farm payment due to fields being duplicated on one or more forms. It is clear to all — with the exception of official policy-makers in Dundonald House — that there was no deliberate attempt to carry out fraud, either by farmers or landowners. It was clear that those were obvious errors. Farmers must go through the official DARD appeals system, and possibly go to court, before they get the money that they should have received in autumn 2005. If an independent panel rules in favour of a farmer, will the Agriculture Minister guarantee to the House that the Department will not overturn that decision?
The major problem with single farm payments in 2006 was caused as a result of field variances. Last year, a farmer in my constituency had seven single-farm-payment inspections connected to his claim. After each of the inspections, he was notified that he had no problems. However, it was identified that he had a field variation of 0·02 hectares over his 40 hectares of land. That was a 0·05% discrepancy with what was noted on his form. That resulted in my constituent being paid last week — six months late. When he received his money, he discovered that there was absolutely no penalty for that minor discrepancy. That begs a question: why was that payment held up for so long, and how much money was wasted in sorting out that query?
It is vital that DARD staff make changes to ensure that those problems do not occur this year. The Minister’s recent utterances about field variances have been, at best, feeble. Farmers do not want to hear of more inspections or be patronised by being told to recheck their forms. A practical solution to resolve the field variance problem would be to do what is done in other regions of Europe, namely class all land that is held by a farm business as a field parcel, rather than as individual fields. It is widely believed that that would go some way towards resolving many of the issues that have been mentioned today.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome all the information that the debate has generated. I have several points to raise. Therefore, to stay within the time limit, I will run through the issues quickly.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Gildernew: If you make your point quickly, Iris.
Mrs I Robinson: I represent a farming community. Therefore, I want clarification on several points. How many requests for single farm payments were received last year, and, of those, how many were allowed? How many applications for single farm payments are yet to be resolved, and what is the average appeal time? Most importantly, how many appeals that had been allowed, were subsequently overturned by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
Ms Gildernew: I do not have that information to hand, but I will answer the questions in writing as soon as possible.
Go raibh maith agat.
I thank Tom Elliot and George Savage for raising an issue that is important to farmers and deserves open debate.
I recognise the concerns raised by Tom, George, and other Members. Many of those concerns are not new to me, and I empathise with the majority, if not all, of the points raised.
Before dealing with those concerns, I will outline the background to single farm payments, in order to illustrate the current situation. The single farm payment was introduced in 2005, as part of the reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP). Existing livestock and arable subsidy schemes, now known as the legacy schemes, were replaced with the single farm payment.
The payment comprises two parts: historic reference amounts that are based on subsidy paid between 2000-02, and a land element of £53 per hectare. The application period runs from the beginning of March until 15 May. Payment can only be made on fully validated claims when the payment window opens on 1 December.
From 2005, when the scheme first opened, the number of applicants rose from approximately 27,000 for the legacy scheme, to approximately 40,000 for the single farm payment. After taking into consideration the increase in applications, along with the fact that the scheme was new, DARD set and published the following payment targets: 68% of farm businesses to be paid by 23 December 2005, and 75% to be paid by the end of January 2006. Last year, the Department increased the targets to 70% to 75% to be paid by the end of December 2006, and 75% to 80% to be paid by the end of January 2007. All those targets were met, and I acknowledge the efforts made by DARD staff to achieve that outcome.
Unfortunately, not all applicants will get paid as quickly as they, Members, or I, would like. The Department has paid out £211,500,000, to 94·5% of farm businesses. That means that some 2,000 businesses have still not received their single farm payment for 2006. However, as I said earlier, DARD can only pay on validated claims, and, in some cases, payments are delayed because of queries about the applications.
The Department has around 570 probate and change of business cases. Cases involving probate cannot be paid until the estate is settled, which can take between six months to several years. Year on year, the number of cases delayed by probate remains fairly constant. The Department has written to around 100 applicants on specific issues but, despite reminders, no responses have been received.
This year, there have also been difficulties due to field variances that were picked up during inspections. Around 2,000 cases were delayed because farmers had not told the Department about changes to the size of fields due to land becoming ineligible because, for example, a house had been built, a laneway improved, or an area of impenetrable scrub had not been deducted.
Many of the variances are small. However, the European Commission requires DARD to re-examine those cases and, where appropriate, correct the 2005 baseline position. Around 930 of those cases are yet to be processed.
Such unreported changes not only delay payments, but have a knock-on effect on the Department’s processing ability. More worrying for the Department is that the level of identified discrepancies meant that the rate of eligibility from inspections had to be increased from 2,000 in 2006 to 3,000 in 2007. The Department has no room to manoeuvre on that increase, as it has been laid down by the European Commission.
In an attempt to resolve that issue, I have commissioned an exercise, which I announced at the Balmoral Show breakfast. In the next few weeks, the Department will write to those farm businesses that, since early 2000, have received full planning approval for single dwellings. The Department needs to ask those farmers to ensure that they have removed the area encompassing those buildings from their farm maps. In response to Mr William Irwin, the Department is not being patronising on that point. Farmers may be reluctant to check their maps, and we are asking them to do that so that we can help them.
However, as I said, a quick check now may avoid a delayed payment in the future. The Department wants to help.
I shall also be announcing that additional staff will be available in mid-June to help farmers who wish to sort out their maps and their 2007 IACS single applications. I also reassure farmers that if they remove an ineligible area before my Department has identified it as an irregularity, while the Department may have to make an adjustment for earlier years, there will not be a penalty reduction for 2007.
We are at the beginning of a new era in which I hope that DARD and the industry can work more closely together to deal with those issues. I have stressed many times how much I want the Department to work in partnership with everyone involved in the rural industry and the Committee to get things right.
I shall now turn to points raised in the debate. I am totally against any unjustified delay to a payment. However, since taking up office, I have realised that in many cases the delay is a result of factors outside departmental control such as probate, farmers not replying to the Department and field variances — many of which take time to resolve. I also recognise that my Department should do everything that it can to speed up the process.
As far as the payment timetable is concerned, I would be delighted to be able to report that 100% of cases were paid by 31 March, but I suspect that the practical reality will always be different. I am well aware of some of the difficulties, and I am considering a number of options that should help to speed up the payment process.
Dr W McCrea: If the Minister wants to help the farming community, can she give a categorical assurance that, if an independent panel adjudicates on an appeal and finds in favour of the applicant, she will not overturn that appeal?
Ms Gildernew: That point was made earlier, and I took a note of it. I cannot give a categorical assurance today. However, I will look at what I can do at departmental level.
Dr W McCrea: The Minister can.
Ms Gildernew: I cannot say that I will not overturn a decision. I will consider the issue. I want to be able to give a categorical answer, but I also want the answer that I give to be correct. I shall do my best to address that in the near future.
Unlike cross-compliance inspections, which must be completed by 31 December each year, there is no legislative deadline for the completion of eligibility inspections. However, as those are linked to the 10-month occupancy rule, it could be argued that such inspections should be completed by the end of February each year. The nature of eligibility inspections means that the findings are still relevant up to the date of the last payment, as land does not change dramatically over a period of months.
While my Department completed all cross-compliance inspections within the timescale, because of other pressure, eligibility inspections ran on into the following year. Again, I am considering proposals to speed up the process, as I recognise that any delay in inspection ultimately creates a delay in payment.
I shall quickly address some of the comments that were made during the debate. On David Burnside’s point, I am not aware of a problem with lost or mislaid forms. However, if he can provide me with details, the Department will investigate them.
Dr W McCrea: He is not here.
Ms Gildernew: I see that. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for pointing that out.
I note Tom Elliott’s points about Inniskeen House. That has been a very successful DARD initiative. Mr Elliott will be aware that, in advance of the deadline for IACS forms of 15 May, the Department asked county offices to stay open later to facilitation people submitting forms.
In spite of the increases in inspections, the Department is seeking to reduce the number of inspections and is looking at creative ways to do so. However, the Department is tied by EU regulations on the inspections that must be carried out in 2007.
A number of Members raised the possibility of part-payment, where part of a payment is paid initially and the rest is paid on completion of the process. I have asked my officials whether that can be done and have been told that, under EU guidelines, it cannot. Farmers have raised that problem with me, and I have tried to find ways to fix it as best we can.
Mr Elliott: Will the Member give way?
Ms Gildernew: I am sorry, but I really cannot give way. Many issues were raised in the debate, and I want to be fair to all Members.
Dr McCrea’s contribution referred to gold-plating. Where there is gold-plating, I will find it. I will do what I can to get rid of it.
I can assure Members that there will be no additional gold-plating. The Department will be bound by EU regulations, but it will not make them worse. Mr Burns said that our system is unique, but it is not. There is a different system in other areas, but we are not the only ones with a hybrid model. That leads to complications, but the Department felt that the system represented a fair reflection of farming practices.
As for Mr Ford’s point, the 12-month period starts on 15 May, so we are not halfway through it — we are a few weeks into it. We want to get these matters right, and that is what I intend to do. I have a lot of sympathy for farmers who are in a difficult position, and I will find ways of dealing with that.
Trevor Clarke said that we were focusing on the Twenty-six Counties. Farmers repeatedly tell me that the systems that they propose are the best. I look for best practice wherever I can find it, and I will endeavour to employ best practice for our farmers in the Six Counties. Willie Clarke mentioned the issue of getting money into farmers’ bank accounts. I concur, and I accept that it is very difficult for farmers when banks believe that payments have been made and farmers are still unable to reduce their overdrafts.
I wish to see the freedom to farm. Many issues require resolution in order for farmers to be able to do what they do best. The transition from old to new has not been easy for either farmers or the Department, as is the case with most new schemes.
The single payment scheme was not as simple as people had hoped. The European Commission is seeking ways to simplify the scheme, and I was pleased to hear the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Mariann Fischer-Boel, say that she was aiming to reduce bureaucracy when she addressed the Ulster Farmer’s Union forum last month.
I support any proposals that reduce the administrative burden on farmers and on my Department, and I have a number of ideas for the European Commission that would simplify matters. For example, if farmers could claim the same amount of money on a slightly smaller area of land, that would help to resolve some of the current land variance problems. That would help to speed up the system and ensure that payments are issued quickly.
Locally, I have asked staff to set up a working group comprising farming representatives such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association — both of which have already indicated their willingness to participate — and other interested parties, to consider how we can better work together to resolve the current problems and to develop new opportunities, such as encouraging the uptake of electronic single farm payments.
I stress how important it is that farmers advise us of changes to their maths. If the Department does not tackle this issue now, it will be storing up problems for future payments. We need farmers to help us to achieve what we all want — a quick payment schedule for the single farm payment, and a minimum number of inspections. That is why I laboured that point at the Balmoral Show breakfast this year.
Although I am against the unjustified delay in payments, the motion fails to recognise practicalities. For example, farmers will still have to be paid, even if the 31 March deadline was missed. Therefore, I cannot support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Savage: I declare an interest as a farmer in the Donacloney area. I support the motion.
My Banbridge constituency office is currently dealing with several cases in which the single farm payment has not yet been made. When my staff contacted the Department in an effort to sort out a particular case, we were told that the single farm payment would be made within seven to 10 days. Two weeks later, that payment had still not been received. That is unacceptable — such delays are unjustified and unwarranted.
The single farm payment removed the link between production and subsidies. This was known as decoupling and was designed to stop the food and milk mountains that were becoming prevalent throughout European member states.
However, in order to obtain single farm payments farmers were required to observe certain conditions known as cross-compliance. Under cross-compliance farmers are required to ensure good agricultural and environmental conditions and adhere to statutory management requirements for the protection of the environment, animal welfare and plant health. These are big undertakings.
These lengths, plus the endless red tape and bureaucracy that farmers have to deal with, are what is causing most annoyance in the industry. Farmers need to be allowed to do their job as custodians of the countryside instead of finding themselves buried in a mountain of paperwork.
Although farmers have enough to worry about, last week the EC Agriculture Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, while at a conference in Germany called for a compulsory 10% modulation rate to be introduced through instalments of 1% a year from 2009 to finance her reform programme. According to the ‘Irish Farmers Journal’ this is of concern, because it will double the current modulation rate and erode the value of the single farm payment However, Commissioner Boel’s decision to abolish set-aside must be welcomed. This will be one less thing for farmers to worry about.
Furthermore, farmers are receiving visits, often unannounced, from farm inspectors who sometimes abuse their position and at present are serving only one purpose — annoying the farmer. That has got to change.
It is particularly ironic that the Department’s website states that the aim of the rural payments and inspection division is:
“To ensure that farmers in Northern Ireland are aware of, and receive, their agricultural grants subsidies to which they are entitled.”
I have also obtained figures from the Department that make interesting reading. In 2006, the number of single farm payment applications was 39,871, of which 37,359 have been paid. However, 5% of farmers have not received the single farm payment to which they are entitled. That may seem like a small figure, but it equates to 2,181 farmers, which means that 2,181 families are struggling to make ends meet. That means that there are 2,181 farmers under constant pressure, living from one day to the next, hoping against hope that today will be the day they receive their long-awaited single farm payment cheques and the burden that they have been under for quite some time will be relieved.
Surely in this age of modern technology it is reasonable to assume that the Department can ensure that all single farm payments are made on time. Such a payment delay would be deemed as unacceptable with private-sector funding. Farmers, like those in any other business, have to plan ahead, so there are always budgets that have to be adhered to. How can we expect farmers to budget and plan ahead if they do not have the funding to budget and do not know when they will receive it?
Farmers right across Northern Ireland are the custodians of the countryside. As businesses in the countryside they need to be careful with their budgets. For businesses to thrive and prosper, they need a steady flow of finance. This is the lifeline to the rural community.
Farmers are not beggars. All they ask for is a level playing field on which they get a fair price for what they produce on their farms. That is not happening at present. Remember this: agriculture is the backbone of Northern Ireland not of the Department. I would like the Department to get that into its head.
We must ensure that the problems are solved as soon as possible so that they do not recur next year. Farmers have nothing to hide, and it is time for a fair deal for farmers. It is time that they were treated with dignity and respect and received the single farm payments that are rightfully theirs as quickly as possible.
Many comments have been made today. All these things take time. I was glad to hear the Minister speaking today, and I ask her to consider making sure that farmers receive 75% of the single farm payment by the end of October each year. That would ease their burden greatly, and Members would not have to propose motions such as this one. This is a great opportunity to highlight the situation.
I was in Brussels when single farm payments were introduced, and it was stated clearly then that it was the person who farmed the land who would be entitled to the payment. I hope that the Department will never lose sight of that point.
Mr Ford said that the problems relating to single farm payments were greater in Northern Ireland than anywhere else. That has come about because the Westminster Government have got involved and want to throw their weight about. I tell them this: if they sort out the problems on the mainland and leave us alone, we will be able to sort out our own problems.
A Member who is not here today said that anything that a farmer receives through the single farm payment scheme he is entitled to because he gets it due to hard work and the sweat of his brow. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion, and I hope that it will highlight the problems facing the farming community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses serious concern at the unjustified delay in payment of Single Farm Payments to some farmers and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to initiate the Single Farm Payment timescale for 1st December to 31st March each year; and to ensure that no farm inspections relating to the Single Farm Payment scheme take place outside the timescale of the scheme.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Easton: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to put in place legislation, similar to that applying in the rest of the United Kingdom, to protect the rights of caravan owners on private sites in Northern Ireland.
The legal definition of a mobile home is the same as that of a caravan:
“any structure designed or adapted for human habitation that is capable of being moved from one place to another”.
Legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom is a product of the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which supersedes earlier legislation. It affects all those who own mobile-home sites and all residents who own mobile homes in which they live and who rent their pitches from the site owners. It also applies to all residents who had agreements with site owners when the legislation was enacted — whatever form those agreements took. It covers those who had agreements under the Mobile Homes Act 1975 and other forms of written agreement. It specifically covers those whose tenure and rights were based on an oral agreement with the site owner.
We are not talking about those who rent mobile homes from a site owner or those who use a mobile home or caravan for holiday purposes. The Act is specific in its application to residents on sites that are privately owned or sites that are owned and operated by local authorities. However, it is vital that any proposed legislation review the protection that is necessary for those who use mobile homes or caravans for holiday purposes or live in caravans on a permanent basis.
The 1983 Mobile Homes Act is designed to protect the interests, and ensure the rights, of all residents whose agreement with a site owner allows them to live on a site in their mobile homes when the home is their main residence. These rights, all very obvious and reasonable in nature, relate to security of tenure and the right to sell a mobile home on site, or pass it to a family member on the death of a homeowner.
In the Act these rights were established whatever a site owner or resident said. Rights on other subjects were discretionary and depended on the agreement reached between owner and resident. The Act places an obligation on a site owner to spell out those rights in a written statement, which sets out the implied and express terms of the agreement that they have made. It also requires a site owner to provide specific information and to delineate clearly these implied and express terms.
The implied terms are those rights afforded to residents under the Act, and the express terms cover other aspects such as services, regulations, fees and respective obligations. Implied terms of the Act are governed by law and cannot be changed. Express terms can be changed if site owners and residents agree. They can also be changed if either party applies to court, or if there is mutual agreement to involve an independent arbitrator.
There is a clear statement in the Act about the length of time a resident can keep a mobile home on site. In most cases, residents may keep their mobile home on site indefinitely, unless the site owner brings the agreement to an end. This could happen if, for example, the planning permission of the site owner, or his interest in the land, was subject to a time limit. In that case, the resident’s right would be similarly limited.
There is also a clear statement that sets out the ways in which a site owner may bring an agreement to an end. It must be done by an application to the courts or by establishing agreement through an arbitration process.
The grounds for ending an agreement are the failure of the resident to use his mobile home as his main residence; if the resident permits the condition of his home to have a detrimental effect on the site; and if the resident breaks the terms of the agreement.
A resident can be made to leave and remove his home only if the site owner has received an eviction order from the court. The Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone other than the court to make a resident leave a mobile home or to bully, intimidate or harass a resident to make his or her position on the site untenable.
Should the site change hands, the agreement between the site owner and the residents is binding on the new owner. Agreements continue to hold even if the site is sold, phased or passes by inheritance to another owner.
With regard to the express terms, the legislation developed in the rest of the United Kingdom protects the residents’ rights. It requires that the express terms agreed be set out in a written statement furnished to the resident by the site owner. Again, disputes can be settled by reference to the courts or an agreed arbitrator.
I must apologise to Members; I have relied heavily on Members’ patience by taking some time to outline the complexity of these matters and the impact of the legislation on the mainland, which protects those who use a mobile home as their permanent residence.
My interest in the subject has been generated as a result of the experiences described to me by a considerable number of worried residents of a retirement park near Groomsport in my constituency. They live in Seahaven caravan park and have received letters from a company that has recently acquired the park from the previous owner. These are very decent, law-abiding people, many of whom are infirm and elderly. They have chosen to live in the park in the belief that they have been given an oral understanding that they could stay for life in the park’s residential section.
However, they now feel that they are being pressured to accept new written agreements that will require static homes to be upgraded at a cost that may be in the region of £90,000. In addition, their tenure on the site may be reduced to a 10-year period, with no firm guarantee beyond that point.
The holiday-home section of Seahaven caravan park holds, I believe, 147 caravans, and the residential section has recently been increased to allow 178 caravans. Thus, we are speaking of the rights of a significant number of people.
In both cases, the residents are shocked and distraught. Many have moved there because of health reasons or because they could not find, even in old age, the cost of a conventional home. These are independent people who do not seek state handouts but merely want fair and equitable treatment.
Permanent residents in caravan sites take great pride in their homes, without regard to their circumstances, but live in fear of eviction at short notice. Many are elderly people who cannot afford to pay for a new mobile home at the whim of site owners. Just like the rest of us, those residents pay rates to have their bins emptied, have postcodes and are on the electoral register. Greedy site owners should not be allowed to bully them or take advantage of them.
Many people live in residential trailer park sites in Northern Ireland, and it is vital that legislation be put in place to protect trailer park residents against those who are more concerned with profit than with the rights of people to live in peace and contentment in their own permanent mobile home. I have received dozens of letters from constituents on this matter that reflect the view that they are being treated appallingly. I hope that I have faithfully represented their interests today. I call on the Minister of the Environment to introduce legislation similar to that which is applicable in the rest of the United Kingdom in order to protect the rights of caravan owners on private sites in Northern Ireland.
I thank my colleagues Jim Wells, Jim Shannon and Peter Weir for their assistance in tabling the motion.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The rights and entitlements of caravan owners who pay to stay on private sites in the Six Counties must be protected. However, this is an all-Ireland issue and is not confined to the Six Counties; tourism is promoted on an all-Ireland basis, and we should, at the very least, co-operate on these matters, whether they affect Newcastle in County Down or Bundoran in County Donegal. That can only be achieved by improving the existing, wholly inadequate legislation. The motion should be adopted so that the rights of caravan owners and site owners alike can be enshrined in law.
Thousands of people holiday at caravan parks across the North, and they contribute greatly to the local tourism industry. Throughout the worst of times, as Members will know, many people used those caravan parks “to get away from it all”. In my hometown of Newcastle, the caravan sites and tourist resorts boosted community relations; in seeking sanctuary, people put their beliefs aside and got on with their lives. People from both communities were affected by the difficulties highlighted in the motion; those problems must be dealt with in the same spirit. Most park owners behave in a responsible manner and provide good value for money. There are at least half a dozen such sites in my constituency, and I know that the owners of those sites would welcome legislation that provides guidance for them as well as for the residents.
There are several well-run caravan sites in Newcastle, and their importance to the local economy cannot be overstated. Some of those sites operate for 10 months of the year and not just for the summer. Although most function without difficulty, problems can and do arise. Earlier this year, a dispute between caravan owners and a local site owner caused much bitterness and was a poor advertisement for Newcastle’s image as a friendly tourist resort. At the request of some of the complainants, I met the site owner in an attempt to resolve the dispute.
There was a clear lack of communication between both parties, and mediation was required to solve several issues, one of which was a problem with water pressure. Families who came down to enjoy their holidays could not even avail of proper showering facilities. The site owner claimed that the poor water pressure was nothing to do with him and that he had adequately relaid the entire site. The then Water Service claimed that the water pressure was satisfactory, and that other people tapping into the water supply might have been the cause of the problem. Similar issues have caused difficulties, and holidaymakers have demanded compensation because their break was ruined.
Local councils, which look after environmental-health and public-safety matters for caravan sites, need powers to assume control of much of their running. As has been mentioned, such legislation is already in place across the water. I wish to see similar legislation introduced for the whole of Ireland.
Disputes have exposed a major flaw that has arisen because of a lack of proper legislation. Caravan owners pay hefty annual fees to keep their caravans on private sites, but, despite that, it looks as if the owners of those sites can raise fees to whatever level they want. That is another issue that caravan owners wish to see addressed.
Some caravan owners have been going to the same site for 10 or 20 years. Some of them are retired and some are attempting to recuperate from illness. Others have invested large sums of money in their caravans, and they take a great deal of pride in their upkeep. They simply ask for fair rights, to be listened to and for their grievances to be taken on board. The last thing that they want to hear is that, if they do not like the situation, they should get off the site. That has happened at numerous caravan sites throughout Ireland. Some people, therefore, decide to leave. They end up being offered a small amount of money for their caravan, which they have no option but to accept. They then must pay extra fees to remove the caravan from the site and for its storage.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr W Clarke: I support the motion.
Mr Dallat: I also support the motion. I want to get across the message that some of the best caravan sites are on the north coast — in Portballintrae, Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock, and right on around the coast.
Caravan owners’ rights have been swept under the carpet for generations, simply because local councils could not reach an overall agreement on how to deal with the problem. Councils were unsure whether they should pass by-laws or on whom they should depend to secure rights for caravan owners.
Caravan owners on the north coast have been shouting from the rooftops for years, but all their calls have fallen on deaf ears. It is opportune that the motion is being debated, because the Assembly should take ownership of the issue and bring to an end the inequality and injustices that have gone on for too long.
Coleraine Borough Council owns the two main caravan parks on the north coast, Juniper Hill and Carrick Dhu. The council’s regulations for caravan owners on its sites are liberal. Caravan owners are not told from whom they can buy their new mobile homes or caravans — an awful practice that goes on at some private caravan sites. We are told that some type of voluntary code governs private sites, but I very much question the independence of that arrangement. That code should be supported by legislation.
I accept that mobile homes and caravans need replacing from time to time, in the interests of health and safety, but that is not the issue. The issue is the monopoly that private-site owners exercise over their tenants. That is very wrong. Let us hope that, arising from the debate, something happens, and that we consider new legislation and guidance. If it is deemed proper, those powers could, in future, be devolved to local councils, which have in the past played an important role in the development of tourism, which, of course, includes caravanning.
Permanent residents have rights, which should be extended to those who choose to live in a caravan and to those who have no choice but to live in a caravan. My experience of caravan owners is that they are responsible people. They should be protected under the law, as ratepayers who comply with all the demands that are made of them. In return, they ask for nothing more than to be afforded basic rights.
As has already been mentioned, caravanners make a substantial contribution to the economy. By taking their holidays at home, they reduce the level of currency going abroad. The visitors who are attracted here from abroad bring in foreign currency. That is critical to our economy. In places such as Portrush, Portstewart, Castlerock and Portballintrae, caravan owners hugely boost the incomes of local shops, many of which are small in size and survive in the face of large supermarkets in the bigger towns such as Coleraine. Caravan owners also create many jobs in the service industries such as in restaurants, entertainment and so on.
In conclusion, the issue is not simply about fair play. Those who own and use caravans play a critical part in our economy. It is well worthwhile considering legislation to ensure that they are protected with the same rights that everyone else demands.
Dr Farry: I am grateful to the proposers of the motion for bringing this important issue before the Assembly. They have rightly identified an important and significant gap in the regulatory framework in Northern Ireland.
Caravan owners are a group of consumers who do not enjoy effective consumer protection. Lest we think that the concern has been highlighted only by a number of recent prominent cases, we should remember that the issue has been a long-running problem within Northern Ireland. Someone who worked for the consumer protection organisation back in the 1980s told me that the problem was a major issue back then.
Two problems need to be addressed. First, caravan owners do not enjoy security of tenure. Although most caravan park users have a written contract, some have only a verbal understanding or a verbal contract. In that sense, they stand apart from those who, being in a formal rented-property situation, enjoy much more protection under the law. Such caravan owners are also at the mercy of site owners who seem able to impose arbitrary charges and to control or restrict trade and access to services. As Mr Dallat said, in economic terms, that equates to monopolistic behaviour. As with other monopolies, that situation represents a market failure that constitutes grounds for Government intervention.
Our legislation is now lagging badly behind the equivalent structures that exist in the rest of the United Kingdom. The current legal framework for caravan parks is provided by the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 1963, under which we adopted the provisions of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 that applied in the rest of the UK. However, Great Britain has since then enacted the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which significantly strengthened the legal protection that is enjoyed over there that, sadly, we lack over here.
It is important to recognise that we are talking about a number of types of structures, ranging from residential-park homes, which are essentially built on land for which planning permission was given for caravans to be sited, to the more traditional mobile caravans that people tow behind their cars when going on holiday. Indeed, we are also talking about people who live in a caravan as their sole primary residence. Essentially, the issue is not a problem about second homes. Often, the caravan owners are retirees who have gone to see out their final days in a residential park with spectacular views of the Northern Ireland coastline. The last thing that such people need is uncertainty about the legal situation in which such sites operate.
There are two broad problems of which the Assembly should be conscious. First, we need to address the regulatory framework. I think that there will be cross-party consensus on that, so I hope that the Minister will take forward the views of the House as quickly as possible and introduce legislation. Secondly, we need to deal with the ongoing problems that relate to a number of existing parks across Northern Ireland. For example, I am conscious of the situation in the Seahaven park outside Groomsport in the North Down constituency, where residents had an understanding with the previous owner that they could site their homes in the park as long as they wished. Unfortunately, when that park changed hands, the new owner saw things differently. Certainly, all MLAs for the North Down constituency will use their best endeavours to try to resolve that issue as best they can. I know that the MP for North Down is also aware of the issue.
It may be difficult to apply any new legislation retrospectively; I will be interested to hear what the Minster has to say about that. Unfortunately, some of the current disputes may end up in court. The main challenge for us as legislators is to ensure that proper legislation is put in place. I urge Members to support the motion.
Mr Weir: I welcome the motion. A debate on this issue is long overdue; it has been ignored by successive direct rule Administrations.
A press release from the Consumer Council, ‘Caravan Owners Get A Raw Deal’, highlights some of the complaints that the council has received from caravan owners:
“- The sale of caravans and amount of commission to site owners
- Being forced to buy a new caravan or to move from existing pitch”
— one of the principal issues that has directly affected the situation at Seahaven —
“- Being restricted to insurance provided by the site operator
- Fear of being ‘blacklisted’ and ‘put off’ the site if a complaint is made”.
Lest anyone think that that is a reaction to events at Seahaven or other caravan parks, this press release is dated Tuesday 12 February 2002. These issues have been ongoing for several years — Dr Farry mentioned the 1980s. Direct rule Ministers have failed to grasp the nettle and provide a proper solution. At the heart of the matter is security of tenure — the opportunity for people to live safely in their homes with the knowledge that they will not be forced or bullied out of them by the owners of the sites.
I am glad that the motion has received support from around the Chamber. Indeed, one party was so enthusiastic about it that it wanted to extend the Environment Minister’s powers to the rest of Ireland. It is good that parties have united on the issue. The proposer of the motion pointed out that any solution to the problem — like the law that surrounds the area, and what needs to be done — has a high level of complexity. He rightly spent some time highlighting the issues. There is a range of different types of sites and situations. The definition of “a site” is problematic and must be examined. People may be labelled as one thing, but in the case of Seahaven, many tenants are permanent residents who pay rates and taxes and are on the electoral register as living there.
The Caravan and Camping Forum for Northern Ireland agreed at its recent meeting that a Northern Ireland equivalent to the Mobile Homes Act 1983 in respect of residential parks should be addressed. We need to put legislation in place that puts Northern Ireland on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom and gives residents the same level of protection. Circumstances in Northern Ireland may mean that the legislation is not identical. However, a Northern Ireland equivalent is needed.
Tackling the situation goes beyond the Environment Minister’s remit. Other issues, such as security of tenure, fall under the remit of the Department for Social Development. I hope that the Executive will consider the issues on a multi-departmental and multi-agency basis in order to provide proper legislation.
This is a complex issue. The latest statistics show that caravanners made a financial contribution to the economy of £11·3 million in 2004. Behind the statistics, there are human stories. People who own and live in caravans in Northern Ireland are not people who have chosen a particular route on a whim. They are not engaged in antisocial behaviour; they are people who are the backbone of communities. They are decent people. Many have gone into the situation with a lifelong commitment to their site. They consider their caravans to be their permanent base or retirement home. Those decent people must be protected. Legislation that provides some degree of equity is needed.
It is not too much to ask to simply provide caravan owners with the protection of security of tenure. The Executive must consider that issue closely to ensure that it is not put on the back burner, both for Seahaven, where the problem is particularly acute, and for other sites around Northern Ireland. I hope that Members will not need to revisit the issue in five years but can resolve it relatively easily by working together. I support the motion.
Mr Gardiner: I declare an interest, as I have owned a caravan for many years. Therefore, I naturally want caravan owners in Northern Ireland to enjoy the same rights and protection as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Other Members have concentrated on the type of legislation required to extend those rights to owners here whose caravans are located on a private site. I will concentrate on why such an extension must happen and why more attention must be paid to caravan owners in general.
Collectively, the United Kingdom caravan, motorhome and motor-park industries have a turnover of £3 billion, employ nearly 100,000 people and serve over one million caravanners and 250,000 motor-park residents. The caravan industry is growing steadily and makes a major contribution to tourism in the United Kingdom. The English home market for tourism has many caravanners in its ranks, and I remind the Assembly that over 43 million people live within four hours’ drive of the Lancashire ports, including many caravanners. That market is more readily accessible than expensive foreign markets in America and overseas. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) should target that home market far more, and the fact that it includes many caravanners emphasises the importance of putting in place a correct range of rights.
Caravanning is undervalued in Northern Ireland and it is not assisted in any way by officialdom to fulfil its considerable potential. The Government should help to remedy that situation by compiling and maintaining reliable statistics on the size and value of the caravan holiday sector in Northern Ireland. NITB should actively market caravan holidays, include them in its inspection scheme for holiday accommodation and tourism awards and operate a grading system. The board should nominate a specific contact with responsibility for ensuring that the caravan holiday sector’s interests are properly considered and for adequately communicating with it.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Industry Confederation (NITIC) should be reformed to act on behalf of all those with interests in tourism. At the earliest opportunity, the Government should reinstate a working group to prepare a new planning policy statement for tourism in Northern Ireland. It is not only right to extend the rights that apply elsewhere in the United Kingdom to caravanners here, it is economically sound because of the potential to benefit tourism.
Specific actions are required to protect the rights of caravan owners under the law. In September 2005, the Office of Fair Trading published a paper titled ‘Guidance on Unfair Terms in Holiday Caravan Agreements’, in which it drew a distinction between responsible and less responsible caravan park owners. As only the former should be allowed to operate, the best way forward is to set up a watertight licensing scheme for caravan parks, which should be linked to the publication of the results of a customer satisfaction questionnaire. After all, caravans represent a substantial investment for their owners, and they have the right to expect a reasonable range of protection under the law. Therefore, I support fully the worthwhile motion.
Mr Cree: As many Members have said, this vexatious problem has been with us for a long time, whether it concerns mobile or static caravans or mobile homes.
After various bodies had spent some 20 years campaigning on the matter, a code of practice was introduced throughout the United Kingdom in September 1999. That code was expected to provide the same level of consumer protection for caravanners here as had existed for those on the mainland.
In 2002, the Consumer Council noted that caravanners in Northern Ireland still lacked basic rights and that, therefore, new legislation was needed. The code of practice that had been introduced was not sufficient to safeguard people’s rights and, in many cases, was not being honoured.
In his contribution Mr Gardiner gave UK-wide statistics on the park-homes business. That is an important business that generates a great deal of revenue. There are at least 12,000 owners of static caravans, and that figure continues to grow. The Member of Parliament for North Down, Lady Hermon, asked the Secretary of State:
“what plans he has to extend those parts of the Housing Act 2004 relating to park homes to Northern Ireland.”
John Spellar replied:
“I have no plans to extend the provisions as they make amendments to the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which does not cover Northern Ireland.”
Therefore it remains the case that no specific legislation here safeguards consumer rights in the park-homes business.
Since the 1960s, several pieces of legislation that were made for Great Britain have been extended through devolution to cover Scotland and Wales. It is time to address that important shortcoming and ensure that the British rights that cover other parts of the United Kingdom are applied to Northern Ireland. I support the call for new legislation so that caravanners in Northern Ireland can enjoy the same rights as others.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Mr Shannon: I look forward to speaking to the motion on a matter that has exercised my mind and the minds of many Members. My colleague Alex Easton and I have met with some caravan owners, and we are aware of the issues that are important to them.
The story, which should not be repeated anywhere in the Province, is one that most of us have heard. The average person is being taken advantage of and has no protection against those who seek gain for themselves at the expense of others. One such example is an elderly couple who are in retirement and who may decide to release their equity and sell their home. They may approach a park-home owner who tells them that if they buy a caravan, they can rent the land and the amenities for as long as they want it. No contract and no written agreement has been signed — just a gentleman’s simple agreement. That couple then sell their home and begin to reap the benefit of their life’s work, taking those holidays for which they could never find the time or money. They are also able to treat their family, and retirement looks like a happy prospect — on paper at least.
In another case, a man may become ill and can no longer work. The mortgage payments loom heavily on his mind, and, instead of declaring bankruptcy and going to the Housing Executive for a house, he sells his home and buys a caravan with the intention of having a quiet life, paying an average of £1,000 a year in rent, with the result that he affordably retains his independence.
Buying a caravan seems to be the better option for both couples, at least until the caravan park is sold and the new site owners have more than the current plan in mind for the park. The easiest way for the owners to realise their new plans is to force the tenants out by exploiting the fact that no written contract has been signed and there is no protective legislation. The site owners decide to say that their homes, the majority of which are less than four years old, are unfit to live in and must be replaced by more permanent homes that will cost in the region of £90,000. The residents are told that they should not worry and that if they cannot find the money to buy those homes, their own homes will be bought at a generous rate. Once more, the little people are pushed around to satisfy the whims of a big company.
What redress do those people have? How can they challenge those injustices? In short, they cannot: they signed no contract or written agreement and have no enshrined rights. They have nothing, and the Government have given them no protection. Had they known in advance what would be required of them when they bought their homes, they would not have had to deal with that shock, and they would have had the option of laying out more money to build more permanent homes at a time when it was a lot cheaper to do so. Instead, they find that four years later their homes are redundant. Having no contract and no indication of the needs for and standards of caravans meant that they were left to wander in the dark, as it were.
That is not the case in the mainland, where the Mobile Homes Act 1983 protects mobile-home owners.The Act ensures that, from the outset, set terms are in a written contract between the tenant and the owner. Express terms can be changed by agreement between the tenant and the owner or by either party’s applying to the civil courts or to arbitration. That contract therefore expresses any requirements for homes, meaning that questions and nasty surprises do not arise in future years. Should a home be unfit for use, the park owner cannot just enforce his opinion, but must engage an impartial arbitrator, who is not swayed by thoughts of how much more money could be received for a piece of land without that mobile home on it, as a businessman is inclined to think. That is the obvious route to take. In any other rental situation, there are terms and conditions. Yet, in the Province, there are no means of preventing advantage being taken of someone when his or her home and future might be at stake.
There are 12,000 owners of static homes in Northern Ireland. Some are holiday homes and are not in residential parks; however, there is still no legislation to protect them — there are only guidelines. That is unacceptable.
On 26 June 2006, my colleague from Strangford Mrs Robinson posed a question in Westminster about how many caravan parks had been opened in Northern Ireland in the previous three years. The Secretary of State was unable to answer. He was able to state only how many had been granted planning permission. Why was that? Was it because the Government took no interest in the rights of caravan or mobile-home owners — except to ensure that they paid their rates? In Ards alone, there were three planning applications for parks. However, what type of park — holiday or residential? The Government did not distinguish.
In 2003, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Des Browne said:
“The 1983 Act covers mobile homes in designated areas that are generally referred to as Park Homes, As this is a unique type of tenure and there are no such areas in Northern Ireland it would be inappropriate to introduce equivalent provisions.”
The Assembly must take the steps that should have been taken in 2003, and offer protection to residents who are clearly in desperate need of it.
Action should not be misinterpreted as an attack on park-home owners. Legislation would also offer them protection, and the recently formed Caravan and Camping Forum for Northern Ireland has discussed and agreed the need for an equivalent Act in Northern Ireland.
I take pleasure in supporting the proposal.
Mr Armstrong: As an Ulster Unionist, who is proud to live in this part of the United Kingdom, I fully agree that citizens in Northern Ireland should enjoy the same rights and protections as fellow citizens who live in Great Britain. Therefore, when Members of the Assembly can make a difference, I have no difficulty in supporting the motion.
There are two separate issues. The first concerns people in residential caravan parks who are unhappy about the terms and conditions that are imposed on them by the owners of the parks. That was recently highlighted by the case of caravan park residents in the Ards Peninsula who took grave exception to the enforced upgrading of their homes.
The second issue relates to the rights enjoyed by individuals who lease space from holiday caravan sites. That was highlighted in the last year, when Coleraine Borough Council sought to sell off some sites on the north coast, provoking opposition from those with holiday caravans on those sites. My understanding is that the legal framework that covers holiday caravan sites is the same as that which operates in Great Britain. Therefore, I propose to address my remarks to the situation as it relates to residential caravan parks.
Park homes, otherwise called mobile homes, comply with the statutory definition of a caravan, and are built to BSI British Standards. However, in most cases, they look like bungalows and are located in parks where planning permission permits the residential use of caravans. Those parks can resemble small housing estates, and the majority of the homes on them are privately owned and occupied as the main residences of their owners.
Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that an important factor in legislating for such matters as planning permission is that the rights of caravan owners are protected without placing an undue additional burden on them? Care must be taken with any Northern Ireland legislation to ensure that caravan owners are not penalised as well as protected.
Mr Armstrong: I agree that those people must not be penalised.
Park homes are especially popular with older people who wish to move to more suitable accommodation and to release equity. They are not only affordable, but offer compactness, security and a sense of community.
Most residents own their park homes, which may cost from £15,000 to £300,000, and enter an agreement with park owners to keep their homes on plots of land, for which they pay fees of £1,000 a year on average.
Security of tenure in Great Britain is provided by the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which implies certain important terms to the contractual relationship between park owners and park-home owners. Those terms include the right to situate the park home indefinitely, to sell or make a gift of it, the right to form residents’ associations, and provisions for the resolution of disputes. There can be no contracting out of those implied terms.
The Mobile Homes Act 1983 should be extended to Northern Ireland to protect mobile-home owners here. The Northern Ireland branch of the British Holiday and Home Parks Association supports that course of action. Indeed, in April 2003, Lady Sylvia Hermon of the Ulster Unionist Party tabled a written question requesting such a course of action. The then direct rule Minister, Des Brown, replied that the 1983 Act covered mobile homes in designated areas that are generally referred to as park homes and said that:
“As this is a unique type of tenure and there are no such areas in Northern Ireland it would be inappropriate to introduce equivalent provisions.”
However, as recent events on the Ards Peninsula have proved, that is no longer the case. There are park homes on at least four sites in Northern Ireland. The people who live in those park homes are entitled to the same legal protection as their fellow citizens who live in the same type of accommodation in Great Britain. Therefore, I support the motion.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I congratulate the Members who secured the debate and I welcome the opportunity to set out my Department’s position. As it will become clear, responsibility for the issue cuts across several Departments and, therefore, I can only respond as far as my Department is concerned.
I sympathise with the plight of mobile-home owners described by various Members. There is clear deficiency in Northern Ireland legislation, which leaves mobile-home owners unprotected and disadvantaged in comparison with their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
There are two main issues: the first relates to the definition of the word “caravan”, and the second relates to rights of tenure and inheritance. Mr Easton, when proposing the motion, referred to definitions of mobile homes and caravans as being the same elsewhere in the United Kingdom. However, the definition of a caravan in the UK is not the same as that in the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 1963, which is my Department’s responsibility.
I will not go into all the details, but in Northern Ireland the dimensions of a caravan are not stipulated in the 1963 Act but are determined indirectly by reference to motor vehicle legislation relating to what may legally move from one place to another along a public road. The dimensions specified in that legislation are not in line with those in England, which were extended only last year specifically to embrace mobile homes.
On 9 February 2004, the High Court in Northern Ireland, in the case “57 Developments v Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland” said that a twin-unit caravan that does not exceed 6·1 metres in width is capable of being moved lawfully from one place to another on the public highway and, accordingly, is a caravan for the purposes of the 1963 Act.
In that judicial review, Mr Justice Weatherup took the view that a caravan, for the purposes of the statutory definition, is a single structure designed or adapted for human habitation and which is capable of being moved lawfully on the public highway by towing or transportation as a single structure.
Some twin-unit caravans — or park homes, as they are more frequently known — are capable of such mobility, and being less than 6·1 metres wide are capable of satisfying the relevant regulations. The implication is that the definition of a caravan would need to be brought into line with that in Great Britain, so that it embraces caravans, mobile homes and park homes.
A change in the definition would also simplify the position as regards planning control. Some mobile park homes do not sit comfortably with the definition of a caravan and may require individual planning permission.
The second issue is that, although the Mobile Homes Act 1983 uses the same definition for a mobile home as previous legislation used for a caravan, it protects only owner-occupiers of mobile homes, for whom the mobile home is their only or main residence, and it applies only when the occupier has an agreement with the site owner.
Changes in the definition of what constitutes a caravan, a mobile home or a park home will have implications for planning control. That impacts on planning permission for mobile homes and park homes in Northern Ireland, where, technically, they may not be regarded as caravans, and will therefore require specific planning permission in addition to that already obtained for the use of land as a caravan site. The Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 1963 does not, unfortunately, provide a platform for further legislation to address rights of tenure or agreements between the owners of caravans, mobile homes or park homes, and site owners. That Act is primarily concerned with the use of land for caravan sites and the licensing of such sites by district councils. Separate legislation is therefore required to provide protection for owners of caravans, mobile homes and park homes. The Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 1963 cannot be used to provide security of tenure for residents of mobile homes or for agreements between them and site owners.
Furthermore, these matters lie beyond land-use planning control and, therefore, it could be argued that they are not the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. That view is supported, to some extent, by the position in England, where the Mobile Homes Act 1983, of which we have heard much today, and amendments to that Act, were promoted by Departments responsible for housing matters, most recently by the housing management division of the Department of Communities and Local Government.
I have been advised by the Minister for Social Development that, in respect of tenancy rights, although park homes have been in existence in Great Britain for some time, that housing option is relatively new to Northern Ireland and there are currently only two recognised developments. When homes in those developments are purchased, the owner enters into an agreement with the landowner to have the home sited on the park. That is a private matter between the two parties to the agreement. Housing law deals only with the tenure rights of the rented sector. Those occupying mobile homes as their main residence are regarded as homeowners, and, therefore, they fall outside that protection.
Tenancy rights are clearly not a land-use planning matter. If they were, they would fall into my area of responsibility. I regret, therefore, that I am unable to give Members a commitment to introduce such legislation. Due to the issue of definition, to which I referred earlier, the law dealing with mobile homes on caravan sites affects the responsibilities of more than one Department. The difficulties must be explored to determine which Department is best placed to deal with them.
My colleague Alex Easton proposed the motion and mentioned the need for legislation relating, not only to mobile homes, but also to caravans for holiday purposes. He will accept that a person who rents a caravan for a week or two is not really the problem. Rather, we are trying to focus on those who live in mobile homes as their main or only residence. That is covered by the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Furthermore, in the case of holiday rentals, no protection is provided by other caravan or housing legislation.
My Department has been in contact with the Department of Communities and Local Government on the mainland about that matter, which has confirmed that legislation relating to caravans and mobile homes does not protect holiday caravan owners. That Department has no plans to introduce legislation in relation to holiday rentals. However, with regard to protection, regulations exist such as The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, which were introduced on the mainland and which extend to Northern Ireland. I regret to say, as a former lawyer, that the individuals concerned must resort to the law to challenge unfair contracts.
Mr Clarke from Sinn Féin said that the issue was not only a problem for the United Kingdom, but also for the Republic of Ireland. I have jurisdiction in this part of the kingdom only, so I will have to restrain myself from trying to interfere in the legislation of another state. He talked about the benefits of mediation and rightly pointed out that district councils have most, if not all, powers in relation to caravan sites at present.
After giving Members a guided tour of his constituency’s caravan sites in East Londonderry, Mr Dallat spoke about the inequality between council-owned sites and privately-owned sites. He also talked about the possibility of control being devolved to local government under the review of public administration (RPA). I am happy to look at that matter. As Members know, a review that was instituted in relation to RPA is currently under way.
The current authority of district councils only covers site licences and mainly deals with physical standards and health and safety issues, not with security of tenure. District councils can, however, draw up agreements for their own sites. That is the case in Mr Dallat’s area, where it has been successful in the Coleraine area.
Mr Farry said that it was a long-running problem, and he identified the issue as one of consumer protection. He spoke about security of tenure and identified the different structures involved. On the chance of the definition of what constitutes a caravan being retrospective, it will apply only when it has been enacted as far as planning control is concerned. That could affect what is allowed on existing sites. I cannot comment on tenancy rights, as that is matter for the Department for Social Development.
Mr Weir spoke about issues raised by the then General Consumer Council of Northern Ireland as far back as 2002. He mentioned the complexities of the legislation and recognised that it was not an issue for the DoE alone. He also reflected on the many human stories that have been brought to my attention — not only by him but by his colleagues as well — and urged the entire Executive not to put the issue on the back burner.
Mr Gardiner, a caravan owner himself, highlighted the benefits of caravanning to the home tourist industry and emphasised that it was a cross-cutting issue. He inquired about a policy planning statement (PPS) on tourism, saying that the issue should be reviewed. I do not have the timescale with me today, but I shall be happy to write to Mr Gardiner about the timing of that PPS.
Mr Cree mentioned the Consumer Council. It became apparent that this is a wide cross-cutting issue, with many Members referring to consumer rights. I wish to put on record that I am happy to meet the Consumer Council to discuss the matter, and I am sure that other colleagues will be too.
Mr Shannon brought Members the human stories behind the headlines, and Mr Armstrong ended the debate by referring to the difficulties surrounding the definitions of caravans.
I cannot deal with the security of tenure issue, although I wish that I could. However, I assure the House that I will consider the definition of a caravan and its implications for the wider debate. I can only advise people who are having difficulties with security of tenure to take legal advice on the general legal rights from their lawyers or bodies such as the Consumer Council. I mentioned those issues previously.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the chance to respond to the debate.
Mr Wells: Mr Deputy Speaker, this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate you on your appointment. It is a seat that I occupied for a year, and I wish you every success in the future.
We are not debating a small issue. Between 12,000 and 14,000 people in Northern Ireland occupy caravans in some shape or form. That means that every constituency has an average of about 800 people concerned about the rights of caravan owners. There are over 100 caravan sites in Northern Ireland, the majority of which are in coastal areas such south Down, Strangford, east Londonderry and north Antrim.
It is a big industry, as several Members have said, which brings millions of pounds into the economy. However, why do people’s human rights disappear when they go through the gates of some caravan sites? That is what happens. I will give the House a few examples of what is happening in my constituency to underline that.
I was approached by a lady who bought her caravan one year ago for £20,000, but her domestic circumstances changed radically, and she was forced to sell. She was offered £10,600 for her caravan — a depreciation of approximately £250 for every night she spent in it. When she tackled the owner of the Newcastle site about the offer, she was told that the price was set by Glass’s Guide. When she asked to see that guide, he refused. The caravan site owner told her, quite frankly, that it was her hard luck if she did not like the arrangements and that she had to buy and sell her caravan through him.
I also have an example of an elderly gentleman who paid £30,000 for his caravan two years ago but was forced to sell when he became a widower. He was offered, and had to accept, £18,000. His daughter checked around the site a few months later to find the same caravan on sale for £32,000. If those individuals are not considered to be abusing the monopoly of power that they have in caravan sites, there is something wrong.
The 10-year rule is also causing great distress in my constituency. It appears that caravan site owners have the right to tell caravan owners — regardless of the state of their caravans and of how much money they have spent on maintenance, extensions or repainting — that they must replace their caravan every 10 years. However, caravan owners are only allowed to sell their caravan to the site owner and can only buy their new one from the site owner. That places the caravan owner in a difficult position. If the caravan owner does not like those arrangements, he or she is told to get off the site. A gentleman who protested about that type of treatment on a caravan site in Newcastle returned one day to find that his caravan had been towed off the site and dumped in the field across the road. He was then told to make the necessary arrangements to have it removed.
Some caravan site owners have decided that people who use their sites are not allowed to have private insurance. I encountered a site owner who does not permit caravan owners on his sites to look in the open market for private insurance; instead, he charges every caravan owner on his site £400 insurance. Most people on that site know that they could get insurance for £150 if they went to the Caravan Club, Saga or some reputable insurance company, but the site owner demands £400 from them. As the caravan site owner buys a group policy, he is getting the insurance for less than £150 — and everyone knows that. However, when a deputation of caravan owners went to see the site owner to query the arrangement, he refused them sight of the policy and would not tell them how much he paid for it or what it covered. The caravan owners had no option but to accept that.
Another difficulty arose at a Kilkeel site, where, until recently, caravan owners were permitted to hire a private contractor to fix their caravans, put decking round it or install new facilities. The caravan site owner spotted a gap in the market and decided that caravan owners had to come to him if they wished to do any work and use a subcontractor appointed by him. The difficulty there was that an amount was added to the overall charge for the work as a cut for the site owner who referred the work to the subcontractor. Those are some of the many difficulties faced by people on caravan sites.
Many people have their caravans on sites for which they have no written contract. The Minister of the Environment, Mrs Foster, said that it might be possible to take court action in some instances. However, that will be difficult if there is only a verbal arrangement between the site owner and the caravan owner. A further difficulty is that many of the people who are being faced with these problems are from the most vulnerable groups in society. Many of them are elderly, some of them disabled and many of them are retired. They are not in a position to take on the might of a caravan site owner, go to the High Court and sue him for breach of contract. They will risk a huge debt if they lose the case, and if they threaten to do it, their caravan might be found lying across the road having been towed off the site. Those are the difficulties that are faced.
The minimum expected by those who use caravan sites is the right to a written contract that offers reasonable terms and conditions that are not excessive, and which they can stand by and show in the event of dispute. In many parts of Northern Ireland, there are no such written contracts.
That led to the situation on the Boulevard caravan site in Newcastle, where all the tenants got letters from the site owner saying that he had decided to sell his site for apartments and that the caravan owners would have to leave the site within three months. They had absolutely no comeback, because they did not have a written contract that could be enforced.
I appreciate the Minister’s going into the important detail of the definition of “caravan” and the impact of extending the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to this part of the United Kingdom. I remind the hon Member for South Down — or, rather, the Member for South Down — Mr Clarke that the motion only applies to the United Kingdom. Therefore, trying to extend the powers of my hon Friend Mrs Foster to the Republic of Ireland, which is a foreign state, will not work on this occasion.
Mr Weir: Obviously the Members opposite, having failed to get into one Executive, are trying to extend the powers of another.
Mr Wells: The Member for North Down has made an interesting point. After its recent electoral showing in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin will have no role in caravan legislation — or any other form of legislation — in the Dáil for the next few years.
Members have outlined the difficulties. I accept, and appreciate, that the Minister of the Environment is in a difficult position because she can only answer the planning issues regarding caravan sites, and a few other minor matters. Many of the issues arising from the motion rest with the Minister for Social Development. It is unfortunate that she is not in the Chamber. However, I will see her tonight at the annual general meeting of Down District Council. Perhaps I will be able to have a word in her ear about her absence. I hope that the Official Report of this debate will be passed to the Minister for Social Development so that she can address the issues that she has missed by being absent from the Chamber this afternoon. It is important that, on a cross-cutting issue such as this, the Ministers can work together.
I do not care whether what is required is an extension of the 1983 Act to Northern Ireland or a new definition of “caravan”. All that I want is for vulnerable people who are living on caravan sites with unscrupulous owners to have some basic human rights. Clearly, there are caravan sites in Northern Ireland where there are contracts and where site owners behave responsibly. I am aware of quite a few, some in my own constituency. However, there has to be some recourse against those who misbehave.
The Minister said that there is an Act that provides the district councils with some role in the licensing of caravan sites in Northern Ireland. In reality, that has no impact on the unfair terms and conditions. The council can become involved if there is an issue of public health or noise, but not where the owner of a site is treating his tenants in a very unfair way. Therefore, that legislation is not of much assistance. Down District Council, for example, can dictate that a certain site has only 200 pitches, but it can do nothing about someone who offers 50% less than the market value for a second-hand caravan.
I welcome the fact that it seems that there is going to be some liaison between the relevant Departments so that we can get a basic Act for — and perhaps unique to — this part of the United Kingdom; one which deals specifically with the needs of individuals. Since the issue has been raised, I have had some caravan owners on the phone in tears. It is unfortunate that the Member for East Londonderry Mr Dallat is not here, because one of the complaints was about a site owned by his council. Coleraine Borough Council doubled the nightly rate on its site during the North West 200 motorcycle race. The council saw an opportunity to double its fees because there was a big demand for sites that weekend. Therefore, it is not just private site owners who occasionally bend the rules. It is a pity that Mr Dallat is not here to answer for his council.
Let us show that we can effectively represent the 12,000 to 14,000 people in the Province who have caravans by giving them basic human rights and control of their affairs through new legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to put in place legislation, similar to that applying in the rest of the United Kingdom, to protect the rights of caravan owners on private sites in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate on the ‘Shared Future’ framework document. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to move the motion and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will be allowed five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to move the amendment and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Dr Farry: I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the documents entitled ‘A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland’ and the ‘First Triennial Action Plan 2006-2009’, and calls upon the Executive to make the creation of a shared society a top priority.
To say that this is, perhaps, the Assembly’s most important debate so far is not an understatement. I am pleased to see both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the Chamber.
The premier political challenge that faces us is to address the continued, deep divisions in our society. As long as those divisions remain, the momentous events of 8 May alone do not, and cannot, constitute the end point for the political process. The Assembly must be conscious that sectarian and racist attitudes remain prevalent. Furthermore, the pattern of segregation is deeply ingrained, especially in residential terms.
Unfortunately, it must be recognised that, in recent years, rather than improving, those divisions have become, in some respects, even more entrenched. The majority of the badly misnamed “peace walls” have appeared since the first ceasefires in 1994, and one has even been added since the arrival of our new political dispensation.
In essence, there are two options for how this society is managed. However, there is not really a choice. The first is to continue with a deeply divided society, doing our best to manage the tensions, diverting scarce resources that could be put to much better use, and wasting huge opportunities. Those divisions carry enormous human, social, security, economic and financial costs. A society based on the idea of “separate but equal” cannot, and will not, work. The concept of a benign apartheid is an oxymoron.
The other option is to build a shared future: a society in which people can live and learn, work and play together in safety. A shared future is the only sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland.
Despite the deepening divisions in some aspects of life here, there are encouraging signs. The workplace — albeit largely because of top-down regulation — is, in effect, integrated. There is evidence of substantial public support and demand for shared education, housing and leisure facilities. However, the aspiration for shared goods, facilities and services is often frustrated: sometimes because of lack of provision, but often because of fears concerning security.
Furthermore, we must recognise the growing diversity in Northern Ireland. With regard to identity, more and more people are casting off traditional labels and challenging notions that Protestant must equal British, must equal unionist, or that Catholic must equal Irish, must equal nationalist.
Increasing numbers of immigrants are coming to work in Northern Ireland. Surely, that is an encouraging sign of our economic potential. However, their presence presents a further challenge to the traditional notions of how this society is organised, and it is time that the term “the two communities” was consigned to the dustbin.
It is important to recognise that a shared future must be more than a slogan, or a label, that can be applied to any situation where unionists or nationalists work in partnership. A shared future is a specific policy framework, out of which arises a set of policy objectives.
I commend the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for the work on a shared future that has already been carried out, albeit under direct rule. However, that only built upon the leadership that has been shown in civic society. The consultation that led to the document ‘A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland’ saw the participation of over 10,000 people from all sections of the community.
‘A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland’ has been in place since March 2005, and the first of the triennial action plans was launched in April 2006. Some key areas named in part 2 of the framework document include:
“Tackling the Visible Manifestations of Sectarianism and Racism; Reclaiming Shared Space; Reducing Tensions at Interface Areas; Shared Education; Shared Communities; Supporting Good Relations through Diversity and Cultural Diversity; Developing Shared Workplaces; Good Relations, Community Development and Tackling Disadvantage; Ensuring that Voice is Given to Victims; Shared Services.”
A shared future is not about the elimination of difference. Instead, it is about building a society that is based on respect as well as tolerance. A shared future is also about the recognition of our mutual interdependence and the putting in place of a better framework in order to address conflict. A shared future does not conflict with equality; there is a fundamental relationship between the two.
The core principle must be equal citizenship. A shared future must be based on equality, which in turn must be based on good relations and sharing. Equally, a shared future is not about social engineering and the creation of an artificial society. In many respects, the divisions in Northern Ireland have been engineered by past decisions. The delivery of a shared future requires political leadership, and it is important that each party in the Assembly gives its support to the detailed policy work that needs to be done.
It is important to recognise that the documents before Members are Government policy, and they will remain so. However, they are the legacy of direct rule. It is important that there is local ownership over the detail of policy; it will fall to the Executive to shape the context of the second triennial plan, which is due to be launched in less than two years’ time.
The forthcoming comprehensive spending review will be a critical watershed. The promotion of a shared future could generate huge financial savings. The Alliance Party has already highlighted the fact that £1 billion is wasted every year in an attempt to manage a divided society. Much of that money cannot be released in the short term, so investment of additional resources regarding shared facilities may be required to change the pattern of provisional services. In the long term, there will be a significant financial peace dividend, which can be spent on the improvement of public services for everybody. In the review, mixed housing and shared education must be examined; I include integrated education in that, because it is the most economically and socially viable education model.
Ultimately, a shared future should be strengthened by a shared Government. The proposed amendment is encouraging. If the Assembly can unite around the objective of a shared future, an important message will be sent out about the direction in which it has to move. The Alliance Party will pay close attention to the comments made by other parties on the issue. It is important that we do not regress from the important principles that were established through the ‘Shared Future’ framework document and that there is a commitment to the implementation of the existing policies in the shared future action plan.
Importantly, the Assembly must take ownership of the issue and shape the future direction of policy. If all parties are prepared to commit to the framework of a shared future, something that all Ministers took a pledge to uphold in their pledge of office, it will be an important achievement. The issue is momentous, and it goes to the heart of how politicians organise and deliver a better society for all.
Mr Spratt: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the strategic direction of and underpinning principles contained in the documents ‘A Shared Future’ (March 2005) and ‘A Shared Future: Triennial Action Plan’ (April 2006), and recognises that the Executive and the Assembly will wish to consider carefully the progress to date and bring forward detailed plans, consistent with the pledge of office, to promote the interests of the whole community towards the goal of a shared future and a prosperous, peaceful and settled society.”
Direct rule Ministers produced the first shared future triennial action plan in April 2006. Its main themes include eliminating sectarianism and racism, and enabling individuals to live and work without fear or intimidation. That is important for the Province in seeking to promote business and attract inward investment.
A main priority in the action plan was to reduce tension and conflict at interface areas. The parading issue is crucial in that. It is essential that a resolution on parades be found, otherwise much of the progress made in recent months could be destroyed.
The parades issue has the potential to disrupt the efforts that have been made towards stable devolution, and there are those who would be only too keen to stir up trouble at flashpoints. The triennial action plan also commits to supporting the development of integrated and shared communities where people wish to learn, live, work and play together.
In education, the Bain Report recognised that supporting multiple education sectors such as the existing controlled, maintained, voluntary grammar, integrated and Irish-medium strands incurs significant costs. No value is added by having all those separate administrative structures. We must accept that we cannot keep schools open while losing money on expensive administrative structures. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom or anywhere in the world can match the number of different school-management types in Northern Ireland.
A previous Sinn Féin Education Minister was able to introduce a policy under which Irish-medium and integrated schools with intakes as low as 12 pupils could be opened and financed by the state. That was against an already accepted background of falling rolls, surplus places and rising costs. On that matter, Bain said that:
“The establishment of new Integrated and Irish-medium schools … increases the number of schools at a time of falling pupil numbers and, therefore, contributes to the incidence of small schools and the level of surplus capacity.”
Opening new, small, integrated or Irish-medium schools because that happened to be the political flavour of the month for a particular party has had serious repercussions for other small schools in the Province.
Education and training costs 30% more per capita here than the United Kingdom average. Although we spend more because of the multiple sectors in Northern Ireland, less money reaches the pupil. Despite education spending representing 10% of GDP compared with only 5% for the rest of the UK, the actual spending for each pupil is 14·5% less here than in England and Wales for primary schools and 2·5% less for secondary schools.
The persistence of a large number of different education systems with multiple sets of bureaucracies is no longer acceptable, particularly given the severely restricted budgets for education. Since 1922, Northern Ireland has had two parallel systems, educating mainly Protestants in state schools and mainly Roman Catholics at maintained schools. Since then, several more sectors have emerged, including the integrated sector. The integrated education sector further subdivides precious resources.
Schools from different sectors currently work effectively at local level through collaboration, planning and working jointly to meet the needs of pupils. There are many fine examples of that around the Province. It is important to build on that and to avoid undoing all of the gains made at local level by taking an excessively heavy-handed approach. I have heard it suggested that £1 billion could be saved through greater co-operation across all sectors. That is a huge overestimate, but genuine savings must be made where possible.
The anti-racism strategy runs hand in hand with the shared future strategy. Good relations between people from different racial backgrounds are essential as Northern Ireland society develops over coming years. The DUP recognises racism as a problem in Northern Ireland and has consistently sought to help eradicate it. Those who have recently moved to Northern Ireland from eastern Europe and other parts of the world enrich our society. Those who work in the local Health Service, for instance, are worthy of our immense gratitude. In some areas it would now be difficult for hospitals to function without them. The Province has received great benefits from people from other parts of the world.
People of more than 60 nationalities are now contributing to our economy and society. In towns such as Portadown and Dungannon, major employers would be unable to operate without Portuguese and eastern European staff, particularly in the food manufacturing sector. There must be awareness of — and adequate provision for — those from other parts of the world. Even simple tasks such as sending letters or completing forms can prove very difficult if English is not one’s first language. Employers ought to provide induction and training programmes. Advice on rights relating to landlords and employment would be helpful, as would information on driving offences, insurance, MOT requirements and other such matters that those folk must deal with.
A study by the University of Ulster that was published in April 2000 indicated that racism was twice as prevalent as sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, there are still hundreds of racist attacks in the Province each year, which is ironic given the importance that migration has played in the history of this part of the world. The DUP has actively supported legislation to deal with racially motivated attacks and has committed itself to zero tolerance of racism. As the Province seeks to move away from a period of conflict, it is of crucial importance to tackle racism and sectarianism.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i gcoinne an mholta agus tacú leis an leasú.
In support of the amendment, I wish to separate the objective of building a shared future — which is a top priority — from the ‘A Shared Future’ document and its plans. Making a shared future a top priority has been cemented by Sinn Féin, the DUP and others in Government through the decision to agree to shared decision-making and shared exercise of political power in the Executive. It is not only right, but compulsory that power and obligation is exercised in the Assembly, under the ministerial Pledge of Office. The remit of those obligations is defined and based on the requirements of the 1998 Act and the commitments made in the St Andrews Agreement.
It is, of course, competent and appropriate to carefully analyse and consider policy documents such as ‘A Shared Future’ and their current impact, and to introduce detailed plans to promote the interests of the entire community, as represented in the Assembly. However, to decide at this stage that the impact of administrative policies and plans will be to implement the agreed objective of building a shared future, is to accept an analysis and definition of our overarching responsibility that has not been tested as competent and sufficient by either the Executive or the Assembly.
Sinn Féin has, as a priority, accepted its responsibility not only to build a shared future within the context of the political institutions, but to explore with the unionist community how and on what basis that shared future could develop. It must be a top priority to agree a way forward on a shared future within the framework of the legal and policy commitments that we have already agreed. That will not happen by simply endorsing administrative policy documents, but by using the existing political process.
Sinn Féin has concerns that ‘A Shared Future’ defines the primary problem as a lack of tolerance between communities — particularly the most disadvantaged ones — and gives that definition primacy over the obligations of the 1998 Act and the commitments of the St Andrews Agreement to tackle disadvantage on the basis of objective need. There are many examples of communities and groups working to tackle disadvantage in order to build a shared future that is based on common purpose. We must build on and support such work.
It is simply politically inept to define their relationship and needs as one-dimensional and to say that their primary problem is that they lack tolerance. The experience of Sinn Féin with the disadvantaged of both communities is that such as analysis is disrespectful and inaccurate, given their many achievements and capabilities.
The view of Sinn Féin, in engaging with all communities and traditions, is that building a shared future is about learning to listen to others, working out how to agree and, just as importantly, how to disagree with mutual respect. It also about how to enable the most disadvantaged communities and groups to be treated with respect as part of building solutions rather than as part of the problem. Such a process is ongoing and cannot be achieved by simply endorsing an administrative report.
There is disagreement even within the shared future lobby over the triennial plan. Some organisations have strongly criticised the plan because it lacks goals, targets and timetables. Sinn Féin also has particular problems with that as well as other concerns that are shared by many elected representatives and key stakeholders. For example, in parts of Belfast, the notion of the shared future that we are being asked to endorse is being used as a rationale to limit the building of social housing in the name of creating neutral space around all major routes into the city. Therefore, objective need and whole disadvantaged communities are defined as problems to be airbrushed out of sight. Apart from this being plainly unacceptable in the context of our shared future obligations, as defined in our legal obligations, it is also utterly incompetent. Such a view of development in the name of neutrality and a shared future is what none of us in the Chamber should support. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Burnside: Community cohesion is becoming increasingly important across the United Kingdom. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and a local girl originally from Limavady, launched a Commission on Integration and Cohesion in August of last year, so we should play a full role here in our part of the United Kingdom. The national report will come out at the end of the month.
At the time that the Secretary of State spoke of having an honest debate about cohesion — and that should be the way to proceed — a very interesting point was made by experts across the UK as a whole: the lack of ability actually to speak English is one of the key barriers to community cohesion and a shared future. In this regard, I, and I am sure many others, would be more than willing to help the Minister of Education here to understand the need to speak English as often as possible.
Community cohesion and shared future debates are often the occasion for a lot of clichés, a lot of humbug and a lot of waffle — good intentions and no detail. I must be honest and question some of the statements coming from the Alliance Party. Its proposals are full of waffle and humbug. Consider the Alliance Party’s stance on the alleged £1 billion cost of so-called segregated services in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Member for East Antrim Mr Neeson stated on 23 August 2006:
“Segreagtion here costs £1 billion per year. Why should two schools or two leisure centres be provided, to pander to those that want to divide our society, when having only one school or leisure centre will stop segregation and make more financial sense. This £1 billion burden is destroying our economy, and the money could be better spent investing in business in Northern Ireland.”
That sounds good and simple. I want to know which schools and leisure centres is the Alliance Party proposing to close down? Which schools and leisure centres in South Antrim is it going to close down to save this £1 billion cost? There is no other way around it. It is important that the Alliance Party gets down to specifics and gives the rest of us a fully costed and itemised list of precisely where the savings are to be made.
Mrs Long: Will the Member take an intervention?
Mr Burnside: I will not take an intervention from the Member as she will be summing up, and I would like to get down to specifics.
The Province has a perfectly good state school system. Does the Alliance Party propose that faith-based schools should be closed, in particular those operated by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), and that their resources should be diverted into the state school system? I would like an answer.
Those who vote for the Alliance Party would be amazed to realise that, when the waffle is cut out and we get down to specifics, there is no other way of cutting costs in that area except to attack faith-based schools.
The Ulster Unionist Party has always recognised the rights of faith-based schools, including those run by CCMS, and we have no desire to impose on them a one-size-fits-all system, which is the intention of the Alliance Party. We are, therefore, the true supporters of all communities living in this part of the United Kingdom. Integration is based on mutual respect from different communities.
A shared future cannot and should not be engineered; it should be an expression of the hard-headed good sense that gets us to work together in this part of the United Kingdom. The cliché-ridden proposals that cite £1 billion as the cost of segregation are dangerous to social cohesion in our Province, especially for the education system.
Mrs D Kelly: I begin by remarking on the unusual circumstances framing the debate: the comments made by the junior Minister, Mr Ian Paisley Jnr, were a disgrace and a shame to the Assembly; they flouted the responsibilities that come with public office. There is no better way to atone than in the approach to the shared future debate.
Such a debate should not have to take place. The Government recognised that:
“the absence of trust will set back both economic and social development.”
We have all felt our purse strings tightening and the need to be sober and precise in our financial approach: respect and good relations are central to a prosperous economic future. Few in the Chamber would disagree that unless we have the fundamentals for a shared future, we will not have the much needed and longed-for economic prosperity.
The amendment dilutes the motion. We would prefer that the DUP amendment “endorses” the strategic direction of the ‘Shared Future’ documents rather than “notes” it, although the proposer of the motion welcomed the amendment as an improvement on earlier DUP comments.
The SDLP has said for a long time that dialogue and not violence is the only answer; others are now of the same view. Let us put that lesson at the heart of our new approach.
A shared future means welcoming diversity as the cornerstone of our social, political and economic future. Respect for human rights is accepted as necessary in order for good relations to flourish in any community. For government to work, it must be joined-up and should approach human rights with a consistent zeal. Government must prepare for future generations to grow up in a society where diversity replaces division as the foundation of communities. Unlike many of our age, future generations should be free from prejudice: prejudice is not a legacy that I want to pass on to my children.
Prejudice is like a virus: if allowed, or even accepted, in one arena, it will soon appear in another. That is why we must tackle prejudice in all its forms. The ‘Shared Future’ documents allow for that to happen. Sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants has hurt us most and has crippled our society in recent times. If it is not addressed, sectarianism will continue to do untold damage.
There are other forms of prejudice, as we saw last week: homophobia, racism and xenophobia are all cancers that afflict our society. We should be under no illusion: left to spread, those cancers could be the undoing of all the progress that we have made.
History teaches us time and time again that when a group of people are oppressed, they resist. We should try to respect all groups. That is what the document is all about: respect in all forms. We certainly need more respect from some.
As one Member said, we are now in the month of June, and the first Tour of the North parade is just weeks away. We must send out a clear message today, and we need to set an example that we are up for a shared future, sharing power not just in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister but also at local council level —
Mr McNarry: Will you share the roads? The Garvaghy Road?
Mrs D Kelly: If the Member would talk directly to the residents, I am sure that some sort of compromise — without any preconditions — would be reached along the way.
There is a pledge that we have to respect — [Interruption].
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. There shall be no remarks from a sedentary position.
Mrs D Kelly: Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was talking about respect just a moment ago.
Less than a fortnight before one of the most contentious events of the summer, let us not send a signal that our leaders refuse to put respect at the heart of things. This action plan could be the means by which we get to work on fixing the problem that is the North. However, listening to some Members, one would think that education is the sole action point in the document.
I hope that, in 30 years’ time, we are not here shouting each other down across the religious divide. Let us be working, co-operating and integrating. As we look to the future, we must remember the past. I welcome the fact that the issues of victims and the legacy of the conflict are also at the heart of the framework document. There is an onerous responsibility on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to move quickly on those issues.
Miss McIlveen: I support the amendment.
We all want an end to segregation and division, and we all support efforts to achieve a settled society in Northern Ireland. As in the rest of the United Kingdom, we live in an increasingly multicultural society. All constituent parts of a society contribute to society as a whole. It is unfortunate that those constituent parts do not always complement each other. Ultimately, it is generating respect and understanding between those constituent parts that will aid us in our common aim of moving forward.
Northern Ireland is a society that is segregated, not necessarily out of choice but as a result of fear and necessity. There is no quick fix to the situation. It will not take one or two years — or any definitive period of time — for the situation to be resolved. There must be a change in the mindset of the population, which has been in place for generations.
It is sad to say, but the walls that have been erected, the separate leisure facilities, the segregated education systems and the duplication of medical services in neighbouring communities exist for a reason. We must address the underlying issues. Only when the walls inside the mind are removed can those that divide communities disappear.
Historically, there has tended to be a bipolar focus on community relations problems. If there is to be a shared future that will benefit everyone in Northern Ireland, we must address other forms of division such as ethnicity, social class and disability. The cultural demographic has changed considerably in the past few years with the influx of migrant workers. We face the additional problem of integrating thousands of people who not only have different religious views but speak different languages and come from completely diverse cultural backgrounds.
A holistic approach must be adopted that governs society as a whole, not simply two communities within it. All individuals should have access to the same opportunities, and there must be parity of esteem. It must not be overlooked that sincere and strong religious convictions are, and will continue to be, held by individuals from all communities. We should not wish for anything else in the Province. However, sectarianism cannot be tolerated. A balance must be sought. We must appreciate what an alternative view can bring to a debate, not dismiss such a view because of who brings it.
Much good work has already taken place, and good work continues to be done, such as the Irish Football Association’s “football for all” campaign. There is no doubt that the large number of education providers results in additional costs. The DUP has always preferred to seek to integrate education rather than promoting another integrated sector.
In building a shared future and a settled community in Northern Ireland, both the absence and the threat of terrorism will have a huge impact. The wholehearted backing of the police by all political parties will encourage progress. The fact that one section of the community persistently and for so long refused to accept the rule of law inhibited the development of trust. Of course, many other factors were involved, including the still-recent atrocities and the reluctance to hand over weapons.
For too long, Northern Ireland has endured a peculiar situation where some local parties were very different to normal political parties. There was a distinction between fully democratic parties and others, over whom question marks remained. We wanted change, and there has undoubtedly been progress in recent times. However, it will inevitably take time to build genuine trust.
Too many communities remain under the firm grip of paramilitaries, with the result that those areas experience lower house prices and less investment. Paramilitarism must be eradicated for good so that those communities can have the potential to succeed. Only a full backing for the rule of law will assist in that objective.
In order to create a stable society after a period of conflict, victims must be satisfied that their needs have been addressed. OFMDFM has supported the collation of an active, accessible archive of victims’ narratives, and the report of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles advocated more funding and services for victims.
Cultural tolerance is essential in Northern Ireland. Too often, expression of identity has been considered triumphalist. Cultural expression must be respected. A careful consideration of the issues is required, taking into account the changing dynamic of Northern Ireland society and establishing a well thought-out and structured approach that addresses the needs of our population in building trust and removing fear and suspicion.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the amendment. No one would argue against a shared future. There are differences of opinion on the document entitled ‘A Shared Future’, which emanated from the NIO and negated the British Government’s role and responsibilities in relation to our past and, indeed, to our future.
As we look forward to a new future in this part of Ireland through the role of the power-sharing Executive and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the future looks better. It is only the beginning, and there is an awesome responsibility on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. One example of the new future was when our two colleagues evicted the NIO from Stormont Castle and put in place a new Administration. For me, that was a new beginning, and it is our responsibility, as Assembly Members, to support it.
I note that the proposers of the motion, from the Alliance Party, have said that they will listen to the amendment and judge it on its contributions. That is a sensible and realistic way to move forward. However, the Alliance Party is not the gatekeeper to a shared future, as some of its members would have us believe. It is not the sole party in this Building that wants to see a united community on its way forward; Sinn Féin shares that ambition. Listening to contributions from across the Chamber, there are many in the DUP who also want to see a united community on its way forward.
There are many jolly nice fellows who were once members of the Alliance Party who are now high-ranking members of the community relations industry. However, that does not mean that everyone who is involved in community relations is, or aspires to be, a member of the Alliance Party. Indeed, the leafy suburbs that the Alliance Party largely represents also have barriers. They may not be physical, but they are certainly financial barriers. Such areas do not have the same open community difficulties of many poorer areas, but they have their difficulties all the same.
In proposing the amendment, Mr Spratt raised a number of issues that I wish to cover. He raised the issue of parades, which my sparring partner from Upper Bann, Dolores Kelly, also mentioned. The parades issue can be resolved in the same way that we can build towards a shared future: through open dialogue; residence groups; marching Orders; and engaging with each other on an equal basis.
Mr Storey: Would the Member agree that his Sinn Féin colleague Mr McKay, a Member for North Antrim, made his feelings clear on the issue of a shared future and shared space when, at the weekend, he — a member of the Policing Board — engaged with others in videoing a parade in Ballymena? Those actions were intimidatory, and could not be seen as making a valid contribution to good community relations. His colleagues have a cheek to come to this House and try and to convince us that they have merit on the issue of parading.
Mr O’Dowd: I am sure that if the Member sat down with my colleague Daithí McKay and talked that matter through, Daithí would explain why he was videoing a parade. Video evidence is often presented to the Parades Commission. There is nothing sinister or menacing about that. I have videoed parades, and I have been videoed by paraders — I do not find that threatening or insensitive. We are moving away from what we are meant to be doing, which is sitting down together and debating such matters.
Marginalising or eradicating the Irish language will not develop a shared future. The Irish-medium sector has an important role to play and provides an important service in many communities. That is not a threat to any other section of the community. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Catholic-maintained sector exists is because, in the past, it ensured that the Catholic community received a fair and equitable education. That is not the source of sectarianism — it is a symptom of sectarianism.
I congratulate those who are involved in community work because they, on a day-to-day basis, build a shared future and a shared society for all of us. I note that I have run out of time; a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I allowed the Member a further 30 seconds because of the intervention.
Lord Morrow: Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will be as lenient with me if I am interrupted.
I suspect that no one in today’s society would object to a shared future — even those who, perhaps, hate one another. I suspect that, deep in their hearts, they might feel that sharing is a good principle.
However, if we are to have a shared future, it is one thing to talk and sing about it, but quite another to work at it and allow it to happen and develop. We have had 35 years that have been anything but a shared future. I am not going to go into the history books to give anyone a lecture on those 35 years, because I have my own perspective on them, and I believe that I am right, although others have their perspective, and also believe that they are right.
It is one thing to say that everyone should live happily together, but another to put that into action. It is time for everyone to have respect for the position of others.
There are four main ingredients that must be built into any shared future. First, the principle of consent, which is imperative. Secondly, respect for the rule of law, which is hugely important. Thirdly, inclusion — society must be inclusive and, to date, it has not been. Indeed, the DUP has suffered as much from lack of inclusion as any other group in society. Fourthly, diversity — we are transforming into a very diverse society. The proposer of the amendment mentioned towns across the Province, including my town of Dungannon, where there is a very diverse population. Dungannon is home to people from all over Europe, and it is true to say that many factories and workplaces could not operate if those people from various communities did not fill jobs. We are developing into a diverse society.
I wish to return to the principle of consent. Our society must learn that consent is needed. That principle of consent needs to be bred into us. The result will be that although I respect those who disagree with me, they will also respect my views, even though they might disagree passionately with them.
During the past 35 years, some people felt that consent could be achieved through the barrel of a gun. History has taught us that that seldom works — a battle may be won on a particular day, but society is left numb and communities feel that they are not part of that society. If anything is to be learned from the past 35 years it is that we should respect the rule of law and the police force, or the Police Service, or whatever terminology people want to use.
The police force cannot police Northern Ireland without the consent and support of the community. That consent also applies to the courts of the land; people should not be able to say that they do not recognise a court, as happened recently. Given the changes that have been made manifest before us, have we not passed that stage and reached the point at which we can say that we have an inclusive, acceptable police force that can deliver law and order for everyone?
Are we going into an inclusive society? I was never afraid of an inclusive society and neither was my party. The DUP wants a society that is built on strong principles, such as respect.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Lord Morrow: We hear many lectures —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Lord Morrow: I did not get my extra 40 seconds.
Mr Deputy Speaker: You certainly did not. I withdrew consent for you to speak.
Mr Elliott: I hope that I will reflect some of the points that Lord Morrow was unable to make.
Members will not have any difficulty with the sentiments behind ‘A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland’. Also, I do not think that anyone living in a part of the world that has suffered for the past four decades as Northern Ireland has would disagree with those sentiments. It is agreed that good community relations are a must for the creation of a normalised, peaceful, prosperous and confident Province.
However, where has that shared future been for the past 40 years? Where was it for the people of Newtownbutler, Rosslea, Belcoo and Garrison when ethnic cleansing was taking place and they were being run out of their homes? Where was it for those who were murdered while looking after their shops or tending their animals and livestock? Where was the shared future for all those people?
I know electoral wards in County Fermanagh — and I have just mentioned some of them — where the unionist community has diminished by approximately 50% over the past 40 years. The people who had to leave those areas are asking where the shared future was for them. They want to embrace it now, but they are saying that it was not part of their life for those 40 years.
Mr Burnside: Will the Member add the Maiden City to the border areas that he mentioned? Where was the shared future for the 10,000 Protestants who lived on the city side at the beginning of the Troubles? Only 400 Protestants now live in the Fountain. What is the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister doing to restore confidence that the Protestant community can return to the historic city of Derry? I say that as an Apprentice Boy of Derry.
Mr Elliott: I accept that the Member is speaking as an Apprentice Boy of Derry. Although I am not one, I thank him for his intervention, and I do not disagree with anything that he said.
States such as Northern Ireland cannot enforce good community relations and cohesion. The creation of those elements is an organic and evolutionary process that, depending on the circumstances, develops in different timescales.
Yes, Government and those present today, as elected Members, must support the concept of a shared future, but a shared future cannot be forced on people. I note that the motion:
“calls upon the Executive to make the creation of a shared society a top priority.”
I am sure that all Members want to create a Northern Ireland in which everyone has the same opportunities and in which public services deliver for all people, irrespective of race, religion, age or any other criteria. We all want a Northern Ireland that has the infrastructure to support the creation and growth of a vibrant economy. We also want to create a Province to which our young people will want to return so that they can enjoy the opportunities that these changes can bring about.
The shared future that we all deserve will follow these and other developments that come about as a result of devolution. However, to try to enforce the creation of the type of Northern Ireland that is prescribed in the framework document is unrealistic and unlikely to lead to any real gains. The priority of creating a shared future should already, rightly, be high up the agenda of all Ministers and Members. We should all be striving to create a Province for all of us.
We often fail to note that we in Northern Ireland do not have a monopoly on community tensions and divisions in the devolved world. For example, many areas in the rest of the UK have encountered profound problems when attempting to successfully integrate migrant communities into the existing community. Indeed, many migrant workers coming to the UK from eastern Europe arrive here with historical and inbuilt mistrust of their fellow migrants. Earlier this year, Gordon Brown called on immigrants to learn Britishness before being granted UK citizenship. Also, citizenship classes are being taught in schools.
I have come to realise that sometimes the community is ahead of the politicians. Politicians can learn from grass-roots development in other areas, particularly in sports, such as soccer, rugby and tennis. We can find real development and a shared future in those areas.
Mr Gallagher: We are present today because we have agreed that we need shared institutions. However, I am sure that we are also prepared to admit that we do not have any guarantees about a shared future. The work of delivering a shared future for this community is a long-term task, and the work to build trust and confidence will not be completed in days or weeks. It will take decades, and it will demand change from everyone at every level in society.
Good community relations must be based on trust between the people of Northern Ireland, and we know that they have been divided because of perceived political, religious, cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
Good relations do not demand that we all become alike and reach a common approach on every issue. However, good relations mean that, despite our differences, we recognise that we are all interdependent. That recognition of interdependence is not an alternative to human rights and equality; like them, it plays a key part in establishing a shared future.
Equality for all citizens is an essential part of any democracy, and if we are to build a sustainable community, we must work in partnership. We must work out how to remove all forms of intimidation and restrictions on people’s rights to free association and how to respect people’s rights to choose freely where they live and work. We still have to sort out all those issues.
However, without also working out relationships and meeting the challenges of developing new partnerships, we cannot achieve human rights and equality. Legislation is a key part of that, and some equality legislation is already in place. However, legislation, in itself, is not enough.
The concept of a shared future must be given meaning at community level; it must be built in the workplace and by those who influence decisions about where people can live, congregate and socialise.
Partnerships to facilitate that process must be built at community level; not just at the interfaces but across the community — in the schools; in the places where young people meet; in our churches; and, of course, among the victims in society.
The motion mentions the first triennial action plan 2006-09, which includes more than a dozen actions and emphasises among them the need to ensure the impartial delivery of public services guided by economy, efficiency and effectiveness. The triennial plan also identifies the promotion of civic-mindedness through citizenship education in schools and through lifelong learning.
With regard to education, I shall correct the Sinn Féin Member for Upper Bann Mr O’Dowd. Catholic schools were not founded out of sectarianism. I do not want to go too far back in history, but essentially it had to do with the arrangements for the appointment of teachers. Following on from that, it is important to put on record that Catholic education has had an outstanding record, throughout its history, in promoting respect for, and understanding and tolerance of, difference.
The triennial action plan also encourages a better understanding of our history. It mentions the common school curriculum and work that can be done in places such as museums and heritage centres. Members will know about the good relations panel, which co-ordinates the work of Departments. That panel is tasked with developing measurable and relevant indicators as part of monitoring evaluation arrangements. Regardless of whether Members support the motion or the amendment, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should make a commitment to use that work in order to bring regular reports to the Assembly so that Members know exactly what progress is being made towards a shared future for us all.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr B McCrea: When I hear people around me being happy to talk together, I wonder what the last 40 years have been about and why we had to witness the murders and killings of more than 3,500 people. Indeed, Ms Anderson went on about how the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to have sorted things out and that we should just get on with it.
I am surprised that Alliance Party Members, for the first time in some time, have not tried to slate all here except themselves for bring in sectarian parties. Somehow, only they are the holy ones, able to pontificate on matters while washing their hands in the leafy suburbs.
Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: No. When the Alliance Party begins to focus on money — the so-called £1 billion — I have to remind myself that there is more to this than money. Should we not be doing something because it is right to do so?
The figure of £1 billion has been plucked out of the air, but when that figure is examined, 70% of the costs mentioned comprise labour. If two leisure centres are to be squeezed together, what will happen — will we be putting twice as many people into one swimming pool, and will we cut the numbers of staff being employed? Are we going to take resources away from communities? The question for my Friend the Member for North Down Mr Farry is: can he identify which schools, leisure centres or community centres he going to close in order to save those moneys?
All change costs money; we will see that through the outcome of the review of public administration. People will say that savings can be made, but that will not be the truth. In order to effect change, we must invest in it. This is not about saving money; it is about developing our community. Four hundred million pounds of the £1 billion mentioned by my hon Friend Mr Farry relates to education.
That is the elephant in the Chamber. If the Alliance Party really wants to make such savings, huge changes will have to be made to our education system. That cannot be done overnight, and it is not even certain that it should be done at all. We have yet to identify or settle on the reason for having an education system. Is it to give our children the best education possible? Is it to develop our communities to remove the problems of the legacy of the past 40 years? Is it to secure cultural identity? Is to provide industry with people with the skills necessary for us to succeed? If we take those reasons together, it is by no means certain that closing our smaller schools and bringing different schools together is the right way to go, because people have a very narrow view of the reasons behind education.
When I hear parties trumpet the issue of equality almost ad nauseam, I ask what sort of equality it is that they want. Is it equality of outcome? Should we dumb down to such an extent that everything is the same, or should we try to encourage people? Is it equality of income? Should we ensure that if everyone on one side gets a pound, everyone on the other side gets a pound, regardless of need? That does not appear right to me.
Should it be equality of opportunity? Should we try to give people every chance to succeed and select on merit? Then there is the thorny issue of positive discrimination. Every group with a vested interest says that it should be looked after better, so we get into age, race, community, religion, gender — everything. How do we deal with all those matters?
A shared future is an attitude. I hear soft words from the Sinn Féin Benches. I hear people say that they have changed, that we are all friends and that the past 30 or 40 years of terrorism do not count — that we should forget the past. That cannot be done. Sinn Féin must prove by its actions that we genuinely will move forward. When it comes to the real future, the sooner that the people of this country realise that the threat lies not within but without, the better. The competitive industries in Taiwan, China and India are after our jobs. If we realise that, we will have a shared future
Look at what happened in the South of Ireland’s general election: its electorate made it quite clear that they do not want us. Moreover, people in Great Britain wonder why they are giving us so much money. I must add that I do not think that the British Secretary of State was a squatter in my country.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I welcome this debate. I have listened carefully to the many constructive and measured contributions and to some that were not constructive or measured. In the time available, I will try as best I can to respond to many of the points that have been raised.
I shall preface those responses by saying that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) is totally committed to promoting equality and human rights. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are completely opposed to any form of discrimination or harassment against any citizen, and so are all in their Office and under them.
Mr Burnside: Will the First Minister give way?
The First Minister: I understand that an SDLP Member —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The First Minister has not given way, so I ask Members to resume their seats.
The First Minister: I understand that an SDLP Member is to table a motion on the promotion of equality. A full opportunity will be available for further debate. I welcome and look forward to that debate. I must say that people may hold differing views on the shared future policy, but there is no doubt that we must have a further shared society.
Like another King, I have had a dream. I have had a dream in which children can play together, in which people can work together, and in which families can live happily side by side, regardless of their community or ethnic background or their religious beliefs.
Hence, I sent my children to a mixed school. They brought their Roman Catholic mates home with them and, my, they all had great appetites — I knew that to my cost — but I was happy to see them. I am glad that those people are still friends of mine today, even though I disagree with them on their religion and they disagree with me on mine and even though they disagree with me politically and I disagree with them politically. It makes sense and it is right that we get the people of our beautiful Province living together, working together and enjoying one another’s company. I trust that we will see more of that in future.
Let me say that, having lived in Northern Ireland for 81 years, I have some experience of the ordinary man in the street. The ordinary man in the street today — whether nationalist or unionist, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant or any other religion — has within him a hope that something has changed and that we are going to move forward to better times. We in this Assembly can be the persons who can lead this community. No matter what the press, the BBC and the journalists say, we can lead the community to do this part of this island proud. I look forward to that.
Yes, each and every one of us has unique characteristics. We are distinguished from our neighbours, and sometimes those differences cause tensions. I am not you, thank God, and you are not me — you can give thanks to God if you like. [Laughter.]
Yes, there will be difficult choices to make, and there will be hiccups and rows. The best family has rows, but the way to have a family row is to pull the blinds, shut the doors and go for it and then to run for the Elastoplast to repair the damages. Yes, there will be difficult choices, as I have said. However, this is not a love-in but a work-in, and we have work to do, so let us do it. We do not agree on everything but, working together, we can make a tremendous difference to those people who most need help. There is much to do.
Thank God, this society is not now filled with widespread violence. Thankfully, that has become a thing of the past. May it become the thing of a past that is buried and forgotten. Problems will still exist. Those problems continue to taint our reputation as warm and welcoming people and they damage our economic prospects. Conflict and violence have left a profound legacy not only in those who have suffered as victims and survivors — we salute them — but in damaging relationships with people right across Northern Ireland. Time is needed to mend relationships, to heal wounds and to repair fractured communities.
Let us be clear, however, that intolerance, sectarianism, racism and violence must have no place in our society or in any other society. In my view, each of us has a responsibility to create a society that is at ease with individual diversity and with the diversity of communities. The event for minority ethnic groups that we recently hosted in this very building demonstrated to me as never before the contribution that people who have come to Northern Ireland are making in our society. The event also demonstrated the value of each of us recognising in our own way the talent and contribution of those people who live here — whether they have arrived here recently or were born here, whether they come from north, south, east or west — whatever their community background might be. That is the basis of a good shared future that we look forward to achieving.
The Executive must review carefully the progress on ‘A Shared Future’ and, importantly, its sister document, ‘A Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland’.
The Executive have already recognised the importance of creating a shared society. Members will recall that just four weeks ago, Ministers affirmed in their Pledge of Office that they will promote the interests of the whole country that is represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly and work towards the goal of a shared future. The Executive must build on the present situation so that words and principles become actions, so that everyone in Northern Ireland can feel at home, and so that some day those problems will be consigned to history.
The new impetus in Northern Ireland is about building a shared future to which everyone will sign up and be dedicated. Whatever views my Assembly colleagues may have, I am sure that there are many in the House — the majority, I believe — who will struggle along towards the worthy goal that has been set before us.
Mr McCausland: The principles at the heart of ‘A Shared Future’ are partnership, equality and mutual respect, which it sets out as the basis of good relationships. Every decent person in the country should be able to subscribe to that. I am happy to endorse the amendment that seeks to put ‘A Shared Future’ and the triennial action plan at the heart of Government thinking.
I do not want to miss the opportunity to respond to Members’ comments. The Ulster Unionist Party Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone referred to ethnic cleansing of Protestant communities in border areas. I am glad that he raised that. The areas around the border were once shared; however, due to republican terrorism, they are no longer. If the Assembly wants to achieve a shared society, it must consider ways that Protestant people can be brought back into those border areas so that they can, once again, be shared by the communities.
One of the most appalling examples of ethnic cleansing happened in my constituency of North Belfast. A small Protestant community in the Torrens area was subjected to systematic, sustained and strategic republican intimidation over several years, to the point where, ultimately, the entire community moved out en bloc to another area. They could not take the situation any longer. Shortly before that happened, a Sinn Féin representative in the area was present as the workmen who were putting up a security measure were put off the site by other republicans.
Mr McNarry: Is he a junior Minister now?
Mr McCausland: The Sinn Féin representative was a she, not a he.
John O’Dowd spoke about the value of Irish-medium education. He said that about a school in west Belfast that was named with the pseudonym of IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands, so that he could be held up as a role model for the children. There is something wrong with a school that considers a republican terrorist — or any other terrorist — to be a suitable role model for children. If progress is to be made on a shared future, certain issues such as ethnic cleansing and education — particularly Irish-medium education — must be examined.
Sport was also mentioned. Miss McIlveen referred to the excellent campaign by the Irish Football Association (IFA) entitled Football for All.
The Football for All programme welcomes everyone: unionists, nationalists, Protestants, Roman Catholics and people from every religion. In addition to that programme, as Members have mentioned, rugby, hockey and other sports are for everyone. However, the one sector in Northern Ireland for which the same cannot be said is Gaelic sport. Its ruling body, the GAA, has a nationalist — indeed, one might say, republican — ethos or aspiration written into its constitution.
A Member: What is its ethos?
Mr McCausland: I encourage the Member to read the document, and he will discover that it has a nationalist ethos. There is no place for unionists in the GAA, an organisation that was once described by a member of the Jesuits as either politically or culturally sectarian. Who am I to argue with that assessment, given that the other week a GAA club in Dungannon organised an event in honour of an IRA terrorist? The Volunteer Paddy Kelly Cup marks the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of IRA terrorists at Loughgall, and a spokesman for the club referred to him as a hero.
When folk such as Paddy Kelly are held up to children as heroes in their schools or as role models in the sporting realm, it is clear that much work must be done. I hope that the triennial action plan will propose that the Northern Ireland Sports Council, the Community Relations Council and the GAA come together to address directly the challenges that face that organisation.
I referred to education, ethnic cleansing and sport, and another Member referred to parades. To achieve a shared future in Northern Ireland, the main roads and arterial routes must be shared. There is no way around that. It may be difficult for Sinn Féin and certain residents’ groups to accept, but that is the reality of a shared future.
I have identified some of the many difficult issues that must be addressed. The triennial action plan offers an opportunity to do so. I hope that, over the coming weeks and months, the plan will address those and other issues. I support the amendment.
Mrs Long: I welcome the opportunity to make the winding-up speech on the motion. I am particularly heartened by the First Minister’s robust statement today.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs Long: The Alliance Party, and I am sure others in the community, welcome the First Minister’s robust commitment to equality and human rights, and his recognition that there must be increased sharing. The leadership that the First Minister demonstrated will go a long way to reassure those who may previously have had doubts. I hope that his words are indicative of real progress and a sign of the future of politics in Northern Ireland.
The Alliance Party tabled the motion because the current triennial action plan is the legacy of a direct rule Minister. We want the Assembly to take ownership. Regardless of the outcome of this afternoon’s debate, the triennial action plan is, and will remain, Government policy. However, at such a critical time in political history, it is important that positive statements come from the heart of Government to indicate that equality and human rights are priorities. I welcome the fact that the First Minister did exactly that, in no uncertain terms.
The Alliance Party accepts the DUP’s amendment to the motion, because it is important to welcome the positive interaction of all Members in the Chamber on that issue. Many will share the reservations expressed during the debate. However, Nelson McCausland’s statement that the goal of a shared future must be placed at the “heart of Government” has reassured the Alliance Party that the DUP’s amendment was tabled in good faith, not as a means of delaying progress.
Mr Spratt said that the parades issue must be resolved. Indeed, Nelson McCausland referred to territorial markings on roads and to access to the public highway. I agree that those matters must be resolved, and I do not think that anyone would dissent. We may have different views on how to resolve them, but working together, sharing good relations and putting ‘A Shared Future’ at the core of the drive to reach a solution will be much better than a “your rights versus my rights” stance.
There has been a great deal of conversation about education, on which I shall touch briefly. Education is given little mention in ‘A Shared Future’, given that it was largely under the remit of those who worked on the Bain Report. Despite Mr Spratt’s comments, the Bain Report did not rule out integrated education — it queried the use of multiple sectors. The Alliance Party shares the report’s concern about such use. However, if we aim to have a shared education system that is flexible enough to accommodate all the diversity in this society, we must recognise that we can achieve that either by transforming the existing provision — which is the Alliance Party’s preference — or by enhancing sharing. It is not an either/or situation.
However, it is obvious to the Alliance Party that if a school in an area is unwilling to accommodate sharing and to move towards enhanced sharing and transformation, those who wish to share education cannot find that their rights are subjugated to the rights of those who do not wish to share. That is the genesis of a separate sector. If we can address that more fully in order to ensure that we create not a separate sector but increased sharing, we would meet the same objectives. The Alliance Party would welcome such a development.
I will not labour the point about division costing £1 billion. A Deloitte report has already to some degree given that figure credibility — that report will no doubt confirm that we are in the right ballpark. I do not suggest that that is a simple calculation and that the money can be extracted in the blink of an eye. I will come back to that point, but I will not get into that debate now.
Mr Burnside said that there was no way of saving the £1 billion other than by closing the Catholic maintained sector. That is not my understanding of ‘A Shared Future’. The CCMS has embraced the document and is looking for ways in which to develop shared faith-based education. It is disappointing to note that, unlike his colleague Danny Kennedy, who is Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Burnside is unwilling to commit to addressing waste in any shape or form by tackling division.
Dolores Kelly and Michelle McIlveen rightly referred to the strategy’s wider remit, stating that it should include sexual orientation, race, religion and many other matters. It is vital that ‘A Shared Future’ does not become simply about reconciliation across denominational divisions. It has to be more than that — it has to be about building for a more diverse future.
John O’Dowd was fearful — or perhaps he was ridiculing us — that the Alliance Party was attempting to become the gatekeepers of the process by trying to keep others out. I assure him that that is not the case. The Alliance Party tabled the motion in the hope that Members from around the Chamber would support it and that they would take ownership of this critical issue.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mrs Long: I will not; I have much to get through.
Speaking as someone who grew up in a working-class community, I assure the House that the Alliance Party has always been clear that the things that pain those communities most often result from the deeply entrenched views of the people who live in the leafy suburbs and who can retreat to their homes at night, leaving others to deal with the consequences of their actions. The peace walls in many of our working-class areas are the result not of entrenched bitterness but of fear. Those communities are often ahead of the pack in addressing such entrenched views. We certainly do not suggest that those in the leafy suburbs are immune to sectarianism — anything but.
Maurice Morrow mentioned consent and respect for the rule of law, inclusion and diversity. I agree that those matters must form the basis of a shared future; however, they apply not just to one’s own interests; they apply equally to everyone.
Tom Elliott was right to highlight the plight of victims and the pain from the past. Those issues are real, and there is no intent from the Alliance Party to diminish their importance. My party has devised proposals to deal with those matters sensitively at an appropriate time. It is because we take community relations seriously that the Alliance Party wishes to ensure that no further victims are created. Therefore a more robust approach to community relations is required than has been the case in the past.
The Alliance Party does not wish to enforce cohesion, and it is not the job of Government to do that, but there should be a policy framework in place that facilitates, encourages and supports those who are at various stages of readiness to move forward on the shared future agenda.
Tommy Gallagher recognised that legislation alone will not be enough. I agree completely. Buy-in from the community will be absolutely critical. However, policy does have a role to play to encourage and support those in the community who are ready to move forward.
I will not labour on Basil McCrea’s comments — it was labour enough to listen to them. However, I will say that a shared future is not just about money. As my colleague Stephen Farry rightly said, having a shared future will affect social and human issues. The Alliance Party has never said that it is only about £1 billion of savings that could be made. Were it just about £1 billion, it would in many ways be a more trivial issue — it runs much deeper than that.
It is disappointing, if not surprising, that the Ulster Unionists have been cool in the debate, just as they were when their party held the post of First Minister and precious little progress was made on the shared future agenda. I am thankful that the current incumbent takes his role in driving forward that agenda more seriously.
Finally, the Alliance Party does not underestimate the fear in which many people in our community live. The party is neither naive nor glib about those difficulties. Many communities are already working to deliver on the shared future agenda. The Alliance Party wants political support for those communities to continue. We do not underestimate the amount of work that lies ahead, and today’s contributions have indicated how extensive that work is. However, with real commitment, Members can move forward together and give political leadership. Thomas Edison said:
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Let us not waste this opportunity because it looks like hard work.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the strategic direction of and underpinning principles contained in the documents ‘A Shared Future’ (March 2005) and ‘A Shared Future: Triennial Action Plan’ (April 2006), and recognises that the Executive and the Assembly will wish to consider carefully the progress to date and bring forward detailed plans, consistent with the pledge of office, to promote the interests of the whole community towards the goal of a shared future and a prosperous, peaceful and settled society.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle as an deis seo a thabhairt domh labhairt ar ábhar atá an-tábhachtach do na daoine atá ina gcónaí i mo thoghcheantar.
Thank you for the opportunity to debate this matter. It is of great importance to my constituents who live between the Cloughogue roundabout and the border.
The building of the new dual carriageway between Loughbrickland and the border, to link with the new motorway to Dublin, is a welcome innovation. The new road, part of the E1 trans-European transport network, will bring considerable benefits. It will cut journey times to Dublin from Belfast and all towns en route, and will facilitate economic development on a considerable portion of the island.
While these are welcome developments, we must bear in mind the effects that the project will have on the host communities through which it will run, and we must consider their views.
I will concentrate on the effect that the new dual carriageway will have on communities between Cloughogue roundabout and the border on both sides of the existing A1, such as Fathom Upper and Lower, Killeen Upper and Lower, Clontygora, Jonesborough, Killeavy and Forkhill.
Under current plans, part of the A1 will be closed from the roundabout at Cloughogue Bridge southwards to Ellisholding Road. Local traffic travelling south will join the carriageway at Cloughogue, travel for less than one kilometre to Ellisholding Road and come off there to join the existing A1 and continue onwards.
This arrangement seems totally unnecessary to local people, given the shortness of the journey on the dual carriageway and the fact that traffic joining and leaving the carriageway will add considerably to the risk of accidents and increase delays. People from those communities who work and shop in Newry, as well as local business operators, will have to join the new road for this short distance on their way both to and from work.
The Church of the Sacred Heart, the parish church of Upper Killeavy, stands adjacent to the Cloughogue roundabout. The new road will divide the parish, and parishioners who live to the south of the new road will have to join the dual carriageway for a short distance in order to get to church. Funerals en route to the church cemetery will also have to use the dual carriageway. It seems to the local community that it would be eminently more sensible to leave open that short portion of the existing A1; to do so would both facilitate local traffic travelling to and from Newry and the church at Cloughogue and prevent the mixing of local traffic with fast-moving strategic traffic.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that you will agree that road safety is vital. Those of us from the area around Newry know that from our experience of the Newry bypass. The proposed arrangement will increase the risk of accidents at Cloughogue. Mixing local traffic with strategic traffic creates unnecessary risks and runs contrary to the conditions of EU support for such projects. However, that is exactly what the Department proposes to do. Incredibly, the Department argues that bringing slow-moving local and agricultural traffic onto the dual carriageway would be 50% safer than retaining it on the existing road.
The stretch of existing road in question is the location of many family businesses that have been built up over years by dint of the hard work of local people. These businesses account for an estimated 250 jobs and an annual trade worth around £25 million. Closing the road will cut them off from a substantial portion of their economic hinterland. It will jeopardise their future viability and put local jobs at risk. The businesses will effectively be assigned to an economic cul-de-sac. This is in stark contrast to the situation on the newly completed stretch of the A1 at Loughbrickland, where businesses located along the route were accommodated with access.
There is strong local support for the retention of the A1 as a local route. Newry and Mourne District Council passed a motion in favour of it that was supported by all the councillors. The local clergy and community groups support it, and a petition signed by some 400 people indicates the general level of support in the area. Although an order permitting the closure of the existing road is in place, the Department concedes that a further order can be made to rescind it.
I am glad that the Minister is here. He is familiar with this issue, and I ask him to do all in his power to ensure that the existing A1 is retained in both directions — possibly realigned closer to the railway line — so that local traffic travelling to and from the businesses, the church and Newry itself can be facilitated.
That proposal would have the least financial impact on what is already planned and could represent a saving, as some of that work is being carried out already to facilitate the construction of the bridge at Cloghogue. I also ask the Minister to bear in mind the noise abatement issues raised by residents of Ardcarn Park, Parkhead Crescent and other developments en route.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am aware of concerns that were raised by residents and elected representatives, some of them colleagues of mine, at the closure of the existing A1 route at Cloghogue roundabout, and in particular at the public inquiry into the environmental statement and direction order for the A1 Beech Hill to Cloghogue dual carriageway scheme. At the inquiry, the inspector permitted these to be heard, although that stretch of road was outside the remit of that inquiry. Everyone showed concern for road safety, particularly at the mixing of local traffic with fast-moving traffic. I share that concern and feel that it should be addressed and remedied as soon as possible.
I also draw to the Minister’s attention the need to ensure that community groups and residents such as those of Parkhead and Carnagat are kept fully informed and updated as this major and vital element of cross-border infrastructure is rolled out. I also wish to be informed of noise and air-quality monitoring procedures that the Department will carry out when the road is completed.
Most communities acknowledge that the road is needed. It will be safer and will result in improved travel times. This phase will ensure continuous motorway and dual carriageway road from the M50 in Dublin to Newry and Belfast. However, new roads are not only about getting from A to B in the shortest and safest way, important as these benefits are; they are about much more than that. With the completion of each new road, a region must become a better place in which to live, work and visit. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I hope that the low attendance in the Chamber is not indicative of the level of interest in the A1 Belfast to Dublin road. Nonetheless, I welcome the opportunity to update Members on the schemes that the Roads Service is implementing to complete the upgrading of the A1 route to dual carriageway standard from Sprucefield to the border.
Motorists who travel that route will see that Roads Service has made considerable progress on the construction of the A1 to M1, Newry to Dundalk link road. The main dual carriageway and junctions should be opened to traffic before the end of the summer, and the remaining work on the scheme completed before the end of the year.
The A1 Beech Hill to Cloghogue dual carriageway — together with four junction improvement schemes on that route, located at Hillsborough, Dromore, Banbridge and Loughbrickland — will form part of the Roads Service’s Design-Build-Finance-Operate (DBFO) Package 2 contract, which is currently at the final negotiating stage of procurement. My Department hopes to award the contract in the next two months.
In the meantime, preliminary site works have been carried out, and the necessary design work has been undertaken to allow construction to commence soon after the DBFO Package 2 contract has been awarded. That work will be to construct a flyover junction at Cloghogue; the new dual carriageway will be carried over the junction by that flyover. The roundabout will remain at the lower level and four slip roads will link it with the new dual carriageway. Vehicular access to and from Newry and areas currently accessed from the A1 route will be via the new roundabout at Cloghogue, the new dual carriageway and the nearby flyover junction at Ellisholding Road. A pedestrian path and cycleway will also be provided between the Cloghogue roundabout and the existing A1 route.
At the public inquiries into the environmental statement and direction order for the A1 Beech Hill to Cloghogue dual carriageway scheme, held in April and May 2005, I was one of several people who made representations objecting to the closure of the existing A1 at Cloghogue roundabout. They included reference to the inconvenience caused to local people; the detrimental effect on businesses situated along the existing route; and concerns about safety, including the use of a strategic route by slow-moving vehicles.
At the inquiries, Roads Service officials explained that the stopping-up of the A1 at Cloghogue was the result of the construction of the A1 to M1, Newry to Dundalk link road scheme.
The direction order for that scheme became operative in December 2003 following a public inquiry. Unfortunately no representations were made in relation to the Cloughogue junction at that inquiry, and that was the fault of all of us who were public representatives in the area.
However, when it came to making representations about the Beech Hill to Cloughogue scheme, that was at the discretion of the chairman, as it was not essentially part of that inquiry. Nonetheless, the case was made and well put at that inquiry, both by ourselves as public representatives and by residents and their representatives.
At the time the local community had a desire to keep local traffic, particularly slow-moving vehicles, separate from the normally fast-moving strategic traffic on the proposed new dual carriageway. However, Roads Service explained that the physical restraints of the location meant that it was not practical to link the existing A1 to the proposed new roundabout. Those restraints included the railway line, the general topography of the area including Cloughogue mountain, the alignment of the Forkhill Road and the proximity of residential properties.
Furthermore, in their reports of the public inquiries into the environmental statements and the direction order for the A1 Beech Hill to Cloughogue scheme, the inspectors accepted Roads Service’s position in relation to Cloughogue roundabout and the stopping-up of the existing A1 Dublin Road. It has been stated that the scheme that Roads Service is taking forward has been subject to the statutory procedures, which have included public inquiries. In those circumstances, and despite our best efforts at the time, I am satisfied that the process was carried out properly and facilitated the hearing of objections by an independent inspector, including objections to the stopping up of the existing A1 Dublin Road at Cloughogue junction. In that case, the inspector upheld Roads Service’s position.
Dominic Bradley referred to Newry and Mourne District Council’s position. I am sure he is aware that Newry and Mourne District Council, subsequent to that, passed a motion calling on the inspector’s decision to be overturned. It sought legal advice from its solicitors, and was advised that it had no legal case to take. Subsequently, I am advised that, following that advice, the council did not even write to the Minister responsible at that time.
Nevertheless, despite all of that, the cases that were made at the time, and my own experience and understanding of the difficulties faced by people, given the closure of that one kilometre stretch of the A1, I am pleased to advise that during the course of the scheme development, provision has been made for a third lane in each direction along that stretch of dual carriageway between Cloughogue junction and the nearby Ellisholding Road junction.
The scheme provides an advantage to motorists driving between the Cloughogue junction and the Ellisholding Road junction, including slow-moving vehicles such as agricultural vehicles and funeral cortèges, as they can remain in the third left-hand lane and do not have to merge with strategic traffic. Strategic traffic travelling on the Belfast to Dublin dual carriageway is not impeded by local traffic, including slow-moving vehicles in the third left-hand lane.
It is obviously not what representatives had argued for at the time, which was the retention of the existing A1. However, I am advised that, under the circumstances, it is the best that can be offered, despite the inspector at the inquiry finding that Roads Service’s case for just two lanes in either direction was sufficient and was met. Nonetheless, Roads Service has since moved to introduce a third lane in both directions, which ensures that the key concern expressed at the inquiry by myself and others about the merging of strategic and local traffic will not now happen. It does not remove the concern entirely, but it reduces it.
Mr Dallat referred to family businesses sited along the road. Correct me if I am wrong, but there are no family businesses on the stretch of road from Cloughogue to Ellisholding Road. Family businesses are retained along the A1 up to the border and Carrickcarnan. My recollection of the inquiry was that, unless someone was making a case that the new road should be along the existing A1 road, and no new road were to be created, then those businesses were always to have been retained along the old A1 stretch of the road, and that access to them would be from the dual carriageway at the Ellisholding junction and then back onto the dual carriageway at the Carrickcarnan junction. Nonetheless, if local businesses have a different case to make, I should be happy to hear it.
I know the area quite well and I co-operated with the residents at the time. However, it was always my understanding that the existing businesses along the A1 would have been off the road, unless someone came to the inquiry and argued for a completely different road. Given that that section of the inquiry concluded in 2003, I am not aware that such an argument was made.
Dominic Bradley and Mickey Brady raised issues concerning another stretch of the road — the Cloughogue to Beech Hill section. That is a key part of the A1 and was the subject of the inquiry that we all attended. They were concerned about noise abatement and what consultation there would be with residents. I have asked Roads Service about that, and its officials have assured me that they will engage with residents and local representatives on noise abatement and ensure that a proper consultation mechanism is established between those who are designing and building the road — including Roads Service, which is overseeing it — and the people who will be carrying out the job. The contract has yet to be awarded, but when it is, the people responsible, Roads Service and the local representatives and communities, will have a proper, structured consultation mechanism so that all the issues, including noise abatement and safety issues associated with the ongoing work, will be addressed.
I am sure that the House will agree that good North/South road links are important to the economy and to the entire island. In that context, the upgrading to dual-carriageway standard of the A1 is an important project to improve our transport infrastructure. I assure Members that appropriate consideration has been given to the needs of local traffic affected by the route — including local traffic using the Cloughogue roundabout and the existing A1 — as evidenced by the provision of an additional lane in both directions between Cloughogue and the Ellisholding Road. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Adjourned at 4.21 pm.