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northern ireland assembly

Monday 11 June 2007

Assembly Business

Executive Committee Business: Suspension of Standing Orders

Ministerial Statements
Terms of Reference for Review of Domestic Rating System
Voluntary Modulation
Review of Charging for Water and Sewerage
Executive Committee Business: Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill

Oral Answers to Questions
Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister
Agriculture and Rural Development
Culture, Arts and Leisure

Assembly Business

Executive Committee Business
Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill
Supply Resolution for the 2007-08 Main Estimates

Budget Bill: First Stage
Taxis Bill: First Stage
Libraries Bill: First Stage

The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr P Ramsey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the temperatures that we are experiencing today, is there any leeway in the convention of the Assembly that would enable you to relax the dress code to allow Members to take off their jackets?

Mr Speaker: I realise that it is very warm outside, and that it could get even warmer in the Chamber. Therefore, as the day progresses, I will monitor the situation.

Mr Paisley Jnr: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you in a position to report to Members on a security matter that I raised in the House about three weeks ago?

Mr Speaker: The police investigation into that matter is ongoing. As soon as that investigation is over, I shall make a further statement to the House.

Executive Committee Business

Suspension of Standing Orders


That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4), inclusive, be suspended for 11 June 2007. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

Ministerial Statements

Mr Speaker: There will be three ministerial statements today: one from the Minister of Finance and Personnel; one from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development; and one from the Minister for Regional Development. After each statement, in accordance with Standing Order 18(4), Members will be called to put questions on the statement to the Minister. I remind Members that that means questions on the statements. Members must not make statements.

I remind Members that we have a full day’s business ahead of us. Therefore, I will have to judge the time that can be allowed for questions. I also remind Members that interventions and points of order should not be made during either the ministerial statements or the questions that follow them.

Terms of Reference for Review of Domestic Rating System

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): This statement refers to the further review of the domestic rating system, which I announced during a debate in the Assembly on Tuesday 15 May 2007. That debate considered the new system that was introduced by direct rule Ministers in April this year.

Today, I am publishing the review’s terms of reference, which have been agreed by the Executive. I have provided Members with copies of the terms of reference and this statement, and a copy of the terms of reference has been placed in the Assembly Library. I have also written to the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

The terms of reference reflect my intention to examine a wide range of options for change in the short and longer terms and to do so in a focused and accelerated fashion, rather than engage in yet another process of prolonged analysis and review. Over the past few years, the domestic rating system has already been the subject of a lengthy review. In the first instance, we need a process that can deliver changes by next April.

I am also launching a 12-week consultation exercise, which will run until the end of August. The purpose of the consultation will be to seek views on what improvements can be made to the recently introduced system, within the terms of existing primary legislation, in time for next year’s rates bills. That is my immediate priority.

Obviously, nothing we do will impact on ratepayers this year, but we would be failing in our responsibility as political leaders if we did not introduce changes that sought to make a real difference for householders next year. That is why the consultation period must close at the end of August to allow us sufficient time to implement the necessary changes.

My officials will now begin to examine the options for change that could be delivered by next April — these are set out in the terms of reference. In the longer term, there may be other improvements that we can make beyond next year that would require new primary legislation. At this stage, nothing has been ruled in or out. I am genuinely open to considering all options and new ideas.

I want to focus on the evidence and hear the views of all interested parties, including ratepayers, about the impact that the new system is having and, critically, how we can ensure that help is provided in the best and most effective way possible. I, therefore, urge Members to encourage people to respond to the consultation, as it is only through engagement with, and listening to, those who are directly affected by the rating system that we will achieve a satisfactory outcome to the review.

As I said during the debate on 15 May 2007, there is no point in pretending that easy answers are queuing up to be adopted. Difficult choices will have to be made, particularly when it comes to the consideration of possible alternatives to the existing system. That is the second strand to the review that I have commissioned, which broadens its scope well beyond that of the review that led to the introduction of the capital value system in April 2007.

For example, a local income tax has been mentioned frequently as a possible alternative; it would produce a completely different set of winners and losers than those under the current system. Although the review is open to the examination of all options, I would be surprised if proposals such as a local income tax or a poll tax emerged as the favoured way forward.

Even the less radical option of providing new, or extending existing, reliefs to particular groups must be considered in the knowledge that they will shift the burden onto other ratepayers or reduce the amount available to fund public services. Finding a balance between the different interests, and reaching a consensus, will, therefore, be crucial. Any analysis or further insight that people can share with us on those issues, during the consultation process, will be very much welcomed.

I know that the Committee for Finance and Personnel will take a keen interest in the review, and my officials and I will facilitate the important role that the Committee will want to play in the process. When the consultation process has ended, I shall share the responses with the Committee, and I intend to report back to the Committee on my intentions before I finalise any proposals. I expect to be in a position to bring the proposals to the Executive and to the Assembly in the early autumn of 2007.

None of us will want to consider the outcome of the review in isolation. The conclusions from the review on water charging, which the Minister for Regional Development will detail later, will be extremely relevant. I anticipate that ratepayers’ anxiety will have some correlation with the magnitude of their overall household bills.

My Executive colleagues and I are fully aware that the review of the rating system is a key challenge facing us in what are still early days for the Assembly. Each of our parties made commitments to the people of Northern Ireland on these matters, and each of us will want to make good our promises. The public will be watching and expecting action from us, and rightly so.

The terms of reference set out how we plan to progress the matter. Now the hard work begins, and I am confident that the approach that we have published today will help us to achieve our overall objective of securing a fairer deal for householders in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for Finance and Personnel for his statement and his acknowledgement that the first strand of the review must be taken forward quickly to ensure that the changes are in place for April 2008. I also welcome the Minister’s assurance in a letter to me, as the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, that:

“as a point of principle nothing has been ruled out, or in”.

The Minister has put on record his desire to work closely with the Committee for Finance and Personnel. That work will happen immediately on the range of issues under consideration as part of the review, and later when he provides the Committee with the consultation report as soon as possible after the consultation period has ended. The timetable set out in the terms of reference, on pages 8 and 9 specifically, indicates that the consultation will run to the end of August 2007, with a target date for the development and presentation of the first- and second-strand recommendations in mid-September. That does not give the Committee much time for input after the summer recess.

Can the Minister assure the Committee that it will be given an adequate opportunity for input after the consultation concludes and before the recommend­ations on the first strand and the second strand are finalised? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P Robinson: I know that the Committee shares my objective to complete the review as quickly as possible, and I can understand Committee members’ concerns, and the concerns of the wider public, at the 12-week consultation period. The choice is not easy for any of us. Some people may be concerned about the brevity of the consultation period, but I suspect that those people would be even more concerned if changes were not made in time for the issuing of new bills. We are somewhat constrained by having to get the changes through in sufficient time for them to be implemented in the new bills.

I will, however, be happy to speak to the Chairperson about how we might be more flexible about the Committee’s deliberations on the issue. There are some elements of the Department’s further work and the Committee’s continued work that can be done in parallel.

12.15 pm

Mr Wells: The Minister’s decision to hold a review is very welcome, and I am sure that members of the public will be very keen to have an input.

The Minister will be aware that in some constituencies, particularly those with coastal communities, there is huge concern about the number of second homes, apartments and holiday homes that are springing up all over the place and depriving local communities of an opportunity to have adequate housing. Will the review enable the Minister to have another look at how second homes and holiday homes are rated? Is it possible that the rates on such properties could be increased?

Mr P Robinson: The review is capable of considering any proposals put forward by members of the public or, indeed, by Members of the Assembly, so the points made by the Member for South Down can genuinely be submitted and considered as part of the review process. I am aware of the concerns and the problem that exists, not just in his constituency but also elsewhere, and it is one of the issues that we can look at.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Fred Cobain.

Moving on, I call Mr Burnside.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for his statement. One of the options that he referred to was a local income tax, although I appreciate that he said that he would be surprised if a proposal such as that for a local income tax or poll tax, with all the connotations that that has, were to be the way forward. Will the Minister clarify, at this early stage of his career, whether it is as a matter of principle or of pragmatic politics that he is not in favour of a local income tax to deal with the particular problem of charging for water? Is he ruling it out generally as Minister of Finance in the new Administration, or does he see the Executive proposing that we might have wide-ranging tax-raising powers? Scotland appears to be moving along that road.

Mr P Robinson: The Member for South Antrim refers to Scotland: the Scots, of course, have those powers but have declined to use them. That might say something about the popularity of such a course. My belief is that we would have to increase income tax by about seven pence in order to fund a system that is currently funded by the rates. I have heard views expressed, principally by the Alliance Party and the Member from the Green Party, in favour of it, but I have not heard a lot of support for it elsewhere. It would require changes to the legislation at Westminster, of course, so it goes beyond anything that can be done immediately. I suspect that, if the debate that we had a week or more ago is anything to go by, it is unlikely that that idea will get much support from the bulk of Members in this Assembly.

Mr O’Loan: I welcome the Minister’s statement and, in general terms, commend the content of it. However, I want to ask how the strands are to be dealt with in parallel.

The first strand relates to the options for change in April 2008, and I am glad that the Minister will be considering the equitable distribution of the rate burden and the issues of transparency and the public acceptability of the system. It is quite right that the issue of how we pay for water be included there as well.

The second strand relates to longer-term options for more fundamental review, ranging from more substantive changes to the present system, possibly requiring legislation, to the consideration of a local income tax — a poll tax — and blue-sky thinking on anything at all. Nothing has been ruled in, and nothing has been ruled out.

My question is whether two such different strands can be pursued simultaneously. Can strand two be completed in the narrow time frame that has been indicated? Indeed, can it be done at all in a review that is described as not being a full-blown consultation? I am concerned about confusion among members of the public about this consultation with the two strands running in parallel. Might not the two strands be conducted in sequence, rather than in parallel, and strand two —

Mr Speaker: Do I detect a question?

Mr O’Loan: I fully respect the House; I thought that I was clearly asking the Minister whether the details of second strand might be reconsidered.

Mr P Robinson: It is not rocket science. We will allow people to submit their views as to how change should be made. We will then consider those suggestions and decide whether any changes can be made under existing primary legislation. We will also examine those proposals in the timescale that is required to allow us to be able to introduce change by April 2008.

The consultation may reveal that it is worth following through on some issues. If so, we will have more consultation time, and the Committee for Finance and Personnel may want to spend more time considering those matters. However, we should not do anything that restricts the types of proposals that people suggest. We will identify what can be done under existing primary legislation, and we will move more speedily on the issues that can be altered without the need to change that legislation.

Mr Hamilton: Will the Minister tell the House how much ratepayers in Northern Ireland contributed to the funding of water and sewerage services before the link between water and rates was broken?

Mr P Robinson: I will be careful with my answer: the Member was part of my party’s headquarters policy team that worked on identifying the figure that he requests.

I believe that, in 1998, ratepayers each contributed £127 to water services. Depending on which indices Members choose to use, that amount can be upgraded to approximately £160 at today’s prices. However, it must be stated that contributions to water services were not precisely hypothecated in 1998; therefore the figure of £160 is a virtual hypothecation. In order that people should not be asked to pay twice, several parties in the Chamber proposed ways in which to identify the amount that has already been paid. We can consider those proposals.

Mr Speaker: I call Ms Jennifer McCann to ask a question.

Ms J McCann: The Minister has already answered my question.

Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for introducing this comprehensive review. It is good to see that the Executive are now making major announcements in the Chamber.

Will the review consider different options for replacing the district rate and the regional rate, given that one funds local government and the other funds central government?

The Minister also stated that new analysis is not necessary. However, does he recognise that the previous Assembly’s review of the matter was flawed and that we must take into account the Lyons Review in England, the Burt Review in Scotland and the systems that some European Union countries, the United States and Canada, for example, have in place?

Mr P Robinson: The Executive have taken a conscious decision to respect the Assembly’s role by bringing issues to it in the first instance. Although that has grated a little with the press, it is the right thing to do in order to give the Assembly the respect that it is due.

I know that the Member favours the introduction of a local income tax. However, that can be designed to either include or exclude the district rate. Speaking as one who, until now at least, has been a district councillor, I think that the fact that councillors must stand over their expenditure makes them consciously accountable to the ratepayer. If that link is broken, there are real dangers that people will spend without having to consider from where their money will come. That concerns me.

Mr Shannon: My question concerns capital rates on farmhouses, and particularly the unfair legislation on the rating of such properties. Is the Minister aware that an agricultural occupancy clause can halve the value on the open market of a farmhouse property that might otherwise be worth £300,000? Various estate agents have confirmed those market prices; it is not something that has come all of a sudden. In light of that, will the Minister consider increasing the level of reduction in capital value that applies to homes that are subject to agricultural occupancy clauses and restrictions?

Mr P Robinson: I am aware of that issue. Clearly, occupancy clauses have some impact on one’s ability to sell a house and, therefore, on the value of that house. All of these matters can be considered during the period of consultation, and thereafter. I am happy to discuss that matter with my colleague if he wishes to make further representations.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister accept that any proposal to introduce a local income tax would create huge dangers? In particular, there would be a disincentive to work and a disincentive for those who are economically inactive to go back to work. That could adversely affect the Northern Ireland economy. Will the Minister ensure that his Department examines such considerations?

Mr P Robinson: I will. It is clear that if one were to substantially increase income tax, there would be employment consequences. We are aware of that, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why not everyone in the Assembly favours such a way forward.

Mr Durkan: I join other Members in welcoming the Minister’s statement and his commitment to a well-focused review. I share some of the concerns about possible confusion during the autumn between the outworkings of this review and the Budget, which we will then be considering. We must do what we can to minimise confusion during that period.

The Minister indicated that there are options that the review must consider that he does not necessarily favour. That is in the nature of review exercises; we will not choose to misrepresent that in the way that other parties misrepresented some of us in the past when, as part of reviews, we had to consider options that we did not favour.

I note that both the Minister and the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel see the rating review and the issue of water charges as inter­linked. That is an acknowledgement that some of us have been attacked for making in the past.

I turn to some of the specific options for the review. Will the Minister consider an affordability tariff, such as was proposed for water charges, as one of the ways of safeguarding pensioners from having any more than a small fixed percentage of their income taken in rates? Will he also consider the appointment of an independent revenue regulator to oversee all of these matters in the future?

Mr P Robinson: The ratepayers do have a regulator: I am the regulator in this matter. The Member is really talking about circuit-breakers, which ensure that no more than a certain percentage of the disposable income of a household can be taken in rates. That matter can rightly be considered as part of the consultation. However, as I understand it, such measures would probably require new primary legislation and, therefore, might fall within the second phase of the review, rather than the first phase. However, that does not mean that there are not steps that can be taken to reduce the impact of rates, particularly on senior citizens. The bottom line is as we have always stated it: we wish to ensure some correlation with the ability of people to pay rates. That is a key issue for us.

I am certainly not one of those who would have attacked the Member for drawing a relationship between rates and water charging. My party’s manifesto recognised the relationship between the two and the need to reduce one so as to allow people to cope with the other.

12.30 pm

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he assure the House that the review will consider all options — particularly local taxation, which has been a Sinn Féin policy for a number of years — because many people feel that the present rates system is an unfair way of collecting taxes, and it does not deal with affordability and people’s ability to pay. Rural disparity is another important issue. Will the Minister ensure that there is consultation with the rural community on whatever rating system is introduced?

Mr P Robinson: Regardless of what system is introduced, some people will feel that it is unfair on them, and they will consider that another system would have been more suited to their circumstances. The Department is seeking to ensure that the current capital value system is fair and reflective of people’s ability to pay. I understand the Member’s view on income tax, but it has the consequences that have been mentioned by the two representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party who have spoken — David Burnside and Roy Beggs. It would have an impact on employment issues, and one must recognise that it would mean a significant increase of roughly seven pence in the pound. I am not sure that that is something for which the electorate would thank us, and the Scottish Executive have not been prepared to implement it. If the Executive decided to introduce a local income tax, I suspect that some people would resist the recommended increase, and we would find ourselves without the resources needed to fund important elements of services. The Executive have a hard decision to make.

We will do whatever is required to achieve additional funding. I will exclude nothing from the review, and I have made it clear that we will look at all proposals that are put before us. Ultimately, the Executive want a system that will fairly distribute the amount of funding achieved and, particularly, take into account people’s ability to pay.

Mr Neeson: I thank the Minister for his statement. However, does he recognise that the Lyons Review in England and the Burt Review in Scotland found considerable support for a local income tax. Can he further assure the House that whatever formula he comes up with, it will be much more transparent than that which exists?

Mr P Robinson: I endorse the latter part of the Member’s contribution. The system must be transparent, and I know that the Minister for Regional Development wants the same for water charging. People need to understand what they are paying for and why they are paying for it. The Lyons Review may have found that the payment of a local income tax was a good idea, but it did not recommend its implementation.

Mr S Wilson: Given the housing shortage in Northern Ireland and considering that speculators — due to rapidly increasing capital house values — are buying houses to hold rather than to let, will the Minister assure the House that the review will consider the imposition of rates or, at least, part rates on empty homes.

Mr P Robinson: I am sure that the Committee for Social Development may want to make representation on that, because it has a relationship to the housing problem, and the Minister for Social Development has spoken publicly about that over the past weeks. My Department’s review will look at rating, and it will look at the issue that Sammy Wilson has raised. I am willing to listen to his views, to those of the Committee for Social Development and, particularly, to any views that the Minster would like to express.

Mr B Wilson: I welcome the review, and I am particularly happy that nothing has been excluded — as requested in the motion tabled in my name on 15 May 2007. The most sensible approach would be the 12 weeks’ review. In the longer term, however, will the Minister consider appointing an independent person outside of the Department to look at funding and conduct a review along the lines of the Lyons Review or the Burt Review? People may have preconceived ideas about the results of an internal review.

Mr P Robinson: I cannot give that assurance. The domestic rating system has been reviewed to death. The issues are well known to us, and we have many reports on them to consider, including the Lyons Review. There has been plenty of analysis, and we have come to the stage where we must take decisions. That is why I have decided on a more focused consultation period, and a more focused review.

Of course, we could reconsider all the issues. However, we have enough data available to us to be able to take decisions, and, ultimately, it will not be a review team that will have to face the electorate, it will be the people in this Chamber. We must take decisions, ensure that they are right, and that they are decisions that we can stand before the electorate and recommend.

There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of data and recommendations available to us. I would not exclude the submission of any consultation response that included copious notes from the Lyons Review and others to argue the case. There is nothing to be gained by having a further review, which will simply retread already well-trodden ground.

Mr A Maskey: I thank the Minister for conducting the review, which I welcome. The terms of reference include the hope that the review will be concluded by early autumn. Given that we are moving into the holiday season, that the consultation process will take place between now and August may present difficulties. That puts an onus on all of us to ensure that people get the opportunity for full consultation.

In many cases, the relief for students has been controversial. Could the Minister allay the fears that tax relief for students, which is designed to allow more people to go to university, will not be able to be manipulated by landlords for their own interests?

Mr P Robinson: The Department will consider any evidence that can be established for this year to examine whether, in the first instance, relief for students has been taken up or whether landlords have siphoned off that money from students. We will want to learn lessons as a result of that.

I recognise that 12 weeks is a short period of time, but few people have 12-week holidays. The Committees have, perhaps, the most difficult task because their work coincides with the Assembly recess, rather than holidays, and Assembly Members will be doing other work during that period. That is why I told the Chairman, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, that I wanted to find a way for the Department of Finance and Personnel to be flexible with the Committee for Finance and Personnel and allow some of our work to go in parallel.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his timely statement. Will the Minister ensure that the cost of administering a new tax is examined and discussed carefully to ensure that we are not overburdened by taxes and the cost of implementing new proposals?

Mr P Robinson: Yes, that will be an issue. A short time ago, I had a stakeholders gathering, and we considered the possibilities of either means-tested or non-means-tested systems. There is an argument that, when determining who should get the benefit of the relief, there would be fewer administration costs for a non-means-tested system. We will consider all those issues because, ultimately, we want a system that is transparent, easily understood, and as efficient as possible.

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Minister guarantee that the review includes new and imaginative measures to ensure that those who have adapted their homes to accommodate a disability get rate relief?

Will the Minister also ensure that people have easy access to whatever relief is put in place? Many people who have adapted their homes for disabled family members are not aware of the form of relief that is currently in place, and those who are aware of it find it difficult to access.

Mr P Robinson: The Member for Upper Bann makes a very strong point, and not only about the number of people accessing the available reliefs for homes that have been adapted for disabled occupants. Right across the board, people who should be claiming reliefs are not doing so. We have, if one likes, a marketing job to do to ensure that people who are entitled to relief do take that up.

It would be outrageous if account were not taken of the fact that adaptations to homes with disabled occupants had to be made. They should not be penalised for being disabled and for having to make changes to their homes. We want to ensure that they are not penalised.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Voluntary Modulation

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the use of voluntary modulation to part-fund the 2007-13 rural development programme. As some Members are aware, on taking office I committed to undertaking a review of voluntary modulation and the rates that the then Minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development, David Cairns, announced in March this year.

I will announce the outcome of that review today. However, before I do so, let me provide Members with a little background. Modulation — the redirection of a proportion of farmers’ direct single farm payments towards the funding of rural development measures — is not new. It has been around for many years now and is seen by Europe as a crucial part of funding for rural development.

Modulation will contribute to the funding of our new rural development programme, which has been developed with stakeholders over the past year and was submitted formally to the European Commission for approval in January 2007. The programme, which is an integral part of the Department’s rural strategy, will put more than £500 million into the agriculture industry and wider rural development over the next seven years. It will improve the competitiveness of the farming sector, improve the land, environment and countryside and improve diversification and quality of life in rural areas.

A substantial part of the programme will be delivered locally through local action groups, and a significant proportion of its funding will go directly to the farming sector — much more than just the modulated funds. That money will be used to improve training, to disseminate best practice, to modernise farms, to support those in less-favoured areas, to increase forestry potential and to support environmental improvements and land management. More than 75% of the total programme funding will go directly to support the farming sector. I emphasis that that is three quarters of the entire programme funding.

Importantly, the programme will also support the rest of the rural community through a suite of measures designed to improve the quality of life in rural areas. The programme contains measures to create business, to increase tourism potential, to regenerate villages and towns, to provide basic services for the rural community and to maintain and enhance our cultural and natural heritage. Those measures will help bring much-needed investment to rural areas and strengthen the very fabric of rural life. As promised, I have carried out a thorough review of the modulation rates that David Cairns announced. I have looked closely at the figures that underpin his decision, at where the funding is being targeted and at how that fits into my Department’s broader rural development agenda.

I have held meetings with representatives of all rural stakeholders to hear at first hand their views on modulation and their rural development priorities. Those meetings have been extremely helpful to me in arriving at my decision. I have also sought the views of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and I am grateful to colleagues for providing their views quickly.

12.45 pm

Following those consultations and my review, I am announcing today that I intend to reduce the 7% to10% rates of voluntary modulation announced by David Cairns. The following rates of voluntary modulation will therefore apply — in 2007 it will be 4·5%; in 2008 it will be 6%; in 2009 it will be 7%; in 2010 it will be 8%; in 2011 it will be 9%; and in 2012 it will also be 9%.

I promised that I would use the flexibility in the legislation to set our own rates. I have done that and stress that these rates of voluntary modulation compare favourably to the rates that were recently set for Scotland and England.

In addition, I am today announcing that I will be increasing, for the period, the level of funding available for the wider rural regeneration measures in the programme from £85 million to £100 million. Additional support for these measures is vital if vibrant and thriving rural communities are to continue to be built throughout this region. I am also keen that the farming community and farming families actively engage in those measures — they are open to all rural dwellers. All parts of the rural community need to pull together to maximise the benefits of the programme. The rest of the programme — both the measures and targets — will remain unchanged.

Owing to the ongoing comprehensive spending review, I am not in a position today to confirm the amount of Government funding that will be available for the programme. However, I am hopeful that the amount of Government funds in the programme will be at least equal to the level of EU and modulation funds. Over the coming months, I will be working with the Minister of Finance and Personnel to finalise the amount of national funds that will be available.

Those changes have been possible because the spending plans for the programme have been closely re-examined to ensure that the figures are as close as possible to the expected actual cost of each measure. Account has also been taken of the strict EU “use it or lose it” rules for spending modulated funds and the likely spending pattern of measures that are project-based or demand-driven. I am happier now that the revised financial plan for the programme more closely resembles that which is likely to be spent over the period. This review has therefore given me some additional flexibility to make the changes that I have announced without significantly affecting the shape or scope of the programme.

The changes that I have announced will have a positive impact for all rural stakeholders. Members of the farming sector will benefit from lower rates of voluntary modulation than those proposed by David Cairns — and they will, of course, directly receive the bulk of funding from the programme. Environmental stakeholders will be reassured that plans for the same level of expansion of agri-environment programmes will continue. The wider rural community will witness much-needed additional funds allocated to those measures that benefit all rural dwellers.

I conclude by thanking all of those who have contributed to my review. I am very grateful to stakeholders and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for their willingness to engage at short notice and for their important contributions. I am sure that a sound basis now exisits on which to move forward with our rural-development programme. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): The Minister wrote to my Committee on 22 May 2007. The Committee urgently made it known that it was its view that the rate should not rise above the current level of 4·5%. When the result of her review is considered, my Committee will be very disappointed with the Minister’s statement.

It is easy for others to speak about — and even spend — the money that is coming from someone else’s pocket. Can the Minister confirm that her statement lacks any financial facts and figures? Because neither she nor anyone else in the Department knows the final level of national funding available to support rural development, the figures have no real justification?

Will the Minister explain why farmers should remain confident in the financial competence of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development given that, just a couple of months ago, it appears to have over-estimated the required funding for the rural development programme? Furthermore will the Minister state that the rural development programme contains measures to create business, increase tourist potential, regenerate villages and towns, provide basic services for rural communities and maintain and enhance cultural and natural heritage?

Will the Minister explain why farmers must pay for measures that are clearly the responsibility of Invest Northern Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department for Social Development, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure? Why should farmers have to pay for investment when that funding should come from those Departments?

The Minister said that she had Mariann Fischer Boel’s ear. I wonder did she use that ear to access additional funds to reduce the already significant burden on farmers?

Ms Gildernew: There was quite a lot in that for one question. I first met with the Committee on 5 June. I reiterate that I had hoped to meet with its members before then, and I have attempted to meet with Dr McCrea so that we could discuss the issue earlier. However, that was not possible.

By 12 June, the European Commission must be notified of the voluntary modulation rates that are to be applied here. Therefore, I did not have time for an in-depth consultation process and, regretfully, had to seek the Committee’s views early. I am grateful to the Committee for responding so promptly and, as I said, I discussed the issue with its members on 5 June. Dr McCrea is correct to say that the Department has been unable to give the full detail that he has requested. However, that information will be forthcoming when the figures become available.

As an overview, I can tell Members that axis 1: improving the competiveness of the agricultural and forestry sector will receive £44·7 million; axis 2: improving the environment and the countryside will receive £389·5 million; and axis 3: the quality of life in rural areas and diversification of the rural economy will receive £100 million and a technical assistance grant to a maximum of £8·7 million. That comes to a total projected spend of £542·9 million. Those seeking further detail will find it on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s website.

Dr McCrea referred to the Department for Social Development, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and others. I agree with him that it is not just up to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to spend in these areas, and I welcome the Committee’s support and help to encourage other Departments to work with us to improve the lot of rural communities. I concur fully with the Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I would love to see the Department for Social Develop­­ment, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the other Departments taking more of an interest. I am sure that we will create a productive relationship in ensuring that that happens.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement on such an important issue for the rural community. The statement refers to many measures that have the potential to benefit that community. One of those is the provision of childcare in the rural community, which would allow farmers and farmers’ wives to attain jobs in their local areas, which is not the case at the minute. That is a very big issue, and I am glad that the potential exists to redress it.

Does the Minister agree that the wise use of voluntary modulation and other funds could generate off-farm jobs for farming families and address the vital issue of that money going back into farming families? Diversification is key. Previous moneys have been used to fund diversification on farms, but, in future, diversification should be encouraged on a larger scale, rather than the produce going, as it sometimes does, to local big businesses.

Ms Gildernew: During the consultation process, departmental officials listened to many agricultural stakeholders, particularly from the bigger unions, such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association and others. I am minded that the rural development programme brings tangible benefits for the farming sector.

Much of the rural development programme is targeted at farmers. It includes a farm modernisation measure; training for the farming sector; marketing and processing grants; farm diversification grants; less-favoured area payments; and, importantly, expanded agrienvironment and forestry schemes.

I was trying to factor into the consultation what I was hearing from the farming community and to access money that could be used by that community specifically.

During the past few weeks, I have been lobbied by various agencies for money for other programmes. I have been clear on the issue: to receive £20,000 through the rural development programme means much to small businesses. Larger businesses or sectors would view the same amount as chicken feed. The Department wants to target those people who would receive maximum benefit from the programme. I am minded to consider smaller rural communities and smaller diversification projects, and to ensure that the money is best spent by distributing it widely, thereby making a difference to the lives of more people.

I thank the Member for the question. I am mindful that much of this money will go back to farmers and farming families.

Mr Elliott: I declare an interest: I am a farmer and receive the single farm payment. I wish I could welcome the Minister’s announcement, but I cannot do so at this stage. That will also be the case with many in the farming industry.

Does the Minister believe that her announcement will be broadly welcomed by the agriculture and farming industry? I do not believe that that will be the case. To follow on from Dr McCrea’s point: has the Minister held any discussions with other Departments about funding the rural development programme so that the farming industry will not have to meet the entire cost of the programme? She may say that she has not had time to hold discussions; however, if she does have time to do so in the future and receives money from other Departments, will she give a commitment today to reduce voluntary modulation in the farming industry?

Ms Gildernew: I cannot pre-empt what people, including the farmers’ unions, will say. However, when the farming sector reads my announcement, it will see that, rather than sticking to the rates set by David Cairns, which would have been the easiest thing to do, I have reviewed voluntary modulation — as I said I would — and have tried to reduce the impact on farmers.

More than £500 million will go into the rural development programme, and not all that money will come from farmers. A reduced amount of money will be taken, rather than the level already decided, and the Department will be able to draw down other funding measures to bulk up the amount required. The Department wishes to give farmers money through agrienvironment schemes, which will have an impact.

Unfortunately, the European Commission requires a decision tomorrow. The rates are set, at least until the common agricultural policy health check. It would have been great if there had been a bottomless pit of money so that I could have avoided going down this route. I would have loved that to be the case. However, I have tried to take away some of the pain involved.

A diverse range of people told me that I should not go down the voluntary modulation route, or that I should stick to the rate set by David Cairns, because it was not only the farming sector with which I had to consult but the agrienvironment and rural development sectors. Much was involved.

I tried to make the issue as painless as possible. I tried to ensure that this year’s rate remains at 4·5% and that the overall rate does not move into double figures, which I was asked to do during the consultation.

I am not in a position to avoid going down this route. However, I have tried to make it as painless as possible for the farming sector. Farmers can bid for the money, and three quarters of the entire programme funds will go back to farmers.

Mr P J Bradley: Like the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I am disappointed that confiscation of money from the farming community will almost double — from 4·5% to 9% — over the next five years. That is not acceptable.

Such an increase was not expected by the farmers of Northern Ireland and is, I would go so far as to say, even more surprising for having been announced by a local Minister. We had thought that the era had passed when direct rule Ministers would impose such penalties on the farming community.

The Minister’s statement claimed that:

“the farming sector will benefit from reduced rates of voluntary modulation”.

Will the Minister explain how doubling the rate of voluntary modulation from 4·5% to 9% can be described as a benefit for the farming community? That baffles me.

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Ms Gildernew: My script contained the word “reduced”, but I changed that because it was incorrect. What I actually said — and I will repeat my position for Mr Bradley’s benefit if he was not listening the first time — was that:

“the farming sector will benefit from lower rates of voluntary modulation than those proposed by David Cairns — and they will … directly receive the bulk of funding from the programme.”

The Member said that it is unfortunate that a local Minister has gone down this route; if we had stuck with direct rule, the rates would have been higher. I have done my best to try to lower the rates that were set by my predecessor. I have already said — and I do not want to keep repeating myself — that I wish that I had not had to do this, but we need to introduce some level of voluntary modulation to enable us to bring in other funding that will directly benefit the farming sector.

The rural development programme is very important, as any rural MLA will assert, and we cannot allow any slippage in spending on that programme. The measures that I have announced are the only way in which I could lever in additional funding. I did not have many options on the issue, but I took the option that was most favourable both to farmers in the rural development community and to the agrienvironment community.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is clear that, in the early years of the programme, farmers will benefit from the significant reduction in the rate of voluntary modulation by comparison with that which David Cairns had intended to set, but it is also clear that farmers will be very little better off at the end of the programme, when the rate of modulation will be 9% rather than 10%. Given the needs of the agriculture sector, and given the need for the environmental protection that is available through the agrienvironment schemes, what guarantee can the Minister give that the funds — she said that only 75% of the total would be returned to farmers — will be spent to the maximum benefit of the incomes of farmers, who provide the environmental goods that we need? Will she guarantee that none of the money will be siphoned off, as has happened before, for other things, such as the Forest Service?

Ms Gildernew: I will certainly be working on that. I am very anxious that — as I said in my statement, which is now a matter of public record — the vast majority of that money will go directly to farmers. I am sure that Mr Ford and others will hold me to account on that. It is important to me that we improve the lot of farmers.

One thing that I wanted to do right away was to improve farmers’ confidence by making them feel that they had a voice in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development; someone who will not only listen to them but act on what they say. When farmers examine and re-examine what I have said, I think that they will feel that I have done my best on this. Obviously, there are many demands on budgets, but I have worked with officials to ensure that the money goes into the farming side as well as into agrienvironment schemes and diversification. As I said earlier — and will repeat if necessary — I want to see farm modernisation, and I want to see farming become more profitable. I certainly feel that there is scope within the programme to enable that to happen.

Mr Irwin: I declare an interest, as I am a farmer myself.

I believe that the Minister has failed Northern Ireland’s farmers in cutting the modulation rate to a mere one percentage point less than that proposed by the previous Minister, David Cairns. The announcement will be a shock to the local industry, which had expected support from the local Minister. Does the Minister accept that our farmers will now be at a disadvantage compared to other farmers throughout Europe?

Ms Gildernew: I am disappointed that William Irwin feels that way, although I can understand how a first reading could lead to that conclusion.

I have lessened the impact of the rates from this year, so instead of rising to 6%, it is now set at 4·5%, a reduction from the rate set by David Cairns. The scale increases less radically than he had intended; it was 10% for the last two years of the programme. I have reduced the rate as much as I can, while still giving the Department the spending power to do what needs to be done on modernisation, and so forth.

On the question of competitiveness with the rest of Europe, only the UK and Portugal have gone down this route. Unfortunately, that is partly for the historical reason that Britain traditionally did not draw down the money that could have benefited the rural sector, and we are now left picking up the pieces left by that policy. Portugal is the only other country that has gone down the route of voluntary modulation, and I accept that farmers here are greatly aggrieved that, for example, farmers across the border do not have to go down this route. Competitiveness is an issue. Unfortunately, much of this is down to what the Department has inherited from previous Administrations and from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). I have no further flexibility on the matter.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Minister tell us how the moneys raised through voluntary mod­ulation will be used in rural development programmes?

Ms Gildernew: The total amount of voluntary modulation receipts represents just over 20% of total funding for the programme. There is an EU requirement that voluntary modulation funding is used across all the axes of the programme, but the bulk of the receipts will be spend on axis 1 and axis 2. As I said earlier, three quarters of total programme funding will go directly to support the farming sector. My announcement today will ensure that the rural development programme is of greater benefit to the broad rural community. Programme funding will increase from £85 million to £100 million, so an extra £15 million has been put in. All areas of the agriculture and rural development sectors will benefit.

Mr Shannon: There is a recurrent theme in all the questions: how will the Minister ensure that working farmers and landowners are the first to receive regeneration funding through voluntary modulation? Will the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development conduct monitoring to ensure that if there is a shortfall of working farmers, they can come into the system and be helped?

What steps will the Minister take to ensure that moneys are equally spread between the west of the Province, where I suspect that most of it will go, and the east, where that might not be the case?

Ms Gildernew: I am travelling to Brussels on Thursday to hold meetings with the Commission, and one of the first things that I will do is to look for early approval of the rural development programme, so that it can start to have an impact on farmers and farming families as soon as possible and to get the money back out to them.

It is ironic that Mr Shannon tells me that we should not be targeting money to the west of the Bann, given that in the Chamber, we have listened many times to speeches about the need for funding for the west of the Bann and for other areas that have been discriminated against in the past and have not received an adequate share of funding; I have spoken on that issue.

I am the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development across the Six Counties, and I will ensure that money is spent where it is needed. I have been all over the place, and I have seen great examples of rural development programmes and some of the work that has been done by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It is ironic that the only county that I have not yet visited officially is County Fermanagh.

Mr Shannon: The Minister lives there.

Ms Gildernew: That is true, which is why I said “officially”.

There is need across the Six Counties, and I want to ensure that funding goes where it is needed. Geograph­ically, axis 1 and axis 2 are open to all, and axis 3 will be delivered locally, in the east and the west. Axis 3 will be delivered by local action groups, which will tie in with councils, so each of those areas will have a say in how that money is spent.

Mr Savage: I declare an interest.

With regard to the announcement of the increase in funding from £85 million to £100 million, will the Minister give a commitment that she will work with her Executive colleague the Minister of the Environment to ensure that any regeneration measures accepted under that funding will be fast-tracked through the local planning system?

Will the Minister not consider the possibility of keeping this modulation at 4·5%, with other Departments making up the shortfall? We have, after all, come through a very difficult 25 years of — shall we call it — misrule.

The Minister told us what has been happening in Scotland. However, Northern Ireland is different. This is an opportunity for her Department to do something to enhance and maintain it. Earlier, a “living countryside” was mentioned, and that is the only way forward.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his contribution. Concerning his first point, I guarantee that I will work with all of my Executive colleagues to increase, and better, the lot of farmers and rural dwellers. As Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, it is part of my position to ensure that I work with all Departments to try to improve matters in rural areas. There is an immediate commitment on that.

The timings concerning voluntary modulation were unfortunate. The Assembly was up and running on 8 May, and the decision had to be taken on 12 June. There was no flexibility on that; the rates had been set and were announced on 20 March by David Cairns. All of us on the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland last year worked on the matter of a substantial peace dividend. If such a dividend arrives, I shall fight for a share for agriculture and rural development; at the moment, however, that money is not in place, and there is no choice. I had no option.

However, I was keen to lower the rates set by David Cairns, to take some of the sting from today’s announcement and to show that an attempt is being made to retain enough money to do something tangible and of benefit to the farming community and to the wider rural community.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. The Minister has had discussions with Mariann Fischer Boel, the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. What are her views on compulsory modulation?

Ms Gildernew: The Commissioner was here for the recent UFU open forum — I think it was in April — and said, publicly, on several occasions that she wanted an increase in compulsory modulation, perhaps raising it from 5% to 10%. We must see what proposals the Commissioner brings forward as part of her health check, and it is fully expected that modulation will feature in that. It is too early to say how much the rates will increase and from what date; however, I hope that we will, by then, be in a position to review our rates of voluntary modulation on the basis of what Commissioner Fischer Boel does.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Minister for her statement and her assurances that this money will be given to the farming community. Does she accept that, in the past, instead of going to the farming community, much of the money was put into other more wealthy sectors?

Will the Minister work with the Executive, the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of the Environment to ensure that farmers are given planning permission for diversification?

Ms Gildernew: I am reminded that that was not in my response to George Savage’s questions, which had so much in them that I could not keep track of it all.

In relation to planning permission, farm diversification and what must happen in the broader rural community, I am keen to meet the Planning Service and to work with the Minister of the Environment to ensure that the need for planning permission does not hold up those who take the route of diversification and spending some of the money that might be available.

1.15 pm

I am anxious that the money should go where it can be best used. Often, a reasonably small amount of money can make a big difference. For farmers who have a huge turnover or a large amount of land or stock, or who receive a large single farm payment, the impact will not be the same. I am keen that the impact should be felt right across the farming community and that many people should feel the benefit of these measures.

I will look at all the issues and at whatever proposals are put to the Department, but I imagine that the local action groups, using the LEADER+ methodology, particularly in axis 3, will be spending that money wisely and getting the best value for money.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the needs of the rural community are best served by the Executive’s working collectively? The Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee made the point that the Minister of Culture, Edwin Poots, the Minister of Enterprise, Nigel Dodds, and the Environment Minister, Mrs Foster, all have a role to play in this. With reference to Mr Bradley’s question, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, also has a role to play. Does the Minister agree that all those Ministers’ working collectively will ensure a bright future for the rural economy and rural communities?

Ms Gildernew: Yes. That is worth pointing out. It is important that rural issues should be at the heart of the Executive and that all my ministerial colleagues should deal with them, because they cannot be dealt with in isolation. I would add the Department of Health to the list, because I know that rural health is something that is close to the Member’s heart. Everyone must work towards the betterment of services and goods in rural areas.

I should like, in due course, to bring to the Assembly the consideration of a rural White Paper that would tie in all our responsibilities on how we best serve the needs of rural communities and how those cross-cutting and overlapping measures are best tackled. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should not have all the responsibility. The other Departments will have a say, and we must consider how we manage that, how we get the best value for money, and what we can do to best improve the lives of people in rural communities. I thank the Member for that question.

Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for her statement. I should also declare an interest, as the recipient of a single farm payment —

Mr Wells: A big one?

Mr McCallister: Not as big as I would like, but perhaps the Minister can do something about that.

Mr Elliott: Not today, I think.

Mr McCallister: She will not give me any help today.

The Minister said that over 75% of the total programme funding would go directly to the farming sector. If the Minister is including in that sector the entire agrifood and processing industry, what percentage will actually go to farmers and farming families?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for the question.

The outworking of this has not been fully completed, so I am unable to give the Member the full details that he has asked for. I am aware that money needs to be put into all sorts of farm schemes, and I have mentioned farm diversification, modernisation and the agrienvironment sector. Great work is being done in countryside manage­ment to create a better environment, both for biodiversity and for the appearance of rural areas so that everyone can enjoy them. I will come back in writing with a fuller answer to the Member’s question. The details have still to be fully worked out, so I am not in a position to answer him today.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s speech. Although some farmers might be disappointed that the rate of modulation is not lower, she has managed to keep it lower than expected and lower than that previously announced by the British direct rule Minister, David Cairns. How was that achieved?

Ms Gildernew: We considered how money was allocated throughout the last programme to identify where savings could be made and how modulation might be reduced. We investigated underspends in previous programmes and diverted those savings to try to reduce the rates of voluntary modulation while maintaining the spending level with a small increase in the rural development programme budget. Money was identified within the Department.

Review of Charging for Water and Sewerage

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will make a statement on the review of future arrangements for water and sewerage services.

The Executive’s decision on 10 May 2007 to suspend the introduction of water charges for 2007-08 included a commitment to undertake a longer-term review of the future of water and sewerage services. It was agreed that an Executive subcommittee, comprising representatives from the four parties in the Executive, should be established to consider the terms of reference for that review. The subcommittee, comprising the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Employment and Learning and myself, agreed draft terms of reference and put them to the Executive at its meeting on 7 June 2007. The Executive endorsed those terms of reference, which have now been made available to Members.

Turning to the substance of the review, the agreed terms of reference propose a comprehensive review of existing arrangements for the delivery of water and sewerage services to be led by an independent panel. That panel will be served by an independent secretariat and will report to me so that I can provide regular updates to the Executive subcommittee, the full Executive when appropriate and the Committee for Regional Development.

The proposed review will have two strands. The first will focus on the fundamental issues of financing water and sewerage services and should report by autumn 2007. That will enable budgetary arrangements to be agreed. The second strand will concentrate on wider aspects of arrangements for water and sewerage and should report by December 2007. That strand will allow a longer perspective to be taken and may recommend changes that require new legislation or structural arrangements. Any recommendations will be subject to consultation.

Changes of that nature will take time to implement. In the meantime, my Department must work within existing structures to deliver water and sewerage services and do its best to make sure that those essential services are delivered as efficiently and effectively as possible.

On the scope of the review, the panel will be tasked to identify the required level of funding and set out options for examining the most appropriate way of managing, governing and delivering water and sewerage services in a situation of full public ownership. Recommendations will be made on the way forward, including governance and statutory arrangements, investment, business models and strategic plans. That is a wide-ranging remit, and it will be a challenge to meet the set timescales. However, it is important that the Executive take those key decisions as soon as possible.

There will naturally be a focus on who is appointed to conduct the review. At this stage, I can only say that I will work with my colleagues on the Executive subcommittee to agree a review panel that meets the criteria set out in the terms of reference, which are independence, expertise and knowledge of utility operations, regulation, administration and economic matters, both locally and more widely.

It is of paramount importance that the public has confidence in the conduct of the review and that the reasons for any decisions are clearly set out. The terms of reference that have been agreed by the Executive provide the best way forward to achieve that. I thank all those people who have made suggestions on the review and my colleagues on the subcommittee for their input. Go raibh maith agat.

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

Mr Wells: The Minister has indicated the extent of the review. Will he assure Members that he, the Executive and the Committee for Regional Development will have access to all relevant material? I refer in particular to the documents that relate to the decisions made by a previous Administration. I understand that normal protocol is that this Administration would not have access to that material, but that the previous Administration can voluntarily release that material for consideration. Will the Minister assure Members that that will happen and that the Committee for Regional Development will also have a chance to view that material?

Mr Murphy: I thank Mr Wells for his question. It has been stated quite clearly that the panel should have access to all the papers that it requires to do its job. There is information, as the Member quite rightly suggested, that is held by others, and it is up to them to release that voluntarily — I cannot force them to do so. However, it is our intention that the review panel will have access to all necessary information, which would also ensure that the Committee for Regional Development has the information that it requires to allow it to interact with the review panel.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an ráiteas agus a rá go bhfuil obair mhaith déanta ag an Aire.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I am delighted that the terms of reference are as comprehensive and wide-ranging as they are. Most citizens in the North — and I declare an interest as a water consumer — will be pleased with the statement of intent.

Will the Minister use this opportunity to reassure the Committee for Regional Development that, if there were anything in its letter, dated 6 June 2007, that would have impacted on the terms of reference, he would have included it?

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Member for his question. There has been a public airing of the circumstances concerning the late submission of the Committee’s contribution. For the record, I wish to state that I had a meeting with the Regional Development Committee on 16 May 2007 at which I outlined the time frame within which we were working and invited the Committee, if it wished to have an input, to forward any relevant material by the end of May. The time constriction was necessary in order to have the terms of reference agreed by the Executive subcommittee for agreement by the Executive on 7 June 2007. If that deadline had been missed, the business would have been delayed by a fortnight. The review must be completed in just a few months. A delay of half a month would have shortened the time available, and time is of the essence. I was disappointed not to receive any material from the Committee by the deadline.

Nonetheless, I received a letter from the Committee on the evening of 6 June 2007, which I considered, and I responded to the Chairperson. It is my belief that the terms of reference that we have outlined are sufficiently comprehensive to incorporate any concerns that the Committee raised. The paper that was brought to the Executive was a recommendation from the subcommittee. The Executive discussed and considered that paper, and if any issue raised by the Committee for Regional Development had not already been addressed, I would have brought it to the attention of the Executive. However, I felt that the terms of reference were sufficiently broad to cover any concerns raised in the Committee’s letter, which I received on the eve of the Executive meeting.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I welcome the Minister’s statement and the information about the review that he has brought before the Assembly. I am sure that the Committee looks forward to working with the Minister on the review. Will the Minister assure the House, given that a large part of the review will be conducted over the summer, that the Committee for Regional Development will be consulted fully, and can he explain precisely how the Committee will be kept in touch with the review?

Mr Murphy: I thank Mr Cobain for his question. I also thank him for his commitment to working construct­ively with us on the review. He will be aware that this is one of the first and most serious challenges that the Executive and the Assembly face. All of the parties elected to the Assembly made manifesto commitments to try to deal with the issue. The purpose of the review, as agreed by all the parties represented on the Executive, is to try to live up to our manifesto commitments.

I noted some of the Member’s public commentary on the subject, and I can assure him that it is a genuine and serious review. As Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, he has a key influence on all of that. I hope that he will play his part in bringing his influence to bear, so that we can all achieve the objective, which is an open and honest assessment of what is required, a clear laying out of the options in front of us and a clear and rational debate about how we proceed. I can assure him that the Committee will be consulted. As I said, I attended the Committee on 16 May 2007 and outlined to it the decision that had been taken by the Executive, which was to appoint a subcommittee to agree the terms of reference. I offered the Committee the opportunity to have input into that.

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I took note of the Committee’s letter when I received it on 6 June 2007. The terms of reference — if the Member reads them — specifically sets out an ongoing role for the Executive subcommittee and an ongoing role in the review for the Committee for Regional Development, as a key stakeholder. The Committee is mentioned as a key stakeholder in those terms of reference. Other stakeholders include the utility regulator, the Consumer Council, the water company itself, and others who have an interest. I do not doubt that they will also wish to have an input to the review.

I have made it clear that the purpose of the review is to ensure public confidence. We face very serious issues regarding sewerage and water services. We must decide what needs to be invested and how we will find the finances to meet that investment. I reiterate that public confidence is a very serious issue. That is why it is incumbent on all of us who have an interest to act constructively and to try to have a rational debate on what action is required, what the way forward is, and how we will meet that challenge.

It is also important for public confidence that the Executive have stated in their agreed terms of reference that any action is taken under the terms of full public ownership. Privatisation is not on our agenda. That is important in maintaining public confidence in the way forward.

Mr Dallat: As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I can assure the Minister that he will have our full co-operation — given the opportunity. Will the Minister give an assurance to the Assembly that the interests of the consumer — and of those on low and fixed incomes, which are disproportionate to the runaway prices of their houses — will be represented and protected in the forthcoming review? Will he explain how that will be done?

Mr Murphy: I thank Mr Dallat for his comments. I know that he is a member of the Regional Development Committee and that he has alleged that there were spies of mine on that Committee to keep me updated on matters. That was his public commentary — spies at the heart of regional development. [Laughter.]

There must be a public debate. The previous public debate on this issue was contaminated by what could be considered as a lack of openness and suspicions about the intentions behind the water reform agenda. We want an open and honest discussion. We want those who represent consumers and the more vulnerable people in our society to have an input to the review. That will be the case.

The review’s terms of reference are quite broad. A chairperson and other panel members will be appointed. I expect — although a range of opinions is readily available from the previous debate — that those who wish to have an input and to make their voice heard will be facilitated. That way, we can guarantee that the debate will be one that the Assembly is in charge of, and one in which the Assembly has a say. Through the Assembly, the public will have a say. The public will receive an open explanation of the issues that we face, the choices that we must make, how we propose to proceed, and how we will do so while ensuring that the most vulnerable people in our society are protected.

Mrs Long: My question specifically concerns the sustainability and financing of water and sewerage services. The Minister will be aware that one of the major criticisms of the previous scheme, both from Alliance and from other respondents, including the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, was that although the fundamental tenet of the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, on which water charging was predicated, was to encourage conservation of a resource, that principle was not embedded in the payment structures.

Will the Minister comment on why water conservation is not specifically mentioned in his statement or in the terms of reference for the review, and give some reassurance to the House that that matter will be fully considered within the remit of the review?

Mr Murphy: I assure the Member that water conserv­ation is an important part of the future consideration of this matter. One of the difficulties with the previous debate, which caused public hostility and suspicion, was that the issue of metering was tied up with that of charging households. Water conservation is extremely important to the immediate funding and financing of the services. Conservation is vital to the plan that was rolled out under the direct rule administration; to an assessment of that plan; to an assessment on the way in which we proceed; and to the decisions on how we proceed.

The water company must get its own house in order on conservation, as it is quite an issue for it to tackle. Targets to reduce waste have been set, and we will want to assess whether those are sufficient. The review has been given as broad a scope as possible to allow all those issues to be considered.

As the Member correctly pointed out, some specific references may not be included, but, in our view, the review is broad enough to cover all the issues about which people have concerns.

Mr Moutray: Will the Minister outline what steps he has taken to bring about greater efficiencies in his Department so that in-house savings can be made?

Mr Murphy: The Member’s question moves into the realm of the comprehensive spending review and the efficiencies that the Department is required to come up with, which is not specifically part of the review of water and sewerage services. However, the Department of Finance and Personnel has set targets for all Departments, and my Department is working with that Department to meet efficiency targets with regard to water and sewerage services.

Those targets pose serious challenges, not just for my Department, but for all Departments. We know what the Department of Finance and Personnel requires of us, and we will certainly strive to meet those challenges.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has touched on this issue, and he will be aware of the deep concerns among the general public, workers in the Water Service and the wider trade union movement that the Water Service will be privatised. Will he confirm that the terms of reference that were published today rule out the future privatisation of the Go-co? Will he confirm also that there is nothing to stop the Committee for Regional Development sitting over the summer months to monitor the review?

Mr Murphy: The business of the Committee for Regional Development is a matter for its Chairperson — I would not presume to tell the Committee how to do its business.

It was important to make a public statement on the review. In many ways, its scope is very broad, and the only directive that the Executive decided to put to the review panel is that the review should be carried out with the understanding that the service will remain in full public ownership. Any arrangements arising from the outcome of the review will ensure that the water and sewerage services remain in full public ownership. The privatisation of water and sewerage services is not part of our agenda. For that to happen, even in the current circumstances, my agreement and that of the Assembly and the Executive would be required.

As I have said, the purpose of the review is to enable us to have a clear and honest public debate on the issues, and to remove some of the suspicions that contaminated the previous debate. The Executive subcommittee, the Executive and I felt that it was important to state clearly that privatisation is not part of the agenda.

Mr G Robinson: In the event of water charges, what plans does the Minister have to minimise charges for pensioners and families on low incomes?

Mr Murphy: The affordability tariffs were built into the previous structures. To say “in the event of water charges” is almost to presume the outcome of the review. We must re-examine all the issues. The first part of the review will be a consideration of the investment requirement, and how it can be met. That is one of the big questions that must be answered by the autumn so that the budgetary arrangements that will be brought in by the Department of Finance and Personnel can be met. In many ways, that will tell us what structure we will have.

Affordability mechanisms were built into the last arrangements. If that route is taken, there will have to be an investigation to see whether those measures are sufficient. However, at the heart of the matter is the need to decide what kind of investment is required, and how it can be financed.

The Member is almost presuming the outcome of the review, and I do not want to do that. The review’s remit is open enough to allow for the consideration of all the options, and the Executive and the Assembly will consider those options in due course.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the independence of the review panel. Will the Minister set out the process by which the members of the panel will be appointed and explain how the Committee for Regional Development will be consulted on those appointments?

Mr Murphy: At their first meeting in May, the Executive decided to appoint a subcommittee to agree the terms of reference of the review. Through the Executive subcommittee, I put it to the Executive that my Department wants to appoint a chairperson of the review panel and probably two, but possibly three, independent panel members. The Department has outlined the range of expertise that the chairperson and panel members will be required to have.

The situation very much depends on who the chairperson is. It is intended that the chairperson will be appointed first, and I propose to do that in consultation with colleagues on the Executive subcommittee. Following the appointment being agreed, the Department and I intend to work with the chairperson of the review panel to appoint other panel members, depending on the expertise that will be required.

There is no requirement to consult the Committee for Regional Development. As I stated at the Committee’s first meeting, I welcome any views. However, I have not received any suggested names for panel members from the Committee. Time is of the essence; it is hoped that the chairperson of the review panel will be appointed within 24 to 48 hours, after which the process to appoint panel members will begin. If members of the Committee wish to have an input into the appointments, rather than sitting on the Back Benches and laughing, they could perhaps drop me a note sometime.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s commitment that privatisation of the water and sewerage services is not an option. Does he agree that where such services, including the de-sludging of private septic tanks, have been privatised in other areas it has not really been a good experience? People who have requested that tanks be de-sludged have experienced lengthy delays, in spite of numerous interventions to NI Water and its customer services department.

Has the Minister any comment on proposed reductions in rates of pay, annual leave and public-holiday entitlement to Water Service employees in circumstances in which commitments were given that employees would be treated under The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 in respect of conditions of employment? Would the Minister care to clarify that?

Mr Murphy: Thank you, go raibh maith agat. The Member will know that, under current arrangements, operational matters are the responsibility of the water company. The Department wishes to review all operational, funding and finance matters, the strategic plan and the business plan — indeed, the entire operation of the water company. That will include the matters that the Member raised.

The review will be wide in scope, and all the issues to do with how the company conducts its business will be part of it. The Member should leave it there. The questions that he raised can be asked as part of the review.

Mr McGlone: There are pressing concerns about employees’ terms and conditions that need to be addressed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind the Member that such an intervention is not in order. However, as it was relevant, I shall permit it.

Mr Murphy: I repeat my earlier reply to the Member. Employee conditions were agreed by a previous Administration, and the water company currently operates under those conditions. My Department and I want to review all that. If, in December, the Executive decide to change those structures, that will be a longer-term process that will require legislative change through the Assembly.

I have outlined the structures under which the company currently operates. If there are difficulties in the working arrangements of those conditions, my Department will be happy to hear about them. I shall be meeting the relevant unions to discuss the future of workers under the current arrangements. However, I assure the Member that all these issues are a matter for the review. If change is required, and it is the will of the Executive and the Assembly, legislation will be introduced to alter how the company conducts its business — if, indeed, there is a company at all.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the review and thank the Minister for his statement.

What steps is the Department taking to improve the quality of the water service from the Altmore reservoir? Is the Minister aware that many areas of County Tyrone were without water over the weekend?

Mr Murphy: I suspect that that is one of your issues, Mr Deputy Speaker. Whoever said that “All politics is local”?

I have not been made aware of problems at that reservoir. The water company is responsible for operational matters. Nonetheless, as the issue has been raised in the House, I shall ensure that it is raised with the company and that the Member receives a response in writing as soon as possible.

1.45 pm

Dr W McCrea: As an open and honest discussion is taking place, will the Minister identify clearly the amount of money that has already been paid by Northern Ireland ratepayers towards the provision of water? Will the review establish the right, if ratepayers desire it, to be charged by water metering?

Mr Murphy: The review’s terms of reference apply to some specific concerns that have been flagged up, one of which is the perceived injustice of double paying. The debate was contaminated by a number of factors, one being a suspicion of privatisation and another that people considered that they had already paid for their water through the regional rate. Those people were not aware that that money from rates had not been put into water services for some time. A broad spectrum of the general public considered it unjust, as they felt that they were being asked to pay again for water services. Many of the parties that stood for election to this institution highlighted that as a major concern among the public. The review recognises that concern, and it aims to identify what people have already paid to ensure that that sense of injustice is dealt with. It also seeks to identify spending requirements.

Under the policy operated by the direct rule Ministers, which set up the water company, there was to have been a long-term transition to widespread domestic metering; that entailed metering being available to pensioner households and metering being installed in new properties and first-time connections. Metering of water supplies in the non-domestic sectors is already common, and that practice was to have been extended. NIW (Northern Ireland Water) entered into a contract with the suppliers and were unable to implement the entire water-metering policy. The deferral of charges has implications for that, but I will raise the issue of metering with the board of NIW, and it can be considered by the review.

Mr Savage: Private developers carry out a lot of work for the Department for Regional Development, so why has privatisation of the Water Service been ruled out? I would like to see more of that.

Mr Murphy: I am not sure that the Ulster Unionist Party advocates privatisation of water services. It was important that the debate on privatisation got off to the right start. There was some suspicion that the purpose behind the water reform agenda and the establishment of the water company was to invest substantial amounts of public money into a company that would eventually be privatised. That prospect rightly excited significant concern across a broad range of political views. It is important to address those concerns: whatever the investment required, water and sewerage services would be retained in public ownership. Those terms were made clear to those conducting the review.

The range of people employed for contracting in the water services is part of the ongoing arrangements, which were put in place under direct rule. All those arrangements will be considered by the review. The money was invested for the sake of the public, and the benefits that will derive from that investment will be for the public.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his statement and his firm commitment that the Water Service will remain a public service. In the future, revenue for that service must be adequate, reliable and transparent, and that can be achieved in the rates system. Members have asked questions about the independence of the panel, and the Minister has answered those questions. His statement also refers to the panel being supported by an independent secretariat. From where will that independent secretariat will be sourced, and what will be its scale and role? Will this review engage consultants?

Mr Murphy: It is important to have independent panel members and to state that the review is not about privatisation.

It was also considered important to have a secretariat that was outside of the Department. Under the previous Administration, the Department for Regional Development (DRD) carried out some work on the matter.

We are currently seeking from the pool of recently retired civil servants a secretary for the secretariat. The secretariat will be provided from the centre, not by DRD, and it will be resourced for as much as will be required of it. A chairperson and two other panel members will be appointed, and we will work closely with them early on to see what resources they will require and whether outside agencies will be needed occasionally to work for them. A great deal has been put in place so far; some arrangements are ready, and other options may require outside intervention.

Many stakeholders’ views have been made clear; in fact, no debate has been more clear or stark in its terms than the discussion of the financing of water and sewerage services. Therefore although many of the necessary structures are in place, it is important for public confidence that an independent secretariat be set up. My departmental officials have been working with those in the centre to achieve the degree of independence and separation from DRD that will reassure the public that the same team is not working on the matter. However, that is not to reflect poorly on the team that worked to the previous agenda: it acted on the instructions of direct rule Ministers. However, the arrangement will give an element of detachment when the debate and all that flow from it are being reviewed.

Mr B Wilson: As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I welcome the Minister’s assurance that he will work closely with the Committee. I look forward to regular consultation.

The review’s terms of reference refer to a consideration of the Scottish and Welsh business models. That seems to limit discussion. Will international models of best practice that exist outside these islands also be considered?

Mr Murphy: I assure the Member that that reference was given as an example. Certainly, there is no limitation to the options for consideration. I expect that the review will engage with the Committee for Regional Development, and the Member will have an opportunity to propose from around the world any model that he feels may give us better solutions.

Mr Neeson: I welcome the Minister’s assurances on water privatisation. I also hope that there will be no back-door deals. Does the Minister accept that although the European Union Water Framework Directive requires each person to make a direct, identifiable contribution to the cost of delivering water and sewerage services, it does not require water services to be self-financing? Will the Minister confirm whether the review is based on the premise of having a self-financing water service?

Mr Murphy: The review is broad in scope. The Member is correct that people considered that, until recently, they had always paid for water. The review must examine how much finance is required, the rate at which it needs to be spent, and the entire scope of how water and sewerage will be financed. European Union directives are integral in driving that agenda forward and imposing any requirements that the system must meet. All of the issues that the Member outlined are up for discussion in the review process.

executive committee business

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill

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

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill to Northern Ireland.

I tabled the motion in order to seek the agreement of the Assembly to the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords. The Bill contains provisions that relate to transferred matters under the Northern Ireland Act 1998; those matters are therefore within the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill is a private Member’s Bill, which was introduced to House of Lords in November 2006 by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The Bill received a great deal of support from a number of eminent peers at its Second Reading on 25 January 2007.

In March 2007, the Minister for the Department of Constitutional Affairs in England and Wales — now the Ministry of Justice — decided that the Government would support the Bill, albeit with substantial amendments.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland sought the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill. Amendments to have this jurisdiction included in the scope of the Bill were duly tabled on 19 April 2007 and were moved at Grand Committee Stage in the House of Lords on 10 May 2007.

A forced marriage is one in which one or both parties are coerced into marriage against their will and under duress. Duress can include both physical and emotional pressure. A forced marriage is different from an arranged marriage, to which both parties have given their full and free consent. A forced marriage is often perceived as a south Asian issue but it can occur in many cultures and contexts. For example, consent to marriage is a prerequisite in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu religions. If consent is absent, the marriage can be said to be forced.

The Bill allows for a civil remedy to be sought by the person being forced into a marriage. The remedy is called a forced marriage protection order, which is a type of court order intended to prevent someone from carrying out certain types of behaviour, such as making threats, or putting in place arrangements to take another person out of the country to be married.

The Bill seeks to allow a person being forced into a marriage to apply to a County Court, or the High Court, for a forced marriage protection order. In an emergency, it will be possible for a person to obtain an order without the respondent being given notice of the court hearing. The Bill also contains a provision to allow a relevant third party to make an application to the court on behalf of a person who is being forced into a marriage.

The Bill also contains enforcement provisions. It will be a criminal offence to disobey a forced marriage protection order without reasonable excuse.

The remedies I have described are civil family law matters, and, therefore, fall into the area of transferred matters under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. As those matters are within the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is necessary to adhere to paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Memorandum of Understanding and supplementary agreements between the United Kingdom Government, Scottish Ministers, the Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee dated June 2000. That convention states:

“that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature.”

Therefore, approval for the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill has been sought from the Executive Committee, the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As the Westminster timetabling for the Bill is extremely tight, it did not prove possible to seek and obtain the necessary approvals prior to the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill. The Executive Committee and the Committee for Finance and Personnel have considered the matter and have provided retrospective approval on 24 May 2007 and 30 May 2007 respectively.

The Assembly must now consider the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland. As yet there is no direct evidence of forced marriage being an issue in Northern Ireland, although some Members may want to bring some personal experiences to light in the Chamber.

There is some anecdotal evidence from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland that an incident in Londonderry may have involved behaviour associated with a forced marriage.

Forced marriage, like domestic violence, is often a hidden issue. I do not expect that many people will seek to use the protections contained in the Bill in the near future. However, I consider that the people of Northern Ireland should, as a matter of principle, be afforded the same protections as their counterparts in England and Wales. The protections contained in the Bill are sensible and proportionate.

It is important that Northern Ireland is proactive in affording those protections to its community. The extension of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill is a most expedient way to offer those valuable protections to any person who faces being forced into marriage in this jurisdiction. I hope that Members will concur with me and support the motion.

2.00 pm

Ms J McCann: I welcome the opportunity to support the motion to extend the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill to the North of Ireland. Forced marriage is a human-rights abuse, which is prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At present, there are around 300 reported cases of forced marriage each year, the majority of which involve young girls. That figure is probably the tip of the iceberg.

Forced marriage occurs in many communities. It is part of a continuum of violence and abuse that is mostly experienced by women but can also affect men. Many are too afraid to report forced marriage for fear of repercussions and because of cultural and familial pressures. Forced marriage devastates the lives of many young people because it cuts short their education and career aspirations and prevents them from making a meaningful contribution to society. In extreme cases, people have been killed in so-called honour killings. The Bill seeks to protect those who are being forced into marriage under duress and without their consent. It will enable them to apply to the courts for an injunction that will prevent others from forcing them into marriage or taking them out of the country to be married abroad.

Several weeks ago, the Assembly debated domestic violence. Forced marriages should be perceived and treated as a form of domestic violence. The most effective way to deal with forced marriage and to increase victims’ protection is through better use of existing legislation, civil remedies and family courts. The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill is innovative because it introduces a new civil law that will enable victims to obtain protection orders against those who force them into marriage through harassment and coercion. The Bill explicitly states that a forced marriage is any marriage to which there is absence of full and free consent. It enables relatives and friends to appeal to the courts for protection for the victims of forced marriage. Under the Bill, courts could make orders to protect the victims and remove them from forced marriages even after they had taken place.

As victims of forced marriages are often unable to protect themselves, the Bill will enable third parties to apply to the courts on their behalf. A third party could be a concerned person, local authority or other public body. The entire process is victim led — controlled by the victim — and the victim decides whether to seek an injunction.

The Bill also contains provision for compensation or damages to be awarded for psychological or physical harm that occurs as a result of a forced marriage. Compensation will not automatically be available in all circumstances. However, in appropriate cases, the courts may award damages for anxiety, distress, injury to feeling and any other loss sustained, such as financial loss caused by the conduct of the perpetrators.

Victims will be able to apply a local County Court to obtain an injunction that will restrain parents, relatives, community members or any other party from forcing them into marriage. As the Minister mentioned, force is defined broadly to cover physical as well as psychological coercion. The Bill will also enable County Courts to hear cases of forced marriage, which, at present, can only be heard by a High Court. That would increase awareness of forced marriage throughout the legal system and the wider community.

I support the motion to extend the Bill to the North of Ireland. It will enhance victims’ access to justice because all remedies will be in one place under a specific law which makes clear that forced marriage is unlawful and a gross and unacceptable violation of human rights.

Mr Beggs: I support the proposed arrangements for the protection of people who have been forced into marriage. The legislation received widespread support in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Assembly Members have also demonstrated their support. It is important that the introduction of the legislation is not delayed, even by weeks or months.

We do not know who may get caught up in a forced marriage in the near future, so any delay in the introduction of the legislation could have consequences.

I support the principle of the motion. It is helpful for the same protections against forced marriage to apply in each region of the country, so it makes sense to introduce those protections here. The question is whether we wish to indicate retrospective approval. The legislation’s introduction may be delayed until after the summer if we do not approve it. Therefore I hope that a clear majority will indicate our approval.

The Northern Ireland legislators, when considering how the Bill would be applied here, recommended that a higher level of protection could be afforded by applying our domestic violence legislation. If anything, Northern Ireland will have enhanced protections against forced marriage. I hope that no one will need the protection that the Bill offers, but, if that protection is required, strong measures should be in place.

Mr O’Loan: The Committee for Finance and Personnel received a briefing on the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill on 30 May from a principal legal officer in the DFP solicitor’s office. She answered questions, and Committee members were satisfied with the legislation’s propriety.

It has been said that forced marriage is not a major problem here. However, my party leader wants to enquire as to whether the forced marriage of the DUP and Sinn Féin will fall under this legislation.

Mr Weir: At least we will not get divorced as quickly.

Mr O’Loan: One or two people in the community would probably be willing to seek the injunction.

To include Northern Ireland in the legislation is prudent. The context has been explained about particular ethnic groups, but it is important to stress that consent to marriage is a prerequisite in all the major world faiths. Forced marriage is a deviation from the norm.

The principal remedy is to have recourse to civil law. An injunction can be obtained to protect any person who is forced into marriage. That is bolstered by the fact that it is a criminal offence to disobey an injunction, so the legislation has teeth.

Basically, we are reading Northern Ireland into the Bill. Some small alterations are being made to local legislation, which differs from legislation — particularly domestic violence legislation — in England and Wales.

The Assembly must broaden the issue to include support for people who may be subjected to forced marriage and other forms of domestic abuse — practices that are thought to occur in particular ethnic backgrounds. If people from those backgrounds encounter such problems, they may face serious cultural pressures. On top of those pressures, ignorance of the legal system and language problems may make it difficult for them to avail themselves of the remedies that exist. In those circumstances, it is important for legislators and policymakers to consider the need for more structured support for organisations that deal with matters in that field, such as Women’s Aid.

Dr Farry: The Alliance Party supports the motion and is grateful to the Minister for tabling it. We are keen to see the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill extended to Northern Ireland.

Devolution is primarily about policy innovation and about reflecting local preferences and priorities when it comes to the allocation of resources. However, when it comes to matters that reflect rights, equality and civil law, it is important to strive as far as possible to ensure that a common, consistent regime applies right across the United Kingdom.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Although the Assembly is empowered to pass its own legislation, I doubt that any such legislation would differ significantly from the Bill that is going through Westminster. The amount of work that the Assembly would have to do to repeat that exercise would be disproportionate and produce the same outcome.

The only adjustment that the Westminster Bill requires in order for it to apply to Northern Ireland is the addition of a schedule to reflect minor technical differences in criminal penalties for breaches of civil orders. Therefore, it makes sense for Northern Ireland to be governed by the same legislation as applies in England and Wales. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will legislate along similar lines.

The Bill is a private Member’s Bill introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a member of our sister party, the Liberal Democrats.

Forced marriage is not a major issue in Northern Ireland, but it may be that there is a problem under the ground that we are not yet aware of. We must be vigilant against the potential for it to become a major issue. This measure gives the Assembly a rare opportunity to be proactive in the legislative process, rather than reactive.

The Bill is aimed at combating and remedying the serious social problem whereby children and young people are forced to marry against their will. Forced marriage constitutes a serious abuse of human rights and is a form of domestic violence. The issue of domestic violence was debated in the Chamber only a few weeks ago, and a clear message was dispatched that it should be given zero tolerance. In many circumstances, forced marriage involves inhuman and degrading treatment, with punishment, coercion and even murder meted out to those who resist. A direct link exists between forced marriages and so-called honour killings.

Forced marriage is a contradiction. It is a form of sexual enslavement that sometimes amounts even to domestic slavery. As we mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we should ensure that effective measures are in place to tackle this gross abuse.

As the Minister said, forced marriage is rightly condemned across and within all the affected communities. It is important to stress that the problem occurs not solely in certain British Asian communities, but in a wide range of different settings. Many of the loudest voices calling for reform are Asian. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi successfully campaigned in India for a law against the marriage of children.

The Bill provides for protection orders to prevent forced marriages from occurring. As Mr O’Loan said, other remedies are required to allow victims to vacate marriages made under duress and to provide support for them. It is important that the burden of seeking protection should not rest solely with the victims, who are often deterred from seeking help, either through fear that the criminal justice system might be applied against family members or through a lack of the capacity to take out a protection order. Those points are addressed in the Bill.

Legal remedies alone will not solve the problem, but legislation is required. Extending the Westminster legislation to cover Northern Ireland is the most effective and simplest way to provide that protection. The Alliance Party supports the motion.

Mr Weir: Mr O’Loan touched on the marriage of political parties in this Chamber. The two previous marriages, those of Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon and of Mr Trimble and Mr Durkan, show that second marriages do not always work. The degree of disagreement within those marriages might have necessitated the creation of another branch of Relate. [Laughter.]

I support the motion. It is common for Members to declare an interest; I declare a lack of interest, for I am one of the few Members who are not married. I cannot, therefore, speak on the Bill from first-hand experience. However, I have promised Mr Shannon that I will indicate how much his wife welcomes the Bill.

Members may agree that taking the opportunity to speak in the Assembly on a subject of which one has no first-hand experience is not unique. I welcome the motion. We hope that the provisions of the Bill will not be used often in practice. As the Minister and other Members have said, the problem of forced marriage is not, to the best of our knowledge, widespread in Northern Ireland. It has been rare, although one case may have occurred in Londonderry.

It is to be hoped that the problems associated with forced marriages will not be imported into Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it is important that we establish our position on those matters at an early stage.

2.15 pm

The issues of process and content have already been mentioned. The Executive could have taken a doctrinaire view and said that they wanted fresh legislation because the issue fell within the competence of the Assembly. That would not have been a common sense point of view, nor would it have been one that provided the best protection.

Given the timescale in which the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill proceeded through the House of Lords, I believe that the Assembly will take the most expedient and most common sense approach by extending the legislation to Northern Ireland. To simply hold a doctrinaire view and to say that we need our own legislation on the subject would have the potential to leave vulnerable people without protection.

The Assembly has the competence to extend the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland; it would also have the opportunity, if it so wished, to amend the Bill, make additional provisions, or, indeed, to declare it ineffective. It is important that Northern Ireland citizens are given the fullest protection from day one.

The content of the Bill has been well covered. In particular, I welcome the provision that allows a relevant third party, by way of an ex-parte application, to apply to the courts to prevent a forced marriage. I appreciate the intent of the original legislation, but it is important, when the Department of Finance and Personnel examines the matter in greater detail, that it gives a broader definition of a relevant third party. It has already been said that social services representatives are the most appropriate people to act on behalf of children, but it may also be that the definition of a relevant third party should be drafted in a permissive manner so that the legislation does not exclude a family member, for example, from acting as a third party.

Against that, we must ensure that the application of the legislation is backed up by the appropriate evidential burden. If, for example, a family member makes an ex-parte application in order to prevent a forced marriage, we must be certain that the application is not abused by a family that opposes a marriage or that the application is not being used to frustrate the marriage of willing partners. Those issues must be examined in the medium-term.

The Bill is a sensible piece of legislation, and the route that we have taken will provide the necessary protection. It is to be hoped that Northern Ireland can avoid the scourge of forced marriage. I support the motion.

Mr Hamilton: I support giving legislative consent to our sovereign Parliament at Westminster to introduce this Bill and include Northern Ireland in it. The Bill is a good piece of legislation because it will put in place protection in a proactive, rather than a reactionary, manner. All too often in this country, we legislate after something has become a problem. For example, with antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) or acceptable behaviour contracts, which have not always been successful.

There is no doubt, as several Members have said, that although the issue of forced marriage is relevant in parts of Great Britain, there is little or no evidence that people are being forced to marry against their will in Northern Ireland. However, just because it is not a particularly live issue in this part of the world, it does not mean that people from Northern Ireland should not be afforded the protections in the Bill. Therefore, I welcome the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Forced Marriages (Civil Protection) Bill.

The circumstances surrounding forced marriages are, understandably, neither simple nor straightforward. Despite the protection that the Bill provides, it is never going to be easy for someone who has been forced into a marriage to come forward and apply to a court.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that not only is it important that the partners in a marriage be protected but that the rights of children are protected? There have been some high-profile cases in the Province in which young children were kidnapped and smuggled away to different countries such as Pakistan or Morocco.

Does the Member agree that it is important that any children who are involved in such situations are also protected?

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for that relevant point. That is why I welcome — as I am sure the entire House welcomes — those clauses that allow for relevant third parties, albeit that they are not exactly defined, to apply for ex parte protection orders.

I congratulate the Minister for tabling the motion, and I ask him to co-ordinate with his Executive colleagues to ensure that all Government agencies, such as social services, the Social Security Agency and the Housing Executive, are made fully aware of the Bill, the protection orders, and the responsibilities that those agencies may have in a post-protection-order period. Even if a person is brave enough to apply for an order to protect them from a forced marriage, many, if not a majority, will find it impossible to remain in their home.

Given that forced marriages can often occur with parental approval and, as Mr Shannon said, frequently involve very young children, if a protection order is granted, it is hard to see how that individual can easily, if ever, return home. They may be unwelcome, or they may run the risk of being forced into a marriage, irrespective of a court’s ruling. In such scenarios, it is essential that assistance be afforded after the protection order has been granted in the form of, for example, a new home, benefits, counselling or support.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Hamilton: I am concluding my speech, but I will give way.

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that it is somewhat ironic that this Bill — which I welcome — is supported by the same Members who supported the legislation that introduced civil partnerships? That legislation gravely undermined the principles behind, and biblical foundations of, marriage.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his intervention. It was a good point, well made. I agree with him that the Bill is a good piece of legislation. I warmly support it, and I hope that the House does likewise.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As the Minister of Finance and Personnel has explained, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill is proceeding through Westminster. Although its provisions will primarily cover England and Wales, we are discussing the entirely pragmatic matter of extending the Bill’s powers on the grounds of expediency. As family law is a transferred matter, the Assembly’s consent is required to proceed. It has already been pointed out that the Executive have indicated their support for the extension.

Mr O’Loan pointed out that the Committee for Finance and Personnel received a briefing from the principal legal officer in the departmental solicitor’s office, and the Department also provided the Committee with copies of the Bill. Committee members were keenly interested in several aspects of the Bill, including how it will act as a proper deterrent to people who force others into marriage; how juveniles will be adequately protected; the application for protection orders by third parties acting on behalf of a person who is being forced into a marriage; guidance to fully explain the Bill’s definitions and clauses; and how the public will be adequately informed of the legislation.

The Committee noted that, as part of the consultation on extending the Bill to the North, groups such as the Human Rights Commission and the Commissioner for Children and Young People indicated their support. Consequently, on 30 May 2007, the Committee agreed unanimously to support the Department of Finance and Personnel in seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the extension of the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

The legislative effect will be the same as if the Assembly had introduced its own Bill. Of course, the Assembly can, on its own initiative, introduce any amendment that political experience or application may demonstrate is necessary. On behalf of the Committee, I indicate its support for the motion.

Mr Speaker: I am conscious that the Minister has only five minutes in which to make his winding-up speech. The Minister may wish to wait until after Question Time or he may want to make it now.

Mr P Robinson: If you are agreeable, Mr Speaker, I will make a fist of finishing in five minutes, but, if necessary, I can continue after Question Time.

Mr Speaker: I appreciate that, Minister.

Mr P Robinson: I seriously underestimated the Assembly in judging that there might not be many contributions during the debate; I had not taken account of Members’ enthusiasm for the matter. I am pleased that we had a useful — albeit short — debate on the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

I welcome the support of the Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and his colleagues. He was right to state that although the motion endorses the extension of United Kingdom legislation and the protections that the Bill affords, we are entitled to make whatever amendments we wish, in the light of experience. We will continue to monitor how the Bill operates after it is enacted.

The Member for West Belfast Jennifer McCann indicated that forced marriage was a violation of human rights — I agree entirely. She mentioned the fear that is associated with reporting problems that are connected to some such marriages. She is right, and that is one reason that third parties will be able to raise matters and have them dealt with. Third parties can be family members, social services, or whoever. Their role will be further defined in the legislation as it proceeds through the House of Lords. I agree with Ms McCann about the definition of forced marriage in the Tackling Violence at Home strategy. I hope that forced marriage can be a key issue in that strategy.

The Member for East Antrim Roy Beggs rightly pointed out the consequences of delay if we were to take a different course than that which I have advocated. Any delay in providing the protections that the Bill affords would be inexcusable.

The Member for North Antrim Declan O’Loan indicated that officials had satisfied the Committee. I am glad that they did — that takes a great deal of pressure off me. He referred to the marriage of the DUP and Sinn Féin, but he seems to have forgotten that the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were also involved in that wedding. Therefore whether he likes it or not, there are four in the bed. [Laughter.]

Mr O’Loan was referring to the domination of the DUP and Sinn Féin, which came about as a result of the free will of the people. Mr O’Loan also indicated that there must be support for persons who are subjected to the type of abuse that the legislation was intended to desist. The Member for Strangford Simon Hamilton and other Members have asked me to speak to my Executive colleagues to ensure that support.

The Member for North Down Dr Farry pointed out the benefits of having a consistent regime throughout the United Kingdom. Although I do not recommend parity in all instances, we should have no lesser standards than the rest of the United Kingdom. Dr Farry referred to forced marriages as sexual slavery, and he indicated that the legislation does not, of itself, solve that problem. I agree, but the Bill provides essential protections.

The Member for North Down Mr Weir was very brave to speak in the debate and to cut down his own options. [Laughter.]

He thought that the legislation was unlikely to be used much. However, the existence of the Bill will dissuade perpetrators and make the need for further measures less likely. The Bill is, in itself, a deterrent.

The extension of the Bill provides beneficial protection for people in our community. I therefore encourage Members to support the motion.

Mr Speaker: We shall shortly proceed to what I hope will be a painless exercise for Ministers and Members — Question Time. I would have preferred to have put the Question on the motion, but Standing Orders are clear that Question Time begins at 2.30 pm and ends at 4.00 pm. We shall return to the debate as soon as Question Time is finished.

The debate stood suspended.

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and  the Deputy First Minister

Mr Speaker: Perhaps it would be useful to recap the procedure for Question Time. First to answer questions is the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Mr Gregory Campbell is first on the list. It is not necessary to remind Members who are Members of another House of the procedure, as I am sure it is unnecessary to remind Mr Campbell, but as he is first on the list it is a good opportunity to remind all Members of the procedure.

I will call Mr Campbell, and he will rise to his feet and say, “question one”. The First Minister will respond, and I will go back to Mr Campbell for a supplementary question. I will then possibly take another two supplementary questions. Please note that there will be no points of order or interventions taken during Question Time.

East-West Linkages

1. Mr Campbell asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that east-west linkages between Northern Ireland and the other parts of the United Kingdom are built upon and enhanced.       (AQO 62/07)

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I congratulate my friend Gregory Campbell in asking me the first question. He has asked me many questions in his day, and I am sure he will ask me many more. Today is an historic day for him and for me.

The Northern Ireland Administration already has very strong links with other regions in the United Kingdom. Against that background the British-Irish Council (BIC) is playing a unique and important role in furthering, promoting and developing those links through positive, practical relationships and in providing a forum for consultation and co-operation on east-west issues.

Since it was established, the BIC has undertaken an extensive programme of work, and there have been over 190 meetings under its auspices, including eight at summit level, and 17 at ministerial level.

The Deputy First Minister and I look forward to hosting the next British–Irish Council summit shortly. It will be held in Northern Ireland for the first time, which will help to give further impetus to the work of the BIC and enhance east-west relationships.

Officials are currently seeking dates for both the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and BIC meetings — and that does not stand for biscuit!

Mr Campbell: I thank the First Minister for his reply. It is symbolically significant, as he has said, that the first question on the first day should be on improving links within the United Kingdom. Will he ensure that the confidence of people throughout Northern Ireland will be enhanced by taking the process we are embarked on in an east-west direction, as opposed to a North/South direction, which has taken precedence in the perceptions of many people in the past?

The First Minister: I give that assurance to my Friend. We must emphasise the importance of Northern Ireland in the east-west relationship. Mr Campbell can rest quietly in his bed at night knowing that the future of the Province is in good hands.

Mr Burnside: All Members would be in favour of good relationships between the United Kingdom institutions, but the First Minister’s statement runs contrary to the sentiment that he expressed when Alex Salmond became First Minister of Scotland. I am sure that we all like Mr Salmond as a person, but he is the most Machiavellian of politicians, and has said that he will move towards a referendum to end the Act of Union. I ask the First Minister not to fall into the trap of being part of a devolved —

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to get to the point of his question.

The First Minister: I endorse what Mr Salmond said, when he said that the Queen is the Queen of Scotland. If that brings the heckles up in the Member who has just spoken, let his heckles get up. I helped to invite Mr Salmond here, and he will be here next Monday: he will be well able to speak for himself.

Unlike the Member’s former leader who bowed the knee, we will not be bowing the knee in meetings. Those present will hear unionism at its best — something that they have not heard in the past.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the First Minister’s announcement that he and the Deputy First Minister will soon host a meeting of the British-Irish Council here. It is important that the Council establishes its own secretariat. Not only would it support the meetings that bring together people from eight Administrations throughout these islands, it would encourage and monitor bilateral and multi-lateral contact between all the member bodies, because it is a tall order to bring the eight Administrations together. If such a secretariat were established, people would see how the British-Irish Council traffic compares with the North/South Ministerial Council traffic.

The First Minister: I am sorry that the Member did not read the DUP election manifesto, because we have already said what he has just said.

A Member: Did we convince him?

The First Minister: We did not convince him, because I am aware of a poster that the Member had made to put on the wall, which stated that my son and I were Ulster’s worst enemies. The people did not think that; they said goodbye to him and said yes to me. However, we intend to see that Ulster has its full place in any of these councils and that its voice will be heard loud and clear. I would welcome his support, and I hope that the voices of the people he represents will be as clearly heard.


2.   Mr Kennedy asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what legislative work has been scheduled, or is due to be scheduled, by the Executive and Ministers for submission to the Assembly before the summer recess.           (AQO 55/07)

The First Minister: The Executive have given priority to considering and bringing forward legislative proposals to the Assembly. We anticipate that in the eight weeks between 8 May 2007 and the summer recess, Ministers of the Executive will have introduced five Bills in the House. That is far, far, far more legislation than the people whom he supported in the previous Executives set before the House in all their terms.

There will be legislation on welfare reform, health, libraries, the budget, and even taxis. The Finance and Personnel Minister has also sought and will obtain, in a few minutes’ time, the Assembly’s endorsement of the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the United Kingdom’s Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill. I am sure that the House will agree that that represents a positive start to the legislative programme.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the First Minister for his answer, and I congratulate him and wish him well. I have no doubt that Lord Trimble wishes him well also. [Laughter.]

Will the First Minister confirm that all answers to questions to the Office of the First Minster and the Deputy First Minister are joint responses agreed with Martin McGuinness who is a self-confessed IRA commander?

The First Minister: A man in a glass house should not throw stones. In this House, we are in a process to give the people a fair Government, and we will put as much weight as possible behind ensuring that that is done.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle and fáilte romhat to the First Minister on this, the first occasion on which he has answered questions on behalf of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. He may have covered this in his answer to the previous question, but how does this Executive’s legislative programme, in the eight weeks to the summer recess, compare to that of the previous Executive?

The First Minister: I would simply say that we are up six, while the previous Executive are still at nil.

Mr Simpson: As a senior citizen, the First Minister is in the enviable position of being able to continue to do the job that he loves. As part of the legislative plans for the Northern Ireland Assembly, will he introduce proposals to do away with the default retirement age so that people can continue to work in jobs that they love and at which that they are good?

The First Minister: We will certainly look at that issue, and I will write to my Friend about it.

Junior Ministers

3.   Mr Burns asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the appointment of junior Ministers.           (AQO 37/07)

9.   Mr McGlone asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the role of junior Ministers in the Executive.      (AQO 34/07)

The First Minister: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer question 3 and question 9 together. The Deputy First Minister and I appointed junior Ministers to OFMDFM on 8 May, under the authority of a determination made in December 1999, which, as it did in the previous Assembly, provided for two junior Ministers, whose functions would be to assist the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the exercise of their functions in OFMDFM.

The junior Ministers are assisting the Deputy First Minister and me in dealing with the enormous workload associated with all those functions. In addition, they have particular responsibility for liaising with the Assembly on Executive business, for co-ordination of policy for young people and children’s issues, and for older people’s issues. In order to discharge those responsibilities, they need to attend Executive meetings and to participate in them as appropriate. They are not members of the Executive, so they cannot vote on any issue for which a vote is required in Executive meetings.

The Deputy First Minister and I consider junior Ministers essential to improving relationships and communication with the House, to facilitating the business of the House and the Executive, and to taking forward the work areas that have been assigned to them.

Mr Burns: Does the First Minister agree with the assessment of Ian Paisley Jnr on 14 December 1999 that:

“The reason for appointing the two junior Ministers — Ministers literally without portfolio who can stick their noses into any business the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister decide — is to prevent proper Assembly scrutiny of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister”? — [Official Report, Bound Volume 4, p41, col 2].

The First Minister: The Deputy First Minister and I have made it clear that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister 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 and harassment against any citizen. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

The First Minister: I do not know whether the Member was in the House last Monday, but I remind him of what I said:

“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.” — [Official Report, Vol 22, No 2, p295].

2.45 pm

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. To ask the question in a different way: Ian Paisley Jnr, when referring to the appointment of junior Ministers, stated on 14 December 1999:

“It is wrong and obnoxious to have this increase in largesse for the sole purpose of feathering the nests of the First Minister’s and Deputy First Minister’s parties.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 4, p42, col 1].

Does the First Minister agree with that assessment?


The First Minister: The hon Member said that he is asking the same question in another way. My answer is not in another way; it is straightforward and plain.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: Order.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Does the First Minister agree that the comments made by Ian Paisley Jnr, as reported in ‘Hot Press’ magazine, would have been indefensible if they had been made in his capacity as a junior Minister?

The First Minister: My answer is the same.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Miss Mcllveen: Will the First Minister undertake to examine the importance of older people in society and ensure that junior Ministers consider the case for an older person’s commissioner?

The First Minister: I say to my Friend that we hope to do so. The Executive, the Deputy First Minister and I hope to report to the House on that matter in the near future.

Single Equality Bill

4.   Ms Purvis asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what is the current position on bringing forward a single equality Bill; and what is the proposed timetable for the introduction of such a Bill to the Assembly.        (AQO 6/07)

The First Minister: As the Member is aware, the matter of a single equality Bill, and some of the many complex issues associated with it, was aired in the Chamber on 22 May 2007. The timetabling of any possible legislative proposals cannot be definitively commented on until we have considered the policy issues.

Ms Purvis: Does the First Minister agree that legislative protection is absolutely vital in order to outlaw discrimination, in all its forms, of the most vulnerable people in our society? Furthermore, will the First Minister give a commitment to the House that such legislation will be introduced as soon as possible to protect the most vulnerable in our society?

The First Minister: A full regularity impact assessment is an integral part of the process of developing and introducing a Bill of that sort. As we proceed, all the issues will have to be given total and careful consideration.

Mr McCarthy: Does the First Minister agree that the implementation of a single equality Bill is vital to everyone in Northern Ireland and that the sooner that it is introduced, the sooner that any form of discrimination will be avoided?

The First Minister: That is a matter for a future Assembly; it is not in order for the hon Member to say what the Assembly wants. The Assembly is entitled to have a debate on the issue, and the views of Members have a right to be heard. The Member knows what happened when a vote was recently taken in the House on that very issue.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the First Minister give an assurance to all communities in Northern Ireland that a single equality Bill will suffer no further delay and that the legislation introduced will be of the highest standards of equality? Will the First Minister also give an assurance that, further to the offensive comments made in recent weeks by junior Minister Paisley, that Mr Paisley Jnr will have no role in equality legislation in relation to the gay and lesbian community?

I am not in the position to give those assurances. The House is Sovereign; the House is Pope. [Laughter.]

Shared Future

5.   Mr A Maginness asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what action it intended to take to implement the document entitled ‘A Shared Future’.           (AQO 48/07)

11. Mr Ford asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to give an update on the implementation of ‘A Shared Future: First Triennial Action Plan 2006-2009’.        (AQO 12/07)

The First Minister: I will answer Question 5 and Question 11 together. ‘A Shared Future’ was published on 21 March 2005, and the first triennial action plan setting out how it would be implemented was published on 21 April 2006. Our officials are currently collating details on the progress achieved during the first year. We will wish to consider how best to take forward this important agenda in the light of the progress report and the clear view of the House on 4 June, when Members unanimously agreed the amendment proposed by my hon Friend Mr Spratt the Member for Belfast South. The clearest and most tangible sign of the Executive’s commitment to ‘A Shared Future’ will be the way in which we conduct business in the House to obtain a better future for all of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the First Minister for his answer and wish him and the Deputy First Minister well in their shared future together over the next four years.

Sectarianism is a cancer that eats into the very heart of our community. An anti-sectarian policy such as the one outlined in ‘A Shared Future’ should be at the very heart of government, and I hope that the First Minister can reassure the House that that will be so, and that there will be a cross-departmental approach in dealing with the scourge of sectarianism in our society.

The First Minister: I would like to say to the hon Member that we do not wish to exclude; he should be included. Mr Maginness said that I am included with the leader opposite. Why then will he not participate, take the same view on these matters, and come and help us? We might even do him some good, although that might be a far stretch on some of our imaginations. However, the DUP will do its best, so I invite him to come and pin his faith on an Assembly that was elected by the free votes of the people of Northern Ireland of all religions, colours and professions. The House is the place where these matters must be debated, where the ‘i’s must be dotted, the ‘t’s stroked, and we get the sort of legislation we need.

Mr Ford: I welcome the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to an office that is, sadly, less joined than has been the case in the past. One of the key issues in the action plan is to conduct detailed research into the cost of segregation. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Deloitte research that his Department has had carried out? In the spirit of optimism rather than realism, perhaps, might I ask when the research will be published on behalf of his Department?

The First Minister: The research undertaken by Deloitte is extremely important, but how to deal with the issues in the report is even more important. The Minister of Finance cautioned against plucking a figure out of the air. The issue is much more complex than simply reducing the research to a figure, whatever that might be.

We are starting a long journey, and it will take time for us to overcome all our problems and consign them to history. Let me be clear: division is costly. It has cost us all dearly in social, economic and physical terms. The Executive, together with the House and the Committee of the Centre, will consider the cost of division and report carefully and fully. We will publish the research shortly.

Mr Shannon: Does the First Minister agree that as a result of legislative change that he helped put in place, for the first time, Northern Ireland has the stable, democratic and devolved Assembly that it deserves and that can tackle very important issues such as those in the document ‘A Shared Future’?

The First Minister: I thank my hon Friend for what he has said, and I trust that we will take it to our hearts and dedicate ourselves to the task that has been laid upon our shoulders.

North/South Ministerial Council

6.   Mr McElduff asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make a statement about the date, location and items for discussion at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.     (AQO 41/07)

Mr McElduff: Ceist uimhir a sé.

The First Minister: It is hard to answer a question when one does not know what it is. [Laughter.]I will try to do the miracle.

We are working towards the objective of holding the fifth plenary session of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh shortly. Officials are currently seeking dates for the meeting. Once the details have been agreed, we will inform the Executive and the Assembly.

Mr McElduff: I thank the First Minister for his answer, but I am disappointed that the word “shortly” features in his answer rather than a specific date, time and location. Further to that, will the First Minister confirm that Members can look forward to an early convening of the agreed North/South parliamentary forum involving Members of the Assembly and those of the Oireachtas — both the Daíl and the Seanad — so that crucial areas of North/South co-operation in education and health can be taken forward?

The First Minister: I wonder where the hon Gentleman has been living, because there has been an election in the Irish Republic, and his party did not do too well.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The First Minister: We will have to wait until the Irish Republic gets a new Government, because we cannot have a Council meeting until that happens. Perhaps the Member could use his influence to hurry them up. If he does so, we will say thank you, and we will be at the Council meeting.

Mr Hamilton: The First Minister will well remember how, under previous arrangements, North/South structures were unaccountable to the Assembly. Will he confirm that as a consequence of the many hard-fought gains that he secured, the North/South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies will be fully accountable to the Assembly?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The First Minister: I am delighted to say from the Dispatch Box today that that is the way things stand, thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party. The North/South Ministerial Council is responsible to this House and we will see that it will be responsible.

Racial Equality Strategy

7.   Ms Lo asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to give an update on the development of the second year action plan under the racial equality strategy.           (AQO 10/07)

The First Minister: I begin by welcoming the Member for South Belfast to her first Question Time. It is a considerable honour for the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Members to have among their number the first ethnic Chinese person to be elected to any national Government or Assembly in Europe. In that matter, Ulster again leads the way.

I would also like to highlight the fact that we very deliberately and consciously decided that our first event after devolution was to be a reception for people from minority ethnic groups and migrant workers. It was held in this Building on 9 May 2007 and was a clear signal from the Deputy First Minister and myself of our intention, and that of the Executive, to achieve racial equality and an inclusive society for our increasingly diverse community.

Mr Speaker, as you will be aware, the first year’s implementation action plan was published in late April 2006.

3.00 pm

Work is well advanced on the second year’s implement­ation action plan. At the request of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and other minority ethnic representatives, we are allowing additional time before publication for discussions to take place between minority ethnic representatives and Departments about departmental contributions to the plan. We are convinced that those discussions will lead to a more strategic, focused and long-term action plan for racial equality across all Departments —

Mr Speaker: I must advise the First Minister that Question Time for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is up. I remind Members that questions on the list that have not been reached will receive a written reply as soon as possible.

Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I indicated at the start that I would take no points of order during Question Time. I am happy to take points of order afterwards.

Agriculture and Rural Development

Single Farm Payment

1.   Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she will detail (a) how many farmers have not received their Single Farm Payment in total for 2005/2006, due to the duplication of fields; (b) the total amount of money outstanding; and (c) what course of action she proposes to resolve this matter, to ensure that farmers receive their outstanding payments.    (AQO 20/07)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As many will know, the duplication of fields issue is caused when more than one farmer claims the same piece of land for the same subsidy scheme. In 2005, that proved to be a problem mainly because farmers and landowners did not agree who should claim the land before they submitted their single farm payment applications. In 2005, there were nearly 3,500 duplicate field cases. The number reduced significantly in 2006, to around 500 cases. At this stage, 183 farmers have not received their single farm payment for scheme years 2005 and 2006 due to the duplication of fields. As those farmers have not responded to letters from my Department, we have been unable to process their claims and make payment. It is not possible for me to give the total amount of money involved as that depends on the outcome of any agreement on who has the right to use the land concerned to establish and activate single farm payment entitlements and on whether any penalties are involved.

Although I recognise the difficulties that such farmers face, I cannot intervene in such matters as it is up to the parties concerned to agree who has the right to use the land to claim the single farm payment. I encourage those involved to come to an agreement so that the Department can finalise the claims and release payment.

Mr Irwin: In several recent cases when the independent appeals panel that was set up to adjudicate between farmers and the Department has ruled in favour of the farmer, the Department has overruled the panel. That begs the question why we have an independent appeals panel whose decisions can be overturned by the Minister’s Department. Will she assure the House that any appeals panel decision in favour of the farmer will not be overturned by her or her Department?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Gildernew: The appeals procedure is designed to provide farmers with a second opinion in cases in which they feel that the Department has reached a wrong decision. After considering the facts of the case and the relevant European Community legislation, the panel comes to a view as to whether the Department has acted in accordance with that legislation and makes a recommendation to me and I make the final decision. I will generally accept the panel’s recommendation, but I cannot accept a recommendation that would result in a payment of European money outside the scheme rules as that would lead the Department open to disallowance by the Commission.

Mr Elliott: European Commission guidance given to me by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — if the Minister does not have it, I am happy to provide her with a copy — states that the “competent authority”, which in this case is her Department,

“takes the decision whether or not an error is ‘obvious’, and whether or not it should lead to any reductions or exclusions”.

In the light of that guidance, will the Minister give the House a commitment that she will review whether all those duplicate fields cases can be considered under the obvious error criteria?

Ms Gildernew: As I explained at the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I will look at the legislation and the restrictions on the Department again. I will certainly try to find a way around the problem but I cannot give the Member a definitive answer on what the outcome is likely to be.

Commercial Forests

2.   Dr McDonnell asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what assessment she has made of her department’s commercial forests, their profitability, and what plans there are for expanding the commercial forests of Northern Ireland.          (AQO 31/07)

Ms Gildernew: I met recently with senior Forest Service officials and discussed a number of forestry issues, and I visited Belvoir Park in the Member’s constituency. My Department has undertaken an extensive review of forestry policy resulting in the publication of ‘Northern Ireland Forestry: A Strategy for Sustainability and Growth’ in March 2006. A key theme of that strategy was sustainable forest management, which requires a balance to be achieved between economic, environmental and social objectives. In developing the policy, an economic appraisal provided objective evidence of the costs and benefits arising from the management of the public forest estate. It concluded that forests should contribute to the development of the rural economy, through timber production and by contributing to the quality of the environment and provision of public access.

The net operational cost of the forestry programme is about £15 million. That covers the full costs associated with sustainable forest management including commercial operations, social and recreational provision and the delivery of a wide range of environmental benefits. The forest service generates receipts of around £6 million per annum, mainly from timber sales. However, the largest monetary benefit from the forestry programme is an £18 million contribution to the economy through the value added by the wood-processing industry here. Approximately 1,000 rural jobs depend on the continued success of the forestry and timber-pressing sector.

The forestry strategy also includes a long-term aim to double forest cover over the next 50 years. The Department’s rural development plan is the primary vehicle through which funds will be made available to support forestry expansion. I will encourage the creation of a wide range of forest types, for example, traditional coniferous and broadleaf plantations capable of producing timber; new native woodlands in support of the biodiversity strategy and short-rotation coppice for conversion into woodchips, and I will encourage the use of wood in the production of renewable energy. The increase in forest cover and the substitution of wood for fossil fuel will contribute to Government policy on alleviating the problems of climate change.

Dr McDonnell: I congratulate the Minister on that answer, which was much more extensive than I had expected, and for getting to grips with this particular issue because I think it is important. However, has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in the light of the report, explored the possibility of exploiting EU set-aside land for agricultural purposes in order to expand the forestry programme perhaps more quickly, let us say in 25 years?

Ms Gildernew: We already have about 1,000 people involved in forestry management. I accept what Dr McDonnell says about set-aside land; obviously the Department and the industry are working to find ways to best use the land. However, the challenge for the Department is to find ways to ensure that there is some recompense for land that is put into forestry, and it will be seeking to identify land that could be used for forestry and that could increase our forestry cover.

I do not know where I will be in 50 years, but I would like to effect those changes in a lot less than 50 years. The Department will do everything it can to increase the forest cover.

Mr Shannon: I also thank the Minister for her reply. Forests have been called the “lungs of the world”. As the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is responsible for the trees in Northern Ireland, how effective has the replanting scheme been, and what is the Department doing to generate more interest in the scheme?

Ms Gildernew: With regard to replanting, there are a number of points that need to be covered. The forest programme, which includes afforestation and improve­ments in the overall performance of the industry, will assist in securing many benefits. For example, a recent investment of £30 million in a new wood-processing plant in County Fermanagh has put us ahead of our competitors. The investment provides increased efficiency in producing sawdust and timber, coupled with local generation of heat and electricity using timber residues to power the plant and produce wood pellets for commercial and domestic use. The Department’s work in managing the timber supplied from forests has been important in creating the confidence in the private sector to make that investment.

Replanting is also needed for reasons of recreation and biodiversity. The Department is considering such species as the hen harrier and the red squirrel, and is attempting to ensure that all elements of the forestry programme are covered, resulting in maximum benefit for everyone.

Objective 1 Status

3.   Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what plans her Department, as “rural champion”, has to fill the gap made by the impending withdrawal of Objective 1 status; and how rural community development opportunities will be maximised, both in her own budget and in EU funding.      (AQO 43/07)

Ms Gildernew: Negotiations are taking place with the European Commission for a substantial rural development programme, to be implemented over the next 6 years, with over £500 million of spend. That programme has four important priorities, the first of which concerns improving the competitiveness of agriculture and forestry. Our proposed measures will specifically target farmers by improving training and business practices, modernising farms and supporting those in less favoured areas.

The second priority is to improve the environment and the countryside by supporting land management through organic farming and woodland grant. Those measures will deliver real benefit to the countryside environment and will go a long way to helping us meet our European environmental and sustainable development obligations.

The third priority concerns improving the quality of life in rural areas and encouraging diversification of economic activity. There will be a suite of measures that will significantly support the whole of the rural community. Rural businesses and jobs will be created, tourism potential increased, and villages and towns regenerated. Basic services will be provided for the rural community, and our cultural heritage will be maintained and enhanced.

In addition to those significant opportunities for social and economic enhancement, there is provision for rural community development to be maximised, both through this programme and by way of the new Peace III and cross-border INTERREG programmes. Moreover, I have bid for funds to put in place a national rural community development programme which will provide further opportunities for capacity building and leadership skills in the rural community, including in particular the networks required to support the EU programme.

Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the Minister’s comments and commitment to rural communities. However, will she assure the House that she will sharpen up the practices in her Department? Under N+2, millions of euros had to be distilled through other Departments in order to meet the spending commitment, and her Department, as “rural champion”, has an obligation to assist potential applicants and to ensure that the money is spent where it was intended.

Ms Gildernew: It is something of which I am mindful. I want to see money spent, spent well and spent on time. There is no need to go on at length now; it is a priority, and I hope that we shall be successful in that objective.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Barry McElduff for a supplementary question.

Mr McElduff: I am not nominated for a supplementary in this instance.

Administrative Burden and Better Regulation

4.   Mr Burns asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what plans she has to reduce the bureaucratic and administrative burden on members of the farming community in their dealings with the department.          (AQO 36/07)

7.   Mr McHugh asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what work has been progressed on better regulation and simplification.   (AQO 49/07)

Ms Gildernew: Better regulation and simplification are among my top priorities. I am aware of the concern and frustration, felt especially by farmers, about the extent of the regulatory burden on the agrifood sector, and I have taken action to begin improvement. However, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is not alone in imposing such a burden on farmers. The Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment is a key player.

Therefore, I have agreed with the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, the terms of reference for an independent review to improve the way in which the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of the Environment operate to meet regulatory policy objectives and EU obligations, such that compliance by the agrifood sector is facilitated and the cost of doing so reduced. I have arranged for a copy of the terms of reference to be sent to the Agriculture Committee, and it can be made available to anyone who wishes to see it.

The review will cover the full extent of the regulatory controls applied by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of the Environment that impact on the agrifood sector. It will quantify the administrative burden that these regulations place on the sector and will embrace administrative processes, inspections and sanctions, and all associated documentation and interaction with agrifood businesses.

3.15 pm

When we met last week, I discussed better regulation with the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s representatives, and I invited them to assist the review panel by identifying the main areas of regulation that need to be reduced and simplified. Following on from that, the review panel should have meetings with farming, and other interested, stakeholders, as necessary, to hear, at first hand, their concerns and suggestions for improvements.

I expect the conclusions and recommendations of the review to be set out in a simplification plan, with a clear plan of action to reduce and simplify regulation wherever possible and sensible. I must be assured that the level of regulation and bureaucracy imposed on farmers is no more than absolutely necessary, and that it is delivered in a way that best allows the farming industry to get on with the business of farming.

An independent review panel will carry out the review, supported by a project team and a project management board, and I anticipate that it will take approximately six months to complete.

Mr Burns: In a reply to a written question from my colleague PJ Bradley, regarding the single farm payments, dated 24 May 2007, the Minister explained that 2,456 applications had not been finalised. That was approximately two weeks ago: what is the figure now?

As many of the outstanding claims relate to unintentional errors, will the Minister outline what plans are in place to differentiate between unintentional errors — however large or small — and proven fraudulent claims?

Ms Gildernew: I do not have the exact figure in front of me. The Department is working on improving the regulation and, as I outlined today and in the Assembly last week, we need more information about many of those claims, and we have asked the farmers concerned to contact us. We want people to help us to help them, and we need more information to finalise the outstanding claims.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for elaborating on the various issues in her answers. Probably the biggest difficulties that farmers face are farm inspections and resolving problems — intentional or otherwise — when they occur. In the future, I hope that the Department will not simply create jobs in policing and inspecting farms just for the sake if it. Can the Minister tell us when the review will actually start?

Ms Gildernew: The review will start as soon as possible, and the Department is keen to put the panel in place. The review panel will be independent of both the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of the Environment. We hope that it will complete its recommendations in about six months.

Farmers should expect be able to see benefits next year, and I will not stand over any official who wants to carry out inspections for the sake of it. To comply with EU regulations, any inspection that is carried out must be fit for purpose and must be necessary. There will be no further inspections than are absolutely necessary.

Dr W McCrea: Does the Minister not realise that there is tremendous frustration in the farming community because people do not see any progress, and Departments seem to be more concerned with satisfying and processing EU audits than in assisting farmers?

In light of the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s imaginative initiative on reducing agricultural bureaucracy, will the Minister first acknowledge that it is a major problem? Secondly, what steps is she taking to alleviate that problem, and when will the farmers see that the bureaucratic red tape has been removed to allow them to do what they do best, which is farming?

Ms Gildernew: The Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee knows that I concur fully with what he has said. He knows also that I have a great deal of sympathy for the farmers’ plight.

My father is a farmer, and I regularly hear of farmers’ frustrations from many people with whom I am in contact. Of course I will do all that I can to ensure that there is no more regulation than is absolutely necessary. The target is 25%, and, if I can, I will ensure that that target is met and passed, because I wish to do away with as much regulation as possible to simplify matters and free farmers to do what they do best.


5.   Mr McKay asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what plans she has to reduce the hardship for those farmers who lost cattle due to on-farm emergency slaughtered animals testing positive for alpha-nortestosterone.          (AQO 56/07)

6.   Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what she intends to do to resolve the range of problems associated with wrong conclusions reached following positive evidence of alpha-nortestosterone being found in casualty male animals presented for slaughter during 2006.   (AQO 25/07)

Ms Gildernew: The Department is required by law to remove any male bovine from the food chain that tests positive for alpha-nortestosterone, regardless of whether evidence of illegal administration has been found, and it is permitted to do so without incurring legal liability to pay compensation. However, in recognition of the fact that farmers have lost animals without any evidence of wrongdoing on their part, I have decided that all farmers who have had on-farm emergency slaughter (OFES) male animals condemned as a result of a positive alpha-nortestosterone test will receive a goodwill payment equal to the market value of the animal at the time of slaughter.

Hormone testing has reverted to normal arrangements since 28 March 2007. That means that only animals suspected by the official vet at the abattoir of having been administered an illegal substance will be subject to the full range of hormone tests required by EU law. Any male OFES animal that tests positive for alpha-nortestosterone will be removed from the food chain, and the owner will receive payment from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, provided that no evidence of illegal administration is uncovered.

I have also met with farmers who have been affected, and I have apologised for any disturbance or indignation that might have been caused by on-farm searches, particularly at the outset when the level of follow-up action was greater before the emergent evidence prompted a progressively reduced approach. Furthermore, I have undertaken to initiate a review of the handling of the alpha-nortestosterone issue, and to consider what lessons can be learned. The outcome of that review will be made public.

Mr McKay: Why did herd restrictions last so long? Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Ms Gildernew: Unfortunately, movement restrictions are an integral part of the action that is necessary when a positive result is found to allow a standstill period for follow-up testing to be completed.

Although the Department aims to remove herd restrictions as quickly as possible, when this issue first surfaced, the upsurge in new cases meant that the testing facilities at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute were stretched, and priority was accorded to testing samples from on-farm emergency slaughter animals at abattoirs.

Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answers, and I welcome the planned review of the 2006 debacle.

Nevertheless, I am disappointed that the Minister appears to be supportive of the official line on the matter, and I do not accept the word “goodwill” in relation to what should be termed rightful payments. I note the Minister’s apology, but does she agree that that is not a full apology without full payment for actual and consequential losses and compensation for the stress inflicted on many families, and that the so called ex-gratia payment could be viewed as an effort to save on the real cost of rectifying the legacy of the errors made by her Department?

Ms Gildernew: The goodwill payment will be made in respect of the condemned animals, and will reflect the market value at the time of slaughter. However, it is a mistake for the Member to say that I am giving the official line. The official line would have been that the Department was fully within its rights under EU law to not pay out. I have asked the Department to follow the route of giving money to farmers who have suffered a loss to cover an ex-gratia — or goodwill — payment.

The short answer on compensation for consequential loss is that it will not be forthcoming. The Department has done more than it is legally required to do, and most farmers will be happy to receive an apology, a goodwill payment and a review into the matter. I want to ensure that lessons have been learned, and that farmers’ situations have been considered.

Mr McCallister: Although I welcome the compen­sation and the apology, I must take issue with the Minister on this matter. I met one of my constituents at church yesterday, and he was not doing cartwheels of enthusiasm about the compensation on offer. Through no fault of his own, and through the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s incompetence, he has lost thousands of pounds and had his name blackened because his herd has been restricted. He has incurred additional feed costs through having to keep his animals in housing until June, having to let them out, losing condition on them and then having to accept the worst price. The Minister must re-examine this.

Mr Speaker: Does the Member have a question?

Mr McCallister: The Minister must do something about this matter.

Mr Speaker: That is not a question.

Mr McCallister: Will the Minister do something about this?

Ms Gildernew: Perhaps the Member should not be talking in church.

At the open forum of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, I was asked whether the Department would apologise. It has done that, and has gone a step further by giving a goodwill payment, which is just under £80,000. There will be a review to ensure that the Department learns from this. That is as far as I am able to go.

Business Rates

8.   Mr Burnside asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she will undertake to oppose any extension of business rates to farm buildings, which are currently exempt from this charge.   (AQO 1/07)

Ms Gildernew: I am not aware that there are proposals to extend business rates to farm buildings.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for that clear statement that she is not aware of any such proposals. Is the Minister aware, however, that HM Treasury is about to introduce business rates in England and Wales for farm buildings and agricultural holdings under the provision of council tax? Will she give a commitment to the House that there is no one in her Department negotiating or considering the extension of business rates to farm buildings or agricultural holdings in the Province?

Ms Gildernew: If such a proposal were to be put forward, I would, of course, consider it very carefully, taking into account the views of stakeholders. I would wish to ensure that any such proposal were subject to rigorous rural proofing. I would also want there to be careful consideration of the impact of such a proposal on farm businesses and to take account of the need to encourage diversification in the use of farm buildings. I can tell the Member that officials are not engaged in any review. Not for the first time, I am glad that we do not live in England or Wales.

Sea Anglers

9.   Mr Cree asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what effect the Marine Bill White Paper, ‘A Sea Change’, may have on sea anglers in Northern Ireland.   (AQO 52/07)

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. The Marine Bill will have no effect on sea anglers here, as the proposals to establish a chargeable licensing scheme and introduce powers to impose bag limits apply — again — to England and Wales only.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her reply. As she will be aware, the consultation ended on Friday 8 June 2007. I would like to know whether her Department has had any communication with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on the issue.

Ms Gildernew: I have no plans to introduce chargeable licensing for sea anglers here. The stakeholder proposals for sea angling focus on the commissioning of a study to investigate the value of sea angling to the local community as well as the effective promotion of sea angling as a valuable and sustainable way of using marine resources. Stakeholders also wish to see improved angling infrastructure and the protection of sea-angling stocks. I have been talking to the industry, and there is no desire to introduce chargeable licensing here.

Planning Policy Statement 14

Mr Speaker: Mr Willie Clarke is not in his place, so I call Mr McElduff.

11. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what assessment she has made of the impact of ‘Planning Policy Statement 14: Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ on the rural community; and what discussions she has had with her colleagues on the Executive regarding this issue.      (AQO 38/07)

Ms Gildernew: The Member will be aware that Policy Planning Statement 14 (PPS 14), ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development (DRD). As Minister designate, I met with a broad range of rural stakeholders in order to hear their views on PPS 14. It was clear to me at that meeting that there is a strong level of public feeling on that subject and that the planning restrictions are having a significant effect on many rural dwellers. For many people in rural areas the policy has been extremely restrictive and has had an adverse effect on their quality of life: I share that view.

3.30 pm

Culture, Arts And Leisure

Football Offences Act

1.   Mr B Wilson asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what plans he has to commence a consultation on legislation equivalent to the Football Offences Act in Great Britain, as promised in ‘A Shared Future: First Triennial Action Plan 2006-2009’           (AQO 26/07)

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): Primary responsibility for leading consultation on legislation equivalent to the Football (Offences) Act 1991 in Great Britain rests with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) under the Northern Ireland Act 2000. I can confirm that Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) officials have been working closely with NIO officials on the development of proposals on the intro­duction of new public order offences in Northern Ireland similar to those in the Football (Offences) Act 1991. I will shortly be considering those proposals and plan to discuss them with the NIO Minister responsible for that area.

Mr B Wilson: I welcome the Minister’s response, and as a regular spectator at international matches at Windsor Park, I welcome the improvements that have been made by the Irish Football Association (IFA) in recent years to eliminate sectarianism and hooliganism. However, there is still a problem that must be tackled, particularly as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) is getting much more strict about that sort of conduct. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 identifies an offence of crimes aggravated by religious prejudice. That should be considered as a basis for new legislation. Will the Minister discuss that with the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr Poots: The proposed legislation deals with pitch invasion, the throwing of missiles, offensive chanting — which has already been mentioned — the control of alcohol, ticket touting and the need for banning orders similar to those that exist in Great Britain.

Mr Hilditch: Some tremendous work has been carried out by the IFA recently, through the Football for All programmes such as Give Sectarianism the Boot and Give Racism the Boot. Does the Minister believe that the Northern Ireland Office has been obstructive towards introducing legislation?

Mr Poots: I, too, acknowledge the work that the IFA has done on that. We should also acknowledge the work that has been done by the amalgamation of the official Northern Ireland supporters’ clubs, which was awarded the Brussels International Supporters’ Award in September 2006 for its efforts to stamp out sectarianism in the game. This is not exclusively a matter for legislation. It is a matter that can also be dealt with by other means. I would not go as far as to say that the NIO has been obstructive in where we are at present. However, DCAL is very willing to work with all bodies, including the NIO, for the introduction of the legislation.

National Stadium

2.   Mr Burnside asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to distance himself from all decisions relating to the location of a national stadium on the Maze site.        (AQO 2/07)

Mr Poots: None.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for a short answer. That is excellent. The Minister will have learned by now that the location of the Maze stadium is contentious, not least because of the proposal by some to have a commemoration of terrorism and criminality enshrined in the stadium. Does the Minister agree that, with the different views from the GAA and the football associations, soccer and rugby union, there is a need for a truly independent financial feasibility study before it is finally decided, once and for all, where the national stadium should be? Because the Minister has a vested interest in his own constituency, will he not be seen to be partially involved in the decision-making process if he does not set up an independent inquiry?

Mr Poots: I am not sure where the Member has been. The independent feasibility study took place and was completed in March 2005, when Angela Smith announced that the stadium would be sited at the Maze. After the independent feasibility study — I understand that the Member perhaps had other things happening in 2005 that may have clouded his knowledge of current issues — the decision was made by others, and we will examine the issue as a full business case. If the figures stack up, the matter will proceed.

Mr P Ramsey: The Minister is clearly aware of the current level of interest in the Maze project and that the project was discussed at the previous three meetings of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. Will he give a commitment to retain the Maze consultation panel to enable it to give a presentation and an appraisal of its findings and to answer questions on how the decision on the site was reached?

Mr Poots: The panel is not the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure; it is the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I understand that that office has stood down the panel.

Maze Prison

3.   Mr S Wilson asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how much his Department has spent on the Maze Prison to date. (AQO 42/2007)

National Stadium

5.   Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether his Department is in possession of a comprehensive business plan in relation to the proposed national stadium at the Maze.        (AQO 61/07)

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 3 and 5 together.

Given that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure does not have responsibility for the Maze/Long Kesh prison, to date it has spent no money on it. Up to the end of the previous financial year, the Department had spent a total of £879,392 on the development of proposals for a multi-sports stadium at the site of the former prison.

In response to Mr Beggs’s question, my Department, in conjunction with the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), is in the process of finalising a business plan for the proposed multi-sports stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site. That plan is being developed with the support of the governing bodies of the three sports that have agreed, in principle, to participate in the project.

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Minister for the assurance that his Department has spent no money on the promotion of what many people see as a shrine to those who committed suicide in the Maze Prison in the 1980s. Will he also give an assurance that no money will be made available for that project in future and that his Department will not lobby the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for money for any such project that most people in Northern Ireland would consider obnoxious?

Mr Poots: The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will deal exclusively with proposals involving the stadium. Any other issues will fall within the remit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I have every confidence that that office would not wish to establish a shrine at the Maze site or support any proposal that would be offensive to victims of the Troubles or would rub their noses in it. I will leave that matter with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Mr Beggs: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s remarks. The full cost of the stadium ought to be disclosed because each part of the project will have implications for the other parts. Will the Minister ensure that the Maze business plan will be fully transparent and that a cost breakdown will be provided? What is the latest cost of the stadium, the H-block shrine, the motorway slip roads and the potential railway spur? What is the full cost of the project, not only to his Department, but to other Departments? Who will be responsible for any cost overrun and the annual running costs? Other stadiums, such as the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, have faced those costs.

Mr Poots: We are working on a full business case for the overall plan and site. That business case will be completed in the autumn. I will therefore not be able to answer questions such as those that the Member asked until then. I assure the House that when that information becomes available to me, and after the Departments have had an opportunity to analyse it, it will be made available to Members and the public for their perusal.

Attendance at Sporting and Cultural Events

4.   Dr McDonnell asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what sporting and other cultural events he plans to attend over the next four weeks.      (AQO 33/07)

Mr Poots: Since taking up the portfolio of Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I have attended nine sports events and 22 cultural and arts events. Those events have taken place in 12 constituencies. I intend to continue that commitment, and I plan to attend three sports and 14 cultural and arts events over the next four weeks.

In addition, I intend to represent the Department and Northern Ireland at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington.

Dr McDonnell: I congratulate the Minister on his first Question Time and wish him well in his post. I also congratulate him on his intention to attend the Smithsonian festival.

Mr Kennedy: Is he going to the Twelfth?

Mr S Wilson: Are you, Danny? [Laughter.]

Dr McDonnell: I shall leave that to the Minister’s discretion. I presume that that may be one of the cultural events that he has listed to attend.

Is the Minister aware that all sporting bodies are delighted that he is in post as a devolved Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure? Will he endeavour to attend as many events as possible and meet the hopes and expectations of as many people as possible? There is a big expectation — for people have high hopes that devolution will result in much more energy and investment in sporting and cultural events here.

Mr Poots: It is useful to recognise the contribution that sport makes to our community’s well-being. As the Minister with responsibility for sport, I want to support those people who are engaged in sport. I shall exclude nothing and will deal with each invitation as it comes into my office.

Mr Moutray: Does the Minister have any plans to meet his counterparts in other elected jurisdictions?

Mr Poots: Yes. I hope to meet Tessa Jowell in the not-too-distant future. As yet, no other meetings with other Ministers have been arranged.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister value the contribution made to sports development, and wider society, by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)? Is he aware that this coming weekend will see the biggest single cultural or sporting event in the province of Ulster with the match between Tyrone and Donegal in Clones? If he were so inclined, would the Minister welcome an invite to the game?

Mr Poots: As I have already said, all sports make a significant contribution to the well-being of society. I do not seek to be exclusive; nor should others seek to be exclusive by saying that only one sport is doing a good job. All sports are doing a good job. I have not received an invitation to the game, but I will deal with each invitation as it comes. I have, however, made it clear that I do not intend to attend any events held on a Sunday, as that is a day that I spend with my family.

Funding for Arts and Sport

6.   Mrs M Bradley asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the approach he will take to mitigate the reduction in funding available for the arts and sport, resulting from the prioritisation of lottery spending on the London Olympics.        (AQO 58/07)

Funding Applications from Voluntary  and Community Projects

12. Mr Armstrong asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what assessment has been made of the possible impact of increased Big Lottery funding for the 2012 Olympics on potential funding applications from voluntary and community projects.     (AQO 57/07)

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall take question 6 and question 12 together.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is making bids for funding as part of the comprehensive spending review 2008-11 in order to support the development of sport and the arts. Those bids will take account of reductions in funding that have resulted from the prioritisation of National Lottery spending on the London Olympics.

The Department is also making bids for funding for sport and the arts under the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2008-18. Lottery funding is additional to Exchequer funding. Although the Department will seek to address the shortfalls in lottery funding for arts and sports, it is necessary to bear in mind that other competing priorities exist.

The Big Lottery Fund has made a public commitment that provides forecasts of lottery income. Those forecasts are maintained. Current programmes will not be materially affected by the diversion of funds to the Olympics. The fund has advised that its undertaking to provide 60% to 70% of its funding to the voluntary and community sector will be unaffected.

In Northern Ireland, the 60% to 70% commitment to the voluntary and community sector will mean that the Big Lottery Fund will invest a minimum of £60 million in the voluntary and community sector between 2006 and 2009. Furthermore, the Big Lottery Fund has committed to extending that undertaking to the period 2009-13 and will protect, in cash terms, the amount that would have been paid to the voluntary and community sector in that period at the levels of funding that the fund expected to deliver before the diversion in funding to the Olympics.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister outline the infrastructure and geographical spread of centres of excellence and new provision?

Mr Poots: Absolutely. One of the first events that I attended as Minister was in Strabane in West Tyrone. I also attended two events in the Member’s constituency of Foyle. The most recent amount of money that was awarded was more than £2 million, and further money will be going to that constituency.

Perhaps the Member wishes some other constituencies to have a bite of the cake, with not as much going to Foyle. We will have to see how that pans out.


Mr Storey: What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that Northern Ireland hosts its fair share of Olympic events in 2012? Is he aware of the centenary of the famous gold-medal win by Mr Kennedy Kane McArthur from Ballymoney, which coincides with the 2012 Olympic Games? Will the Minister ensure that his Department does everything to celebrate that centenary?

Mr Poots: I hope that the Department can give support for that centenary.

The Department secured £53 million from the first investment strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI 1) for the Olympic Games, and that funding is up for distribution. One of the first elements of that distribution will be the announcement of the location of the 50-metre pool in Northern Ireland. There is a significant number of applications for that funding. The funding will provide a tremendous boost for sport in Northern Ireland. It will enhance sporting venues in Northern Ireland and, in conjunction with the sports strategy for Northern Ireland, it will significantly improve the opportunity for sport to move forward and for top-class sportspeople from Northern Ireland to compete at the highest level.

Ulster-Scots Learning Site

7.   Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to make a statement on the Ulster-Scots learning site commissioned by the Ulster-Scots Agency; and on whether this represents value for public money and highest academic standards.   (AQO 17/07)

Mr Poots: The Ulster-Scots learning site was com­missioned by the Ulster-Scots Agency from Stranmillis University College to develop curriculum and teaching materials for primary and secondary schools and adult learners. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) conducted an inspection of the unit in 2006 and concluded that the quality of the work is good and that it fulfils the terms of its remit well.

Mr McCarthy: I am disappointed in the Minister’s response in that it did not inform the House of the cost of the site. I understand that the cost — and he can deny it if it is not true — was £1 million for a website that has been a single idle page for over a year. Does the Minister regard that as good value for money?

Mr Poots: I cannot confirm Mr McCarthy’s figure of £1 million for a single-page website. I will look into the matter, but I very much doubt that it is an accurate figure.

Mr McCausland: The Minister’s answer on the involvement of Ulster Scots in the curriculum illustrates the progress that is being made in relation to Ulster-Scots language and culture. Can the Minister tell the House when the current proposals from the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group (USAIG), which were submitted to the Department in August 2006, will be put out to consultation?

Mr Poots: It is my intention that the consultation will be launched before the summer recess.

Ulster Orchestra

8.   Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to state what resources have been made available to the Ulster Orchestra to organise workshops in schools and colleges. (AQO 45/07)

Mr Poots: The Arts Council of Northern Ireland provided the Ulster Orchestra with revenue funding of £1·925 million in 2007-08. That funding is towards core costs and includes the salary of an education officer, whose work includes organising workshops, concerts and master classes in schools and colleges and major education events.

Mr Dallat: Will the Minister undertake to ensure that adequate resources are made available so that the Ulster Orchestra has the funding to organise workshops in schools? Will he accept that an appreciation of music is the right of everyone and that there is a chill factor when it comes to classical and orchestral music? Will the Minister further ensure that children from different social backgrounds have an opportunity to appreciate the music of the Ulster Orchestra?

Mr Poots: It would be impossible for me to assure the Member that every child will have the opportunity to participate in workshops and performances by the Ulster Orchestra. However, I am confident that as much as possible is being done, within the limitations of available resources, to encourage and support closer association between young people and the Ulster Orchestra. It is a question of educational resources, for which my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning are responsible.

With the impending roll-out of the revised statutory curriculum, it is a matter for individual schools to decide which programmes and resources they should use.

Mr Ross: Does the Minister agree that access to Ulster Orchestra workshops should be available to all schools?

Mr Poots: Ultimately, the Ulster Orchestra provides a superb outlook for Northern Ireland. The quality of the music is second to none. The opportunity for educational purposes should be used as much as possible. I encourage my departmental colleagues to examine that issue.

Mr Speaker: Question 9 has been withdrawn and will receive a written answer.

Ulster Grand Prix

10. Mr Craig asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether he would consider additional funding for the Ulster Grand Prix, given the additional £150,000 allocated to the North West 200 by the Secretary of State. (AQO 3/07)

Mr Poots: Decisions about funding for motorsports events, including the Ulster Grand Prix and the North West 200, are, in the first instance, a matter for the governing bodies for motorsport, as represented by the 2&4 Wheel Motorsport Steering Group Limited (2&4 Wheel MSG). I understand that, to date, the 2&4 Wheel MSG has received no formal application for additional funding — similar to that received from the organisers of the North West 200 — from the organisers of the Ulster Grand Prix.

I should point out that the £150,000 allocated by 2&4 Wheel MSG this year was not exclusively for the North West 200. Approximately £50,000 was spent on venue improvements, and £100,000 was used to purchase safety equipment, which is currently held by 2&4 Wheel MSG and is available for use at other motorsports events including the Ulster Grand Prix.

Mr Craig: What measures does the Minister intend to put in place to ensure the long-term future of this event, which is one of the most prestigious in the Province?

Mr Poots: This is first and foremost the responsibility of the organisers of the Ulster Grand Prix. However, I can confirm that DCAL, Lisburn City Council, 2&4 Wheel MSG and the organisers of the Ulster Grand Prix are discussing securing the long-term future of the event.

Waterways Ireland

11. Mr Gallagher asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure when he expected work on the new headquarters for Waterways Ireland to commence; and to indicate the number of staff expected to be employed there in the future.          (AQO 28/07)

Mr Poots: Work commenced on the site of Waterways Ireland in April 2007. The building is designed to accommodate 81 members of staff.

Mr Gallagher: I am grateful to the Minister for taking Question Time so smoothly and moving it on so quickly to this point. Many of us thought that we would not reach question 11 today.

The investment that the Minister mentions, as well as the work that is under way, is a very significant development — particularly for the jobs and the economy of the border area. Furthermore, it represents a big step forward for all-Ireland co-operation. Does the Minister plan to build on the extension of the North/South waterways?

Mr Poots: A paper was tabled at the Executive meeting of 7 June on the subject of restoration of the south-western section — namely, Upper Lough Erne to Clones — of the Ulster Canal, and possible funding sources. We are very well aware of the significance attached to this cross-border project, and we are currently considering the available options.

Lord Morrow: What is the Minister doing about the difference in pay of those employed in Waterways Ireland?

Mr Poots: Differences in pay between some staff members in the North and their counterparts in the South have arisen for several reasons. The chief executives of the North/South bodies have raised concerns about the pay and conditions of service of their staff. These are complex issues, and the North/South Ministerial Council joint secretariat, in consultation with its sponsor and finance departments in both the Northern Ireland jurisdiction and in the Republic of Ireland, is considering them with a view to agreeing a possible response.

Non-indigenous Languages

13. Dr Farry asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what plans he had to expand the consultation relating to the Irish language to deal with the needs of users of the principal non-indigenous languages in Northern Ireland.          (AQO 15/07)

Mr Poots: The consultation on draft clauses for Irish language legislation arose from a commitment by the British Government in the St Andrews Agreement to introduce an Irish language Act.

My Department’s current remit with regard to considering language legislation in Northern Ireland is, therefore, specifically in relation to Irish.

The policy regarding non-indigenous languages in Northern Ireland is being taken forward by the race forum, lead by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. My Department is chairing the race forum’s thematic group on language. That group is currently preparing a report on how to reduce the inequalities faced by the users of minority ethnic languages in Northern Ireland when accessing public services.

Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he recognise that the users of the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages are essentially seeking to have their cultural aspirations protected through legislation? Will he also recognise that there are a large number of people in Northern Ireland who are speaking non-indigenous languages and have difficulty in accessing services through limited language skills, and who would benefit from having legislation in place to ensure that all public bodies, including those that do have good practice and those who do not, have a consistent approach to ensure that all sections of the community can access services, and that they are not denied them because of limited language skills?

Mr Poots: Legislation does not have to be introduced to identify priorities and difficulties. In that respect, my Department has spent over £1·1 million on language translation in 2005-06. Of that £1·1 million, around £70,000 was spent on Ulster Scots and Irish, and the rest was spent on minority ethnic languages. There is a strong indication that there is a far greater demand for translation from the ethnic communities than there is from the indigenous languages.

Mrs I Robinson: Does the Minister have any evidence from his Department’s consultation on the Irish language legislation to show that there is cross-community support?

Mr Poots: My officials are currently analysing the responses to that consultation. I understand that there is a strong diversity in the responses, and it may be difficult to establish cross-community support.

Mr Speaker: Ms Anna Lo and Mr Thomas Burns are not in the Chamber. I call Mr Francie Brolly.

Irish Language Legislation

16. Mr Brolly asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure if, following the consultation on the Irish language legislation, he will enact it without delay, as referred to in the St Andrews Agreement.            (AQO 7/07)

Mr Poots: The consultation on draft clauses for Irish language legislation closed on 5 June 2007, and my officials are analysing the responses received.

There were a high number of responses — somewhere in the region of 11,000 individual written responses. The Member will appreciate that in the circumstances it will take some time to process those.

Mr Brolly: How much need was there for a consultation in the first place? The question of the Irish language is about a right. This is the only part of these islands that does not have legal protection for the indigenous language. Surely what is good enough for the Scottish Gaels and the Welsh is good enough for us here in the Six Counties?

Mr Poots: According to the Member’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who was speaking a few minutes ago, that is not the case. Northern Ireland has its own issues and has its own way of doing things. The consultation process is now closed. However, there is a history of Ministers not abiding by the responses of consultations as the sole means of taking an issue forward — academic selection is a case in point.

I will look at all the issues involved. Along with rights go responsibilities, and those include financial and fiscal responsibilities. All of the issues will be investigated, and I will report back to the House, probably in the autumn, with a decision on the matter.

Mr Speaker: That concludes this afternoon’s Question Time. We will now return to the item of business interrupted at 2.30 pm.

Assembly Business

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for revisiting the issue, but the temperature is very high outside.

Can a ruling be made on the matter of wearing a jacket in the House? It is simply a matter of custom and practice, which does not appear in Standing Orders. Where does the protocol come from? I would appreciate it if you were to investigate that matter further and report back to the Assembly. I have asked my colleague, Gerry McHugh, to raise this matter in the Committee on Standards and Privileges. There is strong feeling among some Members that when the temperature is high, not just in the Chamber but outside as well, that it should not be an absolute requirement to don a jacket in the House.

4.00 pm

Mr K Robinson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, earlier, I observed that Mr McElduff was improperly dressed in the Chamber. This afternoon, his sartorial elegance enhances the case for Members to wear jackets in the Chamber.

Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can there be clarification on the length of time that a Member or Minister has to speak during Question Time? Lengthy questions and answers eat into the time that is available. Are there any restrictions?

Mr Speaker: The first matter has been raised in the House on a few occasions. I intend to discuss it further with the Business Committee and bring an answer to the Assembly.

On the second point of order, it is not for the House to decide how a Minister answers a question: that is up to Ministers themselves.

Mr P Ramsey: Further to Mr McElduff’s point of order, Mr Speaker, you will recall that I raised the same question earlier. In the absence of flexibility on the convention, a proper air-conditioning system should be installed in the Chamber.

Mr Speaker: That suggestion has already been made in the House. It is hoped that, during the summer recess, the problems with heating and acoustics in the Chamber will be dealt with.

Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The code on Members’ dress states what men should wear in the Chamber but makes no reference to women at all. Perhaps that is because of the great confidence there is in women’s ability to dress correctly. If the code is to be reviewed, however, perhaps that matter should also be examined.

Mr Speaker: I am sure that when it considers appropriate male dress, the Business Committee will also consider appropriate female dress in the House. That is also important.


Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill to Northern Ireland. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

Mr Speaker: We must return to the business that was suspended at 2.30 pm.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension of the provisions of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill to Northern Ireland.

Supply Resolution for the  2007-08 Main Estimates

Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on the Supply Resolution for the 2007-2008 Main Estimates. The Business Committee has placed no time limit on the debate. However, the Committee has agreed that the proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to speak. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Donaldson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify for the benefit of the House your guidance on the time limits for speaking in the debate? Is it the case that the Minister will be curtailed to 10 minutes, but that other Members will not have a limit placed on them?

It would be regrettable if the Minister were curtailed in his remarks, when other Members were not.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee deliberated on that for quite a while. It was agreed that the Minister would get 10 minutes to move the motion, all other Members would get five minutes, and there is to be no restriction on the Minister when winding up.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move

That this Assembly approves that a sum not exceeding £7,079,776,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Foods Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008; and that resources not exceeding 7,922,535,000 be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Foods Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008.

I seek the Assembly’s approval for the spending plans for 2007-08 as set out in the Main Estimates volume that was laid before the Assembly on 31 May.

The resolution is proposed under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make proposals to the Assembly leading to cash appropriations from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. In doing so, I act on behalf of the Executive, which has adopted the financial allocations for 2007–08 as set out by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland before the restoration of devolution.

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

Although not ideal, it is the most pragmatic and sensible way of ensuring the continued and uninterrupted provision of public services. The underlying financial allocations have been known to all relevant organisations for some considerable time and have been used in preparing the operating plans of those organisations and the deployment of staff and other resources.

Although the spending plans do not necessarily reflect where I would like us to be at this stage, and although members of the Executive, individually and collectively, will wish to review the plans against their own priorities, it is important that we acknowledge the financial allocations that we have inherited for this financial year.

The key point is that the budgetary allocations to Departments have been in place since January and have been used to further allocate budgets for this year to health trusts, education and library boards, agencies and other public bodies and to support other logistical issues associated with the planning and delivery of public services.

Changing those plans or simply creating uncertainty in them at this stage would have material and possibly detrimental implications for underlying core services. Departments have temporary statutory authority to spend money on public services based on the Vote on Account that was authorised at Westminster in February 2007, but that will begin to run out from the end of July. Therefore the Assembly needs to pass a Budget Bill before the summer recess to ensure that money can continue to flow into public services for the rest of this financial year.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel has confirmed that since there has been appropriate consultation on the spending plans in the motion, the Budget Bill may be given accelerated passage.

The Executive will have an opportunity to review spending plans during this financial year, particularly taking into account any emerging flexibility through the normal in-year monitoring process. Any reallocations of funding will be made in accordance with the Executive’s emerging priorities rather than those used by the previous direct rule ministerial team.

The main purpose of today’s motion, therefore, is to seek the Assembly’s approval for the use of resources by Northern Ireland Departments and certain other bodies for the year ending 31 March 2008. The resources sought are summarised in the Main Estimates volume that was placed before the Assembly on 31 May 2007.

The motion also seeks the Assembly’s approval for the issue of cash from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund for the 2007-08 financial year as detailed in the Main Estimates. The amounts of cash and resources covered by today’s resolution are additional to the Vote on Account that was passed at Westminster last February. That Vote on Account amounted to approximately 45% of the total provision for the previous financial year.

It has enabled funds to continue to flow to public services during the early months of this year, until the Main Estimates, which are before Members today, could be considered and approved.

Once the amounts set out in today’s resolution are added to the Vote on Account, the total cash and resources for which approval is sought will amount to some £12·1 billion and £14·1 billion respectively. In considering the issue, I remind Members of the significance of the Supply resolution for which approval is sought. The resolution is the basis upon which the Assembly authorises the expenditure of Departments and other bodies in carrying out their functions.

One of the Assembly’s fundamental responsibilities is to authorise expenditure and hold Departments and other funded bodies to account for the use of that money. The Supply resolution, once approved, is a precursor to the Budget Bill (Northern Ireland) 2007, which I will introduce later today. Subject to the approval of the Assembly and the Bill’s achieving Royal Assent, which will enable it to become law, the Supply resolution will provide the formal legal authority for Departments to incur expenditure for the remainder of this financial year.

The Supply resolution is based upon the following plans for expenditure. Allocations for the 2007-08 year were first set in the course of the 2004 Priorities and Budget process. At that time, proposed allocations for 2007-08 represented the third year of a three-year Budget, which covered the period 2005-06 to 2007-08. Allocations for the two latter years were subject to reconsideration and revision by direct rule Ministers in the course of the 2005 Priorities and Budget process.

That process involved the publication of draft proposals in October 2005, followed by a period of public consultation. Those plans were due to be reconsidered in 2006 as part of the planned 2006 Priorities and Budget process. However, following the UK Government’s decision to postpone the 2006 spending review and, instead, initiate the 2007 comprehensive spending review, the local process was similarly postponed. That was on the basis that the 2007-08 year had already been reviewed twice, and in the absence of a national spending review, no additional resources would have been made available for the year in question. Hence, any review would have been extremely limited in scope. Instead the plans, as published in 2005, were subject to marginal changes by the Secretary of State in January of this year.

Although I have highlighted that a consultation process on the spending plans in question took place, Members will agree that such future consultation will be materially enhanced by the presence of devolved Ministers in all Departments, supported by the Assembly and its Committees in developing, scrutinising and prioritising future spending proposals.

In that regard, I draw Members’ attention to the distinction between today’s process, which reflects spending plans for this year, and the work, which has already started, on developing spending plans for the next three financial years.

A key component of that work will be the consideration and development of a Programme for Government, the vehicle by which the Executive will determine their strategic priorities over the coming three years. Financial allocations for 2008-09 and beyond will underpin those priorities as the Executive seek to address the key challenges facing Northern Ireland.

The Programme for Government will be an important document that will set frameworks, both for the Budget allocations to Departments, and the plans contained in the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland. The Executive plan to publish draft versions of the Programme for Government, the Budget and the Investment Strategy for full consultation in September.

The detail of departmental spending plans is set out in the Main Estimates, of which Members have copies. I do not, therefore, propose to go through that material in any detail, although I will endeavour to answer questions that Members may have. Members will appreciate that I will be unable to respond in detail to specific queries. In such cases, where appropriate, I will ask the relevant Minister to issue a written response.

I wish to clarify one issue: the Executive’s decision not to proceed with the introduction of charges for water and sewerage services in this financial year will, as Members are aware, have a cost of up to £75 million.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made provision for that cost in the context of our ongoing engagement on the composition of a financial package for the Executive. At this stage, however, that provision has not been built into the Main Estimates and associated Budget Bill, which reflect the opening position for the financial year. Provision for the cost of that issue will be contained in the Supplementary Estimates and related Budget Bill to be brought to the Assembly later in this financial year.

4.15 pm

In summary, it should be noted that the Estimates and associated Budget Bill set the framework for departmental spending in 2007-08 and reflect spending plans initially determined by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Looking ahead, the Executive are to commence work on the development of a Programme for Government and associated spending allocations for 2008-09 and beyond. The Executive and the Assembly will be able to reflect better their own priorities in the context of that process.

I recognise that the process for seeking Assembly approval is not ideal and, in particular, that the underlying spending plans have not previously been considered by Members. However, that is a consequence of the fact that the devolved Government was restored after the start of the current financial year and several months after budgetary allocations to Departments and public services were announced and put in place by direct rule Ministers.

The restoration of the Assembly has presented us with an enormous opportunity to deliver a better future for everyone and to provide the excellent public services that the people of Northern Ireland expect and rightly deserve. For the longer term, we have the opportunity to establish our own priorities through a new Programme for Government, underpinned by detailed spending plans and a longer-term investment strategy. In the future, that will enable us to take forward a strategy to strengthen the local economy, encourage investment by making Government more responsive and alert, and improve and enhance our infrastructure.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Senior Department of Finance and Personnel officials briefed the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 16 May 2007 and 23 May 2007 on the subject of the Main Estimates and the associated Budget Bill that gives legislative approval to the Estimates to be introduced by the Minister later today.

The Main Estimates and the Budget Bill represent part of the culmination of the annual Budget process, which would normally have involved the Assembly and its statutory Committees in several consultative stages. The Executive have already adopted those financial allocations, which were originally set out by the direct rule Administration. As the Minister of Finance and Personnel has said, that is not ideal, but it is a sensible and pragmatic approach for dealing with that reality.

The timing of restoration presented an unusual situation in that the devolved Administration inherited a direct rule Budget in which Departments had already committed resources allocated for this financial year. At this juncture, there is no scope for the Assembly to effect changes to the departmental spending plans for the current financial year, as the Budget for 2007-08 has already been agreed.

Previously, and during the first functioning Assembly mandate, the underlying spending plans were brought forward in the Main Estimates and reflected the position established during the budgetary process, which would then have been subject to Assembly consideration and approval. During the first mandate’s annual Budget process, statutory Committees had the opportunity to consider departmental position reports on the following year’s Budget and on the subsequent Executive’s position paper that followed. A draft Budget would normally be presented to the Assembly in the month of September and put out for public consultation. That would have provided an additional opportunity for further input from the statutory Committees. The Assembly would then consider the finalised Budget in December of that year.

We are some way down the line already in respect of the 2008-09 Budget, for which this Assembly is responsible. Although departmental position reports will not be published this year, the process of budgetary preparation is taking place in the Departments, and I encourage the Assembly’s statutory Committees to engage with their respective Departments on that matter. A draft Budget will be presented to the Assembly in the early autumn. I also encourage the statutory Committees to consider their Departments’ contributions to the draft Budget as a high priority after the summer recess.

We also need to return as soon as possible to an annual financial process that gives the Assembly and its Committees maximum opportunity to scrutinise and contribute to the Budget preparations. That will greatly enhance the consultation process, and, I believe, the buy-in. I thank the Minister for his commitment to that.

Members should also be aware that the Assembly and its Statutory Committees can have some limited input to the reprioritisation of resources in the current year via the in-year quarterly monitoring rounds and that supplementary estimates will have to come back to the Assembly after the in-year monitoring round process has been completed. That is not ideal, but it is an outcome of the timing of the return of the devolved Administration. The Finance and Personnel Committee will constantly engage with departmental officials and the Minister to maximise the opportunities for full and meaningful consultation in the future. I support the motion.

Mr Beggs: I appreciate that the Executive and the Assembly have inherited the expenditure proposals from the previous direct rule Administration and that there is limited room for manoeuvre or for increasing the proportions of the Budget to different Departments. Departments and other public bodies received their initial allocations long before now and have made their plans accordingly. To change proposals at this stage would cause significant problems.

Financial decisions are being taken against the background of the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review, and indications are already emerging that future departmental expenditure in the rest of the United Kingdom will be tight. That will follow into Northern Ireland by way of its future block grant allocations through the Barnett formula. Therefore there will be an increasing need to prioritise and to make what will sometimes be difficult choices.

I was hoping to see some additional new moneys and financial announcements alongside the Consolidation Fund following the Chancellor’s so-called “package”. The following quotation is from the Finance Minister’s election manifesto:

“… it is essential that an incoming Executive has the necessary resources to make a difference to people’s lives. This will require a financial package for Northern Ireland.

We have made it clear that resolution of this issue is a precondition for establishing devolution. Northern Ireland will never have a better opportunity to make up for the decades of underinvestment during the Troubles or to help us compete economically with the Republic of Ireland.

Without such a package, Northern Ireland will face the prospect of massive local taxes, being economically uncompetitive and lacking the funding for essential infrastructure.”

He presented that to the people, but I am questioning what has been delivered. I was expecting additional financial announcements following the discussions with the Chancellor.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: No. I have got a lot to get through, and I wish to make my points uninterrupted please. I will take questions when I come to the end.

Following the election, and prior to devolution, the First Minister designate even threatened to prevent devolution if the package was not of sufficient value, and he was seeking £1 billion. He made it clear that that was what he wanted. What were the details of the package? Why are Members not hearing about how £1 billion — or at least a significant portion of it — can be spent in this financial year?

On 22 May, I tabled a question for written answer to the Finance Minister asking him for details of the value of the Chancellor’s package. I was disappointed that he merely directed me to the Library where he had placed a copy of the speech that the Chancellor had made in the House of Commons. I was aware of the contents of that speech, but I was hoping to learn something more from the Finance Minister, but no light was shed on the subject.

Everyone in Northern Ireland accepts that the Chancellor was applying smoke and mirrors with his statement, and no one could ascertain the exact worth of the package or its value.

Michael Smyth, who is a respected economist in Northern Ireland, recently wrote an interesting article in the ‘First Trust Bank Economic Outlook and Business Review’ magazine. In it, he stated that:

“Closer scrutiny of the UK Government’s ‘peace dividend’ package of £1bn shows that it contains £400mn pledged by the Republic of Ireland (RoI) Government,”

Therefore, of that total, there was no new money from the British Exchequer. Michael Smyth went on to write about:

“£200mn of accelerated public asset disposals,”

When public assets are sold off, it is possible to reinvest those treasures in other useful capital projects. Therefore, that is essentially a slight acceleration of the sale and return of moneys that Northern Ireland would always have been entitled to.

The article refers to: “£200mn of end-year flexibility”. When capital projects are entered into and contracts are made, it is normal practice that, provided the project is committed to in one financial year, they are allowed to be passed on.

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

Mr Beggs: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I thought that mention had been made that there were no time limitations during this debate. Could that be clarified?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Each Member has five minutes to speak.

Mr O’Loan: It is a fact that there will be very little room for manoeuvre in this year’s Budget. Ministers will feel a sense of frustration, as they will want to deliver new thinking during this financial year, but they are going to be subject to significant constraints.

Members are aware that we are inheriting a Budget from direct rule Ministers. We are also aware that it has been largely committed to Departments and to agencies. Furthermore, because of underspending in the past, the practice now is to over-budget by approximately £150 million. Therefore, that amount of money will have to drop out of the spending plans to make the Budget balance. More work is required to make Budgets that work and are deliverable in the time indicated.

As the Minister said, this is the final year of a three-year spending round, and a big effort is required to deliver on targets to which commitments have been given. That is another factor that is creating pressure this year. The Assembly and all of its Committees should be considering that issue and demanding that commitments are met. Many Government reforms that will deliver savings in the long run need to have money spent on them now — it is important to spend in order to save. However, it will be hard to stick to that, as a lot of pressure exists. Nonetheless, in order to get public sector efficiency enhanced in the longer run, that should be treated as a priority.

The public should be made aware that there is a big programme for delivery this year, but that it will be largely along the lines that have already been drawn. Like others, I was struck at election time by the number of complaints that I received from people who were disappointed by aspects of the front-line delivery of the Health Service. Those complaints did not come only from users of the Health Service, but from front-line health professionals. The most basic areas, such as respite care, are inadequate, and that is placing an intolerable burden on families and on carers.

The condition of our rural roads is appalling — many of them can rightly be described as Third World. Indeed, Third World was the term that was used by my colleague, John Dallat, to describe the railway line near Cullybackey that buckled in the heat last weekend. Translink openly admitted that the cause was underinvestment and that there was a need to upgrade. That basic lack of quality in our infrastructure is unacceptable.

The community and voluntary sector plays a vital role in our communities — it is crying out for structured support, clarity and the ability to plan. We have an education system that has high achievements but also has unacceptable weaknesses. Those issues must be addressed, as must the skills deficit in the economy.

The issue of affordable housing has been highlighted in the Assembly, and the Minister for Social Development has made that her first priority. Social housing is in need of a large building programme, and the Minister has said:

“give me the money and I will build the houses.” — [Official Report, Vol 22, No 5, p 134, Col 2].

The public rightly has high expectations of the Assembly and expects serious planning to take place during this year for initiatives that will be rolled out in the next few years. The focus is already shifting to the next three years and the UK-wide comprehensive spending review. That will be the first time in 10 years that such an exercise has taken place. Due to efficiency exercises coming on-stream, there should be some flexibility in that process, and we look forward to that.

Along with the programme for 2007, let us show that we plan to tackle people’s concerns.

4.30 pm

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In an attempt to keep the House breathing, is it possible that someone could attend to the air condition­ing? If not, I may start to agree with Mr McElduff.

Mr Deputy Speaker: We have asked that the air conditioning be checked. May I request that the door behind us be left open, even though it is not customary for it to be? It is warm in the Chamber.

Dr Farry: There is acceptance on these Benches that this Budget is entirely the legacy of direct rule Ministers. Indeed, 45% of the Budget has already been approved in the Vote on Account. Therefore the Alliance Party will support the motion in line with its responsibility to ensure that services can continue in Northern Ireland.

That said, for the sake of future public-expenditure plans, we should take the opportunity to consider several critical economic and financial issues that arise out of the Budget. First, Northern Ireland is in an unsustainable financial position. The Main Estimates rely on a subvention approaching £7 billion from the British Exchequer. That equates to almost half the public expenditure in the Budget. Although it is right and proper for the wealthier regions in any nation to subsidise the poorer ones, the scale of the subvention to Northern Ireland is at the extreme end of the scale.

That points to the relatively small nature of our local tax base. Another way in which to look at the problem is to examine the public-sector share of gross domestic product (GDP). The Department of Finance and Personnel’s draft regional economic strategy puts Northern Ireland’s public share of GDP at over 70%. That figure is well out of line with most Western European social democracies and, historically, with some communist states, never mind with the rest of the world. The situation has worsened rather than improved since devolution in 1999. A better understanding is needed of the interaction between public expenditure and the potential for our private sector, particularly on the problem of “crowding out”. Some radical thinking is required on how to finance Northern Ireland better than has been done in the past.

To date, conventional wisdom has been that the Executive’s role has been to wrest as much money from the Treasury as possible, or, at the very least, to maintain an iron grip on current allocations. That approach has continued throughout the current efforts to secure a financial package for Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party strongly supports the concept of a financial package for Northern Ireland. It is important to give a new devolved Administration the chance to deliver. However, there are dangers in trying to garner more and more funds, only to apply them in the way in which we currently provide public services.

It is critical that any injection of additional funds be linked to a series of reforms. A financial package must be based on the concept of “invest to save”. Investment in the right areas can make Northern Ireland more sustainable. There are many inefficiencies in Northern Ireland’s public finances. The Minister has already accepted the need to reach 3% efficiency savings right across the public sector. Last week, the Committee for Finance and Personnel discovered that 12% of last year’s finance budget went unspent and now forms part of an end-of-year finalisation. That is a figure in excess of what should be the norm for any Department.

The Alliance Party has already highlighted the annual cost of about £1 billion that is involved in managing a divided society. That is not a flight of fancy from the Alliance Party but a serious issue. OFMDFM has regarded the matter seriously enough to spend tens of thousands of pounds of public funds on commissioning detailed research into the problem. Society has a choice: to continue to manage a divided society and incur the opportunity costs that go with it; or, over time, to redirect those resources into shared and better public services for all.

Some Members have been quick to pour cold water on our suggestions. Others have been sceptical about how quickly such funds could be released. The problem is real and creates a major distortion in our economy — it needs to be addressed. The Alliance Party has never said that it is not a major challenge to release those funds, nor that they can be released over a short period. Indeed, some additional investment in the short term, perhaps as part of a genuine financial package, may be required to change the pattern of service delivery that will unlock those greater resources. It is critical that those considerations be taken on board in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. To put it bluntly, I have heard little appreciation from Ministers about the urgency of doing that.

I am also concerned that Workplace 2010 is proceeding on the basis of continuing the existing spatial provision of services without considering the opportunities for building a shared future.

The Alliance Party believes that it is important that the Executive sets targets for making Northern Ireland more financially sustainable. We cannot just take a simplistic approach and focus solely on economic reforms ahead of social reforms; we also need to make fresh investments in public services such as free personal care for the elderly. Both processes must take place in parallel. Our proposals on free personal care were placed within the context of the comprehensive spending review. Budgets cannot be fixed in any society; as circumstances and demographics change, there will be a need to reprioritise within public expenditure. Some budgets will rise and others will need to be reduced.

The Chairperson of the Audit Committee (Mr Newton): I advise the House that, as required under section 66 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Audit Committee has approved the Estimate of the expenses for the Northern Ireland Audit Office for the year 2007-08. The Estimate — for £8·8 million — has also been scrutinised by the Department of Finance and Personnel, as required by the Act, and by the Public Accounts Committee. Furthermore, during the period of suspension, the Estimate was also examined and approved by the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster.

The Audit Committee examined the Estimates at its meeting on 7 June, to which the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland was invited. Before the Committee approved the Estimate, it examined a number of key points, including the increase in the Estimate since last year; the capital costs associated with office refurbishment; and the growing demands on the Northern Ireland Audit Office, such as increased demand for information technology systems audits. After being questioned in some detail on the Estimates, the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff were able to convince the Committee that the amount requested was prudent and would enable the auditors to deliver their key services and outputs.

In the autumn, the Audit Committee will meet the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the NIAO’s corporate and business plans. The Committee will also undertake a review of the expenditure and pressures on expenditure early in 2008. That will enable us to be fully prepared to undertake a thorough scrutiny of the Estimate for 2008-09.

I take this opportunity to thank the Deputy Chairperson and members of the Audit Committee for their help in the scrutiny of the Estimate.

Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom labhairt maidir leis an mholadh seo. To meet the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the objective needs requirements of the St Andrews Agreement, a key objective of public expenditure must be to contribute to changing the patterns of disadvantage and to tackling inequality. Such patterns have been comprehensively documented in Government statistics and reports.

The criterion required to discipline the expenditure of the respective Departments and the overall expenditure of the Executive, all Departments, public bodies and agencies is as follows: they must show due regard to the potential impact that their policies, programmes and projects may have on changing existing patterns of disadvantage and tackling inequality. Unless such a systematic approach to public expenditure is taken, the current patterns of exclusion and inequality will deepen. Not only would that be against the agreed policy and legal commitments of the Executive and the Assembly, but it would be inefficient and counterproductive, given the necessary linkage between building prosperity and tackling exclusion.

Responsibility for measuring expenditure on policy options against such requirements and in the context of data provided by the Government’s own reports should already be the daily practice of Departments, but that is clearly not the case. It is not enough to add aspirational but tokenistic anti-poverty language and commitments to existing spending patterns. Do the existing expenditure patterns effectively tackle the problem? That is the question that needs to be answered.

If we are serious about what we are doing, then it is insufficient and incompetent not to know the answer. New Deal is the cornerstone of the current anti-poverty strategy, and current figures show that only 13% of Catholics and 18% of Protestants got a job after being on the New Deal programme.

Moreover, the programme is specifically not working in areas with higher levels of unemployment and disadvantage such as Derry, Strabane and north Belfast. Why are we spending money on a programme that is not working where it needs to be working and that is not producing results in the areas of greatest disadvantage?

The answer given last week was that New Deal is a national programme — I am sure that the British Minister Gordon Brown would not be pleased by that very poor excuse. He wants the money to be spent well, and so do we. We should be looking at how all public-procurement expenditure can integrate economic and social requirements. It is perfectly possible to work out how that can be done in practice because it is about effectiveness, efficiency, and using existing money to best effect.

Each policy, programme or project must have specific, measurable, realistic and time-bounded objectives that will address disadvantage and tackle inequality. There needs to be a public, transparent process of recording impact and change, including the honest recognition of failure, combined with the identification of corrective action. There should be a full interdepartmental perspective and the removal of any silo culture in delivering results.

The assessment of impacts and future actions should be published annually, at least, with a requirement to report the widest participation, particularly of marginalized groups, in setting objectives, future actions, and timetables.

Addressing current patterns of economic and social disadvantage is the essential connection between building economic prosperity and tackling social inclusion. Unless policies and expenditure are required make that connection primary and measured, existing patterns will continue to replicate, and the gap between the prosperous and the poor will continue to widen.

The Budget affords the Minister and the Executive the opportunity to ensure that expenditure plans should operate in that way. Members should not be asked to agree Budgets simply to extend current patterns: we must understand how public expenditure is going to be restructured to change existing patterns of disadvantage and tackling inequality. I ask the Minister to explain how he intends to promote the necessary restructuring. That is not difficult to do, and it should be have been done already.

Of course, it is always the case that additional moneys are required to effect changes, but my point is that unless the core spending of Government is restructured according to these requirements, rather than simply adding aspirational words to existing ways of doing business, then the patterns of disadvantage and inequality will continue to worsen. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I wish to advise Members that although I have asked the staff to look at the heating, the temperature is still rising and it is still very hot in the Chamber. Members may remove their jackets if that is more comfortable and I will still call them to speak.

Mr Weir: I will endeavour not to raise the temperature in the Chamber any further.

The debate has been constructive. Although all parties acknowledge that this Budget is essentially following on from direct rule, I have yet to hear any party indicating that it will oppose the Budget, and I think that is a responsible position.

Members who have been in the Assembly since 1998 will know that it is important that, through the budgetary process, and during the lifetime of this Assembly, we learn from the mistakes of the past. Over the next few years, the budget process will be vital to the success of the Assembly. Many Members who sat through various suspensions — when Stormont was effectively put on ice — were greatly struck by the fact that there was no great public outcry or demonstrations on the streets when the Assembly was suspended in 2002. For the most part, people did not see it as being sufficiently beneficial to their lives.

One can point to several exceptions to that, notably free public transport for the elderly and the warm homes scheme that DUP Ministers implemented. However, for the most part, people did not see enough positive benefits to their lives.

4.45 pm

If we, as an Assembly, are to bring benefits to people’s lives, we cannot simply replicate what was put in place by direct rule Ministers. The key challenge will be to change budgets in order to provide —

Mr Beggs: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it right that a Member should repeat an incorrect assertion? The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister allocated the money for the introduction of free transport?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. The Member will resume his seat.

Mr Weir: The electorate is well aware of where the impetus for that measure came from and has shown time and again its views on the DUP.

If we are to make a difference to people’s lives and justify the Assembly’s existence, we cannot simply repeat what has gone before. However, it is important that the Assembly takes a responsible attitude towards doing that. I, along with others in the Chamber, could point to many worthy projects that need support. For example, I could point to the lack of social housing in North Down, or the lack of funding in the South Eastern Education and Library Board, which, because of the draconian cuts imposed by the previous Minister, has left many people feeling vulnerable. I could point to the need to progress the Queen’s Parade project in Bangor, which may be familiar to Members and which needs the Department for Social Development’s support.

We could all point to examples, and, as can been seen from some of the motions that have been proposed, it would be easy to spend the entire block grant two or three times over on good projects. Most of them, if individually applied, would meet with no objection in the House. However, that would not be responsible Government.

The electorate will not thank us, in the long run, for heaping up a mountain of unfulfilled spending promises. Consequently, it is important that we do not respond with the knee-jerk reaction of trying to create adjustments to the Estimates of the previous Budget.

The Minister and the Executive have taken a responsible course of action to ensure that we can carry forward the established Budget. If we simply make wild adjustments, we will not fulfil our mandate to the people.

This is clearly a direct rule Budget, as the Minister said, and the adjustments that will need to be made — either as a result of negotiations with the Chancellor or because of some of the Executive decisions that have already been taken, for example the postponement of water rates for this year — are not contained in these Estimates, because to start tinkering with them at this stage would be extremely foolhardy.

I look forward to the Executive and the Assembly having the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives through future Budgets. We are constrained at present, and we have acted sensibly in proposing these Estimates and, therefore, I support the motion.

Mr Cree: I understand that this debate is a matter of procedure, and the Minister referred to that. We are already well into the current financial year, and the Departments are using the Budget.

We could all rehearse arguments to further our favourite interests, but that would be a waste of time today. However, the Minister also mentioned the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, which will apply for the next three years, and it is useful to set this Budget in that context. We already know that the review will be tight for the UK as a whole and for Northern Ireland in particular.

The background was very different during the first Assembly. Annual rates of growth in public spending were in the region of 3% in real terms, allowing for inflation. We may now face significantly lower rates than that, perhaps 1%, in real terms at best.

Spending for each person in Northern Ireland is 28% above the UK average. Public spending a head as a percentage of regional GDP in 2004-05 was 66% in Northern Ireland, 51% in Scotland, 49% in Wales, and the UK average was 41%. Public sector employment as a percentage of total employment in 2005 was 30% in Northern Ireland, 24% in Scotland, 23% in Wales, with an average of 20% in the UK. Therefore we have a great deal of catching up to do.

Hopefully, there will be more scope to change our Budget next year. However, Members can today only accept the figures that were set under direct rule. At the end of the summer, we will begin the Budget preparations for 2008-09. That Budget should emerge from the Programme for Government. It will have a limited number of overarching priorities that will guide departmental spending plans. Members must ensure, through the various Committees, that the process that is adopted allows for accountability. The establishment of priorities is crucial, given that financial resources are limited.

Members must be realistic and allow for investment to promote growth for the future. Innovation and human capital should be priorities. It is not acceptable that the regional economic strategy will change from only 80% of the UK average to 80·5% by 2015. Real growth must be created. Some people, including the Secretary of State, have pointed to the fact that Northern Ireland requires £5 billion to £6 billion of subsidies from Her Majesty’s Treasury. Surely, it is normal for richer regions in a national fiscal and monetary union to transfer money to poorer parts of the kingdom. Wales, in which Mr Hain’s constituency of Neath is situated, and Scotland also receive considerable subsidies.

It is curious and unimaginative for the Treasury to propose that the way to cut the subsidy is to raise taxation here by, for example, reforming rates. Surely, the way forward is to reduce the burden of taxation on businesses through rating, corporation tax and fuel duty, thus increasing economic activity and, hence, revenue.

Finally, I wish to refer to the economic package — the empty economic package. Other Members have made much play of their negotiating skills. In this test case they have failed miserably. There is little real growth in the level of spending in the package. In detail, the Executive are being allowed to do what they would have been able to do anyway — create efficiency savings, sell assets and have year-end flexibility. There must be an adequate economic package to allow the Assembly to take Northern Ireland forward on a sustainable basis and to not be handicapped from the outset.

Mr P Ramsey: My contribution will not be too long.

Will the Minister make the decentralisation of Government jobs across the regions through Workplace 2010 as high a priority and give it the same encourage­ment as the previous Minister of Finance and Personnel? Will he do so to ensure the better distribution of employment opportunities?

I will refer to the funding crisis in the arts, culture and sports. The Minister may ask why, but I am discussing it because there is a need for a cross-departmental strategy to deal with those matters. In Northern Ireland, £866 a head is spent on those who are in receipt of sickness benefit. Yet, only £1 for each person is spent to encourage participation in sport. Those figures indicate that the Assembly is not doing enough to encourage such participation. One can imagine, particularly if there were greater participation in sport, that the health problems that people experience in their later years would be reduced. Presently, only 30% of the Chief Medical Officer’s targets are being met. That is a particularly low figure, and it is damning that the Assembly does not adopt a more holistic approach by targeting social need across the board. A key element of such a strategy should be that women, young children and adults have access to facilities. For example, a creative way to achieve that would be to introduce free swimming for older people and primary-school children.

We have to examine the issue in a wider context. The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee has already agreed a joint motion, to be proposed by Paul Maskey and me, that will look at the underfunding of sport and the arts. It is clear and obvious to everyone that there is a significant problem there. In Northern Ireland, we spend £6 per head of population on art and culture. Wales and Scotland spend twice as much, and the Republic of Ireland nearly £14 per head. We spend only £4 per head on sport — that is awful. Some of the other regions are spending two or three times that amount. How can we expect to achieve the higher targets recommended by the Chief Medical Officer if we do not allocate enough money?

It is obvious that in the areas of art, culture, sport, delivering social development programmes, economic regeneration, a vibrant tourism industry, increased participation — even though the figures are down — and, particularly, the creative industries that are attached to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Northern Ireland is advancing at a much faster rate than England. Why, therefore, if we are using culture as a means of employment, can we not put more money into it? I encourage the Minister of Finance and Personnel to bring in creative approaches. We are talking about something that is long term; we are talking about obesity; we are talking about encouraging greater participation in sport.

The overwhelming view of the people is how well art, culture and sport are placed in every community across Northern Ireland. Therefore, we have to find a better way so that the disparity of funding between those sectors is removed. In order to achieve that, we need all the Ministers — Health; Education; and Enterprise, Trade and Investment — to put in place a strategy that is fit for purpose and that will enable the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee to accelerate the plans that are ahead. That is only right and fitting for a modern society.

I appeal to the Minister, along with his colleagues, to give the matter careful consideration. Even though there is going to be an inquiry into underfunding, it is more important that we take the lead, pulling together all the Departments, to decide on a holistic approach to make Northern Ireland a better place.

Mrs I Robinson: I, too, recognise that the Executive are already committed to pursuing the spending allocations agreed by the direct rule Administration for the incoming year. However, I want to raise two points that I hope the Minister and the Executive will take on board in their considerations for the future. One of those is in the area of mental health. There is a lot of work to be done to lift mental health higher up the Northern Ireland political agenda. Statistics show that the prevalence of mental-health problems in Northern Ireland is 25% higher than in England. However, the share of the health and personal social services budget that is spent on mental health in England is 11·8%, compared to 9·3% in Northern Ireland. To match the English share, spending on mental health in Northern Ireland would have to be increased by 26% or £60 million, based on the 2003 figures.

It is now possible to estimate the cost of not promoting mental health. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, estimated that the total cost of mental illness to the Northern Ireland economy was £3 billion in 2002-03. According to the World Health Organization, more than 19% of the total burden of disease in western European countries is attributable to mental illness, compared with 17% for cardiovascular disease and 16% for cancer. It found no other health condition responsible for more than 8% of disease.

The other issue that is very close to my heart is free personal care for the elderly, which the Assembly had the opportunity to discuss only a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, the Alliance Party seemed to be trying to imply that it was the only one rooting for free personal care.

The truth of the matter is that we all wanted to introduce free personal care, but we knew that there were restraints in the Budget. In old Assembly, we had to take the difficult decision to proceed with free nursing care alone.

5.00 pm

Many, if not all, elderly people in the Province paid taxes and National Insurance in the belief that when they were old and in need, perhaps due to disease or disability, the state would readily assist them. Like the 1999 Royal Commission report on long-term care for the elderly, we recognise that people can reasonably be expected to meet certain costs.

The Royal Commission divided the care issue into a number of categories, with living and accommodation costs identified as the type of costs to which people could reasonably be expected to contribute. However, the commission said that nursing and personal care costs should be met out of general taxation.

Our senior citizens deserve the right to retain their independence, pride and self-esteem, and the right to be able to continue living in the area that they have made their home. However, we must pay careful attention to the costs involved, and I say that as someone who is determined that free personal care be introduced in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Scottish Executive have introduced free personal care for the elderly, and we can learn much from the Scottish experience. An economic analysis of the introduction of free personal care in Scotland shows that the policy has cost more than expected. For example, in 2002-03, it cost £127 million rather than the anticipated £107 million. Similarly, in 2003-04, £143 million was spent rather than the expected £125 million. Furthermore, a report of the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee anticipates that a major increase in the number of people aged 85 and over may lead to a tripling of the public cost of personal care by 2053.

There are numerous important matters for which there are strong cases for increased investment from the Executive, but I wanted to highlight the two areas that I feel need particular consideration. Money for those areas would have to be ring-fenced, when the Minister gets round to being able to identify additional moneys in the short to long term.

Mr Hamilton: I do not know whether the Estimates came from this Assembly or whether they were inherited from the direct rule period. However, when I look at them, I am reminded of the financial limitations within which Northern Ireland operates. Looking through the weighty 350-page Main Estimates document, I am sure that we can all agree that we would love to see a bit more money spent here and there.

The comparison of the Estimates versus our experience on the ground is that there is a need for more targeted resources in certain areas, coupled with public-sector reform. That is only natural, but shifting around public funds comes with consequences — a fact that seems to have been lost on some Members. Indeed, to listen to some Members, one would be forgiven for thinking that there is an endless pot of gold somewhere in Stormont into which Ministers can delve when they like. Sadly, that is one of the many legacies of decades of direct rule.

For far too many years, public representatives in Northern Ireland have enjoyed the luxury of being able to criticise any and all direct rule decisions that they did not like without having to do anything about it themselves. That inevitably that led to a laziness, which — if the debates in the Chamber over the last few weeks are anything to go by — will take a lot longer to shift in some Members than in others. When asked for alternatives, all too often the response, if any was given, was simply to spend more money.

We cannot, as some would have it, simply wish away problems with a vote in this Chamber — if only. There is a legacy of underinvestment in public services that we have been tasked to overcome, and there is a temptation to immediately undo the damage of direct rule. However, no one’s interests are best served by the politics of the blank cheque when what is required is a reality check. We must exhibit more fiscal responsibility than has heretofore been the case. In fact, I have been struck by the absolute lack of it in certain corners of the Assembly since devolution day.

The Assembly must start to learn the fiscal equivalent of Newton’s law; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In somewhat simplistic terms, for each additional item of expenditure in one area of public policy, there must be an equal reduction in expenditure elsewhere in the Budget.

That harsh reality of public finances in Northern Ireland means that those who advocate willy-nilly commitments of expenditure on a whole raft of items must say where they would make cuts.

Northern Ireland operates within a fairly rigid revenue raising system. It receives a block grant, the amount of which is set elsewhere. The only real revenue raising mechanism available is a rise in the regional rate. In the past, public representatives have rightly opposed raising the regional rate by nearly 20% under direct rule, yet a fortnight ago, a majority of Members voted for a provision that would have resulted in a 25% increase in the regional rate.

However, other options are available that are perhaps less politically painful, more palatable and potentially more fruitful. One particularly important option is to address the efficiencies in the Government. The Minister of Finance and Personnel spoke in the House some weeks ago about how the proposed efficiency targets of 3% per annum for each Department over the comprehensive spending review period will free up £790 million of additional spending power by 2010-11. He also said that a modest increase, of around half a percentage point, in those efficiency targets could result in an additional £120 million being raised each year. In comparison, it would take approximately a 60% increase in the regional rate to raise the same amount. There is a compelling argument for increasing the efficiency targets and making more money available for the Executive to spend on the issues that the Assembly prioritises.

I have not yet mentioned the potential millions of pounds worth of savings that could be made from trimming back on the sheer size of government in Northern Ireland. That is a job that I hope that the new Assembly and Executive Review Committee will tackle with gusto as there are benefits from introducing more effective and efficient government to Northern Ireland, and extra resources could be realised for front-line services. Through the responsible management of our public finances rather than populist publicity grabbing, we can build for the long term in this country. I am heartened by the attitude and approach adopted by the Minister in his first few weeks in office, as many people outside Stormont also are, because the sustainable system of government that everyone longs for is achievable only through sound and strong fiscal stewardship.

The Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Kennedy): This will be the last time that I will address the Assembly as Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre. By popular support, the Committee will change its name tomorrow. [Interruption.]

One lives in faith; one dies in expectation.

The motion is an important sign that devolution is finally in operation with the Executive producing what is effectively its first Budget, albeit that it bears a distinct similarity to the one inherited from direct rule Ministers. In the normal course of events, much of this debate would have taken place when the Assembly was con­sidering and agreeing the Executive’s Budget last December, but it is well known what the position was then.

Assembly Committees are well aware that they had a limited opportunity before the motion to get to grips with the functions, priorities and budgets in the Departments that they are expected to scrutinise. That limited opportunity has therefore made it difficult for the Committees to make a considered evaluation or judgement of how the Estimates provide for the Northern Ireland Departments, their agencies and sponsored bodies. However, from a constituency point of view, all Members are aware of public expectations of what this and future Budgets will deliver.

Although I am reluctant to accept the Budget, it is a done deal. I understand that the Executive have had limited opportunity to shape and provide their own Programme for Government and Budget, and therefore I must accept that. In its first meetings, the Committee of the Centre has focused on examining the functions, priorities and budgets of the main policy directorates of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). That has been a useful exercise for the Committee and has highlighted the wide range of priorities for which OFMDFM is responsible. Many of the Committee members have expressed concern about allocations in the new Budget to parts of OFMDFM and its sponsored bodies, and the Committee raised a number of questions with the Department on the Estimates for this year.

Those included concerns with the planning appeals system in particular. Other members of the Committee, who have spoken earlier or who have yet to speak, may wish to highlight matters at a later stage.

Assembly Committees must recognise, as the Executive do, that not all strategic priorities are within the Departments that they scrutinise. Committees must avoid the potential for the silo mentality — an accusation that we, as politicians, have made of various Departments in the past. It is therefore important that Assembly Committees co-operate and share information when examining priorities and Budgets in future years.

The Committee of the Centre will carefully monitor how cross-cutting policies for which it has responsibility, such as the Government’s Lifetime Opportunities strategy on tackling poverty and social exclusion, are being resourced and supported by OFMDFM and the major-spending Departments. In the longer term, my Committee will seek an early consultation on the OFMDFM priorities and Budget for 2008-09 onwards. The Committee will also undertake targeted scrutiny of departmental business areas and sponsored bodies. We will be keeping a close eye on how successful OFMDFM is at managing its own budget.

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will attend the Committee of the Centre on 20 June 2007. The Committee hopes to hear more from them about the emerging priorities for the Executive that will be included in the next Programme for Government and Budget. It is critical that we start now to examine the draft Programme for Government and draft Budget for 2008-09. There will also be a restricted period in which to consult the public and get their views on the revenues to be raised through the regional rate and water charges, if they are to be introduced.

Lord Browne: I congratulate my right hon Friend the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the way in which he has taken to his portfolio and the way in which he has conducted business in the Chamber today, and elsewhere, over the past few weeks.

I support the motion. However, I will touch briefly on the need for caution and prudence when almost £8 billion is spread around the various statutory agencies, including the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland, Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland and others.

Every Member could cite, and many already have, areas and projects in and around their constituencies that could benefit greatly from an increase in the Budget allocation — not to mention the various departmental Committees on which they now sit. No matter the issue, it seems natural that Members should seek more than the funds allocated. However, we do not have a bottomless pit of resources — far from it. With legislative restrictions on what can be taken from the Consolidated Fund under The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, and limited ability to raise further moneys, with all the difficulties that that may cause, every Member has a responsibility to act maturely and logically when considering the first Budget of the new Assembly.

I welcome the Minister’s public warning to respective Executive Members and others that the Assembly needs to be wary of supporting high-costed proposals without considering the financial implications. If constituents are dreading any further increase in the current rate levels, and if they are already feeling the pinch of interest rate rises and so on, the last thing that the Assembly should consider is supporting proposals that could inevitably lead to a 25% to 30% rise in the regional rate.

I conclude in the hope that financial Bills, and their outworking, are met with a level of mature realism that should ensure that the Assembly is not embarrassingly committed to huge overspends and unrealistic expectations.

5.15 pm

Mr Ford: The Assembly is in an interesting position. All parties in the Chamber have highlighted that. Everyone says that change is needed but that it is impossible in 2007. The Minister has been given the most extraordinarily easy ride. I suspect that during debates on the comprehensive spending review (CSR) and future Budgets he will have a more difficult task to deal with. Even DUP Back-Benchers may not be so well behaved.

That surprising unanimity is inevitable in the peculiar circumstances in which the Assembly finds itself — with no choice but to accept the direct rule Budget for 2007. However, all parties are looking towards the CSR in the autumn and future needs. There has been a lovely mixture of thoughts such as, “Will we need to be careful and not increase taxation?” alongside, “Here is the pet scheme for my constituency that will get me a good headline in my local paper this week”. The Assembly must ensure that it identifies potential savings as well as future expenditure. Although the debate is on the Supply Resolution for 2007-08, the issue being discussed is actually the CSR. The Assembly is already looking ahead.

In that context, I want to clarify for certain Members of the DUP that when the Alliance Party referred to free personal care in a recent debate, it specified that the topic should be dealt with in the CSR and not immediately. Indeed, when my party proposed an amendment to the Health and Personal Social Services Bill in 2002, it made clear that that was an enabling proposal intended for when the money became available. The Assembly needs to be realistic and acknowledge that the £50 million cost of personal care, compared to £750 million on the regional rate, is somewhat less than 25%. If the money were taken in that way, the cost would amount to just 6% or 7%.

It is critical that the Assembly begins to invest to save and to invest for the future. The Minister highlighted that he seeks to make efficiency savings of 3%. That is crucial. However, if progress is to be made, those efficiency savings cannot be made in the traditional way — by making changes of 3% to the way that every Department operates. That is why the enormous cost of segregation must be dealt with. It is the elephant in the room that many Members are reluctant to acknowledge and that the Ulster Unionist Party seems to believe does not exist at all.

The direct costs of segregation must be dealt with. Policing is not part of the Assembly’s budget at present. However, there are other direct costs.

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Taking into account the time that I have left and the record of the party to which the Member belongs, I am afraid not.

The Assembly must examine the serious issue of duplication of services: for example, despite more money being spent per capita on education, less is getting though to classrooms than in any other region of the UK. If such issues are not dealt with, there is no point in tinkering around with efficiency savings of 2% or 3%. Changes must be made to the way that services are delivered that will ensure that there is value for money throughout Departments and that that 30% overspend on education will be eliminated.

The huge costs of lost opportunities that arise from segregation must also be recognised; for example, the loss of tourism, foreign direct investment and other major problems that have occurred because of the difficulties in our society. If there is to be serious engagement with efficiency, those costs must be eradicated. The issue is not about where efficiency savings of 3% can be made but of the vast amount of money that is wasted on the cost of segregation.

Members are aware that there is to be yet another round of regional rate increases that are above the rate of inflation. If the Minister can ensure that those increases can achieve value for money, he must also ensure that the excessive costs that must be treated as a priority in 2007 are not left for the future. So far, there has been relatively limited value for money from the Chancellor’s economic package. If progress is to be made, more must be done to reduce the waste and excessive spending of our own resources. Perhaps then the Assembly can go to the Chancellor and ask for the additional money that is needed to invest in and build the shared future that will benefit society and the economy.

Mr Shannon: I congratulate the Minister on a definitive report on the amount of money that is available for spending, and where that money will go. Those funds will be spent in a very positive way.

I wish to highlight a couple of issues of particular relevance to my constituency, but also to many others. The Minister of Education indicated last week that some £30 million would be set aside for the classroom assistants’ wage settlement, which we hope will be finalised in the near future.

The Finance Minister has set aside some money for education, which in turn has been set aside by the Minister of Education. I urge the Education Minister, Caitríona Ruane, despite her absence, to settle the dispute with the classroom assistants so that they can get on with the job that they are good at. They play an invaluable part in educating students every day. That dispute must be settled. It is not enough to pay lip service to a deal, which could lead to wage reductions or loss of pay protection, according to the classroom assistants. I ask the Minister to ensure that that settlement happens.

I also wish to draw attention to the Education Department’s underfunding of some schools on the Ards Peninsula. I welcome the promise of new builds, in particular for Ballywalter Primary School and for Glastry College, in which I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors. Glastry College has a remit for education in mid-Ards and it throws its net wide in the number of pupils that it draws from Ards and further afield. Although money has been requested and designated for those schools, I hope that the new builds take place very quickly, unlike the case of Regent House, which took 10 years.

The Ards Peninsula is experiencing a boom in the number of people who move there, and it is not necessarily only elderly people who come to enjoy its tranquil coasts — young people come as well. Therefore, there is a demand for education, and that is why I raised the cases of Glastry College and Ballywalter Primary School.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the trees lining the road on the approach to Parliament Buildings are not money trees, but the Minister has provided us with a very clear idea of the amount of money that is available. For that, we should be grateful.

Sometimes, it is necessary to speculate in order to accumulate. That is true in relation to tourism, particularly in the Strangford area and the borough of Ards. Tourism in those areas could be exploited more, as could the advantage that we already have with Exploris in Portaferry and the Mount Stewart gardens and stately home. Also coming to the fore is the Battletown Gallery just outside Newtownards. Those are attractions that tourism could be used to exploit, deliver on, and ensure that more money comes into the Ards and Strangford areas.

I ask that we take advantage of the peace dividend by using the available funding and by ensuring that it is spread across the whole of Northern Ireland. The Minister has given an indication that that can and will happen, and the DUP welcomes that and supports the motion.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have only two points, so I will be brief. The first relates to housing. I know that the Executive have inherited this situation, but there are a very high number of homeless people, and waiting lists are growing. That has financial knock-on effects in both education and health. However, the Budget contains the lowest provision for new-build social housing for a long time. It is ridiculous that the Executive should be forced to inherit such a situation, but it is not irretrievable. I ask the Minister to consider that situation, and especially the knock-on effects that it has on the health and education budgets.

My second point relates to transport, and it is a particular issue of mine. Can provision be made for free public transport for those with severe disabilities? Aside from the fact that it would help people with restricted mobility to get around and to and from hospital, this also would have major knock-on effects. Travel is therapeutic for people with profound mental disabilities, and it could be cost-effective if looked at in terms of the health budget. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr A Maginness: As my colleague has said, the Minister should reflect carefully on the crisis in housing and, in particular, in the provision of social housing. In my constituency, housing pressures are enormous. The waiting lists are substantial, and the number of people suffering housing stress has at least doubled in the last couple of years. It is an enormous challenge.

The provision in the Budget is inadequate to deal with the need, not just in North Belfast but across Northern Ireland. Some 611 houses have been budgeted for. That is crazy — the need is for at least 1,500 houses. The Semple Report sets a target of 2,000 houses; the Housing Executive’s estimate is in the region of 2,500 houses. Therefore, the Budget comes nowhere near making even a minimal contribution to the relief of housing pressures in Northern Ireland. That situation is totally unacceptable.

I understand that the Minister has inherited the Budget from the direct rule regime. Nonetheless, priorities must be identified, and housing must be one of the highest priorities. Every week people come into my office looking for homes. I cannot ask them to hold on while we go through a period of budgetary readjustment. We must have that money this year. Officials of the Department for Social Development say that they can start to build houses, even at this late stage. Planning processes have been completed, all the necessary logistical conditions have been met, and transforming the situation is a matter of getting the money.

It is unacceptable for people to continue to suffer as a result of the inherited budgetary situation. We must act to lessen the pressures on people, rather than increase them.

5.30 pm

That situation has a particular effect on families in my constituency, as well as older single men who, for a variety of reasons, live on their own and for whom there is a dearth of suitable accommodation. We must address the difficulties that marriage break-ups, mental-health problems and many other issues create for that sector of society.

I appeal to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to find the ways and means in the machinery of Government to release the necessary funding. It is important that the Minister make that a top Budget priority not only for the constituency of North Belfast but for the whole region.

Mr B Wilson: In his introductory remarks, the Minister of Finance and Personnel highlighted what he believed to be the key challenges facing Northern Ireland, but there was no mention of the major challenge of climate change. Indeed, Tony Blair has said that climate change is the most important issue facing the planet. Climate change affects the whole planet, not just Northern Ireland.

I approach the Estimates from a green perspective, but when I examine the details, there is absolutely nothing green about them at all. My party would argue for additional expenditure on the railways and, in particular, the development of the railway line to Derry — but there is nothing there. A light rail system for Belfast was promised 10 or 15 years ago, but there is no mention of it, which is very disappointing.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tried to promote renewable energy, and there was support for the concept of micro-generation. However, the take-up has been poor because the grant aid currently available for such projects does not even cover the cost of building control and planning fees. Those ideas have not taken off, and more money must be targeted in that direction.

We should support the research and development of renewable energy and consider alternative crops such as willow biomass and rapeseed. I use biodiesel in my car; the chap who produces that fuel made an approach about a business grant but could not get one. There is an opportunity to develop alternative fuel in Northern Ireland, and there are potential benefits for the rural community. Farmers could produce energy crops rather than simply availing of the benefits of EU set-aside land regulations.

The Budget proposals do not address the improvement of the environment, and although I appreciate that there is little that can be done about that now, I will put down a marker for the next Budget and comprehensive spending review, because these are the issues of the future. I do not ask for extra money; as an economist, I am aware that resources are limited. We must examine ways in which to use those resources more efficiently by channelling them into green areas, thereby creating a sustainable Northern Ireland.

Mr P Robinson: The debate has been useful, although it has not been as wide-ranging as I had expected. However, it reflects the responsible attitude shown by Members, who, instead of listing their pet projects, recognised the constraints under which we operate. I shall do my best to respond, as far as is possible, to the many issues that have been raised. If I pass over some of them, we will check the Official Report tomorrow and I — or the relevant Ministers — will write to the Members concerned.

The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Com­mittee outlined the consultation process underpinning the position, and we both agree that that process was far from ideal. I am grateful to him and to the Committee for agreeing to grant the Bill accelerated passage. I welcome the engagement of the Committee in the forthcoming Budget process and in ensuring that the Executive can, and will, make a difference with future Budget allocations.

The Member for East Antrim Mr Roy Beggs mentioned the comprehensive spending review. I agree that the funding envelope for 2008-09 to 2010-11 is likely to be tight, so we must ensure that the resources are allocated as efficiently and effectively as possible. Northern Ireland is slightly better placed than other Administrations as the Chancellor has given us a guaranteed minimum in the comprehensive spending review.

One key issue that arose from our engagement with the Chancellor is that there is a need to introduce a range of fiscal measures that can bring about a step change in economic activity and growth. I agree with Roy Beggs that smoke and mirrors will not deliver real growth. However, I point out to him that, apart from being given a minimum amount in the comprehensive spending review, Northern Ireland has been promised a minimum on capital spend to which an additional £2 billion will be added in later years.

We also succeeded in breaking the link between the reinvestment and reform initiative and the necessity to narrow the gap with local taxation in Great Britain. We will therefore not be forced to put inordinate burdens on our regional rate for reasons outside our control. End-year flexibility funding is not automatic, but we have received a commitment from the Chancellor on capital end-year flexibility and resource end-year flexibility. The Assembly will also be aware that the use of resources from asset sales was not automatic in the past. However, we have received commitments on the use of those resources, and we will be able to schedule sales of our assets in order to meet the limits laid down by the Chancellor.

Of equal importance is the Chancellor’s agreement to a review on a number of issues that will be conducted by Sir David Varney. Among other things, the review will examine the competitive disadvantage that Northern Ireland has vis-à-vis the Irish Republic and its rate of corporation tax. I have already had a useful meeting with Sir David, and I understand that the Committee and some of my ministerial colleagues have met with him, as have several key stakeholders in the private sector. That has been important, because it is crucial that Sir David hears the views of the people of Northern Ireland and that he is encouraged to make recommendations to introduce fiscal measures that can make the step change that I mentioned.

The Member for East Antrim’s party leader has said that now is not an important time as far as financial decisions are concerned. On 16 February 2007, he claimed that September — when the comprehensive spending review and budgetary constraints will be finalised — will be the important time to discuss such issues. He has obviously not convinced the Member for East Antrim of his sentiments.

We must be a little careful when debating whether we have a satisfactory package. As part of the United Kingdom, we are entitled to enjoy in the United Kingdom’s prosperity.

This part of the United Kingdom enjoys a total managed expenditure in excess of £17 billion a year. Many people might think that that is reasonably satisfactory. It may not be as much as any of us would like, and there is no doubt that everyone will encourage the Chancellor to consider Northern Ireland’s special circumstances in order to get more. However, it is still a considerable chunk of money, and it should be recognised that we receive a significant slice from the UK Exchequer.

It is the purpose of the Executive to reduce the amount that we get in many areas by returning more to the Exchequer through building growth into our economy. That will enable us to make a greater contribution to the overall financial cake.

Declan O’Loan, Patsy McGlone and Alban Maginness of the SDLP all referred to the housing budget — I wonder why that might be? I notice that they have brought the Minister along as a cheerleader. Just in case she is not aware of it, in her absence, Declan O’Loan quoted her as stating, “give me the money”.

Lord Morrow: Typical woman. [Laughter.]

Ms Ritchie: I heard that. [Laughter.]

Mr P Robinson: I will ignore the sexist remark.

It should be clear that the Executive will set their priorities. The Minister for Social Development knows that when she sought support from her Executive colleagues for an affordability review, she received that support to move forward with Sir John Semple’s recommendations. That will be very significant.

The easy answer, and the first answer that comes to many people is: give me more money. However, that is not necessarily the only way to deal with such issues. I do not want to tell the Minister how to do her job, as I am sure that she knows how to do her job. However, in Sir John Semple’s report, there is a clear indication that there are significant portions of land held in the public sector that should be released.

There is nothing to stop the Minister taking a proposal to her colleagues that would include a significant number of those parcels of ground, and a package that includes a partnership with the private sector. That would enable her to get the private sector to build public-sector houses. The deal would obviously be that a section of the land would be for private-sector housing. However, it would fulfil two very useful outcomes — it would increase the housing stock overall, and it would create good quality accommodation for housing associations that would be part of such a partnership as well.

As far as the housing associations are concerned — if they are getting the land for free, and the houses for free — the Minister will want to do something with the share of the rental that she would get in response to that. That would reduce her budget requirements elsewhere. Therefore, instead of her shouting, “Give me the money”, there are proposals that she could consider that would have me shouting, “Give me the money” at her because she could generate more income.

I recognise, as does the Minister, that there are significant problems with homelessness and the affordability of housing, and that there is a requirement for more houses to be built in the public sector. However, rather than cry on my shoulder and ask for more money, I hope that a bit more innovation and ingenuity will be used in an attempt to solve the problem.

Dr Farry rightly referred to the fiscal deficit. That is a reflection of our pressing needs, which are significantly greater than other UK regions. A growing and vibrant economy will raise the tax base and reduce the fiscal deficit.

The regional economic strategy highlights the large influence of the public sector, but the key issue is to develop the private sector. It is not that the public sector is too large, but that the private sector is too small. I agree with Dr Farry about the need to examine spending, identify efficiency, and maximise the use of all available funding.

Unquestionably, that will be a key element of the Budget process. With other Members, Dr Farry referred to efficiencies. He must take account of the fact that although he stated that a high percentage was underspent in the last financial year — none of us can be blamed for that — there is an overcommitment of £150 million in the Budget in this financial year. Therefore, before we underspend even one penny, we must save £150 million.

I accept, however, that the 3% efficiency, which is set under the existing criteria, is a relatively blunt instrument, scything off 3% from the budgets of the Departments when they determine their efficiencies. One Department could begin to bleed after achieving 2% efficiency, whereas another may be able to make 5% efficiency without cutting into the bone. Therefore, we must gauge how to refine the system. Unless we have those kinds of efficiencies, we will be unable to deal with the pressures that can come elsewhere in the system — pressures such as free personal care for the elderly, which was debated in the Assembly on 29 May.

The leader of the Alliance Party seems to be in denial on that issue. Therefore, I have a copy of the Official Report for 29 May 2007 to remind him what the vote was on, and that his party’s amendment required the provision of free personal care for the elderly from 2008-09 onwards. Therefore, there was a specific requirement in the amendment that set the provision from a particular year. In other words, the funding could be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review, but the Assembly requires that the provision be available from 2008-09 onwards.

That amendment was agreed in spite of the fact that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety pointed out, very rightly, that although the Assembly could pass the motion, it could not come to pass, as there are other steps that must be taken, quite aside from the issue of where the money would be found.

Members must face up to some realities. With a finite Budget from the block grant, and the only mechanism to generate resources being a regional rate, unless savings and efficiencies are found in the existing block grant, we will need to increase substantially the regional rate. Those are the realities that Members must consider.

Unquestionably, free personal care for the elderly is high on each party’s agenda. During the course of the election, each party committed to pushing forward with that matter. That does not mean that free personal care for the elderly should have been approved on the first day that Members came through the door of Parliament Buildings. Parties must work out pragmatically how to fulfil their election commitments within the Assembly’s mandate. I am glad that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is working on that project, and, as he takes it forward, he will receive full co-operation from colleagues in my Department.

Dr Farry and Mr Ford mentioned the cost of division. There is no question that a divided society generates additional costs. However, the Alliance Party should not behave as though its members have somehow found a new truth that no one else was aware of, and that they alone want to save money. Reversing the divided society is not something that can be achieved overnight — we will not change the education system in a day, a week, a month, or even a year.

I take the point that we need to recognise that such changes are necessary, not just for financial savings but to change the society in which we live. However, I suspect that many of those changes will need to be made over a longer time frame than that suggested by the two Alliance Party Members who spoke today.

The Alliance Party leader suggested that I had been given an easy ride because I was introducing a direct rule Budget. I can assure him that I would far rather be introducing my own Budget — supported by my Executive colleagues — that provided the allocations that met the aspirations of all the Ministers, even if that meant that I got a rougher ride in the Assembly. As the Member for North Down Peter Weir pointed out, if the desires of all Assembly Members were to be met, the block grant would need to be multiplied two or three times. That is the reality. Ultimately, we will need to prioritise, and in that process some people will inevitably think that a particular budget item should have had a lesser priority than something that they wanted to be included. We will no doubt have that rough ride at a later stage when we introduce our own plans for the three-year period. However, it is much healthier to be dealing with such problems rather than simply issuing statements to the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, the ‘News Letter’ and ‘The Irish News’ to complain about the actions that other Ministers have taken. It is far better that we take such actions ourselves.

The Member for Foyle Ms Anderson referred to the issue of disadvantage in the Province. All the spending proposals put forward under the 2007 budget process will be subject to a high-level impact assessment. On the issue of addressing social disadvantage, New Deal has had a significant impact on unemployment, as shown by the 73% fall in the number of unemployed claimants in the New Deal 18- to 24-year-old target group. On the issue of changing existing patterns of disadvantage, only by building a shared and equal society can we hope to build a Northern Ireland where we all live together and work together in peace, being equal under the law and equally subject to it. However, I agree entirely with the Member that tackling disadvantage and growing our economy are not mutually exclusive but must go forward hand in hand. That will be the aim of the Executive.

Peter Weir referred to the motion on free personal care for the elderly that the Assembly passed recently. I think that I have probably dealt with the issue as much as Members require, but I agree with him that we must give serious thought to the implications of any proposals that are made. Rather than deal with issues on an ad hoc or one-by-one basis, it is far better that the Executive fits them into its strategic proposals in the Programme for Government. Set beside the Programme for Government, the CSR for the three years will ensure that we can implement our proposals. Mr Weir was right to say that Departments such as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have significant requirements for additional funding. That is one reason why we want to look at the priorities of all Departments beside each other rather than deal with individual Departments in an isolated manner.

I concur with the Member for North Down Leslie Cree that the private sector needs to grow to reduce our reliance on the public sector, and that facilitating such growth should be a priority. Although we need to ensure that Northern Ireland firms are not disadvantaged by disproportionate costs, we need to take a responsible approach rather than to introduce subsidies for their own sake. When we were all in opposition there was a tendency simply to call for some form of subvention, but we must now set out our priorities.

Mr Cree also highlighted the need to do something significant to cause an uplifting in economic performance. An economic package that included a cut in corporation tax would indeed be desirable. However, as the Ulster Unionist Party leader indicated, the Treasury would not readily give us a dispensation to the detriment of Scotland and Wales.

We have argued, both with the Varney team and with President Barroso, and — more recently — with the commissioner appointed by President Barroso to advance the European project in Northern Ireland, that there are special circumstances which set Northern Ireland aside from Scotland, Wales and other regions of the United Kingdom. We are coming out of a prolonged period of conflict; our economy needs to be stimulated, and we have a land frontier with a country that has a much lower rate of corporation tax.

Whether it is by corporation tax reduction or by some other mechanism, we must face up to the challenge to investors, who look at the island of Ireland as a whole. We must have a package of measures to attract them to Northern Ireland, rather than leave the field open for them to go to the Irish Republic.

The Member for Foyle Mr Pat Ramsey touched on sport, a subject that is close to me. I believe that, when I left it, I was one of the longest-serving members of the Sports Council of Northern Ireland. Mr Ramsey rightly drew attention to the role that sport can play in our society, not only in its value in bringing people together, but in its health benefits and its many other advantages for the economy as a whole. However, the advantages of sport are difficult to assess, and it is perhaps that difficulty that prevents sport from being given the priority that he and I might wish. However, I assure him that, even if I were not sympathetic to it, my colleague the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will certainly draw the need for sport to our attention when we look at our overall priorities. I trust that other colleagues will be — if not as generous as he would like — more generous than they have been in those areas.

Now to the comments of my colleague the Member for Strangford Mrs Iris Robinson. I thought that I had walked into an episode of “Folks on the Hill”, as she outlined the needs of the Health Service. She is right to draw attention, in particular, to the issue of mental health. She will know better than I do that there is a need to reform and modernise mental health services, and that the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland) has set a very challenging agenda for reform. It is expected that all the elements of the review will be in the public domain by July 2007. The review sets a wide agenda for reform and modernisation, and its recommendations impact on health and social services and on all Northern Ireland Departments. I trust that I will get my tea when I go home tonight, having said that to her.

We have touched on most of the matters concerning free personal care. Mrs Robinson kept referring to a matter that was close to her heart, and I thought my name was going to come up. It did not; it was expenditure for health that she was pushing for.

I now move to the comments made by the two other Members for Strangford. By way of information, before Mr Jim Shannon scolds the Minister of Education too much on the issue of pay policy — and in his case referred to pay policy as it relates to the Department of Education — we must recognise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer regards pay policy as a macroeconomic variable. In those circumstances, the Treasury has not simply taken the lead, but almost taken possession of the issue of pay policy.

It means that if any of the Administrations bring forward proposals that have repercussive effects, the Treasury will have something to say, or perhaps do, about that.

6.00 pm

When examining pay policy issues, one must remember that there will be implications not only for Northern Ireland but for the rest of the United Kingdom. If workers here move out of sync with those in Scotland, Wales or elsewhere, one could imagine what the unions in those areas would say. No doubt, it is for that reason that Gordon Brown considers pay policy to be a macroeconomic variable and wants to have control of it. Therefore, the Assembly must work within the limits of pay policy and must seek permission from the Treasury to move outside it. As the Minister for Employment and Learning can tell Members, our experience is that even special cases have not received a sympathetic hearing.

However, I agree fully with Mr Shannon on the value of expanding the tourism industry, which has grown significantly recently and still has massive potential — nowhere more so than the Ards Peninsula. He mentioned Mount Stewart, and anyone who has not visited it should do so and experience the pleasures it offers.

Mrs Foster: What about Fermanagh and South Tyrone?

Mr P Robinson: I am getting all sorts of bids from other parts of the Province. [Laughter.]

I would like to take Mr Shannon’s colleague Mr Simon Hamilton everywhere with me, because he made a much better job than I did of working out what fiscal responsibilities Members should have, and the limitations and parameters in which we must work. People should listen to him seriously, because he talks sound common sense.

He also referred to the savings that can be made by having more efficient government. My party raised that point during the last Executive, and the fact that the DUP is now the largest party has not changed its view. The Assembly must examine seriously issues such as — and I suspect that this will not be the most popular passage of my speech — the number of Members and Departments.

Significant savings can be made. I listened to comments that reducing the number of Departments would make no real saving — real savings can be made from reducing the number of Departments. If it will ease Members’ views on the matter, reducing the number of Departments does not necessarily mean reducing the number of Ministers — so an escape hatch is being provided. Ministers do not cost much; the real expense is in having a whole Department.

Funds that could be going into front-line services are going into bureaucracy. If money is going to be tight, savings can be made by reducing bureaucracy rather than at the front desk where the public sector meets the consumer. We will need to return to that issue. My colleague, the Member for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson, has a particular role to play in the matter, as he is Chairperson of the Executive and Review Committee. That Committee will want to look at those items. Equally, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has an efficiency requirement, which was laid down in the St Andrews Agreement and legislated for thereafter — I got a nod from the officials. Therefore, that Department will have a role to play also.

It is in the interests of those whom we represent that we cut the red tape and bureaucrats out of the system and ensure that the money saved is used in the best possible way. I encourage my colleagues to examine those issues as they bring forward their own reports.

My East Belfast colleague Lord Browne was right to draw attention to ratepayers’ concerns about significant rate hikes. In the past two years, there have been large rates increases of 19% and 6%. At this stage, I cannot indicate what increases there may be in the regional rate over the period of the CSR. However, with the threat of water charges looming, I can understand why people want to know what their overall household bills will be and how they are going to pay them.

Although every Member has good ideas, usually costing plenty of money, we must keep in mind the extent of the agenda that the Executive already have, having only existed for a month. We have an over­commitment of £150 million in the Budget. If Members wish to take action in line with promises to the electorate that they would not have to pay twice for their water, then there is a requirement for a further £160 million. Free personal care for the elderly means another £60 million, or thereabouts. The Minister for Social Development is looking for another £50 million for housing, and, based on what we know about likely increases, the wage bill to see us through to the end of the comprehensive spending review will cost us about £700 million. Those are significant pressures on any budget.

Of course, there will be supplementary amounts available to the Assembly by way of Barnett formula consequentials, but, if the demands cannot be met from that source, Members will have to consider the regional rate. The Member for East Belfast Lord Browne is right to draw Members’ attention to the concerns of ratepayers. Since each of us will have to face the ratepayers in the future, Members must have an overall priority that takes account of what we can do and when we can do it.

The Member for North Down Brian Wilson sought to encourage Members to follow his views on the green agenda. I have been provided with ‘The Economics of Climate Change’, the report of the Stern Review. Mr Wilson has laid down the marker, and I hope that I will have at least read that volume by the time he calls it in. I agree with him that more efficient use must be made of existing resources. Each Member bears a responsibility, much wider than our parochial concerns, to take account of the considerable issues relating to climate change and sustainability.

I wish to thank Members for their constructive contributions. The debate has been good, and many issues of real importance to the people of Northern Ireland have been discussed. It is an exciting time for all of us. The Executive have a unique opportunity to make a real difference in a way that has not been possible in the past. Although the spending plans that the Assembly is being asked to approve today have been inherited from the previous Administration, their acceptance will represent the first stage of government as Members look to the future. Approval will provide the Executive and the Assembly with the necessary lead-in time to establish priorities through a new Programme for Government, underpinned by detailed spending plans for the next three years and a longer-term investment strategy. In doing so, Members will face many challenges and make many difficult choices. There are no straight­forward answers to many of the issues that must be considered, and there will inevitably be trade-offs between differing priorities within a given set of financial constraints. Nevertheless, those decisions will be made by those Members who best understand the context and environment within which we live in Northern Ireland, taking account of the views of local people.

One of the main challenges that Members must rise to will be the strengthening of the Northern Ireland economy. Like many other regions, Northern Ireland faces a number of key global challenges — such as climate change and the depletion of energy reserves, as outlined by the Member for North Down Mr Brian Wilson.

Other challenges include the growth of emerging markets such as China and India; demographic changes that indicate a decline in the number of working-age people; technological innovation; and global political instability. Over the past 15 years, the Northern Ireland economy has experienced remarkable employment growth. For example, between 1990 and 2006, the number of jobs in the region increased by 32%, compared to just 11% in the United Kingdom as a whole.

However, that figure masks the relative decline of the local manufacturing sector and the high growth in service-sector jobs. Between 1990 and 2006 manufacturing employment in Northern Ireland declined by approximately 20%, whereas employment in the services sector increased by almost 50%. Despite the strong employment growth, the local economy still lags behind the UK average.

Our productivity performance, relative to the UK as a whole, has been equally disappointing, with the gap widening since the late 1990s. Furthermore, the local economy is constrained by high levels of economic inactivity and is characterised by a dominant public sector. That is due mainly to a small, underdeveloped private sector.

The Northern Ireland economy can move forward only if the status quo is transformed into a high value-added, highly skilled, innovative and enterprising economy that can compete in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. We need to develop the local private sector in order to reduce our reliance on the public sector, and we need to create sustainable, high-value jobs. That is a task ahead for the Executive and for the Assembly. Our local knowledge and insight best fit us for that job. Our attachment to, and affection for, Northern Ireland will motivate us, and our enthusiasm to see devolution work will inspire and encourage us to bring innovation, direction and dedication to the task.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That this Assembly approves that a sum not exceeding £7,079,776,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008; and that resources not exceeding £7,922,535,000 be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008.

Budget Bill

First Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg leave to introduce to the Assembly a Bill [NIA 3/07] to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of certain sums for the service of the year ending 31st March 2008; to appropriate those sums for specified purposes; to authorise the Department of Finance and Personnel to borrow on the credit of the appropriated sums; to authorise the use for the public service of certain resources (including accruing resources) for the year ending 31st March 2008; and to repeal certain spent provisions.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I inform Members that I have received written notification from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel confirming that the Committee is satisfied that in accordance with Standing Order 40(2) there is appropriate consultation with the Committee on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill, and it is therefore content that the Bill can proceed by accelerated passage. The Second Stage of the Bill will take place on Tuesday 12 June 2007.

Taxis Bill

First Stage

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg leave to introduce to the Assembly a Bill [NIA 4/07] to make provision regulating taxi operators, taxis and taxi drivers; and for related purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

6.15 pm

LIbraries bill

First Stage

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I beg leave to introduce to the Assembly a Bill [NIA 5/07] to provide for the establishment and functions of the Northern Ireland Library Authority; to enable the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to make grants in connection with the provision of library services; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

Adjourned at 6.16 pm.

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