Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Monday 18 June 2007

Ministerial Statement
Recent Flooding Incidents

Executive Committee Business
Welfare Reform Bill: Consideration Stage

Oral Answers to Questions
Enterprise, Trade and Investment
Employment and Learning

Executive Committee Business
Welfare Reform Bill: Consideration Stage
Budget Bill: Consideration Stage

Private Notice Question
Craigavon High School: Deaths of Young People

Committee Business
Committee Membership

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Ministerial Statement

Recent Flooding Incidents

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on the recent flooding incidents. I remind Members that points of order are not taken during ministerial statements or during any questions that follow.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement on the flooding caused by a period of severe weather between 12 June and 15 June 2007.

I propose to provide a brief overview of the situation, including the prevailing weather conditions and warnings, the impacts of flooding across the North, and the roles and responses of the many Departments and agencies involved. I also want to comment on some of the big issues that emerged and to set out how we plan to learn from the experience.

At 11.19 am on Tuesday 12 June 2007, the Met Office issued a flash warning of heavy rain for the whole of the North, valid from 1.20 pm until 9.00 pm. The forecast was for scattered, slow-moving, heavy and prolonged showers, some of them thundery, leading to localised torrential downpours during the afternoon and evening, with 15 mm to 20 mm of rain possible in just a few hours.

Further flash warnings were issued on Wednesday 13 June and Thursday 14 June. Those warned of heavy and thundery outbreaks of rain with some torrential downpours, with up to 30 mm to 40 mm of rain expected in areas where the ground was already saturated.

All Departments and agencies have contingency plans to help them prepare for, and respond to, emergencies. Once the first severe weather warning was received, those plans were activated immediately.

Early in the afternoon of 12 June, parts of the North, particularly east Belfast and Omagh, experienced extremely heavy rainfall: some 50 mm in two to four hours. In those places, the quantity of rain overwhelmed the drainage systems and waterways, leading to the flooding of roads and properties. In the Derry City Council, Cookstown District Council and Magherafelt District Council areas, a small number of domestic properties were flooded. Overall, it is estimated that hundreds of properties were affected.

The volume of rain on 12 June represented a storm-return period of between 94 and 240 years. That means that we do not expect to suffer from such a downpour more than once in every 100 to 200 years. Current drainage design criteria are sufficient for a once-in-30-years storm.

A large number of emergency calls were received that day. The Fire and Rescue Service received over 400 calls in a three-hour period, representing the busiest period in the service’s history. Northern Ireland Water received 1,800 calls, and Roads Service received over 300 calls. Staff from a wide range of Departments and agencies were quickly on the ground, working together to secure the safety of those at risk and minimising damage to property and disruption to the community. I will highlight some of their work and pay tribute to the front-line staff who worked so hard.

Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water were in the front line. A major incident response regime had been initiated within Northern Ireland Water by 3.00 pm. Teams were established in Belfast, Derry and Omagh, and, in line with the inter-agency flood liaison protocol, contacts were established with Roads Service and the Rivers Agency.

At the peak of the flooding, over 100 Northern Ireland Water staff and contractors were at the various flooded locations across the North, checking pumping stations, placing sandbags, replacing manhole covers and assisting in clean-up operations.

At least 15 roads in Belfast and Omagh were closed, with many others affected but passable with care. Approximately 350 calls were received as a result of the Belfast incident, with 100 calls received in the Omagh area. In total, 50 Roads Service workers and private contractor staff were on the ground minimising damage to property and assisting in the recovery process. Over 1,700 sandbags were supplied during the operation.

The Rivers Agency also made a major contribution, deploying staff within 45 minutes of the incident. Over 60 industrial, engineering and administrative staff were involved, using mini-diggers and diesel pumps to assist in operations. Over 1,000 sandbags were put to use. Rivers Agency staff have been involved in the removal of debris obstructing watercourses and grills. Contaminated sandbags are being collected and disposed of. Prompt action has prevented the flooding of school property in Ballygawley and dwellings in the Bogside.

Belfast City Council activated its emergency plan at 3.30 pm. It set up a major incident room and co-ordinated a rescue and clean-up operation in conjunction with the Fire and Rescue Service, the Police Service, Northern Ireland Water, the Rivers Agency, Roads Service, the Social Services Agency, the Department for Regional Development’s central claims unit, Northern Ireland Electricity, British Telecom, the Housing Executive, the Met Office, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Some five conference calls, involving many of those organisations, took place on 12 June to ensure that all were aware of the developing situation and to co-ordinate the response across Belfast.

Emergency reception and advice centres were opened at Avoniel leisure centre by Belfast City Council and on the Cregagh Road by the Salvation Army. On Tuesday 12 June, an initial social fund of £100,000 was made available to assist those in immediate need. That was followed by a further £5 million that the Executive made available on Thursday 14 June.

Castlereagh Borough Council and Omagh District Council were similarly active in deploying staff to aid recovery and co-ordination, including assistance with the evacuation of people whose homes had been flooded. In these and the other areas that suffered flooding, meetings were arranged to bring together those organisations involved in dealing with the flooding incidents.

By late afternoon on 12 June, the Housing Executive emergency plan was fully operational and remained in operation due to the continued heavy rain. Approximately 150 Housing Executive homes were affected. In total, six people needed temporary accommodation.

The Social Security Agency responded to flooding in east Belfast by making staff available at the emergency unit in Avoniel leisure centre. Staff have remained at Avoniel leisure centre and have also distributed social fund claim forms to residents of Clara Way and the Clarawood estate.

On Tuesday 12 June, the Fire and Rescue Service received over 400 calls in a three-hour period. Fire­fighters attended 200 of those calls, rescuing 32 people in Belfast and 15 in Omagh. Appliances were dispatched from stations outside the affected area, and high-volume pumps were used to clear the affected buildings.

Representatives from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust attended the multi-agency advice centre at Avoniel leisure centre. Social services responded in order to ensure that services to children, families and elderly people, such as home helps, continued to be provided.

In addition to the problems caused by flooding, a number of lightning strikes caused customers to lose their electricity supplies. Northern Ireland Electricity mobilised nine of its 12 incident centres, and by 4.30 pm had dispatched a senior manager to the community assistance centre at Avoniel leisure centre to co-ordinate its activities in east Belfast. Around 7,000 customers were affected during the day, with all but two customers being reconnected within 12 hours.

Those high levels of resources were maintained by the agencies throughout Tuesday and Wednesday as the focus of activity moved to the clean-up operation. At the same time, all the agencies remained on the alert and made preparations for the further heavy rain that had been forecast, clearing obstructions and delivering and restocking sandbags. All roads were reported as being clear the following morning.

Northern Ireland Water is dealing with 142 requests to assist householders with clean-up operations and the distribution of sandbags. The Housing Executive has been engaged in repairs and clean-ups in the affected areas. Environmental health officers from Belfast City Council have provided advice and assistance at more than 26 streets affected by flooding. The council has also offered support for the internal disinfection of owner-occupied homes, and a private company is on standby for that purpose.

In Belfast, 21 crisis loan applications have been received by the Social Security Agency, and 17 have been paid. Ten applications for community grants have been received and paid. All claims in connection with the flooding have been processed, and any subsequent claims will be given the highest priority. By 5.00 pm on Friday 15 June, only one claim had been received and cleared in Omagh; any further claims received will be given the highest priority. My Department’s central claims unit has registered 66 compensation claims for investigation.

The multi-agency advice centre at Avoniel leisure centre remained open, but by Thursday 14 June, there were few callers. The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust continued to ensure that vulnerable people were supported, including at Towell House, an old persons’ home that had been flooded.

On Tuesday evening, when the full scale of the flooding became clear, the Executive decided to hold an emergency meeting to review the response of the various agencies and identify what more needed to be done. The Executive met at 9.00 am on Wednesday — a visible demonstration of the difference that devolution can make when a crisis of this nature arises.

It will take some time to assess fully the effectiveness of the overall response. What I can say now is that vehicles, materials and staff were deployed to the worst-hit locations within a short time of the initial severe weather warnings being received. Communications systems were able to deal with the exceptionally high number of calls.

In Belfast, inter-agency communication on the ground was excellent. The early assumption of a lead role by Belfast City Council was useful. Regular conference calls were held to co-ordinate responses, and the multi-agency advice centre proved an invaluable focus for those affected and for the responding agencies. The media was briefed in order to keep the public informed about what was happening on the ground and how to access help and assistance.

On Thursday 14 June, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, announced that £5 million had been made available to the Department of the Environment. That money is being used to support the work of district councils in responding to the needs of householders who have been affected by the floods. On Friday 15 June, the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Arlene Foster, announced that her Department would establish a scheme under article 26 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 to address the recent emergency. Minister Foster also announced that, from Monday 18 June, an immediate payment of £1,000 would be made available to each seriously affected household. She is monitoring the severe weather situation and will consider whether any further action may be needed.

The Executive are determined to review the handling of the emergency thoroughly in order to identify the areas in which we can do better next time. I have no doubt that exceptional weather events will occur in the future, and we need to be prepared to deal with them. By way of example, widespread flooding occurred again on Friday 15 June in many locations, particularly Belfast, Newtownards, Bangor, Comber, Lurgan, Crossgar, Ballynahinch and Downpatrick. We are pleased to note that emergency procedures were swiftly implemented, and front-line staff, customer-service staff and contractors were mobilised by the Rivers Agency, Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water. Across the three organisations, around 450 staff provided assistance on the ground. Thousands of sandbags were distributed, and pumps and gully-emptiers were deployed. Around 2,000 calls for assistance were received from the public. Emergency services and district councils also assisted.

12.15 pm

The multi-agency learning and linkages developed in the past year by the Belfast Resilience Network are proving to be invaluable in ensuring that each agency knows its role and responsibilities during the response to, and recovery from, an incident.

I pay tribute to, and thank, the many individuals and voluntary agencies that came forward during the emergency to help people and to offer their assistance by, for example, providing furniture. I am thinking particularly of bodies such as the Salvation Army and others. Many individuals also came forward, and I place on record our thanks to them.

In the longer term, the Belfast sewer project, which is costing over £120 million, will reduce the risk of flooding in the city centre. However, no sewerage system can be guaranteed to prevent all possible flooding.

Before we can be satisfied that our approach to any further flooding incident will be the best that we can deliver, we have much more work to do. We must also consider what must be done in the longer term to ensure that our infrastructure can cope with climate change and foreseeable weather conditions.

I express the sympathies of the Executive — and, I am sure, of everyone in the House — to everybody who was affected by the flooding. I hope that people will be reassured that the Executive and all the relevant agencies will continue to work together to keep their homes and businesses as safe and secure as possible. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that they are to ask questions relating to the ministerial statement.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I also thank all the statutory agencies and the emergency services for their work last week.

I notice that 32 claims have been made for community care and crisis loans. I am sure that that number has risen dramatically over the past few days. Can the Minister assure the House that sufficient funds are available to meet that need and that making these claims will not affect genuine claimants who may need to claim other grants later in the financial year?

Mr Murphy: May I first ask for the indulgence of Members? I will be answering questions on behalf of several Departments and on a range of subjects that are not necessarily under the remit of the Department for Regional Development. This morning, I spoke to officials from all the Departments involved and asked them to read the Hansard report of my statement and the questions put on it. If Members feel that questions are not answered fully, or if I do not have the answers to hand, the relevant Departments will pick up on that and respond to Members in writing.

The emergency funds will be available to the Department of the Environment to help councils to alleviate any hardship experienced by householders across the North as a result of the flooding on 12 June. Payments of £1,000 will be made to householders to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience. In addition, councils may incur expenditure on the following activities to help people to make their homes habitable: completion of the clean-up exercise; external clean up of streets and other public areas; collection, retention and disposal of household contents damaged by the flooding; assistance to private householders to clean up their homes and gardens; advice on health and safety issues; provision of dehumidifiers to dry out homes; and advice to householders about what help might be available from other agencies.

The councils are compiling a database of households where there is evidence of significant flooding, including underfloor damage in living areas, garages or utility areas where household utilities are installed, but excluding motor vehicles. For apartments, the database will record evidence of flooding in basements that contain storage rooms. Only those households in which councils can confirm suffering and severe inconvenience will qualify for the payment. This is not compensation: it is a one-off payment.

I will ask officials from the Department for Social Development to respond to the Member’s question about those people who may need to claim other grants. This one-off payment is not designed to cut across other payments that may be available. It is intended to give assistance quickly to those households that need it most. I am referring, for example, to those people whose cookers, fridges and kitchen units were damaged, and to people who, even after the clean-up exercise, cannot live in, or use the facilities in, their homes. Helping those people is the purpose of the payment that was agreed by the Department of Finance and Personnel and will be administered by the Department of the Environment and the councils.

I say to people who wish to submit claims, or raise concerns, through the Department for Social Development or another claims process, that the agencies involved are committed to ensuring that all claims will be treated as matters of high priority. I am sure that those claims and concerns will be acted on. If the Chairperson has a specific question on how making those claims will affect other claims made through the Department for Social Development, someone from that Department will give him an answer.

Mr Newton: I join the Minister in paying tribute to all the emergency services and the manner of their response. I pay particular tribute to the PSNI for the effective action that it took in rescuing an 85-year-old housebound lady in my constituency. Had the PSNI not taken such action, she would have remained in a flooded house, unable to move.

Is the Minister satisfied that the maintenance and cleaning of drains and gratings is being satisfactorily carried out? What action will he take to alleviate flooding in areas where it is occurring regularly?

Mr Murphy: I agree with the Member’s comments about all the emergency services and agencies. I also paid tribute to those ordinary citizens who offered their help and to voluntary agencies. Everyone involved played a valuable role in helping to alleviate people’s hardship and suffering.

The extreme flooding that occurred on the afternoon of 12 June was not caused by a failure to maintain the operational effectiveness of the storm gullies or road drains. The deluge that fell in two hours overwhelmed the gullies, road drains and watercourses. The Met Office has reported that the rainfall frequency represented a storm-return period of between 90 and 240 years. That means that we do not expect a reoccurrence more than once every 100 to 200 years.

Department for Transport design standards typically require new road-drain systems to be designed to cope with a one-in-six-years storm. Those design standards include an allowance for climate change. Any system that was designed to meet current standards could not have coped with the severity of last Tuesday’s storm.

The Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service aims to inspect and clean, where necessary, all gullies in urban areas twice a year. Gullies in rural areas are inspected and cleaned, where necessary, once a year. That policy, taking into account the Department’s finite funding and staffing levels, ensures that a reasonable level of drain maintenance is carried out.

In Belfast, there are some 136,000 storm-water road gullies, so a considerable resource is needed if there is to be ongoing inspection and cleaning of the entire network of gullies and road drains. Local Roads Service officials keep records of each inspection. Those records note the time and date of inspection and whether the gullies and drains are running or not running. Those not running are identified for further jetting and investigation.

Details of recent inspections in those areas affected by flooding in east and south Belfast are as follows: on the Ormeau Road, gullies were inspected and cleaned as necessary in January 2007; on the Stranmillis Road, the Newtownards Road and Ladas Drive, they were inspected and cleaned in February 2007; and in Orangefield and Clarawood, they were cleaned and inspected in December 2006. The Roads Service has also diverted a considerable resource to cleaning gullies in those areas over the past few days and to removing an accumulation of debris that had been swept into the drainage systems by the storm water. Moreover, sandbags were provided to those affected areas after the heavy-rain-forecast alert for Friday 15 June 2007.

Preventative measures were discussed at the Ministers’ meeting last Wednesday, and I have further discussed the matter with officials. The heavy rain that was forecast for Tuesday 12 June was for the entire Belfast area. It was not forecast that it would be localised or that it would affect east Belfast specifically. As I have said, there are 136,000 storm gullies in Belfast. Nonetheless, Roads Service and other agencies, in the light of what happened, will look at whether a greater degree of co-ordination can be achieved after a Met Office severe-weather warning has been issued and examine their ability to get people on the ground in the areas affected. I reiterate that the severe-weather warning was for Belfast in its entirety, not only for those areas of east and south Belfast that were affected.

Resources must be applied to those areas that experience continual flooding, and all agencies that have a responsibility for occurrences of flooding have a duty to make the necessary improvements.

Some £120 million is invested in the Belfast sewer project. It will take some time to complete work on that project, but it will improve the system’s capacity. However, no system that has been designed or built could have coped with the amount of rain that fell in such a short period in Belfast last Tuesday.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. Have the most vulnerable people been identified, and are the statutory and voluntary sectors helping them? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Murphy: Councils’ involvement was important, because local government provides people with their closest contact to elected representatives. Councils are often the first port of call for people facing difficulties. For the purposes of deciding who should receive share of the funding that the Executive have made available, councils have been tasked with identifying the properties and families that are most at risk.

Various other agencies took a range of calls — some of which I detailed in my statement — from people who required assistance, and they provided that assistance where possible. For example, the elderly people who were affected by the flooding in the basement of Towell House have been reinstated. There was, therefore, a clear priority to address the needs of society’s most vulnerable. That is why the Executive acted promptly to make funding available through the bodies that were at the forefront in dealing with a particular incident — local councils, such as Belfast City Council and Omagh District Council. The councils will identify those people who require most assistance, and that assistance will be provided through the Executive and the other agencies involved.

Dr McDonnell: I congratulate those workers who turned out and gave sterling service during the floods. I was impressed with what I saw. I also compliment the Housing Executive in South Belfast, and, in particular, its district manager Liam Kinney.

Does the Minister share my concerns that Northern Ireland Water’s decision to award a contract worth £70 million to Crystal Alliance to handle customer relations has not been a good idea? Is he aware that many victims feel that they have been kicked around in a public-relations exercise? I can only comment on experiences of my constituents. The home of one young family — Ciaran McCreanor, his wife and infant, who live in Florenceville Drive on the Ormeau Road — was flooded, and not from the water on the street, but from reflux from the toilet. He was told, however, that that was an act of God. It did not strike him as so, and he feels that those comments added insult to injury.

Furthermore, people from Sunwich Street off Ravenhill Avenue called call centres in England only to find that the operators did not have any idea what was going on here. They had not read about it, and they were not aware of the events that were taking place here. Perhaps the Minister will consider that. Will the Minister also tell the House whether our rainwater drainage system could be separated from the sewerage system? Such a separation would mean that the rainwater would flow into, for instance, a river in the event of there being similar flooding, or even flooding that was less heavy.

Mr Murphy: Dr McDonnell and other Members will know from last Monday’s statement that matters relating to Northern Ireland Water’s contract are being reviewed. The members of the review panel have been appointed, and the review process will start almost immediately. Following that review, Members will be able to have a fuller discussion on the viability of the contracts awarded by Northern Ireland Water.

Northern Ireland Water received more calls during the crisis than any other organisation. It received 2,000 calls last week, and it has reported that all but a small minority of those calls have been well handled. Last Wednesday, I visited some of the households that were affected by the floods, and I appreciate their frustration. No matter how many resources are deployed, people often feel as if they are not being deployed directly to them, or quickly enough.

12.30 pm

That is understandable. Everyone will agree that the people on the ground did their best to cope with very difficult circumstances. As part of their overall review, it is the job of the Executive to investigate why resources that could, perhaps, have been deployed were not.

With regard to the infrastructure, the Department will struggle to provide the type of infrastructure that has already been earmarked for investment. In response to the Member’s question, separating the storm-drainage from the sewerage would entail a much greater project, and I wish that we had the money to do all such things, but otherwise they are not feasible. We are investing substantially in the water and sewerage services and that will alleviate some of the problems. However, in the case of such an intense downpour, in a localised area, over a very short time, it is difficult for any infrastructure to cope.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I support his comments on the work of the emergency services and other voluntary sector agencies, who have been busy in the constituency over recent days, and who continue to provide valuable support to those affected.

In his statement, the Minister commented on the wide range of Departments and agencies that were involved in the response. During last week’s flooding, there was extensive damage to schools in the South Eastern and the Belfast Education and Library Board areas. Both boards — and indeed the schools — have responded admirably to the challenges that the damage has caused them to face. Can the Minister assure us that his Executive colleague the Minister for Education is now fully involved in the response to the flooding, to ensure that the already-stretched budgets of schools and education and library boards are not placed under further pressure, because of the actions necessary to re-open schools as quickly as possible? I understand that the Minister was not invited to the original emergency Executive meeting; however, I hope that, by this stage, she is involved in the ongoing discussions on how to take this forward and on the financial implications.

Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for her question; however, we should resist the temptation to swipe at people in the middle of a general crisis. The Minister for Education has been involved; she was not invited to attend the special meeting of the Executive because only those Ministers directly involved in the clean-up were needed.

With regard to the schools in Belfast, the Minister was in contact with the chief executive of the Belfast Education and Library Board, who assured her that the emergency plan had kicked in inside one hour. Board officials and officials from the Department of Education were in regular contact throughout the day to assess the damage and to organise repairs. The Department will consider any bids for exceptional funding to cover the damage caused by the flood. The Minister wishes me to pay tribute to school principals and to all those involved in the clean-up at schools across the North. Their hard work ensured minimum disruption to pupils, particularly at the start of their examinations. All schools are now open and fully functioning, and the Education Minister has spoken to principals at some schools that were affected, and they are content with the boards’ emergency response.

Lord Browne: I appreciate that last week’s weather conditions which led to extensive flooding — particularly in my constituency of East Belfast — were rather unusual. I welcome the Minister’s statement that all of the agencies are to work together in a co-ordinated fashion.

Has the Minister considered that flooding also took place in the United Kingdom and that it may be useful to engage with those authorities in the UK that had emergency plans? To prevent such an unfortunate situation arising again in Northern Ireland, we could learn from the plans that other organisations put into operation.

Mr Murphy: The Member is correct. If there are lessons to be learned from other areas, then I am sure that the agencies and the Executive will be happy to learn those lessons, from wherever they come. There was severe flooding in England as that same storm system moved over from here to Britain, and the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which is responsible for the co-ordination over there, was severely criticised for not doing enough — just as some of the agencies over here were criticised.

The agencies here do liaise with agencies in Britain and elsewhere, and where lessons can be learned, they will be learned. It is worth bearing in mind that similar occurrences have happened in England. People will remember the flooding incidents last year, in such places as Cornwall, and how the agencies there were criticised.

All the answers do not lie in one place, but liaison is ongoing, and where experiences can be shared and lessons can be learned, we are happy to take those on board.

Mr Buchanan: I join in congratulating the emergency services, the agencies, the voluntary organisations and others who did an excellent job during the difficult days of the flooding. For several years, the sewerage and rainwater network infrastructure in Omagh has caused difficulties because of extra pressure from large new housing developments that have rendered the network inadequate.

Omagh District Council has lobbied the Department for Regional Development on that issue on several occasions. When does the Minister for Regional Development propose to have plans in place to upgrade the network to help avoid a reoccurrence of flooding in that area?

Mr Murphy: The Member is correct: the infrastructure struggles to cope. It is no secret to any MLA that the necessary investment in water and sewerage services has not been made by direct rule Administrations over the past 20 years. Therefore, the current Administration is faced with a serious financial consequence. A substantial investment plan has been rolled out in Belfast for the sewerage works, and there are also plans for substantial investment in the sewerage and water infrastructure across the North. Finance will be required, and that will cause difficulties for all of us.

The infrastructure is not up to the required standard — that should not come as any surprise. There are plans to make the necessary investment that has not been made in the past, and that will present a challenge. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted by Members that building a system that could cope with the rainfall experienced in Omagh and Belfast last week would probably be beyond our capacity. It can only be expected that systems are built to cope with storm levels that may come along once every six, seven — or even 30 — years. Last week’s rainfall levels were far above those that normally occur within those expectations.

Mr McCallister: I concur with the remarks made about the emergency services, which, along with volunteers, have done tremendous work.

Three of the eight towns that the Minister for Regional Development mentioned in his statement are in the South Down constituency, and he accepted that this was the second time that they had been flooded. Does the Minister have a longer-term strategy? He may not be able to give me the strategy or the timescale today, but can he write to me about the Crossgar, Ballynahinch and Downpatrick areas?

Mr Murphy: The Member is correct: those areas were seriously affected. I do not have a specific plan for those areas with me today. Northern Ireland Water is progressing a programme of over 100 drainage area studies for the larger population areas across the North, and those will determine the improvements required to sewerage networks in order to reduce the risk of flooding and meet environmental objectives. It is estimated that a capital injection of over £300 million will be required for improvements and schemes. The capital-works programme is currently focused on waste-water treatment compliance, water quality improvements and reductions in interruptions to supply.

The majority of the work required for the implementation of the drainage area study programme is scheduled for 2010 and beyond. If there are specific plans for the areas that Mr McCallister mentioned, I will ask Northern Ireland Water to respond to the Department for Regional Development.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Omagh town was particularly affected by last week’s rain. There was substantial damage to property, and people were hugely inconvenienced. The people of Omagh welcome the establishment of the emergency fund but would also like affected businesses, and people whose vehicles were submerged in public car parks, to be compensated appropriately.

I also wish to wish to commend the General Consumer Council, which, together with Omagh Independent Advice Services, intervened to offer advice and guidance to those local people who had suffered the most.

Will the Minister give an assessment of how effective the inter-agency co-operation and communication was on the ground in Omagh and in the other towns and cities affected? Will the Minister agree to come to Omagh to meet representatives of the local council and the divisional roads manager to discuss lessons learned and preventative measures that might be put in place? I know that his visit to Omagh would be a very welcome development. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question and his invitation to Omagh — I would probably be the first Armagh man to be welcomed in Tyrone. Nonethe­less, he makes a serious point. The immediate need, as far as the Executive were concerned, was to help those whose homes were uninhabitable, and especially those who lost essential household utilities and who had no electricity supply or facilities for cooking.

I agree with the Member’s point, and it is a serious one, that businesses were damaged, and property, such as vehicles and belongings. Consideration is being given to the additional action required. Some of the assessments that he asks for are for the longer term. The Executive’s priority was to ensure that our response was as good as possible. Our assessment at the time was that inter-agency communication was good. Certainly, however, there is no scheme that cannot be improved, and the Executive will want to consider, in the longer term, the lessons to be learned from the event, and how the emergency plans could be tweaked and improved.

I have no doubt, and I am sure that Members will agree, that we will face further incidences of severe weather similar to that experienced last week. The Executive want to reassure the public that this is a new Administration, more responsive to the needs of the public — the people who elected Members and put us here — and that we want to improve the responsiveness of all agencies and take preventative measures whenever possible.

Mr Shannon: First, on behalf of the people who phoned me on Friday in relation to the flooding, I put on record their thanks to the staff of the Department of the Environment, the Department for Regional Development, the councils and the other bodies who were there to help.

The Minister’s statement has been made, obviously, in respect of the Belfast and Omagh council areas. However, it is important that it be clarified for the people of Newtownards and Comber, whom the Minister mentioned in his statement. I would add Saintfield and Killyleagh, where houses were also damaged. It is important that the scheme be open to them.

Secondly, the Minister may have seen the picture in today’s newspaper of Killyleagh football ground, which is beneath four feet of water. A ladies’ match is supposed to be taking place on Thursday, but that will be impossible. There will be no football on that ground for about six weeks. At a meeting two years ago, the Rivers Agency said that it could not put a larger pipe under the road to alleviate the water problem in what is a water catchment area. I encourage the Minister to respond positively to Killyleagh FC and ensure that a larger drain is inserted to ensure that flooding will be alleviated. The current situation is unacceptable.

Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his question. The particular problem in Killyleagh is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and I am sure that officials from the Rivers Agency will respond in due course.

As regards the other council areas affected, there was further flooding, as the Member quite rightly said, and I mentioned parts of County Down in my statement. It is a matter for the councils; all councils were written to and emailed on Friday afternoon about the availability of the new scheme. Councils should get in touch with the Department of the Environment where there is need in their areas and submit an application to be involved in the scheme.

As the flooding only occurred on Friday, I expect that that is something that councils — whether Ards Borough Council or Down District Council — will communicate with the Department of the Environment about to ensure that residents in those council areas receive assistance if they require it. The scheme is open to councils, but it is up to them to apply. All the councils have been informed — by email or letter — about the scheme, how it works and how they can get involved if they deem that people in their areas require assistance.

12.45 pm

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. I warmly endorse his comments about the response of the emergency services, the community and voluntary sectors and, indeed, the community itself. I also recognise, as the Minister stated, the exceptional nature of the downpour last week.

Does the Minister agree that in the context of climate change the data that the Met Office and the Department rely on may already be out of date and that it therefore it may not be another 90 years before we experience a similar event? Can the Minister indicate what short-term measures have been taken and lessons learnt from the events last week?

Mr Murphy: That is a valid point. The Department needs to see if the statistics and the analysis for the gully-cleaning exercise — one aspect of what Roads Service is involved in — are up to date with weather predications. There are also resource implications for that — as I mentioned, there are 136,000 gullies in Belfast alone, and if a more regular service is required, there will be resource implications.

There was a departmental discussion this morning, which I expect to continue, about the ability of the Met Office to predict the location of severe weather earlier and more accurately. The Chamber will be aware that the weather warning last Tuesday was for the Belfast region as a whole; it was not specific to east or south Belfast.

There is scope to look again, for instance, at how regularly services are provided and whether a greater degree of co-ordination is possible with the Met Office to ensure an earlier weather warning — that would help the agencies to respond more rapidly. All of those are lessons in a changing climate. We must look at the implications of the events of last week and at how the Executive and the agencies can respond better in such circumstances.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his assurance that all council areas that were affected by the flooding are able to apply for the scheme — including North Down, which at least got a passing reference in the statement. There were, I am reliably informed, parts of the Province, particularly around Cookstown, where flooding began on the evening of 11 June. Will the Minister assure the Chamber that those areas will also be included in the scheme?

Will the Minister clarify the position on compensation where there has been damage to property outside a house — for example, where cars were parked outside and had to be written off? Will there be compensation to households for damage to property outside their houses?

Mr Murphy: I apologise for not referring to North Down Borough Council, but perhaps that is an argument for reform of local government as there are so many councils in County Down. Fewer councils would make my geographical job a bit easier.

Regarding compensation for property, the answer is the same as the one I gave Barry McElduff; the priority was to get a payment to people in households who had lost utilities, electricity, cooking and refrigeration facilities, so that they could return to a normal standard of living immediately. That does not close the door on any consideration of other properties that were damaged as a result of the flooding, but it is not to open the door unduly either.

We had this discussion with officials from the Department of Environment and the Department of Finance and Personnel. That was where the priority was, and if people want to make an argument for further consideration to be given to that, the Executive will give it due consideration.

Mr Armstrong: I must congratulate the emergency services and voluntary services for their actions. Could the Minister for Regional Development and his Department be more proactive in looking at the impact which new development is likely to have on existing areas where the infrastructure is already struggling to cope with the results of the flooding and at those at risk? Will the Minister pay particular attention to the impact of Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14) and global warming?

PPS 14 seems to concentrate on developments in towns, villages and rural areas, but little thought is given to the surface water in those areas and parts that are prone to flooding. The Minister for Regional Development said at the end of his statement that he would take a look at what needs to be done on a long-term basis, and it is important that he is very proactive.

Mr Murphy: It is a valid point that we need to look at housing development planning and at how replacing green fields with a housing development creates a hard surface that may contribute to flooding. We also need to look at whether the existing services — and I know that that has been a difficulty for planning — can cope with what may have come from additional housing. That is the reason for the substantial investment in water and sewerage services and the reason that over a 100 drainage schemes are being looked at across the whole region.

Those are the long-term implications that we have to grapple with, because it is not simply a matter of building houses; we must also look at the long-term implications of those houses. Mr Armstrong will know that the court case in relation to PPS 14 begins this morning, and that constrains what we can say about it. Certainly, the impact of PPS 14 is one that the Assembly and myself as the Minister responsible for that planning policy will want to look at again. We will see what the implications are from the outcome of the court case, but we certainly want to look not only at rural planning and people’s ability to live in the countryside but also at the strain that a build up of development puts on the sewerage system and the water and drainage infrastructure.

Mr Wells: The House will support the praise that has been heaped on the shoulders of all the statutory services that carried out such excellent work last week. I also think that the House accepts that the events of 12 June were exceptional — I witnessed the rainfall, and it was something that I had never seen in my, unfortunately, 50 years on this planet. [Laughter.]

I am more concerned that the devastating impact of global climate change may be starting, even in this part of the world. That is worrying. I am also concerned that although 15 June was a more normal day for rainfall, in my constituency of South Down areas such as Crossgar, Ballynahinch and Saintfield were very badly affected. Is the Minister absolutely convinced that the drainage system in those towns and villages is capable of meeting normal rainfall patterns, because my impression on Friday was that it certainly is not?

Mr Murphy: I share the Member’s concerns about the general change in climate that we seem to be experiencing and the implications that that has for all of us. The rainfall of 15 June was not of the severity, for instance, that we had in east and south Belfast, Omagh and other places on 12 June. Nonetheless, there was substantially severe rainfall over a more protracted period. We will be asking questions about whether the systems that were in place were able to cope with that rainfall. We have not had a report on whether the rainfall was measured against the storm expectations, which were above and beyond what a fully functioning water and sewerage system and drainage system would be able to cope with. Of course the Member is aware that our system is not up to the standard that we want it to be. There is investment planning to try to improve that standard, but whether that would have coped with Friday’s rainfall is another question that we want further analysis on. I cannot give the Member that assurance at the moment.

We had to deal with many issues that arose from the events of Tuesday and Wednesday. Less analysis has come forth on the events of Friday, including the level of rainfall and whether systems were fully up to scratch. We shall be asking those questions, and if there are lessons to be learned, we will learn them. If any further information can be made available, we will provide it to the Member.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister has largely covered the issue that I wished to raise. I was seeking answers about future sewerage infrastructure improvements. That matter has been addressed. Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Lo: In his statement, the Minister mentioned longer-term planning to improve the sewerage system in Belfast. Will the Department for Regional Development examine mandatory sustainable urban drainage systems for all new developments? That could reduce peak flows in sewers and road drainage by attenuation.

Mr Murphy: Investment in sewerage in Belfast is well under way, particularly in areas of south Belfast, in which the Member obviously has an interest. In the longer term, flood risk mitigation will be provided for in the central city area through the Belfast sewer project, which has been included in Northern Ireland Water’s capital-works programme for completion in 2009. That is a £120 million capital-works scheme, which includes the proposed Belfast sewer tunnel.

The tunnel is designed to divert storm water to a terminal pumping station near the Belfast waste water treatment works at Duncrue Street. When completed, the existing pumping stations that currently pump storm water into the River Lagan — including the River Terrace pumping station — will be decommissioned.

The proposed Belfast sewer project is designed to reduce the risk of flooding significantly, although no sewerage system can be guaranteed to prevent all further flooding. Further investment is required in the Belfast area — in addition to the Belfast sewer project — associated with the implementation of drainage area studies, particularly in the east Belfast area.

As I said in response to another question, those studies do not have the same priority as the waste water treatment works or the interruption-of-supply works. The drainage area studies are scheduled to be implemented after 2010. However, the substantial investment in Belfast’s main sewer project is due for completion in 2009. That will result in a significant improvement in the situation in the city centre area.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I thank the Minister for his reassurance that the compensation is payable across various council areas. That was not clear on Friday.

I repeat Peter Weir’s question about compensation in respect of the events of Monday night, when Cookstown was badly flooded. Will the compensation cover the events of Monday night, when the first of the storms occurred?

It is important that commercial buildings are covered in the same way as domestic ones. The situation for some domestic properties is OK, but commercial properties sustained much damage, and facilities inside some of them had to be closed down.

Mr Murphy: I repeat my previous answer: all councils were contacted in writing on Friday. Any council that considers itself eligible for the scheme is entitled to apply for compensation. That includes Cookstown District Council, if it has a particular case to make.

Priority was given to domestic households and to getting people back to some acceptable degree of living standard. That does not necessarily close the door on any other request for assistance in respect of damage to property. People who have such cases to make should pursue them. We will see where that brings us in relation to the resources that are available from the Executive.

Of course, £5 million, as a headline figure, seems like quite a substantial amount of money, but that will be spread across the areas of damage, and the Member will know that quite a number of areas and properties were damaged by the storms. The door is not closed to further consideration for other properties and other people who were affected by the flooding.

Mr McCarthy: I sympathise with all those who have lost their homes and who have been traumatised over the last week due to the severe flooding.

I congratulate the Minister on his efforts to learn lessons from what has happened to ensure that such severe flooding does not reoccur.

1.00 pm

The Minister will remember that, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in the Chamber and appealed to him for sufficient funding to properly maintain the roads in my constituency. Last Friday, the A20 — the main road between Portaferry and Newtownards — was blocked by flooding. Many of my constituents were affected by that flooding. Will the Minister ensure that his officials are given whatever means are necessary to keep this main road open at all times? As most of the road runs alongside Strangford Lough, there was no excuse for not being able to get rid of the water quickly.

Will the Minister advise what compensation will be made available to motorists whose cars were written-off as a result of getting caught in the flood waters?

Finally, despite the over-abundance of water throughout the country over the past week, Kiltonga industrial estate in Newtownards had its water cut off last Friday and is getting a temporary supply back only this morning. Will the Minister comment on that situation?

Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his questions. The priority for Roads Service is, of course, to try to keep roads open. Roads were reopened fairly quickly after the events had taken place. If investment is required, a case can be made for that and it will be given consideration. The Member will know that there are competing requirements for investment — across all areas of the Executive’s responsibility, not just for Roads Service. Therefore, priorities must be agreed and investment must be made on the basis of those priorities. If a lack of resources is identified in any area, a strong case for investment could be made.

Compensation has been mentioned for damaged properties. Members should be clear that these payments are not compensation: they are one-off payments to enable people to get their properties back to an acceptable living standard, allowing them to cook and use the facilities in their own homes. However, as I have said, consideration can be given to further requests for support. Any requests should be made through the process that has been agreed with the councils.

A note will be taken of the specific case that the Member mentioned in his constituency, and I will ask Northern Ireland Water to respond to him.

Mr S Wilson: I welcome the Minister’s statement and the work of the emergency services over the past week. The Minister has indicated that the events of last week were exceptional circumstances. However, in the past eight years, it is about the eighth time that I have heard — from various Ministers, not just from the current Minister — that those are one in every 100 or 150 years events. It seems that we have had 1,000 years of disaster all wrapped up in the past eight years.

As such events are not now considered to be exceptional circumstances, will the Minister give an assurance that emergency planning is being strengthened so that the Department is aware of where floods are likely to occur? They seem to happen in the same places time and time again. Will the Minister also give an assurance that data on the locations of floods will be collected and that the Department will liaise closely with the weather forecasters so that early intervention, such as the distribution of sandbags, can occur before the flooding even starts?

Despite the ongoing investment programme and the strategic investment programme, will the Minister confirm that where areas that flood regularly are identified and where individual actions could be taken to alleviate that problem, some money will be spent and some research will be carried out to ascertain how that issue could be resolved?

Finally, will the Minister assure Members that, given the record of the councils — and especially Belfast City Council — in distributing money within two days of it having been received, that there will be a role for councils if there are emergencies in the future?

Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his questions. I am happy to provide him with reassurance on all the issues that he raised.

My response to the first point raised is similar to that given to Mitchel McLaughlin earlier. The descriptions of how often in 100 years such events might happen are provided by people in the Met Office — that is their job. They are profess­ionals; they measure those occurrences, and they provide the frequency of such events.

There is a perception among some Members of the House, and also among some members of the public, that there is a greater frequency in such occurrences. If that is the case, there needs to be a more accurate description and a greater degree of co-ordination before an event happens. That is something that could usefully be investigated.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the warning for Tuesday 12 June covered the greater Belfast area, not east Belfast or south Belfast in particular. It is difficult to be that specific. If factors such as the amount of resources available, the number of gullies and rivers, the area of sewerage and water infrastructure that must be checked and the distribution of sandbags is taken into account, there is some restriction on what can be done in advance. It is the Executive’s job to examine the emergency response and to consider what else could be done in advance and where procedures could be tightened up. The issue of advanced warnings and the ability to get rapid response out before an event is something that could usefully be examined.

The councils played an important role, and the Executive commended them and continue to commend them. It is clear that, in such circumstances, the councils are the first port of call for many members of the public, regardless of where responsibility lies. Over those days, the councils, particularly Belfast City Council, Omagh District Council and some others, proved that they could initiate a very quick and localised response to the people on the ground by means of projects such as the Belfast Resilience Forum and by use of their own staff and resources. I assure the Member that the role played by the councils has not been lost and that it will be factored into any review of procedures or the emergency response.

Mr Easton: Will the Minister reassure the House that the Belfast to Bangor railway line, which was closed because of last week’s flooding, has been checked for health and safety? Will he also give an assurance, after the flooding in the Gransha Road and Bloomfield Road areas of Bangor, which appears to have been caused by blockages in the drainage system, that all gullies and drains will be checked?

Mr Murphy: The Belfast to Bangor railway line was closed for one and a half hours on Friday 15 June 2007. At 8.30 am, a signaller reported flooding in the vicinity of Craigavad. The line was subsequently closed between Cultra and Seahill. A landslip further along the line was also reported. Infrastructure personnel were duly alerted and, having assessed both problems, they were able to reopen the line. Train services were resumed, albeit with an operating speed restriction in place as a precautionary measure.

I do not have specific details about the roads that the Member mentioned. However, I will ask Roads Service officials to respond to him in writing.

Executive Committee Business

Welfare Reform Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List, which details the order for consideration of amendments. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There are three groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on amendments No 1, No 2 and No 5, which deal with the manner in which a person with a mental-health condition is dealt with by the Department for Social Development. The second debate will be on Mr Brady and other Members’ opposition to clause 16, which deals with the question of whether the Department should have the power to contract out some of its functions. The third debate will be on amendments No 3 and No 4, which deal with the payment of housing benefit and debt counselling.

I remind Members intending to speak that, during the debates on each of the three groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in that group on which they wish to comment. Once the initial debate on each group is completed, any subsequent amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate.

The Questions on clause stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill.

If that is clear to Members — and I am sure that it is — we shall proceed. No amendments have been tabled for clauses 1 to 10.

Clauses 1 to 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11 (Work-focused health related assessments)

Mr Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. Along with amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendments No 2 and No 5. These amendments deal with the manner in which the Department deals with persons with mental-health conditions. As amendment No 5 is consequential to amendment No 1, I will call amendment No 5 only if amendment No 1 is made.

Mr Brady: I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 10, line 6, at end insert

“, or

(e) a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychiatric nurse or a psychiatric social worker where the assessment is in relation to a person in connection with a mental health condition.”

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 12, page 10, line 23, at end insert

“(e) for securing that in the case of a person who has a mental health condition, the interview is conducted in a manner that takes into account the specific needs of the person being interviewed;” — [Mr Brady.]

No 5: In clause 55, page 41, line 27, at end insert

“(e) a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychiatric nurse or a psychiatric social worker where the medical examination is in relation to a person in connection with a mental health condition.” — [Mr Brady.]

Go raibh maith agat. All of these amendments are designed to alleviate the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill on those vulnerable groups whom it will affect the most. Historically, benefit legislation has been formulated by people who have no specific knowledge or experience of those in receipt of benefit. These changes are being introduced without consultation and are designed to save money, not necessarily to enhance people’s lives.

Those people who have particular types and degrees of mental illness, and who find it very difficult to articulate how they are affected, will be one of the groups most affected by the changes proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill. The purpose of amendment No 1 is to ensure that people with mental-health problems are examined by medically qualified practitioners who have particular insight into those problems. The legislation, as it stands, mentions:

“(a) a registered medical practitioner,

(b) a registered nurse,

(c) an occupational therapist … or

(d) a member of such other profession”.

There is no mention of people with specific qualifications in mental health.

As someone who has represented people on incapacity benefit with mental-health problems over the past 26 years, and who has dealt with people on benefits for over 30 years, I feel that I am in a position to comment on these issues. Inevitably, a person with mental-health problems, appearing before an appeal tribunal, will be asked if they have seen a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse or psychiatric social worker. Often, the tribunal will adjourn to request a report from one of those practitioners. Obviously, this means a further delay; something that adds to the stress on the client and the cost to the public purse. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable that practitioners in the particular professions mentioned in the amendment are the most appropriate people to examine those with mental-health problems and to comment on their competence or otherwise. The amendment can only be of benefit to those people with mental-health issues. I ask the Assembly to support the amendment.

In relation to amendment No 2, client interviews for the purpose of social security are carried out in the jobs and benefits office — usually in the public office. By definition, people who are being interviewed feel some degree of intimidation and enter into the interviews with a degree of trepidation. The public offices are noisy, busy and usually full of people waiting to be seen.

When an interviewee has a mental-health problem, it is important that the Social Security Agency should be aware of their condition. The interview should be carried out in a manner and location that is conducive to dealing with their particular problem. It is of paramount importance that such people should be interviewed in a sensitive and humane manner and allowed to dictate the course of the interview at their own pace. If necessary, the interview should be carried out in the person’s home, because that is where they feel most comfortable.

It is also incumbent on the Social Security Agency to ensure that interviews are carried out by people who have received extensive training in dealing with clients who have mental-health problems, and that the interviewee is comfortable with the location and pace of the interview. The client must also be reassured that the interview is being carried out in the strictest confidence and that confidentiality is being strictly adhered to.

I ask that the Assembly support the amendment.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

1.15 pm

Miss McIlveen: The amendments may be tabled with best of intentions for people with mental-health conditions, but their acceptance would not benefit those people or anyone else who is in receipt of benefits in Northern Ireland. Members from all sides of the House share the concerns that surround the treatment of people who suffer from mental-health conditions. The Minister made specific mention of that in her comments to the House last week, and I welcome the specific commitment she gave that people with mental-health problems would be treated with particular sensitivity and sympathy.

I will speak against the proposed amendments to clauses 11, 12 and 55 of the Bill. The Members who tabled the amendments appear intent on introducing change for change’s sake. Clause 55(2) will insert a definition of “health care professional” into The Social Security (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, and that definition will reflect “health care professional” as defined in clause 11(8) of the Bill. After listing three categories of healthcare professionals, the Bill states a fourth at subsection (8)(d):

“a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as may be prescribed.”

The Members who tabled the amendments do not intend to change that paragraph, so I presume that they are happy with it. I wonder whether they have read section 25 of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002. It is readily apparent, for those who have chosen to read it, that all recognised and regulated health care workers are catered for in section 25. It naturally follows that the Bill in its unamended form caters for the appropriate healthcare professional to assess each individual depending on his or her particular circumstances. Aside from the ineffectuality and superfluousness of the attempt to insert the proposed paragraph (e) into the legislation after such a catch-all paragraph (d), it is poor and clumsy drafting.

I will now deal with the proposed insertion of new paragraph (e) into clause 12. Clause 12 governs regulations that the Department can introduce under the Welfare Reform Bill, and matters that may be taken into account when issuing those regulations. The guidelines set out in clause 12 — they are merely guidelines — are to assist in general terms the matters that the regulations may address. Although several matters are particularised, the list in clause 12 is not exhaustive. The specifics of providing the appropriate environment for the interview of people suffering from a mental-health condition are more suited to the detail of the regulations. As the Members who have proposed the amendments are members of the Committee for Social Development, they will have an opportunity to discuss the issue when the regulations are being drafted. The Minister was clear and unequivocal when she met with the Committee on 24 May 2007 and said:

“I want to make it quite clear that I will be coming back to the Committee before anything happens as regards the regulations. I want to get the views, advice and guidance of Committee members before proceeding. I am quite clear about that.”

The Sinn Féin members of the Committee for Social Development are dressing the amendments up as additional protection for those who suffer from mental-health problems. The amendments do nothing of the kind. They contribute nothing constructive.

One of the primary reasons for accelerated passage of the Bill was to maintain parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is recorded in Hansard that, on 24 May 2007, the Committee for Social Development:

“agreed unanimously to the accelerated passage of the Welfare Reform Bill”.

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Miss McIlveen: Sorry, no. Thank you.

Not only that, but during that meeting the Sinn Féin Committee members did not raise one single dissatis­faction as to how people who suffer from mental-health disorders may be treated under the Bill. Perhaps at that stage they had not been told what to think.

Nevertheless, no matter how well intentioned the amendments are for the treatment of people with mental-health conditions, they will not be in anyone’s interest if the principle of parity is broken because of their being accepted.

The DUP will not support the amendments; it is important that the Bill passes through the House.

Mr A Maginness: I oppose the amendments in this group. I agree with the comprehensive analysis that Miss McIlveen has put forward. She has critically examined each individual amendment and has succinctly presented the arguments collectively and individually.

Mr Brady raised a general point about mental illness and people who suffer from mental ill health. It is clear that all Members are sympathetic to the notion of assisting people who suffer from mental ill health. Indeed, it is clear that the Minister, in addressing the House and the Committee for Social Development, is exceptionally sympathetic.

However, the proposals in amendments No 1, No 2 and No 5 in no way augment the process of assisting those people. The Bill, as it stands, is clearly intended to give people who suffer from mental ill health the greatest possible assistance with work-related interviews, and so on. In fact, it could be said that the proposed amendments are superfluous.

I wish to raise one specific issue in amendment No 1, which is the introduction of psychologists into the definition of a “health care professional”. To permit a psychologist to make assessments would introduce into the legislation someone who is not necessarily — I emphasise “necessarily” — medically trained to deal with a patient.

Some psychologists may have some medical experience or qualification. However, in most circum­stances, psychologists are not medically trained. It would therefore be inappropriate for a psychologist to be involved in assessments. For that reason — although not for that reason alone — amendment No 1 is flawed, because people who are medically trained are required to deal with people who suffer from a medical condition.

Mr S Wilson: Even the wording of the amendment is flawed. The amendment proposes that psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses or psychiatric social workers be involved in the assessment of people with a mental-health condition. The terms are so wide that almost anyone could fall within the remit of clause 11 were amendment No 1 accepted.

Mr A Maginness: Exactly. I agree with what the Member has said.

In many situations, people do not have a specific mental condition, problem or form of mental ill health alone; often, there is a mixture of physical and mental conditions. In such cases, it is difficult to extract the predominant element that affects a person and to identify the specific issue that must be addressed. A person could have a mental-health condition — for example, periodic depression — yet also suffer from some physical problem, illness or disability. In those circumstances, it is an entirely different situation that needs to be addressed. Amendment No 1 does not really consider the complexity of situations in which, in many cases, the mental-health condition may be very minor compared to the person’s physical incapacity.

The Bill is broad enough to catch all needs and to capture a mixture of physical and mental needs, where they exist together or separately. Therefore, in dealing with the circumstances that have been mentioned, the clauses as they stand should be acceptable.

My remarks apply equally to amendment No 1 and amendment No 2. It is important that the Assembly is mindful of the Minister’s commitment to deal sympath­etically and understandingly with the problems that Mr Brady raised. I am not saying that Mr Brady should not have raised those issues: if he simply wanted to highlight them, that is fine and one respects that. However, if he wanted to move an amendment that would efficiently and correctly deal with those problems, I am afraid that he has not done so. The amendments are flawed and do not deal with the situation properly. Therefore the Member has done a disservice.

Mr Ford: The amendments recognise concerns — which have existed across the UK since the implem­entation of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 — about the effects that some of the requirements may have on people who suffer from psychiatric illness or who have a learning disability. However, it is not clear that the amendments deal with those problems. Certain issues are beyond what can reasonably be included in primary legislation.

Amendment No 2 refers to job-related interviews and has considerable merit in its specification that such interviews should be carried out in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the needs of the individual. However, there is already a host of provisions for regulations. Some Members referred to the Minister’s comments in last week’s debate on the Second Stage of the Bill. The question must be asked whether the amendment, which would require the provision of further regulations, is appropriate. The Assembly must ensure that people who face work-focused interviews are treated in a way that will encourage them into work and not in a way that increases anxiety or creates difficulty for people who suffer from depression or who have a learning disability. That is a key issue on which there is no disagreement. The question is whether the relevant clauses should be amended. My colleagues and I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response.

As a social worker by profession — indeed, an approved social worker under the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 until my registration lapsed because of the time that I spent in this place, where a qualification in mental health social work is, apparently, not relevant — I must declare an interest. All the appropriate professionals are covered in the Bill. To suggest that a particular group of professionals is required to deal with a particular case — such as that of someone who has had orthopaedic surgery, for example — implies that there should be a list of those who are suitable to deal with each case. As one who made his living as a social worker, I certainly would not have felt qualified to submit a professional report on the ability to work of someone who had had orthopaedic surgery.

Professionals are sought to provide professional reports, and part of their professionalism is to determine whether they are capable of providing a report. To suggest that certain professionals would deal with certain conditions is to suggest that a raft of amendments should go through in order to encompass all kinds of other people who would be suitable. That goes against the spirit in which professional regulations were laid down and those that are referred to in the Bill. Registered social workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, nurses or doctors are capable of dealing with their area of expertise. We should not divide them into further subsections.

Like Mr Maginness, I agree with Ms McIlveen, who spoke against the necessity of such divisions. However, I want to put on record my disagreement with her reference to the principle of parity. The Assembly has yet to tackle the issue of where parity is essential in social security matters and where variation may be an option.

The basic structures, financial benefits and key conditions of the legislation must be treated on the basis of parity. However, It is wrong to suggest that the Assembly cannot amend minor details in a Bill such as this because of parity considerations. Had I received the necessary assurances from the Minister about the concerns that I raised, I would not be supporting what I regard as a flawed amendment.

1.30 pm

However, that is not saying that Members should accept automatically that no amendment is possible in such cases. There may be circumstances in which the Assembly could make marginal variations to conditions, which would have no effect on their role within the UK national framework for social security but would make conditions easier for some people here. Let us be careful not to get too hung up on parity even in relation to social security legislation.

The key issue is to ensure that the Bill goes through as fast as possible and in the best possible form. If the Minister repeats the assurances that she made about the way in which people with psychiatric illnesses or learning disabilities will be treated, and addresses concerns that appropriate professionals will be involved, there will be no need for any of the amendments to be made.

Mr Shannon: I support the Bill. The subject was debated at length in the Chamber on 23 January, and concerns were expressed about some of the Bill’s implications, specifically the prospect of negative repercussions for those with neurological and mental-health problems.

I pointed out the problems associated with topping up benefits for people who attended interviews and the impact that could have on people who were genuinely unable to work due to mental-health problems. The Bill begins to address the issue, and that is welcome. However, to what extent are the mental-health professionals satisfied with the clause, in particular the Northern Ireland Neurological Charities Alliance — the umbrella organisation for charities dealing with multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and other conditions — which expressed concern to me and, I suspect, others about the Bill?

I reiterate that I agree with the concept of getting people back into work placements, but not to the detriment of their mental health or that of their families. Will the Minister assure the House that above-mentioned concerned parties can be satisfied as to the power and remit of the Bill and the effect that it will have on those it is aimed at? In other words, will help be getting to the people who need it?

If the answer is that there has been wide consultation and that the various bodies are satisfied, then Members must support the Bill and encourage those on the periphery of society back into satisfactory working lives.

Mr F McCann: a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to clarify two points, especially given the point made by Miss McIlveen. First, the Committee for Social Development supported accelerated passage for the Bill only after being informed by the Minister that benefits would be stopped in mid-June — that was the only reason why accelerated passage was agreed to. If the Committee had had an opportunity to debate the Bill further, many more amendments might have been proposed today.

Secondly, Alban Maginness raised the point that a psychologist is better placed to speak for claimants than a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are mentioned in the Bill while psychologists and psychiatrists are not.

I support the amendment of my friend from Newry and Armagh Mickey Brady because it makes sense. It sets out in black and white what is required of the Department when it embarks on interviewing a person who suffers from a mental illness. It would mean that those who would adjudicate and assess people who have been informed that they must attend a job-focused interview would have the medical experience to judge the ability of that person to take part in such an interview.

The amendment states:

“a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychiatric nurse or a psychiatric social worker where the assessment is in relation to a person in connection with a mental health condition.”

That is clear, whereas the Bill, as it stands, is not.

There is no mention in the Bill of the professions listed in the amendment; nor does the Bill state that a person must be qualified in psychiatry to examine, or judge, people with mental illnesses who are to be interviewed.

Nowhere in the Bill does it say that those being asked to adjudicate in cases where the person suffers from a mental-health disorder must be qualified to do so. In fact, clause 55(2) states that:

“’health care professional” means —

(a)  a registered medical practitioner;

(b) a registered nurse;

(c)  an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 (c. 8); or

(d)  a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as the Department may prescribe;.”

It continues, but the meaning is the same: it mentions every possible practitioner to cover other illnesses, but it does not state who should examine or assess those who suffer from mental illnesses. I find that rather strange.

Mr S Wilson: I appreciate the Member’s giving way. Although I can appreciate the Member’s point, I am not so sure that those professionals are not covered by clause 55(2)(d). Is the Member saying, as a Member for South Antrim Mr Ford did earlier, that if someone has a heart condition, he or she would be best examined by a heart specialist, or that if someone has a limb condition, he or she would be best examined by an orthopaedic surgeon? If that is the case, why does Mr McCann not suggest that there be specified professionals for all kinds of ailments?

Mr F McCann: The point is well made. However, when it came down to it, Sinn Féin and some other Committee members believed that those people suffering from mental illnesses would lose out and be the hardest hit by the proposed interviews. If other people suffer from other ailments, they too should be catered for. The Bill names a wide spectrum of professionals to cover a range of conditions, but it makes no specific mention of mental health.

My point is that many people who claim incapacity or related benefits suffer from mental illnesses. People may argue that GPs are qualified to examine anyone who is ill. That is not the case. Very few GPs are trained to deal with mental illnesses; they are even less capable of assessing or advising a person with a mental illness.

Mr McGlone: Will the Member not also accept that, in many instances, people attend their GPs to receive counselling for mental illnesses?

Mr F McCann: For some considerable time now, I have attended meetings with the families of people who have taken their own lives. They say that GPs are so overworked and overloaded that it is impossible for them to identify some of the problems suffered by their patients, some of which are mental-health conditions.

That is why Sinn Féin specifically argued that the Bill must include references to professionals with psychiatric training. Such professionals could deal with sufferers of mental illnesses and give the necessary professional advice on when people with mental-health difficulties could be interviewed; how the interviews should be conducted; the degree or severity of the illnesses; and whether the people should be accompanied during the interview process.

Amendment No 2 deals with the circumstances and surroundings in which the interviews should be conducted. Those very simple precautions should be supported by everyone in the House. These issues should already be provided for in the Bill. Let us ensure that we afford those with mental illnesses the expertise that they need to cope with the changes in the Bill.

I am pleased to support amendment No 5 from my friend from Newry and Armagh. Mickey Brady has over 30 years’ experience working for the then Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) and later in an advice centre, dealing with appeals and many other problems. He knows what he is talking about.

He has conducted incapacity-benefit interviews in DHSS offices. Professionally, he has seen the results of dealing with people with mental-health problems and has tried to adjudicate on decisions — an activity that is not easy on the people who work in those offices. They are not equipped to deal with, or adjudicate on, those types of cases, and many would attest to that.

The surroundings in which interviews take place are as important as the interviews. I am still not convinced that the interviews, as they are laid out, are the right step forward. They could prove to be a major setback for people who suffer from mental illnesses. Members must get this right —

Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr F McCann: Sammy, you will end up saying more than me during my contribution.

Mr S Wilson: I appreciate that the Member has given way on a second point. Clause 12(2), which Members will have more opportunity to debate in detail, makes it clear that:

“(2) Regulations under this section may, in particular, make provision —

(a)  prescribing circumstances in which such a person is subject to a requirement to take part in one or more work-focused interviews;

(b) for notifying such a person of any such requirement;”

The application of those regulations will allow far more flexibility than would the inclusion of a paragraph, which simply says that:

“…the interview … takes into account the specific needs of the person being interviewed;”

Does the proposed legislation not offer a better safeguard?

Mr F McCann: The intention was to include an amendment to deal with that issue. The problem is that the longer the process goes on, the less likelihood there is that anything will be included to deal with the specific needs of claimants.

In 1995, when the last major changes to the incapacity-benefit system took place, I took part in several meetings with senior DHSS officials and visited local offices. The people in those offices who conducted interviews with claimants found the interviews difficult to deal with because, through no fault of their own, they were not trained to the necessary standards. The level of training that is required to deal with the interviews is far more advanced than that that is currently provided. In practice, regardless of what is contained in the legislation, the theory may not be applied in practice in social security offices. Therein lies the difficulty.

Members must get this right — and if I could read this speech properly, we might get it right. [Laughter.] We must consider best practice in various countries, and take advice from professionals who deal with mental illness.

In some situations, I have observed that surroundings and a friendly atmosphere can be half the battle in making a person feel at ease. That is what amendment No 1 is about. Although the Bill stipulates where an interview can take place, it misses one vital point, which is taking advice and opinions from those who know — professionals in the field of psychiatry and mental health.

I have serious difficulties with certain aspects of the Bill. If I were dealing with it at Committee Stage now, I would not be in a rush to recommend accelerated passage. Too much depends on getting it right.

Not least among my concerns is that life should be made as comfortable as possible for those whose illnesses warrant a completely different approach than is normally taken during interviews of that nature. How many Members have experience of people who, for an apparently trivial matter, have been called for an interview at a social security office and have fallen apart because they think that they have done something wrong? How many Members are aware of people who have become physically ill and refused to go to interviews because they could not handle the stress of walking into local offices?

Members should consider that a consequence of the Bill would be that when people are asked why they have not attended an interview and they explain that they could not mentally handle walking into the office, more than likely, those people would receive reduced benefits. A genuine fear of authority has always been prevalent among older people, but it also exists among younger people — and Members can only guess how the Bill will impact on those with mental-health problems.

Given that, I hope that Members can put political considerations aside and recognise amendment No 1 as taking precautions to deliver those interviews in places that are conducive to those with such illnesses.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support amendment No 1.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I had not planned to speak on the Bill because my colleagues have adequately covered my concerns. However, in January, I proposed a motion in the Transitional Assembly, and listening to the comments today, I feel that many of the Members who are opposing the Sinn Féin amendments appear to have forgotten what that debate was about.

1.45 pm

The DUP has made much about holding Ministers to account: it now has an opportunity to do so. There is nothing to stop the Minister for Social Development progressing the Bill in its entirety without going near the Committee again. I do not suggest that she will do so: however, if departmental officials are prepared to walk into a Committee room and tell the members of the Committee for Social Development that benefits will be stopped if they do not agree to accelerated passage, then what is to stop them from doing anything? It now appears, with the benefit of hindsight, that that may not be the case, and that the Assembly has the power to ensure that benefits can continue to be paid. If departmental officials are capable of telling such a whopper to the members of the Committee for Social Department, what else are they prepared to do to ensure the progress of the Bill?

I wonder, as did Mr Ford, whether Ms McIlveen is more worried about parity of esteem between here and Britain than she is about the rights of people suffering mental illness. There may be an argument regarding the financial implications of paying benefits but the Assembly has the power to ensure that any legislation made in this Chamber will provide basic rights for the people under its jurisdiction.

I am concerned, but not surprised, about the SDLP’s stance on the matter. On 23 January 2007 I proposed the motion in the debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, which specifically mentioned neurological patients. The SDLP was, apparently, so concerned about people with mental-health difficulties that its amendment excluded neuro­logical patients and included a reference to people with mental ill-health. It is worth quoting again —

Mr McGlone: Will the Member define the word “neurological”?

Mr O’Dowd: The word was specifically chosen to include people with multiple sclerosis. I will supply the Member with a more detailed definition if he so wishes. The motion as amended stated:

“That this Assembly expresses deep concern about the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, particularly the introduction of a new coercive regime into benefit administration, and its impact on a number of vulnerable groups, especially those people with mental ill health.” — [Official Report, Vol 21, No 14, p 405, col 1].

Nothing in this Bill has changed since it came from Westminster. It has been posted here and is sitting in front of us awaiting adoption by the Assembly. Margaret Ritchie voted in favour of the motion that was tabled on 23 January. Does that mean, therefore, that the coercive regime mentioned in that motion has been done away with? Welfare rights groups in England do not think so. Those groups are very concerned about the nature of the Bill — they have had experience of its impact.

Alban Maginness won our argument for us when he said that psychologists were not properly trained to deal with people suffering from mental-health problems. Does Mr Maginness honestly believe that client advisors working in social security offices are properly trained to deal with people with those same difficulties? I seriously doubt that. Those staff members would readily admit that they are not properly trained to carry out those functions.

Lobby organisations and advocate groups share deep concerns about the Welfare Reform Bill and the effect that it will have on vulnerable people in society. Briefing papers supplied by Assembly researchers, the Law Centre and groups representing the field of neurology for the debate on 23 January, highlighted several cases. One case, which stuck in my mind, was of a young mother with severe alcohol and mental-health problems who attended a work-focused interview accompanied by her children. She failed the interview; failed to find employment; left the family home and lived on the streets, and ended up taking her own life.

On a day when newspapers and radio stations are reporting that three young people in a small geographical area have taken their own lives, and when the subject of suicide once again comes to the fore, are Members saying through this Bill that they are not going to take the opportunity to protect the rights of people with mental-health difficulties?

Some Members say that the Bill does not have to be so restrictive; but if we are serious about protecting the rights of people with mental-health problems, this Bill is our opportunity to do so — it will send a clear message that a line has been drawn in the sand.

All the fine words about the Bamford Review and the need for investment in mental-health services are not worth diddly-squat, unless they are in legislation. The Assembly has the chance to act on that today.

With the deepest respect to general practitioners, who do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances, they are not qualified to deal with mental-health issues at that level. Indeed, the suicide-prevention strategy launched by the direct rule Health Minister, Sean Woodward, identified —

Dr McDonnell: What qualification does the Member have to dictate to the Chamber that GPs are not qualified to deal with mental-health issues? I worked for 28 years in the Health Service, and 50% of what I dealt with in those years was mental health; now Mr O’Dowd tells me that I am not qualified and that, retrospectively, I have been a failure.

Mr O’Dowd: The Member is being somewhat dramatic in his representation of what I said. I did say that GPs were not qualified to deal with that matter.

Mr Molloy: Address the Chair.

Mr O’Dowd: Sorry Mr Speaker. I am being told off here. [Laughter.]

If my colleague refers to the suicide-prevention strategy and the consultation around it, he will find that it was GPs who lobbied the hardest for more assistance, more training and more resources to deal with mental-health issues, because mental health is a specialist issue.

I am not degrading GPs. I opened my speech by saying that they do an excellent job in very difficult circumstances, but a 10-minute, sometimes five-minute, appointment does not make a GP a specialist in mental health.

Mental health incorporates two separate subjects. One is counselling, and sometimes someone to talk to is as good a counselling as any, and often that will be done by the local GP. However, the Assembly is being asked to agree that people with mental-health issues present themselves at a tribunal, a hearing and an adjudication, which may result in the loss of benefits and their being forced into unsuitable employment, which may have a detrimental effect on their health. A doctor, who is not a specialist in this subject, is asked to decide in half an hour if a patient is mentally competent. I do not believe that any GP should be put in that position. Mental-health professionals should carry out that assessment. Go raibh maith agat.

I support the amendments set before the House at this stage of the Bill.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members to address their remarks through the Chair.

Mr S Wilson: I will address my remarks through the Chair, and I will not require a reminder from the Deputy Speaker on the opposite Bench.

Sinn Féin is making a belated attempt to wash its hands of a decision that it, collectively, supported in this House. [Interruption]

The hon Member says — from a sedentary position — that he was blackmailed. If Sinn Féin is so easily blackmailed by a Minister’s saying that, if one thing is not done, the other will be done, perhaps it should not represent people here. If it felt strongly and sorely about that, it should have opposed accelerated passage. However, collectively, it supported the accelerated passage of the Bill through the House, after the reasons for that were given, both to the Committee and to the Assembly, by the Minister.

Mr F McCann: Will the member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I am obliged to give way. [Laughter]

Mr F McCann: I have you now.

Accelerate passage has been mentioned from the outset of the debate, and certainly during Miss McIlveen’s speech, she talked about getting accelerated passage through the Committee. In the Committee, I tried to explain that, if accelerated passage were not granted, people’s benefits would cease in mid-June. Under those circumstances — and under no others — there was an obligation to allow accelerated passage. If Sinn Féin had its way, there would be several other amendments before the House today.

Mr S Wilson: As I am not a Member of the Committee for Social Development, I do not know what was said at the Committee meeting. However, having been present in the Assembly when the Minister for Social Development asked for accelerated passage for the Bill, I am sure that her request was not made on those terms. We are now in mid-June and still debating the Bill.

Had it been the case that, without accelerated passage, people’s benefits would have ceased in mid-June, I would have at least expected the Members opposite to have said that they agreed to accelerated passage for the Bill only under duress or under protest. However, we did not hear even that; there was general assent in the House that the Bill should be given accelerated passage.

Perhaps Sinn Féin Members, like all of us, have been lobbied by the various groups that are concerned about the issue, but it is not good enough — and it is not responsible politics either — that, after having agreed to accelerated passage, they now find that they should have thought more deeply about the matter, give in to the lobby groups and try to blame everyone else, including the Minister.

Mr O’Dowd: Does the Member agree that the granting of accelerated passage does not mean that we must agree with the Bill throughout its entire process but, rather, that we forgo the Committee Stage of the Bill? The amendments that we are discussing today are perfectly within the rules of the Assembly.

Mr S Wilson: I appreciate that intervention, as it brings me to my second point. Part of the argument today has been about accelerated passage. Why do the Members opposite complain about accelerated passage when, as the Member has quite rightly pointed out, Members have every chance to make amendments now on the floor of the House? The Members opposite cannot have it both ways. They cannot complain about accelerated passage and then tell us that the fact that the Bill has been given accelerated passage does not really matter because amendments can legitimately be made on the floor of the House, although we have not had the same opportunity to consider amendments in detail in the Committee.

Sinn Féin Members have argued that holding the Minister to account is what the Assembly is all about. Of course we want to hold the Minister to account. That is the job of every one of us here. As she is a member of another party and I enjoy having a go at members of other parties — indeed, as people know, I occasionally enjoy having a go at my own party’s Ministers — I would have been more than happy to join Sinn Féin in having a go at the Minister for Social Development if I thought that she was trying to pull a fly one on the Assembly, but I do not believe that that is the case. Indeed, the proposed amendments would hardly hold the Minister to account. If anything, the amendments would arguably do a disservice to the very people whom Sinn Féin claims to want to protect, as I will explain in a moment or two.

I listened to the reasons that the Member gave for disagreeing with the Bill. He pilloried my colleague from Strangford Miss McIlveen for being happy simply to adopt parity legislation and to follow blindly whatever legislation comes through Westminster, as if that was the job of unionists. It is not the job of unionists to blindly follow bad legislation that comes through Westminster and is introduced into the Assembly. If such legislation can be amended so that its provisions are tailored to local situations, we will of course do that. However, given that the Member stated that not one line of the Bill had changed since it came from Westminster, it seems that Sinn Féin Members are interested in ensuring only that we do not mimic legislation that comes from Westminster. Sinn Féin Members should not, on the one hand, blame the DUP for blindly following parity legislation while criticising such legislation simply because it originated at Westminster.

The basis on which I say that is that I am not so sure that the proposed amendments show that the Members opposite even have an understanding of what the Bill is all about. For example, the Member argued that client advisers are not qualified to make some of these complex judgements; that is quite true. However, the assumption behind that view is that client advisers will be making such judgements by themselves, but they will not. They will have a plethora of available information, whether it be written or oral. People will also have the right to make representations. It is wrong to say that some client adviser in a Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety office will have to adjudicate on those matters. The basis on which the amendments have been tabled is wrong.

2.00 pm

Mr O’Dowd used emotional rhetoric in his second argument. He quoted the sad example of a mother who had been turned down for benefits and who killed herself. I do not know about those circumstances, and the Member did not outline the details of the case, but there is no guarantee that a professional might not have come to exactly the same conclusion. There is no guarantee that, had a professional made that judgement, that mother would not have behaved in the same way. It is wrong to suppose that professionals hold the key to ensuring that such instances do not occur. The use of such emotional rhetoric shows that the Member knew that the amendments were weak. He had, therefore, to make such an appeal.

Would the amendments help individuals? Great play has been made of specifying that:

“a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychiatric nurse or a psychiatric social worker”

— and we are not told which would be the most appropriate — should be involved in assessing cases:

“in relation to a person in connection with a mental health condition.”

I pointed out in an earlier intervention that there is no definition for “a mental health condition”, or the degree of severity of “a mental health condition”. In some cases, it might well be that, when someone has a complex mental-health condition, one of those professionals would be the best person to become involved. However, the Bill does not rule that out. The Bill allows for all such professionals. I would imagine that if people who assess cases feel that there is a need for a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a heart surgeon, or whatever, they would seek that help, and the Bill allows for that to happen.

The proposers of amendment No 2 believe that inserting:

“the interview is conducted in a manner that takes into account the specific needs of the person being interviewed;”

is a safeguard for someone who needs to be interviewed in his or her own home, or needs to be accompanied to interview. Anything so vague could not be regarded as a safeguard. The Minister is offering that regulations be made about notifying people of the place and the manner of the interview, and that those regulations will be presented to the Committee, which will have an opportunity to amend them. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong.

Mrs D Kelly: Regardless of the Westminster legislation, there is ample flexibility to allow the Minister to issue good-practice guidelines, and each manager would then be held accountable for the delivery of those guidelines.

Mr S Wilson: My mind must be easily read — I hope that it is not. [Laughter.]I was about to come to that point. The regulations allow the Minister to be far more specific than the amendment would enable her to be. The amendment could offer only general guidance to some poor caseworker who is left to exercise discretion in regard to a vague statement. That could be as dangerous — or more so — than a good set of regulations that are well thought out, tailored to the specific situation, and that take on board all of the representations that are made. As safeguards, the proposed amendments are less effective than those offered by the Minister.

I was provoked to speak because the Member indicated that the DUP had no interest in holding the Minister to account and that my party blindly follows Westminster legislation to maintain parity with Great Britain. I hope that I have made it clear that that is not the case.

Mr Ford: From what the Member said, I assume that he would be happy to break parity if doing so ensured that the regulations would provide better services to our people than those regulations that are likely to be introduced in GB.

Mr S Wilson: I do not know whether the Member was in the Chamber when I discussed the issue of parity. I would not be happy to break parity if it would result in consequences that were detrimental either to the benefits that people receive or to the size of the Northern Ireland block grant allocation. On occasions, it might be desirable to break parity, but, because of the consequences, it may be decided not to. Issues of parity with Great Britain should be judged along those lines, not from a doctrinaire approach that because legislation originates in Westminster it must be sound. Bad legislation sometimes goes through Westminster. I oppose the amendments for the reasons that I have given. I support the terms of the Bill.

Mr Molloy: Like Mr Wilson, I have been provoked into speaking in this debate. It does not matter whether it was right or wrong to give the Bill accelerated passage or how the Committee granted accelerated passage. The Committee Stage of a Bill’s passage is important, and accelerated passage should never be granted easily.

Belatedly or otherwise, Members want to discuss the issues at stake in the Bill, rather than the principle of accelerated passage or how the Committee operated. Miss McIlveen’s suggestion, that my colleagues had been told what to do after the Committee had assented to accelerated passage, is most derogatory. Committee members responded as the Minister asked. However, Members have to ask questions during this stage of the Bill.

There is no suggestion that my colleagues have been told how to speak or instructed to ask specific questions. It is important that Members should consider all requests for accelerated passage carefully and that they should question whether any Minister, from any party, should have a free run.

Mr Wilson raised the issue about holding the Minister to account. If the amendments are so minor and unimportant that they will not result in major change, why does not the Minister accept them? Most Members have represented people who have had an unfair hearing at a tribunal or a medical examination. In particular, Members will have received complaints from individuals that, although they had a thorough physical examination, their mental illness has not been sufficiently taken into account.

I refer Members to Dr McDonnell’s comments about GPs. In every other aspect of healthcare, medical experts state that professional knowledge is needed to deal with certain illnesses and that consultants are required. We are told that a small local hospital is inadequate; only a big hospital will have all the required professional staff to cope with a wide spectrum of illnesses.

However, in the Bill, it seems anyone coming off the street with experience of any aspect of life can examine a person and give a verdict that can affect that person’s entire future. Indeed, some people have taken their own lives as a result of these decisions.

Mrs Long: The debate is not about whether specialist knowledge or facilities are needed. It is about whether it is necessary to specify a particular group of specialists in the Bill in order to allow them to conduct assessments in cases involving mental health, or whether the sub­sequent regulations are the appropriate vehicle for that.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Member for her remark. However, it serves to emphasise further the fact that the Bill deals with some issues and qualifications but not others. The purpose of the amendments is to include in the Bill provisions to deal with particular mental-health issues. All Members, including the Minister, wants to get the legislation right, regardless of which party they belong to, so that patients will be protected in future. It is not a matter of parties debating among themselves but about getting the legislation right.

I remember hearing a comment made by a predecessor of the Minister, John Hume, when he was elected to the old Stormont. He told some colleagues that his argument was no longer about fighting tribunals but about changing and correcting legislation to ensure that patients could be protected in future. We must take example from that. We want to get the legislation right so that patients will be dealt with fairly in examinations, and can feel that they have been dealt with fairly. People can find medical examinations daunting enough, without the added stress of feeling that they did not get a proper hearing.

Mr McLaughlin: Does the Member agree that to decry the opportunity to introduce amendments at Consideration Stage, or to vote against amendments, is, in effect, to vote for the legislation on the basis that it is fault-free and cannot be improved by the Assembly?

Mr Molloy: That is an important point. There is no legislation that has not been amended at a different time. We may find that, as this legislation progresses, further amendments to it will be tabled. Had the Bill received a Committee Stage, more amendments to it would probably have been tabled.

Patients at medical tribunals are mostly examined by retired or overworked GPs who spend a short time examining them. However, their verdict may have long-term repercussions for those patients. It is important to consider that.

I am sure that the Minister would be sympathetic to patients and be concerned about how the legislation affects them. She would want to ensure that tribunal boards deal fairly, openly and sympathetically with people with mental illness. However, that is the Minister. Unfortunately, the person who carries the message in the ministerial guidelines down through the system is often not as sympathetic, and, time and again, we have found that examination boards are not always as sympathetic as the legislation or the Minister.

I have attended many tribunals, as I am sure other Members have. In many cases, the GP has told the patient that if the medical tribunal wants any further information, it can contact the GP. However, no tribunal board will ring the GP to obtain additional information or to find out what he or she thinks of the patient. In practice, that does not happen. We must therefore ensure that the legislation is correct. Medical examiners must be aware of all the issues involved, particularly mental-illness issues, so that patients can be protected and given a sympathetic hearing.

This is a matter of getting the content of the Bill right. If we can do that today, we will have done a good day’s work. I ask Members not to oppose the amendments simply because their party has decided to oppose them, or because the Minister has said that she will be sympathetic in future. If a provision is not needed in the Bill, do not insert it. However, if changes to the Bill are necessary, include them in order to ensure that patients are dealt with properly in future. It is to be hoped that the end product will be legislation that protects the patients’ interests, particularly those who suffer from mental illness. Given that every political party has said that more resources should be directed at tackling mental illness, we must ensure that the legislation covers all those issues.

Mr Speaker: Before the Minister responds, I remind Members that Question Time will begin at 2.30 pm. I may therefore have to interrupt the Minister; however, I will certainly allow her to continue after Question Time.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): At the outset, I wish to extend my sincere condolences to the Chairman of the Social Development Committee on the recent death of his mother. My thoughts and prayers are with him at this sad time.

First, I want to make it perfectly clear that this Bill was cleared by the Executive. There seems to some amnesia about that. Secondly, I am a person of integrity and dedication, so I will not be blackmailed by anybody. I want to put that on record.

The amendments seek to make special provision for persons suffering from mental-health conditions. I care passionately about, and am sympathetic to, people who suffer from mental illness, but the amendments are flawed and unnecessary, and I hope to convince Members of that.

2.15 pm

Amendments No 1 and No 5 are closely linked. Amendment No 1 allows health-related assessments to be carried out by non-medically-qualified persons where there is a mental-health condition. The purpose of the health-related assessment is to identify the help and support a person might need to manage their condition and to overcome barriers that might prevent a return to the workplace. In many cases, a person’s mental-health condition might be minor compared to their physical-health problems — we do not know. Amendment No 1 allows for the assessment to be carried out by a person who has experience of mental-health conditions, but who does not necessarily have a medical qualification, even though serious physical-health conditions may be involved.

Amendment No 5 seeks to amend clause 55, which deals with medical examinations and reports that are used to assist the Department, or an appeal tribunal, in relation to decisions on benefit entitlement. The effect of amendment No 5 will be, for example, to allow a medical examination to be carried out by a psychiatric social worker. Considering the types of examinations and qualifications involved, that is unsuitable. We also need to consider most carefully how the diverting of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses from treating people who have serious mental-health conditions to assessing people with what might be relatively minor mental-health problems will impact on the Health Service.

As well as being flawed, the amendments are unnecessary. Clauses 11 and 55 already provide safe­guards to ensure that those carrying out the assessments and medical examinations are suitably qualified and appropriately trained. The definition of healthcare professional is, as it stands, sufficiently wide to allow flexibility in the future if evidence identifies a skills gap. The provision contains a regulation-making power that can be used to include other types of healthcare professionals, as and when appropriate. Sammy Wilson and Dolores Kelly mentioned that. All healthcare professionals will receive training in assessing people with mental-health conditions, and the Department for Social Development will ensure that that remains up to date and effective. Members will agree that only properly trained healthcare professionals with appropriate skills should be used to carry out medical examinations and assessments. The Welfare Reform Bill has the added security and safeguard that all healthcare professionals must be approved by the Department for Social Develop­ment before they can undertake medical examinations and assessments. Furthermore, access to specialist advice will be available when necessary.

Amendment No 2 provides that a work-focused interview involving a person who has a mental-health condition must take account of the claimant’s needs. I heard what the proposers of the amendment said about that. I want to ensure that my officials and I are particularly sensitive about such matters. However, I must remind Members that if amendment No 2 were made, the legislation could be interpreted as imposing a duty to consider the specific needs of those with a mental-health condition. Therefore, by implication, consideration of the needs of those who have a physical-health condition would not be required.

Mr F McCann: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Ritchie: No, I wish to continue. A person with a relatively minor mental-health condition will receive special provision under the legislation, but someone with severe physical disability will not, and that cannot be right.

I hope to deal with the various issues that Mr McCann raised in his submission.

Amendment No 2 is unnecessary. All work-focused interviews will take account of an individual’s specific needs; I can assure the Chamber of that. There will be a system of safeguards particularly geared to claimants with mental-health problems — personal advisers will receive specialist training to give them the skills, knowledge, techniques and confidence to deal with people with a range of disabilities or illnesses, including people with mental-health conditions.

I appreciate that many people are suicidal or have taken their lives; there are also many people with mental-health conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia, and there are those who suffer from periodic mental-health conditions. All people with those conditions must be taken into account, and we must deal with them in a very sensitive, sympathetic manner. Those with the most severe mental-health conditions will already be in the support group, and advisers have the ability to defer interviews where a claimant is clearly not able to attend or effectively take part. Sensitivity is the prime issue here. We want to be sensitive to everybody.

This will be particularly useful for people with conditions where mental health fluctuates, as so often happens with such illnesses. Such cases will be approached with sensitivity, applying a range of safeguards, such as home visits, which were mentioned earlier in the debate. We will be encouraging a support worker to be present and ensure that there is pre-interview contact with the claimant when personal advisers can explain their purpose.

I thank the Members for the support from across the Chamber in opposing these amendments and showing that they are unnecessary.

Mr Brady referred to the changes introduced without consultation. I want to assure the House that the proposals for employment and support allowance were the subject of consultation in January 2006. Three hundred and twenty copies were issued in Northern Ireland to a wide range of interest groups and potential partners.

Mr Ford referred to general concerns. I am happy to assure Mr Ford that the existing provisions in the Bill are sufficiently broad to ensure that people with mental health conditions will have their needs taken into account and addressed — as will people with physical health conditions — without the need for such amendments. Mr Ford also referred to parity. I, as a Minister, and Members in general want very much to bring our own social security legislation forward, but as various Members have already said, we are restricted because all of these issues are predicated on financial considerations. I do not want to place anybody’s entitlement to benefit in jeopardy — and I am sure nobody in the House wants that to happen — but the social security system, is, as most Members know, extremely complex.

We need to approach any divergence from parity with extreme caution, as what appears a minor issue can have considerable knock-on effects given the common systems and computer infrastructure needed in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland.

Mr Ford also mentioned the support that personal advisers receive from healthcare professionals among others, and personal advisers will continue to ensure that they are sensitive to all the health-related problems that people face. Personal advisers will be supported in their assessments and will offer advice and support based on reports from healthcare professionals. These reports will set out what work-related activity a person may or may not be able to undertake, given his condition or disability at that time.

Mr McCann referred to benefits that would stop in mid-June. That is not the case. Employment Support Allowance (ESA) does not come into effect until 2008. For example, asbestos-related conditions —

Mr F McCann: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The impression is being given here that I was misleading the House.

The Committee for Social Development was told that, unless the Welfare Reform Bill was given accelerated passage, benefits would cease. I would like the Minister for Social Development to clarify that position.

Mr Speaker: The Member has made his point clear.

Ms Ritchie: I am not sure of the point of order, but I will continue.

Employment Support Allowance does not come into effect until 2008. One group that will be affected if the legislation does not go through according to the accelerated passage timetable will be those who suffer from asbestos-related conditions, and their relatives. Proposals later in the year will help people to claim. We do not want to stop benefits in any way.

On another issue that Mr McCann raised, the legislation does not cover specific illnesses but deals with broad categories. Mr Wilson has already referred to that.

Mr McCann said that the environment for interviews was not friendly to people with mental-health conditions. I reiterate that all those who suffer from mental-health conditions will be treated sympathetically and sensitively. In relation to work-focused interviews, the Department for Employment and Learning will send workers to visit people with mental-health conditions in their homes, if that helps them with the process. We are all aware that some of the disabilities from which people suffer may mean that they do not wish to leave their homes, as they have an attachment to their homes and feel frightened.

My officials and I are sensitive to those issues, as are the Minister for Employment and Learning and his officials. We want to ensure that everything is done in the proper and correct order, with the greatest level of sensitivity and sympathy. We are determined to have a conducive, friendly and supportive environment in order to help and support those with mental-health conditions. That is our aim and our objective. Mr O’Dowd referred to benefit payment —

Mr Speaker: I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I am conscious that we are moving towards Question Time. Members may take their ease for a few minutes. The Minister will be allowed to speak again after Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

2.30 pm

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

Oral Answers To Questions

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Construction Industry

1. Mr Brolly asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what steps have been taken to reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities in the construction industry.  (AQO 81/07)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): Although considerable steps have been taken to reduce incidents, the prospect for further action is kept under constant review. For example, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) has placed a quarter of its professional staff in a compliance team, resulting in more enforcement. More than 70,000 construction workers have been trained under the Buildsafe-NI initiative, and incidents in public-sector contracts are falling.

The HSENI is also working in partnership with the Construction Employers Federation to ensure that those in the boardroom accept their prime responsibility for managing health and safety.

Mr Brolly: In the case of criminal negligence by a construction company, should the individual, or individuals, immediately responsible be allowed to escape sanctions under the cover of corporate guilt?

Mr Dodds: This is an important area of public policy. With regard to accidents and fatalities, employment in the construction industry in Northern Ireland is one of the most dangerous activities that can be engaged in, and it is important that the matter is addressed urgently.

The particular issue raised by the Member falls outside the remit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, but it is an important issue, and I will ensure that it is relayed to those with authority in that area.

Mr Gardiner: Does the Minister agree that the introduction of a corporate manslaughter Bill for Northern Ireland, with the added offence of secondary liability for corporate manslaughter, when justice matters are devolved to the Assembly would contribute to a major improvement in attitudes to what constitutes adequate safety standards on construction sites?

Mr Dodds: The Member raises an issue that is outside the remit of my Department. He referred to the devolution of justice powers, although I note that other members of his party and those on this side of the House have made it clear that they do not foresee any early devolution of justice powers to the Assembly. If the Member is depending on that for the way forward, he may be looking in vain.

However, his point about corporate manslaughter and criminal liability is important, and it has been the subject of debate in the House and elsewhere. As I said in my previous reply, I will make sure that the Member’s comments are relayed to the appropriate authority.

Mr Shannon: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the useful training that is carried out under the Buildsafe-NI initiative. However, I understand that the initiative applies only to public-sector contracts. Does the Minister feel that it should be applied to the private sector to improve safety there also?

Mr Dodds: The Member is correct in saying that the initiative applies to public-sector contracts, and it shows the power that clients can wield in contract negotiations in the public sector. The Government can ensure that health and safety considerations are built into the tendering process and the contractual arrangements.

Many leading companies in Northern Ireland have adopted the Buildsafe-NI methodology. Also, there are underlying legislative provisions, which will be improved shortly with new regulations that clarify the role of a client by making existing health and safety duties more explicit.

Since coming into this post, I have had a meeting with HSENI officials about the matter and about what more can be done. My colleague Mr S Wilson from East Antrim joined me at a recent meeting with a member of the construction industry. More needs to be done, and more should be done, in this area in legislation and on a voluntary basis. The construction industry needs to be encouraged to take the issues seriously.

At the end of the day, it cannot be legislated for entirely. Compliance cannot be inspected; we must educate and enforce at the same time.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 2, in the name of Dr Kieran Deeny, has been withdrawn. Mr McFarland is not in his place for question 3, so we will move on to question 4.

Newry: Economic Development

4. Mr Brady asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to meet business and community leaders in Newry to develop further the strategy for economic development for the city. (AQO 98/07)

Mr Dodds: We are getting through the questions at a fair rate.

I recently accepted an invitation from Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade to speak at one of its events later this year. That will give me an opportunity to engage with local community and business leaders and to discuss how my Department can work with people in Newry to drive forward an economic agenda in the area.

Mr Irwin: Does the Minister think that Invest Northern Ireland is doing all it can to attract investment to the Newry area?

Mr Dodds: Every Member has a view about what additional things could be done for their local area, not only by Invest Northern Ireland but by many other agencies. I have considered the issue in advance of my meeting in Newry. Examples of current partnership activities include: an active involvement in the Newry greater vision group; a close working relationship with Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade; board membership of the local strategy partnership; board membership of the Newry and Mourne local action group; and support for the implementation of initiatives by south-eastern economic development (SEED), which is a grouping of a number of councils in that part of Northern Ireland.

Invest Northern Ireland’s contribution towards the economic prosperity and future of Newry and the surrounding area is well known, and the initiatives that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is engaged in for that area are testament to its commitment and dedication to driving forward economic prosperity.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that Newry city would be a suitable location for financial services work? Will the Minister actively pursue the possibility of firms from the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin locating employment north of the border in places such as Newry while continuing to pay corporation tax in the Republic?

Mr Dodds: The Department of Finance and Personnel takes the lead on various tax incentives to attract foreign direct investment, but it is an issue in which the Depart­ment of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is keenly interested. I hope that all Members will do everything that they can to support the Executive’s initiative to put the fiscal regime on a proper standing in order to attract the type of foreign direct investment that Northern Ireland needs. I hope that nobody will undermine that effort and give Sir David Varney or anyone else an excuse to say that if people are not committed, why should anyone be committed to them. Politicians should not take a defeatist attitude.

Invest Northern Ireland is in the global marketplace, trying to attract as much investment and employment as possible to Northern Ireland, including Newry. Northern Ireland is a relatively small place in the global economy, and it is not a matter for Invest Northern Ireland as to where companies locate. That is a matter for the potential investor, and it depends on the type of investment, the clients and the work being undertaken.

I can assure the hon Member that I see my role, and that of colleagues, as gaining the maximum amount of possible investment for Northern Ireland in high-quality and high-value-added sectors. Everybody should share in that prosperity throughout Northern Ireland — rural and urban, east and west, North and South.

Bureaucracy faced by Businesses

5. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what plans he has for addressing the bureaucracy faced by businesses in Northern Ireland.            (AQO 92/07)

Mr Dodds: My Department co-ordinates the Northern Ireland Better Regulation Strategy introduced by the Executive in 2001. After a recent review, an action plan was agreed by all Departments. Under the action plan, Departments will, among other things, commit to better regulation in their corporate and operating plans and review and simplify regulations and forms where appropriate.

Mr Hamilton: The Minister will be aware of initiatives to cut bureaucracy operating in the rest of the UK. What steps will he take to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses also benefit from those initiatives?

Mr Dodds: The Member has referred to initiatives that are taking place elsewhere in the country. Several plans have been drawn up by Whitehall to deal with bureaucracy and to streamline best practice. The plans cover some 500 actions, including the removal, consolidation and rationalisation of regulations, measures to simplify forms and so on. The Northern Ireland action plan, which flows from the review of the Better Regulation Strategy, includes involving Northern Ireland Departments and ensuring that they adopt and consider, where relevant, what happens in Whitehall Departments.

I assure the Member that I will do everything in my power to advance the agenda of deregulation, stream­lining bureaucracy, simplifying form filling, reducing information requests to businesses and removing similar burdens.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Will the Minister undertake to review the business strategies of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), Invest Northern Ireland (INI), the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) and all the various manifestations of Government intervention with a view to their being led by private enterprise rather than being driven by former quangoists and civil servants?

Mr Dodds: I have a great deal of sympathy with the Member’s point. I wish to make clear that, in each of the last three years for which figures are available, DETI’s efficiencies in administration and streamlining of red tape have exceeded targets. I am determined that everything possible should be done to ensure that that trend continues because we want, not only in this Department but across all levels of Government, to ensure that as much money and resources go to front-line services and delivery for all our people. I understand where the hon Member is coming from, and, as far as I am concerned, he will find a receptive ear.

Joint Trade Missions

6. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what have been the outcomes for Northern Ireland from joint trade missions with the Republic of Ireland to date.           (AQO 64/07)

Mr Dodds: Three trade missions involving 40 Northern Ireland companies have been undertaken in collaboration with Enterprise Ireland. The missions visited India in 2006, Canada in October 2006 and the Gulf region in January 2007. Companies reported that the visits were of significant benefit in furthering their interests, generating new business of up to £6 million.

It is important to note that the visits are not joint trade missions. They are organised either by Invest Northern Ireland or Enterprise Ireland, and companies throughout the island of Ireland can join them as they see fit. I also advise the House that Invest Northern Ireland has planned 42 trade missions for 2007, while Enterprise Ireland has planned 103 for the same period.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Minister accept that any joint trade mission can only result in the Irish Republic gaining the majority of business from such missions as its corporation tax sits at 12·5% while the rate in Northern Ireland is approaching 28%? What exactly will the Minister do to ensure that that joint scheme can ultimately benefit Northern Ireland business to the maximum?

Mr Dodds: I am grateful for the Member’s question because it allows me to clarify that he is labouring under a misunderstanding. As I indicated in my previous answer, those are not joint missions. If one removes that premise, the rest of the Member’s concerns are stripped away. I note that the Member has accepted that point by nodding his head.

2.45 pm

The trade missions are organised by Invest Northern Ireland or by Enterprise Ireland. People are free to join those missions as they see fit. That is a matter for companies, depending on whether they see any benefit. However, those are not joint trade missions. That is the type of sensible co-operation with which people are content. That type of co-operation is useful if it leads to any benefit. If that is done for any other reason than mutual benefit, it is likely that people will have questions to ask.

I hope that I have reassured the hon Member with my response.

Mr Storey: I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time. Can the Minister assure the House that he is satisfied that continued collaboration with Enterprise Ireland will result in real and tangible benefits for Northern Ireland companies?

Mr Dodds: I thank my hon Friend for his kind remarks. Companies and private business are best placed to make such decisions. They will make the decision to participate or otherwise, depending on whether they believe that doing so represents good value for money and is in their interests. That is the way that it should be. Co-operation must be driven by private companies and private business deciding what is in their best interests.

As I said earlier, the feedback that we have received from those companies that participated in a limited number of missions was that there were potential orders to the tune of some £6 million. Moreover, networking initiatives were established to help to gain new contacts, develop existing relationships and explore strategic alliances. In that context, the companies that have participated in those trade missions obviously found some benefit.

Dr McDonnell: I welcome the Minister’s comments on the trade missions. Does the Minister fully acknowledge the goodwill that is afforded to us and to our companies by our Southern colleagues on those missions, whether they be joint, parallel, or semi-detached? “Conjoined” is perhaps a better word to describe those missions. There is a fair amount of goodwill and exchange.

Does the Minister share my view that, as two small regions — one of four million people and one of less than two million people — on the borders of the European Union, it is much better for us to compete together — by that, I mean work together — on the world stage, rather than competing with, and neutralising, each other?

Mr Dodds: I know from our years of collaboration in another place that the Member has a keen interest in this matter. He asked whether I acknowledge the goodwill: yes, of course I do. When such goodwill has been evident — and it has been — I readily acknowledge that. In the same way, companies in the Irish Republic would also recognise the goodwill of Invest Northern Ireland in the reciprocal arrangement whereby Southern companies can take part in trade missions that are organised by INI. It is a two-way process.

As to competition, and the size of the two respective economies, there may be some instances where there is benefit in collaboration. Let us consider one such instance — the single electricity market — where there are clear economies to be made through benefits to industry, to consumers and to security of supply. That is sensible co-operation.

However, there will be many other instances when, in certain sectors and in certain areas, it will not necessarily be to our advantage to collaborate not only with the Irish Republic but with other areas, regions and countries, because they will be in direct competition with us. Our job is to ensure that we position Northern Ireland, whether in collaboration in certain instances or not, as best we can to attract the type of investment that we need to boost economic prosperity for all our people.

Corporation Tax

7. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what discussions his Department has had with officials from regional Governments in Wales and Scotland in relation to proposals for lowering corporation tax in Northern Ireland.          (AQO 69/07)

Mr Dodds: My Department has had no formal contact with officials from the regional Governments in Wales or Scotland on proposals for lowering the rate of corporation tax. Any such engagement is a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel, which would be acting on behalf of the Executive.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that. Does a platform exist for similar discussions with the English regions, whether conducted by himself or his colleagues, with a view to having lower corporation tax for the UK as a whole?

Mr Dodds: I again thank the Member for raising that important issue. My Department will always try to work with colleagues in any other part of the United Kingdom — whether it is England, Scotland or Wales — to try to advance something that we believe would be in the best interests of the economy of Northern Ireland.

As the Member is aware, the Scottish First Minister is visiting the Assembly today, something that has rightly been recognised in most sensible quarters as an oppor­tunity to build relationships to advance the economic cause of Northern Ireland and other regions. Therefore, I welcome the hon Member’s indication that it is actually beneficial to be in collaboration with other regions of the United Kingdom. To insult representatives of Governments of other parts of the United Kingdom is not a sensible or productive way forward. As the ‘News Letter’ editorial rightly pointed out, the devolved Admin­istrations should work together on those important issues and gain the best for Northern Ireland.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I welcome the Minister to his first Assembly Question Time.

The Minister emphasised earlier the need for people to concentrate on the Varney review of corporation tax. Does the Minister agree that, in that context, if parties and Committees in the Assembly are going to marshal their efforts in the direction of that review, which has been given specifically to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it might be a bit premature to engage too heavily in canvassing other options — which we might have to consider in the medium term — with other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr Dodds: I thank the hon Member for his words of welcome, and I look forward to working with him in his capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I welcome his contribution thus far, and that of his Committee, on many of the serious issues that we have to grapple with.

The Member made a good point. All of our efforts should be concentrated on trying to win the main argument, which is for a reduction in corporation tax to a level that would make a significant difference within a relatively short period of time.

There are other areas that need investment — whether or not we get a corporation tax reduction — including stimulating enterprise, stimulating innovation, building up our infrastructure and improving our skills and education. All of that has to happen. People should not say that it is not going to happen as that is obviously an open invitation for Sir David Varney to report that not even the Northern Ireland Assembly, or certain parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, are seriously in support of that happening. Alternatively, the view could be taken that we are now going to concentrate on a range of other measures, falling short of the main target. It may be that that will be the case, but at this juncture, we need to be pressing strongly for what all of us have recognised, or certainly what most of us recognise — there may be other parties present or other spokesmen who do not recognise that — would be a major boost for the Northern Ireland economy.

Miss Mcllveen: Does the Minister have any plans to meet with his Scottish and Welsh counterparts to discuss matters of mutual interest?

Mr Dodds: Yes, I certainly do intend to meet with my Scottish and Welsh counterparts, and I have already been in touch with them to seek early meetings. I have done so despite the advice given to me by members of the Ulster Unionist Party, who seem to take the view that we should no longer meet with the Scottish Executive, that somehow we should insult our friends, that we should go down the road of insulting the Scottish people, and all the rest of it — [Interruption.]

I hear sedentary comments being made to my right. The approach suggested by the Ulster Unionist Party is not the approach that should be taken — that is not the way to win friends, and it is not the way to promote Northern Ireland. It is strange that a unionist party is saying that Members should not meet their Scottish colleagues. I would have thought that we would want to promote an Ulster-Scots connection. There was a time when that party heavily promoted North/South Ministerial Council meetings at the expense of east-west relations.

Invest Northern Ireland

8. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline three key ‘unique selling points’ that Invest Northern Ireland should use to promote Northern Ireland as an investment location.    (AQO 121/07)

Mr Dodds: Generally, Invest Northern Ireland’s sales message is based on skills, quality and availability, competitive costs and excellent infrastructure, including property, transport and telecoms. Specifically, Northern Ireland’s unique selling points will depend on the potential investor and on the other locations competing for investment. Since 2002, Invest Northern Ireland has secured 169 international investment projects, levering over £1 billion of investment and, in that time, it has promoted 23,720 new and safeguarded jobs.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his response, particularly the emphasis on skills and their availability in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister recognise that there are disincentives to inward investment, not only from the fiscal initiatives that were mentioned earlier but through the visible signs of division and segregation in our community? Has he considered any impetus or contribution that his Department could provide to start addressing some of those disincentives in order to benefit the entire community?

Mr Dodds: The cost of segregation is a recurring theme for the Alliance Party. No doubt, during virtually every Question Time and every ministerial statement, the contributions from its Members will mention the need to do more with resources and will be along the lines that the Member has outlined. Of course, we all know that that does not provide straightforward or immediate answers to any of those matters. Instead, we must ensure that, within current resources and within resources emanating from the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, Northern Ireland is best positioned to attract the required investment and to build up our indigenous companies and firms to make them more export-led and driven.

I hope that the Alliance Party will join those of us who are seeking to create more efficiencies and stream­lining within the Assembly. The Member speaks of the waste of resources due to segregation. However, I am conscious that her party was one of the main drivers behind the Belfast Agreement arrangements, which resulted in a plethora of quangos and institutional bodies that drain millions of pounds from front-line services. When my party raised that issue in the previous Assembly and tried to amend it, her party voted against it on every occasion.

Lord Morrow: What is Invest Northern Ireland doing to improve the quality and availability of a skilled workforce in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister assure the House that he and Invest Northern Ireland are doing everything possible to attract some of that investment to the west of the Province? I am thinking, unsurprisingly, of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Mr Dodds: I am not in the least surprised that the hon Member should highlight the needs of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. He works assiduously, along with his colleague Mrs Foster, on behalf of his constituents.

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has the lead role in skills development — indeed, the Member will have an opportunity shortly to quiz the Minister for that Department — although my Department and Invest Northern Ireland work closely with DEL to ensure that skills are built up and that they are in place to meet the business needs and challenges of the future.

I give a commitment to the Member, as I have to other Members, that in raising the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland, I want all areas to benefit. I am glad that some of my first visits as Minister to see companies at first hand were to businesses in the west of the Province. Indeed, Fujitsu’s recent announcement of the creation of 328 new jobs in the north-west and an investment of £18 million in very high-value, high-tech jobs, along with another 80 jobs in Belfast, is excellent news.

3.00 pm

Mr McHugh: Will the Minister work with Invest Northern Ireland and others to resolve planning difficulties for new businesses along the border areas? In those areas, two out of three local businesses have been lost to the Twenty-six Counties because of planning difficulties and the difficult matter of red tape.

Mr Dodds: I will do what I can. I have already held meetings with the Minister of the Environment on some of those matters, and I will continue to do so.

Employment and Learning

Undergraduate Places

1. Mr Elliott asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what has been the number of undergraduate student places available in Northern Ireland higher education institutions over the last five years.      (AQO 87/07)

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): The number of available full-time undergraduate student places in Northern Ireland universities during the past five academic years are as follows: in 2002-03, there were 22,802 places; in 2003-04, there were 22,928 places; in 2004-05, there were 23,284 places; in 2005-06, there were 23,530 places; and in 2006-07, there were 23,755 places. There are also an additional 3,658 places that have been made available in further education colleges, and approximately 1,510 initial teacher education places. Please note that those figures represent full-time, funded undergraduate places only. There are also significant part-time enrolments at our institutions.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for his reply. It is good to see him on the Floor of the House at his first Question Time. I wish him well in his post. Given those increasing numbers, does the Minister have any plans to increase the number of undergraduate student places at Northern Ireland’s higher education institutions in the near future?

Sir Reg Empey: That is a question that I am asked frequently. My predecessor, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office Maria Eagle, reviewed the situation earlier this year and decided not to increase the maximum student number (MaSN), which places a limit on the number of students in each university. However, I am looking closely at the possibility of some limited — but targeted — increases. Therefore, while we will not necessarily have a general increase, there could be circumstances in which we would decide to increase student places for certain disciplines.

I point out to the Member that it costs approximately £10 million a year for every 1,000 students, plus whatever estate costs would be associated with that in the institution. It is the case — and perhaps this is what the Member is getting at — that a significant number of our student-age applicants have to avail of places in universities elsewhere in the British Isles. That is a matter of regret, and that is the position at this stage.

Mr Durkan: I join Mr Elliott in welcoming the Minister to his first Question Time in this Assembly. As the Minister examines options for relaxing the MaSN cap in various ways, and in various specialisms, will he pay particular attention to the University of Ulster’s Magee campus, which has been particularly restricted, and suffers from the MaSN cap more harshly than others?

The University of Ulster has produced plans that would indicate a capacity of 10,000 students places at the Magee campus. Land is now available due to Foyle and Londonderry College’s relocation to Clooney. As the Minister looks for targeted adjustments, will he particularly bear in mind the situation at Magee campus?

Sir Reg Empey: I thank the hon Member for his comments. I am immensely surprised that he has asked me that question. I have already talked to the University of Ulster’s vice chancellor, and I know that the university is anxious to move forward. I am prepared to consider the Member’s request. However, I must tell the Member that targeted adjustments would be only for specific disciplines.

I do not believe that, at this stage, and with scarce resources, one can allow a generalised increase in student places across the board. The resources to do that are not there. Moreover, one must remember the outcomes that one wishes to achieve, particularly with a view to ensuring that there is a very strong link between our economy and our institutions of higher education.

I will look at that specific point for the Member.

Tuition Fees

2. Mr Attwood asked the Minister for Employment and Learning if there is evidence that tuition fees are contributing to a reduction in third-level education applicant numbers.       (AQO 89/07)

Sir Reg Empey: It is too early to gauge the impact of variable tuition fees as we are still in the first academic year of the new arrangements. A recently published University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) analysis of accepted applicants indicates a decrease between 2005-06 and 2006-07, but that is a likely consequence of the increase in applicants experienced in 2005-06, which was the last academic year before the introduction of variable fees.

Mr Attwood: It is difficult to analyse the evidence at this early stage, but does the Minister agree that the Department should be vigilant with tuition fees, given that over the last four years there was a decrease in applicant numbers each year? Although the evidence is yet to emerge fully, there are indications, unlike the situation in Britain, of a further decrease in applicants to universities in the North.

Sir Reg Empey: I am aware of the hon Member’s concern on that. We had a discussion a couple of weeks ago on it. He is correct to say that the early indications point to a slight decrease in university applicants, but the Department does not feel that there is sufficient evidence at its disposal to come to a judgement. However, the Department’s objective is to encourage as many people as possible into further and higher education, and I do not wish to see unnecessary obstacles placed in the way. It must be remembered that the decision to introduce tuition fees was a controversial one at the outset and that virtually every party in the Chamber expressed reservations. The Department will review the situation, but it must have solid information, and I hope that the information will become available by September or October. I undertake to keep the Member informed.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Minister accept that any fee reduction that may be contemplated by his Depart­ment should relate to economically-relevant subject areas rather than to higher education courses in general?

Sir Reg Empey: I note the hon Member’s use of the phrase “fee reduction”, which indicates how he feels about the subject. There is much pressure, because of the growing economic linkages between further and higher education and business, to have further and higher education more targeted. The hon Member will hear more from me later in the year, as we must cut our coat according to our cloth. A general education for our students is something to be welcomed, but the economic consequences must be remembered in the face of global competition. It is important that Northern Ireland has the maximum skill base in the subject matters that are likely to be of economic relevance. I hope to return later this year with further elaboration on that point.

PhD Courses

3. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what plans he has to increase the number of places available on PhD courses.        (AQO 77/07)

Sir Reg Empey: The Department received a proposal from the two Northern Ireland universities, via the Economic Development Forum, for an increase in PhD places and has bid for additional places from the Chancellor’s Fund for Innovation.

The bid also may be considered as part of the compre­hensive spending review. In addition, my Department is preparing for a review of the wider policy and funding of postgraduate places.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply. I also join other Members in welcoming him to his first Question Time in this Assembly. I wish him well.

What are the implications of the Chancellor’s innovation fund, proposed in November 2006, for the numbers of postgraduate students?

Sir Reg Empey: At the Chancellor’s conference in Downing Street in November 2006, and again in March this year, it was known that the Chancellor himself suggested the idea of an innovation fund. The Chancellor has a particular interest in funding research and science-based subjects. Indeed, he has provided significant tax relief to businesses that operate in those areas.

Along with other Departments, the Department for Employment and Learning has bids ready to avail of the benefit of the innovation fund. However, it is becoming apparent that all that glitters is not gold. The Department is struggling to ascertain whether the fund can be turned into a usable instrument, as there are difficulties with its current structure. That is why, in answer to Mr Kennedy’s first question, I mentioned bidding through the usual comprehensive spending review process.

The message from the Economic Development Forum — as the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will know — is that the universities, supported by business, trades unions and others represented on the forum, are firmly recommending more postgraduate places. Ultimately, the business world is telling us that particular disciplines are short of people with PhDs.

In the Far East, for example, almost 1·2 million PhDs a year are awarded in China and India. Northern Ireland is up against huge competition. I can only say to the Member that the Department will do everything in its power to maximise the number of postgraduate places in order to pursue the wider objective, which is widely supported throughout the business and academic communities.

Mr Weir: In the light of the high cost of postgraduate education, especially the often prohibitive fees for postgraduate courses, what steps does the Minister intend to take to widen access to postgraduate education, particularly for students from working-class or less affluent backgrounds?

Sir Reg Empey: That is an important point, as the cost of postgraduate education is considerable. Bidding through the comprehensive spending review and the innovation fund for extra postgraduate places will help the Department in financing those places. However, there is a separate issue with the fees that students would have accumulated before they get to the point of applying for a PhD. We want to encourage more students to come forward. I am specifically considering proposals on how to alleviate risks and how to deal with the very point that the Member made.

It is obvious that there is a shortage of postgraduates. The Republic’s national development plan is already concentrating on a strategy for a fourth level of education. Indeed, the Government of the Republic have put €1·2 billion aside for research and development and to spend in that academic area. It is absolutely necessary to ensure that we are able to compete. I am looking closely at the issue.

Dr McDonnell: Like other Members, I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time.

Does the Minister agree that a significant increase in R&D capacity, through increased numbers of PhD graduates, is desirable for an expansion of industry? Does he further agree that there is a particular need to focus on science subjects, especially the commercial­isation of the considerable biotech, life science and healthcare facilities?

3.15 pm

Sir Reg Empey: I agree entirely with the Member; he has hit the nail on the head. At present, the Department funds about 150 new awards each year and about 500 at any one time. It is clear that there is greater demand, which is focused on the areas of study to which the Member referred. Ultimately, however, it is for the universities to decide which applicants to take. However, that appertains to the question that was asked by the Member for North Down: those two matters must be brought together. The Department is seized of the urgency of that. It has put forward bids with the Department of Finance and Personnel for the comprehensive spending review and the higher education innovation fund. In the past few weeks, I have had meetings with the vice chancellors of both universities. I have met the Economic Development Forum and, last week, met the Northern Ireland Business Alliance. Everyone is pushing in the same direction; it is a critical part of the Department’s agenda. I assure the Member that it will do all that it possibly can to achieve the goal to which he referred.


4. Mrs Long asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what proposals exist to ensure that the funding changes in further education do not prevent people from engaging in recreational learning.             (AQO 113/07)

Sir Reg Empey: Although the Department sets the strategic direction for the further-education sector in Northern Ireland and channels its funding accordingly, each college is responsible for its curriculum. The new funding model that is used to distribute the further-education recurrent grant to colleges does not prevent people from engaging in recreational learning. Under the new arrangements, there is only a marginal difference in the average funding that is available to colleges for students on recreational courses. In addition, under their own fees policies, colleges can choose to charge fees for some recreational courses.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his welcome response, which reflects the importance of recreational learning as well as study for economically relevant qualifications. The Minister’s portfolio encompasses both employment and learning. Does he agree that in order to create an educational environment where there is a culture of lifelong learning, it is important that people engage with education at all levels, not just to provide them with the skills that are crucial for economic growth but to enhance their quality of life and their engagement in society and to engender the discipline for and the enjoyment of learning throughout their lifetime?

Sir Reg Empey: I find little, if anything, to disagree with in the Member’s comments; in the past couple of weeks, I have received questions from several Members on that issue. I asked to be shown the amount of money that the Department is putting into those areas of education. During the past few years, the variation has been marginal. However, I must emphasise that, ultimately, the colleges choose which courses they offer. They can decide to charge fees to cover all or part of the costs of a course.

The Member raised the additional issue of lifelong learning for recreational purposes. Further to that is learning that, for certain individuals, has therapeutic benefits, and which provides an opportunity for those who have suffered trauma to get back to work. They may choose to embark on a course that is somewhat less challenging as a starting point from which to return to education. I realise that the issue is not simply about whether people should enrol on flower-arranging courses, for example, but of the wider benefits that lifelong learning can bring them. Many Members take that issue seriously.

Resources have not been removed on a large scale. However — and this also appertains to previous questions on higher education — the allocation of money for further education has had to become more targeted. Although I accept entirely the Member’s comments on lifelong learning, the Assembly needs to understand that, inevitably, colleges have to prioritise resources. If the Member has any concerns, I hope that she will, by all means, let me know what they are, so that we can deal with them individually.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister ensure that retired people do not feel excluded and will be able to participate in recreational learning without concern over excessive fees that they cannot afford?

Sir Reg Empey: I assure the Member that retired people are very active in learning. Appertaining to Mrs Long’s question, I recently visited the Holywood Arches Library in my constituency to see the “silver surfers” in action. I can tell the Member for Foyle that the room was jam-packed with senior citizens who were learning computer skills with the help of volunteers from Business in the Community. They were not learning for commercial reasons but in order to keep in touch with others and to access information. People there can also engage in remote learning. It was terrific to see those people enjoying what they were doing and benefiting from it.

It is obvious that, given the way in which society is going, the contribution that more senior members of our community are being required to make to the economy is growing all the time. It would be a foolish mistake to throw away that resource. Those of us in the Chamber may have to work until we are in our eighties. I do not know whether that is a good message to send out or not.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5, standing in the name of Dr Deeny, has been withdrawn.

Campus Plans

6. Dr Farry asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what plans exist to link the new-build North Down and Ards campus in Bangor with the North Down Business Park at Rathgael.       (AQO 116/07)

Sir Reg Empey: The new technology innovation centre at the North Down and Ards Institute’s Bangor campus will provide training facilities for industry and a number of pre-incubation units to support student business start-ups. That will complement the institute’s links with the North Down Development Organisation (NDDO) and North Down Borough Council, and that, in turn, will help to create new business opportunities.

Dr Farry: As a member of North Down Borough Council, I declare an interest. I welcome the Minister for to his first Question Time as Minister for Employment and Learning.

Does the Minister recognise that it was a lost opportunity for part of the campus not to be co-located with the business park? Moreover, what plans does he have to try to encourage links between further education colleges and business to ensure the best match between the skills that people are being taught and the needs of employers?

Sir Reg Empey: I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the new South Eastern Regional College a couple of weeks ago, the headquarters of which is in the Member’s constituency. I was encouraged by what I saw and heard there. It has an extremely active board of governors, and high-quality staff who are clearly determined to succeed.

In recent discussions between Invest Northern Ireland, the Department and local colleges, and at the college’s launch in Bangor a couple of weeks ago, the message that came across strongly was the need to link education and business. The chairman of the board of governors of the new college is leading from the front.

I understand the Member’s point about the physical arrangements, but I am confident that the college is determined to overcome any difficulties through the student business start-up scheme with incubation units and working with the business village. The will and expertise to succeed exists. The Member will know that his local authority has established the SIGNAL Centre of Business Excellence, which is one of the leading economic development organisations in Northern Ireland. The Member will also know of one of Northern Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs, Mr Ian Pennick, who is also involved with that. I am confident that the determination and skills of the staff at the South Eastern Regional College should alleviate any concerns that he may have.

Mrs I Robinson: What plans does the Minister have to ensure that students who go down the vocational route can be assured that they will have an apprenticeship placement in what seems to be a shrinking base for would-be plumbers and joiners?

Sir Reg Empey: The Member touches on something that is extremely important to our community. We loosely describe such courses as vocational. Instead, we want to describe them as professional and technical, because, sadly, there is an implication that vocational activities are somehow of less value than academic subjects. That could not be further from the truth. The House may have to return to that issue.

The Member has hit the nail on the head with regard to where more effort must be concentrated. I am satisfied that the colleges are seized of the issue. As the Member will know, there is an excellent group of people in her constituency. Indeed, rebuilding is to take place in Newtownards.

A few years ago, we threw away apprenticeships. Now, we must bring them back. I can assure the Member that the Department is determined to work, and is increasingly working, with employers and trade unions. People are now getting contracts before they commence their training.

Members will recall that the parliamentary report on the Jobskills programme was highly critical of the way things were going. We are trying a new method; we will just have to see whether it works. However, I assure the Member that the Department is seized of the importance of her point.

Mr Cree: I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time.

As a member of North Down Borough Council, I am interested in this matter. Initially, it was envisaged that an incubation-innovation unit would be established at the North Down Business Park. The Minister mentioned the innovation unit. Can he confirm that an incubation unit will be included in the building currently under construction at the extended campus site in Bangor’s Castle Park?

Sir Reg Empey: I acknowledge the Member’s comments. I know that he has had personal involvement in economic development in north Down for many years. In April 2006, ministerial approval was given for a £15 million capital project at the North Down and Ards Institute of Further and Higher Education, which comprises a technology and innovation centre and a performing arts centre at the Bangor campus, and a construction centre at the Newtownards campus.

Included in the technology and innovation centre will be a number of pre-incubation units to support student business start-ups. The project is at the design stage, with a target completion date of December 2009 for the Bangor campus. It will address the shortfall in accommodation provision in each of the faculties and target those areas of accommodation that are no longer fit for purpose. I hope that that answer will assure the Member that action is being taken; it should also refer to Dr Farry’s point.

I am confident that the people of north Down understand fully the urgency of, and the need for, the project. The set of pre-incubation units is slightly more innovative than providing accommodation for existing businesses. Rather it provides accommodation to encourage young people to get a sense of what it means to be in business. I am confident that the model in that college will be successful.

Fermanagh College

7. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what steps he will take to address the failure of Fermanagh College to facilitate the third year of higher level courses.           (AQO 100/07)

Sir Reg Empey: My Department’s policy is that further education colleges, including Fermanagh College, can offer only the first and second years of a degree programme. The university that validates the degree should provide the final year of tuition.

Mr McHugh: Is it fair that, at the end of a very expensive course, students — particularly young mothers with expenses and childcare difficulties — do not obtain their certificates because they have to travel to Ballymena, Magherafelt or elsewhere from, for example, Fermanagh, to finish the third years of their courses?

Sir Reg Empey: I understand the Member’s point — that could be a barrier to employment for that type of individual. However, the universities can, in certain circumstances —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have to interrupt you, Minister.

Sir Reg Empey: I will write to the Member about that.

3.30 pm


Staff Protection

1. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Education what consideration has been given to adopting similar protocols in schools as those now operational in hospitals, to protect staff from assault.   (AQO 106/07)

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Assaults on school staff are unacceptable, and I condemn all such attacks. School boards of governors have a duty to encourage good behaviour and discipline, and my Department will continue to work with employers to ensure that discipline policies are effective and that staff receive the support that they need and deserve.

Schools should be a safe haven, not only for pupils but also for teachers and support staff. My Department is currently reviewing the available guidance on security and personal safety in schools and the support available to staff. I have asked that that review should include consideration of protocols in other organisations, such as those used in the Health Service.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I welcome her to the House on her first opportunity to answer questions as the Minister of Education.

The purpose of my question is to highlight the safety of everyone in school compounds. Does the Minister agree that, although appropriate training and advice is given to everyone involved in education, the prevention of assaults of any kind is paramount and children should not be disturbed by any such activity?

Ms Ruane: Absolutely: prevention is paramount. That is why it is important that a culture of democracy be created in schools, where everyone is respected — pupils and teachers — and why the complex and wide-ranging issue of bullying must be considered. My Department is currently working on an anti-bullying strategy, is part of the anti-bullying forum, and will soon publish a report on that issue. Schools must be open and democratic, and prevention is the best cure.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: With the number of teacher assaults rising at an alarming rate, will the Minister have talks with her colleague the Minister of Health to ensure that teachers are included in a measure similar to the emergency workers’ protection legislation that was voted for in the Assembly on 22 May?

Ms Ruane: Would the Member mind repeating the question? I missed a bit of it.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: My pleasure. With the number of teacher assaults rising at an alarming rate, will the Minister have talks with her colleague the Minister of Health to ensure that teachers are included in a measure similar to the emergency workers’ protection legislation that was voted for by the Assembly on 22 May?

Ms Ruane: As I have said, assaults on school staff are unacceptable and I condemn all such attacks. If the Minister of Health is open to a meeting — which I am sure he is because I have already met him on a range of issues — we will discuss this matter. My Department is currently reviewing the available guidance on security and personal safety in schools and the support available to staff, and I have asked that the review should include consideration of protocols, particularly in the Health Service, but also in other organisations.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I finally have a question to ask. Schools are quick to suspend teachers. Will schools be given adequate powers to suspend pupils in cases of attacks on teachers? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Sorry, I was upsetting the protocols. I thank the Member for his question. Schools already have those powers. School principals have the authority to suspend pupils for up to five days for any breach of the school discipline policy, and, with the approval of the board of governors, can extend that to 45 days. With regard to the suspension of teachers, only the principal or the chairperson of the board of governors may suspend a member of school staff. The employing authority must be consulted before a suspension is imposed, or as soon as possible thereafter.

Precautionary suspension should not be automatic, and some preliminary investigation by social services representatives and/or the PSNI may be necessary before a decision to suspend can be taken properly, even as a precautionary measure. However, as I said to Kieran McCarthy, we must try to create a situation in which preventive measures are preferred to disciplinary interventions in schools — although disciplinary measures are sometimes necessary. Early intervention is the key to the problem.

Special Needs Children

2. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Education what provision she is making to ensure that special needs children displaced by school closures, such as that of Lisnasharragh High School, have access to alternative places in schools of their choice. (AQO 105/07)

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Statements for children with special educational needs are maintained by education and library boards and are subject to annual in-school review. When an education and library board is aware that a school is closing, or a change of place­ment is required for other reasons, the annual review process enables future placement options to be discussed with the child’s parents so that planning can commence for the next academic year.

If the child’s parents are dissatisfied with the proposed alternatives, they have a choice of two routes — informal or formal — to raise their concerns. The informal route is a cross-board dispute avoidance and resolution service, which provides opportunities to resolve areas of disagreement between parents and schools and/or boards. Participation in that process is voluntary. The formal route, which is set in special education legislation, gives parents the right to appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal.

An agreement has been reached with the parents of six of the eight pupils who currently attend Lisnasharragh High School, and who hold statements of special educational needs maintained by the South Eastern Education and Library Board, to transfer to another secondary school in the area. In consultation with the parents of the remaining two pupils, a decision will be made for suitable placement as a result of their annual review process. The Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) currently maintains a statement of special educational needs for one additional pupil at Lisnasharragh High School; the BELB will work with that child’s parents to secure a suitable alternative before the school is closed.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for her detailed response; in the light of that, I wish to raise an additional related matter. Recent studies have shown that more than 80% of children with special educational needs experience bullying in the classroom. Indeed, several pupils transferred to Lisnasharragh High School because of bullying in other schools in the area. Will the Minister reassure the House that, in the event of school closures in the future, special provision will be made to ensure that factors such as bullying are taken into account when children are relocated?

Ms Ruane: I will reassure the Member. Bullying must be dealt with at every level of society. The Department of Education is a member of the anti-bullying forum, which has counterparts in the South of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and comprises the education and library boards and various children’s rights organisations, with which the Department works closely. The forum has produced a report that will be launched by the Department of Education in the near future.

We must ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected. Many changes are required in education and throughout society. We must determine the causes of bullying; children with special needs are just as likely to be bullied as other pupils. As Minister of Education, I take those matters very seriously and will continue to do so.

On the other hand, I have visited so-called “main­stream” schools with units in which children with moderate and severe learning disabilities, as well as pupils with some physical disabilities, are accommodated. Those units have a hugely positive impact on the school and help to create a culture of respect for children with special educational needs. I attended a sporting event in Kilkeel at the weekend, at which children with special needs were integrated into a competitive event in a beautiful way. That is an example of the way in which we can combat bullying against children with special needs, children from ethnic minorities or children belonging to any sector of the community.

Mr Spratt: As a member of the board of governors at Lisnasharragh High School, I know that the principal, Mrs Thompson, has done an excellent job assisting parents of special needs children to place them in other schools.

Will the Minister ensure that officials of the South Eastern Education and Library Board fully assist in that task, as promised during the consultation process on the closure?

Ms Ruane: The board is working with Lisnasharragh High School, as I said in a previous answer. The South Eastern Education and Library Board works very closely with the children and the school to find alternative placements. Change of any kind can be difficult, and it is important that the board and the Department ensure that the transition is as seamless and easy as possible for those children, their parents and the school.

School Starting Age

3. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Education if she is in favour for delaying the age at which children first attend primary school, and if so, what is the rationale for this.           (AQO 95/07)

Ms Ruane: The question is a very important one, and I thank the Member for it.

I have no plans to change the starting age for compulsory education; however, I recognise that we have the youngest starting age in Europe, and that worries me.

The revised curriculum will start in September, and I welcome that, because our children start very young. The transition from pre-school to primary school needs to be as happy and stress-free as possible, because, as I said earlier, change can be difficult for children.

There are many stress points for children in our education system, and entering school is one of them. The Department really should examine how children transfer from pre-school to primary school. One reason that I like the revised curriculum is that it gives back to our primary, secondary and post-primary teachers the power that was taken away.

Teachers know our children. They know when a child feels a bit down or vulnerable, and they are the first to pick up the phone and say “Mary hasn’t been her best today. Is something wrong, or any way we can help?”

That is why the revised curriculum needs to be as open, child-friendly and stimulating as possible. That is the rationale of the new foundation state curriculum, which aims to ensure that children are introduced to education in a way, and at a pace, that takes account of their age, gender and level of maturity.

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Minister for her comments, and I am grateful that she does not plan to raise the age of admission.

Is the Minister aware that, by the age of four, a child can be more than two years behind in his or her educ­ational development? Does she accept that research produced by her Department shows that high-quality pre-schooling, particularly when delivered in nursery school, is related to better intellectual and behavioural development in children?

Furthermore, is the Minister aware that in Finland — which, the OECD claims, has the best educational system in the world, and where the starting age for compulsory education is seven — over 60% of the population attends education-orientated day care centres by the age of three, the majority of those full-time? Would the Minister agree that early, rather than late, formal intervention is required to tackle the tragedy of poor literacy and numeracy, which can blight successive generations?

Ms Ruane: The Member has made some important points.

Pre-school provision is of key importance, be it through the medium of English or Irish. I accept the Member’s point that all the studies show that children who go to a pre-school at three and four have a much better chance in life.

I have discussed early intervention in the education and health of our young children with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey.

We need a nought-to-seven strategy in order to deal with the triggers of disadvantage at an early age rather than having to deal with them when children are 14 or 16 years old.

I agree that we should have high-quality day care centres right across the North of Ireland for all our children, but there is a big difference between the education that children receive in pre-school centres and that which they receive in primary schools. What happens — I saw this when my own child went from pre-school into primary school — is that there is a shock to the system if the primary curriculum is not developed suitably so that a seamless change is created between the two. I am happy to say that I believe that the revised curriculum will make a difference. Children can learn in many different ways, and we need to create ways that stimulate their learning.

Tackling poor literacy and numeracy is a high priority for us. Very early on — from six or eight months of age — children should be introduced to books so that they have the feel of them and understand what books are. Reading a story, or having a story read to them, should be part of their bedtime. All the studies show that, where that happens, children gain better numeracy and literacy skills. It is important that we tackle all the different aspects of poor numeracy and literacy.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister explain why Northern Ireland continues to have the lowest school starting age not only in Europe but in the world when countries such as Moldova, where the school starting age is seven, outperform us in tests such as the third international mathematics and science study?

3.45 pm

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. The question is relevant. If I were starting from scratch with our education system, I would say that children should start at a later age. That said, there would be huge implications for schools if the compulsory school starting age were to change at this point. Such a change would affect primary school enrolments and would have an impact on the size of school budgets, which are largely determined on the basis of pupil numbers. It would also have a knock-on effect on the number of staffing posts in primary schools and initial teacher training institutions and on the number of pre-school places available. It could also further call into question the viability of an increasing number of primary schools, which would fail to be addressed in the wider context of the current policy issues relating to the school estate.

As I said — I will repeat myself because this is important — I believe, and I hope that Members will agree, that the revised curriculum will go some way towards addressing the concerns about the very young age at which our children start.

As a teacher, Dominic Bradley will remember that the original intention behind the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 was that primary 1 would be equivalent to a nursery year. However, in many schools, children in primary 1 were quickly introduced to the formal curriculum. Sometimes, in their desire to see results, adults push children beyond the point that they should be pushed, and that was a case in point. However, this is a debate that we need to have. It is about money and costs, but I welcome further discussion on the issue in all different fora.

Mr Shannon: Does the Minister accept that, for many people in business, the fact that Northern Ireland’s secondary schools have the highest achieving students is a particularly strong selling point for the Province? The repercussions of fundamentally altering education provision would place that in jeopardy. Twiddling with the system now could change that for the future.

Ms Ruane: The fact that so many children do well academically is a strong selling point, but there is a band of children who do not do well. We have one of the greatest disparities between the top achieving children and the children at the bottom end. My worry, which was shared by the business community in a meeting that I attended along with Reg Empey, is how to make the curriculum relevant to young people who are not academically inclined and want a broad range of subjects.

One reason for having the revised curriculum and the entitlement framework is to provide our young people with the widest range of choice. We must ensure that once they reach the 14 to 16 age group and the 16 to 19 age group, they leave our school system as flexible, confident, articulate and creative adults, and that is what the revised curriculum intends to do.

We can all see that it is a changing world. Today, we have heard the tragic circumstances of young people taking their own lives. We must ensure that we do not put extra stress on our children. All learning should be relevant and it should stimulate children.

Teacher Training

4. Dr Farry asked the Minister of Education what discussions she has had with the Minister for Employ­ment and Learning concerning teacher training.            (AQO 108/07

Ms Ruane: I met with the Minister for Employment and Learning on 5 June to discuss matters of common interest relating to our Departments. Teacher training was on our long agenda and we did not get to it in the time available. I will have a follow-up meeting with Reg Empey to discuss various aspects of teacher education, which will be part of our future bilateral meeting.

Dr Farry: I welcome the Minister to her first Question Time. Given the decline in pupil numbers, and that there are over 50,000 empty places in our schools, how will she ensure that the supply of teachers is consistent with demand. In that light, and given the broad thrust of the Bain Report, what are her views on duplicate teacher-training colleges catering for different sections of the education system? Is that situation sustainable?

Ms Ruane: My Department recognises that pupil numbers are on the decline. However, it does not necessarily follow that a reduction in pupil numbers automatically results in a reduction in the number of teachers. There are several reasons for that, such as the introduction of new policies that require additional teaching posts. My Department and the Department for Employment and Learning must work together to create opportunities for teachers. Teachers are on the front line, and they understand how a school works and what children need, as they deal with such matters every day. The Department needs the skills of those teachers on every level and our society needs their skills on different levels.

In some cases there is an oversupply of teachers and in other cases there is a scarcity. For example, there are not enough teachers in the Irish-medium sector, and I need to discuss that with my counterpart in the South of Ireland. I will also discuss the matter with officials and the different teacher-training colleges.

To take account of the projected demographic decline and to avoid oversupply, the number of students admitted to teacher education courses was reduced by 34 in 2005-06, by 60 in 2006-07, and by a further 87 for the forthcoming academic year.

Reg Empey and I had a long discussion about careers. We must direct our children into areas where they are needed most, such as educational psychology and speech therapy. We do not have enough speech therapists and educational psychologists to enable us to deal with early intervention in the most effective way even though the number of posts has been increased.

I will be discussing duplication in teacher training and other issues with my colleagues, particularly Reg Empey. Those issues must be looked at in the context of the Bain Report and there must be collaboration between schools and between the different sectors.

Mr Burnside: The Minister will recognise that most of our local teaching talent, although not all of it, comes from the two teacher-training colleges and the two universities. Is she saying that she will allow the issue of duplication in teacher training to be put on her agenda? Has she any plans for a radical review of the duplication that exists, and could that include looking at the four teacher-training establishments in Northern Ireland and moving them towards a more unitary-controlled state teacher-training establishment?

Ms Ruane: That is one area that my Department will examine. As I have said, there is oversupply of teachers in some areas and an under-supply in others. The Bain Report encourages all educational sectors to work together. However, my Department will examine that issue only in consultation with all educational sectors, including the Queen’s University of Belfast, the University of Ulster, Stranmillis University College and St. Mary’s University College.

That is but one of many educational issues. Nothing has been decided and we will examine all options.

Mr Attwood: I welcome the Minister to her first Question Time. I would like to probe the Minister about a matter, which is not about teacher numbers or the number of teacher-training facilities in the North. My question is about the Bain Report’s recommendation for a common set of standards for qualified teacher status across all sectors in teaching 14- to 19-year-olds. Does she endorse that recommendation?

Furthermore, in her forthcoming meeting with the Minister for Employment and Learning, what will she be saying with respect to a common set of standards for qualified teacher status for that age group?

Ms Ruane: I am currently examining the different pathways for 14- to 19-year-olds, and I have worked with the Minister for Employment and Learning to make those pathways more flexible. I met with a school principal, Mr Uel McCrea, who prefers to use the word “lattice” rather than “ladder” with respect to those pathways. I also prefer to look at the education system as a lattice because the word “ladder” implies regimentation.

My Department can examine that issue; however, it has not been discussed to date. Whatever is decided must be as flexible as possible so that pathways can exist for all young people in that age group. There should not be only one way.

Achieving greater collaboration between schools must also be explored. I visited the Limavady area, among others, and it was good to see that three or four schools there had come together: some offered art and music, others Irish and history. Students from different schools had come together, and when I spoke to them, they thought that the arrangement was great. For the first time in their lives they were not walking past school buildings that they had never entered. I thought it a sign of great hope. Young people are up for it, which is good to see.


5. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Education what proposals exist to develop the teaching of citizenship in schools.            (AQO 104/07)

Ms Ruane: I welcome the Member’s question, which touches on a subject close to my own heart. Citizenship education aims to develop the capacity of young people: to participate positively and effectively in society; to influence democratic processes and make informed and responsible decisions throughout life. It is part of the revised curriculum from primary school onwards and is covered through personal development and mutual understanding. It then progresses into local and global citizenship at post-primary level.

Citizenship education has already been piloted in the vast majority of post-primary schools and commenced in 2002-03. It will become a statutory requirement when the revised curriculum is implemented on a phased basis from September 2007.

An evaluation carried out last year by the Education and Training Inspectorate was positive.

Since training for citizenship education began in 2002-03, my Department has provided around £1·5 million to ensure that all necessary training is provided. To date, over 1,100 teachers in 276 post-primary schools have received in-service training, and training of the remaining teachers will be completed by the end of this school year.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her reply, and I welcome her to her first Question Time. I remind her that a survey of children’s attitudes, reported by the BBC this morning, shows how much remains to be done.

Will the Minister ensure that in her work on teacher training to deal with that issue — and allowing for the plethora of other responsibilities that schools have — she continues to put great emphasis on citizenship education given the important role that schools could play in altering cultural attitudes among children?

4.00 pm

Ms Ruane: The Member can be sure that I will place a big emphasis on citizenship education. We are citizens of the world, and it is important that our children and young people be confident, articulate and flexible in their thinking. That is what is needed. The world is changing, and our children must be able to keep up with the changes. In some ways, they are leading the change —they are the ones who know how to use the mobile phones and the new technology.

In relation to training —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but time is up. As Members are aware, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, is due to address Members in the Senate Chamber at 4.00 pm. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 5.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 4.00 pm.

executive committee business

Welfare Reform Bill

Consideration Stage

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

5.00 pm

Debate resumed:

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): At 2.00 pm, I was addressing points raised by Members during the debate on the Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, and I will now continue to do so. At the point when the debate was suspended, I was dealing with points raised by Mr O’Dowd on benefit payments. I want to point out that the Social Development Committee was told that benefits would not stop. The provisions in the Bill are needed to ensure that Employ­ment Support Allowance (ESA) can be introduced in 2008, and I mentioned earlier that this Bill relates specifically to those who suffer from asbestosis-related conditions, and their relatives. The provisions in the Bill are needed to help them make claims, and we are introducing them at the same time as they are being introduced in GB.

Mr O’Dowd also referred to examinations — I can assure him that only healthcare professionals will undertake examinations. He also mentioned the change of opinion since the Transitional Assembly, and parity. As I made clear at the Second Stage of the Bill, I have considered the provisions of the Bill very closely with my officials, and I will ensure that it is implemented fairly, sensitively and sympathetically. Mr O’Dowd will well know the realities of parity, not least those relating to financial imperatives. I, as Minister for Social Development, like all Members of the Assembly, would like to debate legislation that related solely to Northern Ireland, but, as I said earlier today, we are very much predicated on financial considerations, and I do not want to place anybody’s entitlement or future entitlement to benefit in jeopardy.

Mr Molloy asked why, if amendments are so inconsequential, Members will not accept them. I, as a Minister, cannot accept flawed and unnecessary amendments, although I do feel in many instances such amendments may be probing. He also referred to the issue of tribunals. Those of us who have experienced the tribunal process in the past know that tribunals can adjourn to seek further evidence if they wish. They can adjourn for a few minutes, or they can adjourn for several days or weeks, and we all have personal experience of representing constituents on tribunals.

Mr McCann raised issues about the operation of the Committee. I reiterate that the Committee was told that benefits would not stop; the Committee was told that the easements to assist people claiming compensation for dust-related diseases should apply in Northern Ireland and that those easements and that benefit entitlement will equally apply to many of their relatives who live in close proximity to them.

I firmly believe that sufferers of dust-related diseases should apply for benefits in Northern Ireland with a minimum of delay, because I do not wish to see anybody who is suffering such a terminal disease suffer any more and be without benefit entitlement. Anyone who believes in the principles of social justice will think likewise.

I have listened very carefully today to the arguments put forward by Members across the Assembly.

Mr S Wilson: Before the Minister concludes her remarks on this, I want to say that Sinn Féin has tried to give the impression that its members alone are the defenders of those who suffer from mental-health problems and that that the rest of the House does not care, because it opposes the Sinn Féin amendments. Does the Minister agree that generally Members of the Assembly want to see the best legislation? The amend­ments that are being proposed are not necessarily in the interests of the people whom they are supposed to be serving, and Sinn Féin has a cheek to claim to be defending those who suffer from mental-health problems, when over the last 30 years it has been responsible for giving many people those very problems.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Wilson for his intervention. Every Member has sympathy with — and wants to defend — those who suffer from mental-health conditions. We are dealing with the legacy of the past. That legacy placed many people in conflict, and may have undermined their personal positions, leaving them in a state of distress and trauma. We can attribute blame, but anyone who engaged in hatred, violence, or terrorism has made a contribution to the mental ill health that is suffered by many people. We cannot apportion blame to one section of the community, because others were responsible too.

We are trying to move on, and I hope that the new political dispensation will afford us the opportunity to do that. No one alone can act as the defender of those who suffer from mental ill health. Every Member has spoken unanimously in wanting to defend the needs, requirements and aspirations of those who suffer from mental ill health. Members spoke as one when they said that they wanted to deal with those people sensitively, and with compassion and dignity. I hope that the Assembly can proceed in that manner with the Welfare Reform Bill, and the provisions and clauses contained therein.

I have listened carefully to Members’ points, and with particular care and attention to those points that were raised by Members in support of the amendments. However, the amendments are flawed and unnecessary, albeit probing. If the amendments were accepted, they would allow for people without medical qualifications to carry out medical examinations. The amendment to clause 55, for example, would allow a psychiatric social worker to carry out medical examinations, for which they would be medically unqualified, and that is not appropriate.

The amendments mean that someone who has a severe physical disability, and a relatively minor mental-health condition, would be assessed by someone with experience of mental-health conditions, who may have no medical qualifications, despite the fact that serious physical-health conditions are involved.

The amendments would mean that a person who has a relatively minor mental-health condition would receive special provision under the legislation, but a severely physically disabled person would not, which is not right. The amendments are unnecessary because the legislation provides safeguards to ensure that those who carry out the assessments and medical examinations are suitably trained. The definition of a healthcare professional is sufficiently broad in the legislation to allow us to include other healthcare professionals, as and when appropriate. Clause 11 makes provision for that.

Moreover, there will be access to specialist advice, where necessary. The work-focused interviews will take account of individuals’ needs, and there will be a system of safeguards for people with mental-health problems. We do not wish to force anyone to comply with requirements when they are not fit to do so due to health conditions. We are aiming to provide help and support, not to put pressure on people who suffer from mental-health conditions. At the same time, we do not want to disregard them. We want to ensure that they get all the help and encouragement that they need to fulfil their potential. We want to support and endorse those who suffer from mental-health conditions at every possible opportunity.

In light of my reassurances, I hope that the proposers will be able to withdraw their amendments. If that is not the case, I would urge Members to reject the amendments, which are, no doubt, well intentioned. My reassurances, and the provisions and clauses in the Bill, including those in respect of clause 11, demonstrate that the amendments are flawed and unnecessary.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Michelle McIlveen referred to the amendments as change for change’s sake. That is not the intention. The purpose of those amendments is to ensure that benefit claimants get the best deal possible.

Alban Maginness referred to the amendments as superfluous; I do not think that they are superfluous to those who suffer from mental-health problems. He talked of psychologists who may not be fully trained and how it might be inappropriate to have a such people performing examinations. As someone who has been involved in that area for a long time, I can assure Mr Maginness that appeal tribunals in particular welcome evidence from psychologists, who — and this is accepted — are trained in the area of mental health.

Much has been made of the difficulties for people with physical and mental-health problems. The purpose of the personal capability assessment is to find out which descriptor is most appropriate for a person. I wish I had the same unwavering faith in the social security system that Mr Maginness appears to have.

Mr Ford talked about the real concerns that exist and how the amendments did not necessarily deal with them. He also talked of a raft of amendments to specify particular health professionals. If a raft of amendments is essential to promote the Welfare Reform Bill, then so be it.

Mr Shannon supports the Bill and talked about negative repercussions for people with mental-health issues. Most people welcome the idea of getting those on benefits back to work, but they have to be individuals whose health problems will not be made worse by their doing so.

In one of his interventions, Mr S Wilson talked about specialists: for instance, if someone has a heart condition, a specialist should be involved. That is the case in many situations: appeal tribunals have the wherewithal to request specialist medical evidence, because a doctor, for example, cannot detect angina unless there is a treadmill in the room. That sort of thing needs to be resolved.

Mr O’Dowd supported the motion, and Dr McDonnell referred in his intervention to his 28 years as a GP and to how as many as 50% of his patients may have presented with mental-health problems. How many of those patients did he refer to specialists if specialists were more capable of dealing with them?

Mr S Wilson has talked about belated attempts by Sinn Féin to introduce amendments after the accelerated passage was agreed. The Minister said today that the Sinn Féin amendments would interfere with, and possibly hold back, benefits from people who suffer from asbestos-related conditions. Mr S Wilson said that although he agreed in general with parity, he would disagree with it if it had an impact on a person’s right to benefit. It is not possible to have it both ways.

I accept that the Minister is committed to getting the best possible legislation through. The legislation is flawed. In my experience of dealing with social security legislation over the last 30-odd years, I have never seen a piece of legislation specifically designed to enhance and increase the value of the lives of those on benefits.

In relation to the help and support that people need, there was talk about medical exams and reports. Other health professions are mentioned in the legislation, so why not psychiatric social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and community psychiatric nurses? Those are the questions that people are asked at tribunals. Also, there can be an inference that, if a person has not attended one of these particular experts in relation to their condition, then it minimises the condition in the eyes of those people who are dealing with them — tribunals, in particular.

The Minister said that the employment support allowance would be introduced in 2008. I think that that is accepted.

5.15 pm

Mr Wilson talked about “best legislation” in his intervention. I am wondering whether he can give some examples of best legislation for people on benefit from the past 30 years, because I certainly cannot.

The Minister talked about contributing factors, particularly the Troubles. She mentioned terrorism and related problems. I think that the Minister would be wise to look at the impact that changes in social security legislation have had on people, as well.

I finish by saying that people talk about minor mental-health problems — surely the role of a specialist is to discover whether it is a minor problem. If so, people can be made aware of that, and that can go into the system.

I ask the Assembly once again to support these amendments. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 19; Noes 65.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady,  Mr Brolly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff,  Mrs McGill, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Brady and Mr F McCann.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Bresland,  Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burns, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter,  Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Donaldson,  Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey,  Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Hamilton,  Mrs Hanna, Mr Hilditch, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty,  Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea,  Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone,  Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan,  Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr O’Loan, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr P Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson,  Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson .

Tellers for the Noes: Mr D Bradley and Mr Burns.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

5.30 pm

Clause 12 (Work-focused interviews)

Amendment No 2 negatived.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 13 to 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16 (Contracting out)

Mr Speaker: We now debate Mr Brady’s and other Members’ opposition to clause 16, which deals with the question of whether the Department should have the power to contract out some of its functions.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The heading of clause 16 in the Welfare Reform Bill is “Contracting out”. The reason for the proposed deletion of that clause is to ensure that the tasks of interviewing and dealing with clients are not contracted out to the private sector. It is essential that the importance of the role of personal advisers be recognised. Those people must be trained to a high degree, particularly in dealing with people with mental-health problems. If the private sector were to deal with that, issues of confidentiality, sensitivity and accountability would be brought into question. Those matters should be kept in-house, where implementation in areas such as training would be carefully monitored. The farming out of those tasks would inevitably lead to job losses in the Civil Service and in the public sector in general. Jobs must be created locally, not cut back so that faceless private companies can prosper.

Training for people carrying out such interviews must be genuine, must have clear objectives, and must be of the highest standard to meet the needs of people with physical and mental-health disabilities. Constant monitoring must also be put in place. There is no place for private companies in the administration or assessment of benefits — that should never arise. The welfare and well-being of claimants should be paramount. I ask the Assembly’s support for the deletion of clause 16. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Craig: Sinn Féin’s arguments in opposition to clause 16 turn everything that has come before on its head.

A Member: What is new?

Mr Craig: Exactly, what is new?

Concerns have been raised about how people with mental-health conditions are treated, and the argument has been made that they must receive the best and most suitable help for their condition. Clause 16 contains provision to allow contracted providers in the private and voluntary sectors to carry out functions related to work-focused interviews. That does not mean that the work is contracted out; it involves bringing in the expertise of the voluntary sector to help individuals with mental and learning disabilities and disorders. Opposing clause 16 of the Bill will prevent the possibility of bringing that expertise into the system. I cannot see how its removal would improve the Bill.

Sinn Féin supported the accelerated passage of the Bill. The party may not want to be reminded of that fact, but it is true. What has caused the difference in attitude between the Committee meeting and what has occurred in the Chamber today? Where has that party’s opposition come from?

Members are aware that accelerated passage was sought in order to ensure parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. Any Member who tables an amendment that might breach that principle would need to provide extremely strong evidence for doing so. The issue is more about Sinn Féin’s attempts to score points against other parties, and it is prepared to let the ordinary people of Northern Ireland suffer to do so.

Since the Bill was introduced, our attitude has been that it must ensure that people who are in receipt of benefits across Northern Ireland are treated equally to people in the rest of the United Kingdom. For that reason, I will not support the amendment.

Mr A Maginness: I oppose the amendment to clause 16. It is important to emphasise that clause 16 is a permissive power; it is not mandatory nor is it intended to be so. The intention is to provide a power that the Minister or the Department may wish to exercise in the future.

Mr Brady mentioned the fact that the power enables the Department to contract out to private bodies. That is true. Equally, however, clause 16 enables the Department to contract out to voluntary organisations that have the expertise to deal with particular situations, such as introducing tailor-made interview processes, which would be of great assistance to claimants. In the earlier debate on the Bill, Members highlighted many other situations that could be altered to help claimants.

There is an element of selectivity from Mr Brady and his colleagues in their opposition to clause 16. On one hand, they say that they want special consideration to exist. However, if the Department decides —

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: Just hear me out.

However, clause 16 enables the Department to decide sometime in the future to contract out particular services to expert voluntary organisations, if it would be necessary or helpful to do so. Mr Brady seeks to exclude that power from the Bill. I shall give way to Mr McCann now.

Mr F McCann: I understand the Member’s point. However, during the earlier debate, I specifically mentioned the number of people with psychiatric training. Those people could provide that expertise individually. Contracting out means putting a contract out to tender among different groups and organisations, any of which could apply. The group that offers the lowest tender will probably be chosen to provide the types of services that have been mentioned.

Mr A Maginness: The Member does not understand my point. It is not simply a tendering exercise, but one that will bring in the best possible expertise, particularly from voluntary organisations, in order to assist the Department. Opposing clause 16 will prevent the Department from being able to deal with claimants in a more customised fashion. Therefore, Sinn Féin has taken a retrograde step by bringing forward this amendment.

Furthermore, in order to implement clause 16, regulations would have to be made. Mr Brady’s points in relation to problems in implementing the legislation can all be met by a rigorous series of regulations that deal with the weaknesses and points of contention that he, rightly, raised. The Assembly, or the Social Develop­ment Committee, can address that in the future. Therein lies a series of safeguards in relation to clause 16.

Let me emphasise that this power is permissive; it is not mandatory. The Department does not have to contract-out services, but it can consider doing so in the future. If it considers that there is good practice elsewhere, and evidence-based experience that can inform our decisions, why should it not bring that to the Assembly for further discussion?

Clause 16 allows not only the Department for Social Development, but also the Department for Employment and Learning, to deal with this process. That is important, because there is obvious cross-referencing between the two Departments when dealing with the social issues that they have in common. If the Assembly rejects clause 16, it is rejecting potential flexibility for the Department to deal with this situation. Therefore, I ask the House to reject this amendment.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member, I remind Members that this is not a debate on an amendment to this clause. Rather, Mr Brady and other Members have declared their intention to vote against the clause remaining part of the Bill. It is important to state that, and I hope that it will be clear when the Question is put.

Dr Farry: I am in favour of retaining clause 16. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of saying, “public sector good, private sector bad”. Similarly, we must avoid the trap of saying that all PPP or PFI projects are bad and all public-sector procurement is good.

There are circumstances in which contracting out to the private sector makes sense. It can be a more efficient way of providing services, and so provide a better public service for the entire community. The same logic applies to other projects where the private sector can be brought in. There are good and bad examples. We need the flexibility to enter into good examples of contracting out or other private-sector initiatives and the discipline to avoid bad ones.

It is important that Members avoid hanging themselves on ideological hooks. The Assembly has a wide agenda of questions to answer and challenges to meet in the coming months and years. It must be flexible in its approach. I too recognise that this clause describes a permissive power. It does not say that the Department must go down a certain route; it merely gives the Department the option of contracting out services to the private or voluntary sectors if, at some point, it proves wise to do so.

I am satisfied that regulations can be put in place to provide safeguards, if the Department chooses to use this power. The House should recognise that the private sector in Northern Ireland needs to grow. The public sector is too large in relation to the private sector. The strengths in the voluntary and community sector must also be recognised.

Northern Ireland has one of the most sophisticated community and voluntary sectors in the entire world, and Members should not underestimate the abilities of organisations within that sector to deliver services. Along these benches, Members are happy that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Mr F McCann: Privatisation or contracting out will ensure that those who work for Departments in Govern­ment buildings will be considered surplus to requirements. Members should consider the Bill as it is currently worded, so that they are under no illusions as to what I am talking about:

“Contracting out

16.— (1) The following functions of the Department may be exercised by, or by employees of, such person (if any) as it may authorise for the purpose, namely—

conducting interviews under section 12;

providing documents under section 14;

giving, varying or revoking directions under section 15.”

That clause continues for another page and a half. Under the Welfare Reform Bill as introduced, people from the private sector will do a large proportion of that work.

Consider the vote for one minute. Are Members here to provide the most up-to-date, professional service possible, and to ensure through Civil Service employment a high level of expertise that is backed up by years of experience? Alternatively, are Members in the process of throwing away all of that by contracting out services to private companies? Those groups and organisations pay minimum wage and offer little training in most cases. Are we about to give them access to private documentation and authorise them to conduct interviews with claimants? Will the directors of a private company put profit before care for their workforce? Can the loyalty of those companies be bought?

Over the years, I have had many arguments with civil servants from different levels — and I intend to have many more. When they start their careers, civil servants pledge to maintain standards of service and privacy. Consider the information that the public are encouraged to give to the Social Security Agency when applying for benefits: personal and medical information; private financial details; information that gets to the core of who a person is.

5.45 pm

In the course of my constituency work, I have built relationships with those people from the other end of the counter, so to speak, and I have confidence in the professionalism of their work. Members have all had moments of disagreement with some of their decisions. However, could the current standard of professional relationship be maintained if the Bill were to be passed? That relationship works both ways. Regardless of organisation or political party, advice centres working at the coalface rely on professionalism and strong working relationships to assist and help those in most need in the community.

Sinn Féin believes that this Bill is about getting as many people as possible off incapacity benefit. Again, consider specific sections. In the ‘Explanatory and Financial Memorandum’ of the Bill as introduced, guidance on work-focused interviews under clause 12 states that:

“If the claimant fails to participate fully in a work-focused interview and cannot show good cause for that failure within the permitted time, the amount of employment and support allowance he is entitled to would be reduced. Regulations under subsection (4) will set out the amounts of the reductions.”

It is obvious that the Bill was not gender-proofed. It continually talks of “he”, not they. Sinn Féin is concerned that Members may pass the Bill without a full under­standing of its consequences: namely that somewhere down the line, outside providers will carry out all services. Are Members in danger of subcontracting welfare benefits? What will happen if it all goes wrong and standards collapse? Will the Assembly be in a position to reverse these decisions? I fear not. By that stage, in another efficiency drive, the Government will have shed those people who delivered the welfare state. Do Members want to go down that road and to hand over those activities to the highest bidder? That is the decision we face. For everyone’s sake, I hope we make the right one. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Ms Ritchie: It may be tempting to pursue purely local solutions to local problems in social security provision, as in other areas of our responsibility. However, as I said earlier in the debate on the previous amendments, we are constrained by the realities of parity, not the least of those being the huge financial resources that are dependent on the maintenance of parity. It might be helpful if I explain the purpose of clause 16.

Clause 16 will allow the Department for Social Development and the Department for Employment and Learning to draw upon the skills of others, such as the voluntary sector, to deliver some of their departmental functions — under part 1 of the Bill — to claimants of employment and support allowance; it will also have an effect on the conduct of work-focused interviews, drawing up action plans and issuing directions.

I must stress that there are no plans at this time to use those powers. As Mr A Maginness and Dr Farry pointed out, clause 16 is permissive not mandatory. Clause 16(1) states that:

“The following functions of the Department may be exercised”.

Clause 16(2) states that:

“Regulations may provide for any of the following functions”.

It is accepted that some private organisations and voluntary agencies have a wealth of experience in delivering specialist employment support and advice. My Department and the Department for Employment and Learning recognise and value that experience. However, in Northern Ireland, such organisations tend to be small and localised, and they do not have the capacity to manage successfully the full range of support and advice that is required to deliver the employment and support allowance to claimants.

The Pathways to Work programme will roll out in Northern Ireland between October 2007 and April 2008 under the current public-sector model, which is led by the Department for Employment and Learning. Initially, the current Pathways to Work conditionality regime and delivery model will apply when employment and support allowance is introduced. Allowing other bodies to deliver those functions would only be considered in the light of firm evidence that alternative approaches are effective, efficient and value for money. If and when any functions are contracted out, the same rules, review and appeal processes will be in place for all organisations that carry out conditionality functions. This will ensure a consistency of applications for all claimants. In addition, the delivery of contracted-out functions will be carefully monitored.

I appreciate the concerns expressed by some Members that external providers might not possess the ethos of public service that underpins the public sector and may be motivated by profit rather than the interests of the claimant. However, my Department and the Department for Employment and Learning will remain responsible for all functions carried out on their behalf. Contractors would be liable for prosecution for any criminal activity resulting from their actions — or lack of action. As I have already made clear, the respective Departments will closely monitor the delivery of functions by an external provider.

Although there are currently no plans to use the powers described in clause 16, it would be wrong to deny ourselves the use of that option in the future. For example, those powers could be used to draw on the specific expertise of mental-health organisations to assist in dealing with people with mental-health problems. It is important to note, however, that before either Department could seek to exercise those powers, it would, of course, consult with its respective Committees. I want to put that on the record.

Mr Brady raised the issue of confidentiality of information. The unlawful disclosure of Social Security Agency information, by either civil servants or anyone who provides a service to Departments, is an offence. I assure Members that I would not tolerate unscrupulous contractors found to be acting improperly while working on behalf of my Department. I want to put that on the public record, too.

Secondly, Mr McCann asked whether organisations would act professionally if the Department decided to contract out to providers at a later stage. I say to him that the delivery of functions by external providers will be very carefully monitored.

The other issue that Mr McCann raised was that the Bill has not been gender-proofed. The Bill is drafted in accordance with standard drafting practice. The Interpretation Act 1954 provides for the word “he” to mean “she” also. By way of information, the Office of the Legislative Counsel is moving towards gender-neutral drafting.

I have said that I intend to return to the Committee and that the Minister for Employment and Learning will return to the Committee for Employment and Learning before proceeding down the route of contracting out to providers. Having given those assurances, I hope that Members who oppose clause 16 will realise that it could be a useful tool for the future and that they might reconsider their opposition to the clause.

I understand the sensitive issues involved and that information must be dealt with sensitively, because confidential, personal and private information on claimants is being dealt with, and that information must remain in the private domain.

Given those reassurances, I hope that Members will be able to reconsider their opposition to the clause. I trust that Members will agree that it would be wrong to deny ourselves the flexibility for the future that clause 16 offers.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Craig talked about available help in the system. I resent his remark that I am attempting to score political points — or to score points on political issues — on the back of vulnerable people, particularly those who suffer from mental-health problems.

Mr Alban Maginness opposed the deletion of clause 16. He said that it was a permissive, mandatory power. If that is the case, why include clause 16 in the Bill?

Ms Ritchie: It is not mandatory.

Mr A Maginness: I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but I beg to differ.

Mr Brady: Sorry. The Member said that it was non-mandatory. My mistake.

Why include the clause in the Bill? There has been a great deal of talk about voluntary organisations having the wherewithal and expertise to help. As someone who has worked in the voluntary sector for the past 26 years, I wonder from where the funding will come, because it has been my experience that the voluntary sector is lacking in funding, and, indeed, support, from the Department.

Dr Farry talked about “public sector good, private sector bad”. When that logic is applied to social security legislation, it is obvious that to have people in the private sector dealing with social security issues is not the best option. Mr McCann made that point well.

Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Why is the Member being permitted to speak twice? I am making a point of order, Mr Speaker, if the Member would like to resume his seat. He is not speaking to an amendment, so he does not have the right of reply.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order.

This is a very sensitive issue. We thought that the Member should be allowed to wind up.

Mr P Robinson: On a further point of order, Mr Speaker, does that mean that if there is a substantive issue for debate, any Member can get up to speak more than once?

Mr Speaker: On that further point of order, it might be useful if I come back to the House on that issue.

Mr Brady: With respect, in reply to the Member opposite’s point of order, I was simply acceding to the Speaker’s request. That is probably the best way to explain the matter. I am sure that the Member is much better versed in these matters than I am, but, as a matter of courtesy, I was acceding to the Speaker’s request.

6.00 pm

Mr Speaker: I interrupt the Member for a moment — I will allow him to finish afterwards — to deal with a procedural issue. Obviously, the business will not be disposed of by 6.00 pm. In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow the business to continue until 7.00 pm or until the business has been completed. I now ask the Member to finish.

Mr Brady: In response to the Member opposite’s concern, I will try to be as brief as possible.

The Minister said that there are no plans to use the powers in clause 16, but she then talked about what would happen if she decided to contract out. I think that she meant to refer to what may happen if she were to decide to contract out.

Finally, I seek clarification from the Minister on the consultation. She said that 320 copies of the consultation document on the Bill were issued. I am interested to find out — this may not be the time or the place — the results of that consultation and whether there was a consensus on the Bill. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 17 to 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 35 (Payment of housing benefit)

Mr Speaker: We now debate amendment No 3, with which it will be convenient to debate amendment No 4. The amendments deal with the payment of housing benefit and with debt counselling. As amendment No 4 is consequential to amendment No 3, I will call amendment No 4 only if amendment No 3 is made.

Mr F McCann: I beg to move amendment No 3: In page 28, line 22, leave out paragraph (a) and insert

“(a)  a payment or payments by the Housing Executive or the Department of Finance and Personnel, as the case may be-

(i)   to a person on E’s behalf or in respect of a liability which E has (where E is the person entitled to the payment); or

(ii)  directly to E only where E requests it to be so paid,”

The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:

No 4: In page 28, line 34, at end insert

“(2C) Regulations may provide that the Housing Executive or the Department of Finance and Personnel, as the case may be, shall provide debt counselling to vulnerable persons who in requesting payment of Housing Benefit in accordance with subsection (2)(a)(ii) may experience financial difficulties.” — [Mr F McCann.]

It gives me great pleasure to move amendment No 3, which, if passed, will save many vulnerable people from falling into difficulties with arrears because they choose to buy food for their families or essentials for their home before they pay the rent. All Members of the Social Development Committee had serious reservations about aspects of the Bill, especially the provision to allow payment of housing benefit directly to the applicant, thus bypassing the landlord or owner of the property.

I do not intend to speak too long in the debate because the choice is clear. Members can either support amendment No 3 and thereby build in protection to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community are protected from possible eviction for arrears, or they can leave things to chance so that we end up picking up the pieces for a catalogue of families or individuals in severe debt who choose to put food on the table rather than pay the rent. I have been told that the payment is a matter of choice and that it should be left for the individual to choose whether they want their housing benefit to be paid directly to them or to the owner of the property. Amendment No 3 takes on board that concern by providing that those who wish to avail of the opportunity to have their housing benefit paid directly to them may do so.

The Minister gave a commitment to come back to the Committee and discuss Part 2 of the Bill, which relates to housing benefit. She said that she was sympathetic to many points that were raised. However, there is no guarantee that changes will be made or that protections, which Sinn Féin believes are essential to protect people, will be taken on board and inserted in the Bill.

It is not often that I quote from the Residential Landlords Association, but the association has said that a lot of landlords in Leeds will withdraw from the market. The association also said that a strong immigrant market is replacing the benefit market. There are similar quotes right across the board. People receiving their benefits directly could find that it has an adverse affect.

The Sinn Féin group on the Committee believes that the best way to ensure that the issue is dealt with is through a debate on the Floor of the House. It would give Members an opportunity to say whether they are in favour of including the necessary protection to help those who may fall foul of the legislation as it is currently worded.

In a briefing for the Second Reading of Part 2 of the Welfare Reform Bill, which relates to housing benefit, Shelter Scotland said:

“Shelter believes that amendments should be made to the Bill, introducing better safeguards for tenants who might experience difficulty managing the LHA payments,”

— the LHA is the local housing allowance, which is the same as housing benefit —

“and fall into rent arrears and face eviction and homelessness as a result.”

Why leave matters to chance when they can be dealt with now? In a year’s time it may be too late. If amendment No 3 is agreed to, and we can stop one person from being a victim of rent-arrears eviction, it will have been worth it.

Amendment No 4 states:

“(2C) Regulations may provide that the Housing Executive or the Department of Finance and Personnel, as the case may be, shall provide debt counselling to vulnerable persons who in requesting payment of Housing Benefit in accordance with subsection (2)(a)(ii) may experience financial difficulties.”

The House should support the amendment, as it goes straight to the heart of the Bill. The lack of thought in the Bill for people who may fall into difficulties, or into arrears, is obvious. We have talked about the problems that may arise if the Bill is implemented, and the impact that it may have on those most vulnerable in our community.

I do not believe that there is one Member in the Chamber who has not, in the course of his or her constituency work, come across people who have been depressed to the point of suicide because they have a secret that they felt that they could not share with others. That secret is debt. How many people have kept that secret because they were frightened that their partner or husband would find out? How many people have Members spoken to who were ashamed that anyone would know that they were deeply in debt and who felt that they had nowhere to turn?

How many people have broken down because they have been under so much pressure that they felt that they could not go on with life? How many people have Members spoken to who, when they eventually approached someone with experience or were pointed in the right direction to a debt counsellor, recognised that there was light at the end of the tunnel after all?

There is an old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved. Imagine a partner or spouse trying to work out the weekly or monthly income and realising that there is not enough money to pay the rent or mortgage, feed the children, pay for clothing or bus fares for school. It is not a difficult choice for a parent to make.

Agreeing to amendment No 4 would introduce a procedure to allow those people who choose to have their benefit paid directly to avail themselves of first-rate counselling to assist them when they fall into arrears. To say no to the amendment would be to turn our backs on those people who are most in need of our help. It would send out the wrong signal and show that we do not care.

Have any Members in the Chamber seen an eviction or ever dealt with the aftermath of an eviction? There were a number of evictions in West Belfast some months ago. The majority of people involved were women and children; their crime was rent arrears. Sometimes the evictions happened when people were out of their properties, their doors were forced and their belongings taken away for storage.

At the time, Sinn Féin met senior Housing Executive officials who had initiated the evictions through the Enforcement of Judgments Office. Sinn Féin argued that there had to be a better way of dealing with evictions and asked that Housing Executive officials should make arrangements to sit down with those people who were in arrears and advise them to seek debt counselling. Sinn Féin also asked the Housing Executive to produce educational leaflets to explain the dangers of falling into debt, and to contact family members or anyone close — for example, a doctor, a local councillor, a priest or community worker — who might be in a position to help persons in debt and could impress upon them the necessity of paying their rent arrears.

In many instances the debtors are low earners whose incomes fall just outside the housing benefit level. They feel that they have only enough money to feed and clothe their children. Members have an opportunity to put the horse before the cart —

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way, as he always does.

What the Member describes is what already happens in all Housing Executive offices. There, people — sometimes with huge arrears of debt — receive advice and sympathetic consideration from housing managers, to the point where minimal payments are often accepted. The Housing Executive also puts debtors in touch with organisations that can help them to manage their finances.

Mr F McCann: Some of that help has been introduced only recently. Several political parties have voiced concerns about the number of evictions. On many occasions, eviction is the first solution resorted to.

At a meeting of the Committee for Social Development on 17 May, several members voiced concern about the payment of housing benefit to claimants rather than to property owners or landlords. Where tenants are in receipt of housing benefit, there is no procedure by which debt counselling is offered as soon as tenants fall into arrears of rent. People wait until they have £6,000 —

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat for a moment. Although there is no time limit on contributions to the debate, it would be useful if Members kept their comments extremely brief. There is a great deal of business to get through.

Mr F McCann: I have allowed Mr Wilson to intervene 11 times today, so he has taken up most of my time.

My point is that the Housing Executive waits until people are thousands of pounds in debt before it acts. The amendment is intended to introduce a process by which tenants falling four, eight or 12 weeks in arrears are identified and appropriate action is triggered. People in debt should have explained to them the various ways of dealing with debt. There should be no automatic recourse to the Enforcement of Judgements Office and to eviction. No Member likes to see evictions.

Everyone who applies for housing benefit should be advised that debt counselling is available. Those falling into arrears should be identified at an early stage and dealt with proactively before they present problems.

Last Thursday, several groups gave evidence to the Committee for Social Development on the problem of homelessness. Those groups provide excellent advice and, if they were better resourced, they would fulfil the need.

Go raibh maith agat.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Hilditch): On 24 May, the Minister attended a meeting of the Committee to explain her reasons for requesting accelerated passage for the Welfare Reform Bill.

The Committee agreed to support the Minister’s request only after she had given an explicit undertaking that she would not bring forward regulations to change the current method of paying housing benefit until she had considered the matter further and fully discussed the matter with the Committee. The Committee did not discuss the detail of the regulations that could be brought forward by the Minister under clause 35, and therefore I cannot give the Committee’s view on the proposed amendment.

I want to comment now on the amendments in a personal capacity, not as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee. My colleague the Chairman of the Committee, and all the DUP members of the Committee, were most sceptical of the proposals to pay housing benefit directly to tenants.

However, we have had assurances from the Minister, during Committee meetings, and in the House during the Second Stage of the Bill, that there will be no movement on this matter without evidence being provided and without full consultation with the Committee. Those remarks are recorded in Hansard, and I again welcome the Minister’s assurance on the matter.

6.15 pm

The amendment is therefore unnecessary, and the proposers have moved it in the full knowledge that it will be defeated in the House. They are allowing Members to posture in opposition despite the fact that they supported accelerated passage in Committee and that their more senior party colleagues supported the Bill in the Executive.

Last week in the House, the Minister said that certain Members seemed to refuse assurances given on any matter relating to the Bill for purely party political reasons. Those words are quite fitting in light of today’s debate.

However, Sinn Féin Members might not be quite so comfortable if there were a real possibility that their amendments would be passed because that would mean that parity would be broken, and their constituents could possibly lose out on benefit payments — which, of course, would not make for such a nice headline in the local papers.

If the issue returns to the Assembly, we will have a real chance to look at the matter in detail at that stage, with the benefit of evidence to back up our view. As a party, we have always supported the Bill, and we fully support its progress through the House. Therefore, we will not be supporting the amendments.

Mr A Maginness: I reiterate what Mr Hilditch has said. I do not want to go through the detail of his remarks, but it is quite clear that the Minister has given a firm public undertaking to the Social Development Committee and to the Assembly. It therefore comes as a major surprise that some Members, including members of the Social Development Committee, have tabled an amendment that is clearly unnecessary. I am not one to accuse people of playing politics —

Some Members: Go on.


Mr A Maginness: However, the tabling of this amendment verges towards playing politics with claimants and vulnerable people. The mover of the amendment and his party purport to be defenders of vulnerable people. That is a risky exercise. However, he does come to the House with the full confidence that parties, apart from Sinn Féin, will oppose his amendment. Therefore, the risk to parity, with all of the associated implications, is avoided. Thus, the Member is proposing an amendment in order to have it rejected, not to have it passed. It is not very good politics to do that.

Mr O’Dowd: The debate seems to have returned to the subject of parity. If the amendment were to be passed, parity would not be broken. The Minister has already stated that she is prepared to look at the matter in another way. Sinn Féin believes that the provisions outlined in the amendments should be included in the legislation. Should any of the amendments proposed by my party be passed, parity would not be broken.

Mr A Maginness: I hear what the Member has said. However, the Minister made it quite clear in Committee meetings that if the Welfare Reform Bill is not passed, or, indeed, if the House rejects any provision in the Bill, parity will be imperilled. As the amendment involves a delivery mechanism, it may well be that if it were to be carried, parity would remain. Nonetheless, the principle of parity is being threatened. This amend­ment has been tabled to score a political point rather than strengthen the legislation or protect parity or the interests of vulnerable people. It is therefore important that the House rejects the amendment.

Members are skating on thin ice when they bring spurious amendments of this type, not for genuine reasons, but for party-political ones; it does not help the process in the House and does not help anybody outside either.

My final point is to do with the fourth amendment. Mr S Wilson has made the point that the Housing Executive has a thorough debt-counselling procedure for dealing with the problems of people who get into debt through rent arrears and so forth; to ignore that is to ignore facts on the ground. The procedures are there and will remain. If in the future, the Department deems it necessary to extend this to include people outside this catchment area, in the private sector for example, that can also be done by way of regulation, and there is no reason for it not to be done.

The Minister has given an assurance that she will come back to the Social Development Committee and revisit many of the issues that have been raised in the House today. The Minister is not a person to duck issues, nor a person without compassion; she is sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, and I can assure the House that if necessary the Minister will come back and deal with this problem. I ask the House to reject the second amendment.

Ms Lo: I rise to oppose both amendments. Of course there are concerns about direct payments for housing benefit, and there is the potential for people to fall into debt over rent arrears. It is essential that there is appropriate advice to help claimants to manage their finances, but currently, as other Members have said, there is a range of such advice on offer from both the statutory and the voluntary sectors. I totally disagree that debt cancelling should be enshrined in law as mandatory for all claimants who want to have housing benefit paid directly.

I understand too that the issue of payment and advice will be dealt with by secondary legislation that will prescribe the circumstances for making payments directly to people. The amendments should therefore not be the concerns of this Bill and are unhelpful at this moment.

I would like to secure at this stage the Minister’s reassurance that careful consideration will be given to exercising direct payments and that claimants will be given proper advice and support when opting for such a format if they so wish in the future.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat. After all Mr Maginness’s years in politics I am interested that he is surprised by anything. Because of the amendments, I have learnt two new words from him today: “spurious” and “superfluous”. So it was worth coming here after all.

The proposal in the Welfare Reform Bill is that housing benefit should be paid directly to the claimant rather than the landlord, and I accept that the Minister has stated that she will defer any decision on this until after further discussion with the Committee for Social Development. However, the amendment is to ensure that housing benefit is paid directly only to those clients who request it and may be able to manage their budgets adequately. The obvious problem is that although more money may go into a weekly budget, it will not necessarily be used to pay rent, and inevitably that person will get deeper into debt. It therefore makes sense to pay housing benefit directly to the landlord to avoid these problems and support those people in receipt of benefit. I ask the Assembly to support this amendment.

The fourth amendment is designed to ensure that if people do get into debt as a result of the changes to the payment of housing benefit, it should be incumbent upon the Housing Executive or the Department of Finance and Personnel to provide debt counselling to help these people through.

Unfortunately, for people in receipt of benefits, debt is part and parcel of their daily lives, and can be difficult to resolve. Debt counselling can be effective in giving people an insight into how to deal with their problems. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable that those statutory agencies that administer benefits should get involved in helping claimants to resolve their problems. I ask the Assembly to support the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ritchie: I come to the House as someone who defends the rights of the vulnerable and the less well off, and I want to put on record that the Executive supported the Welfare Reform Bill.

Clause 35 amends section 126(2) of the Social Security Administration (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 to provide a regulation-making power that would require payment to be made directly to the tenant, rather than to the landlord, as is normally the case at present. The Department for Work and Pensions proposes to bring forward regulations in Great Britain to allow the new local housing allowance to be paid directly to the tenant in the private rented sector. There are no plans to use that power for the social housing sector.

Lest anyone is suffering from amnesia, or selective retention of facts today, I have already made my position clear on several occasions. I have reservations about the proposal. I have voiced concerns at a meeting with the Committee for Social Development on 24 May 2007, and again during the debates on accelerated passage on 4 June 2007, and at Second Stage on 12 June 2007. I know that the Chairperson, Mr Gregory Campbell, the Deputy Chairperson, Mr David Hilditch, and members of the Committee share my concerns. I have given firm assurances that I will not introduce regulations until I am absolutely satisfied that direct payments to tenants would work. That remains my position. I will go back to the Committee if I choose to follow the other path.

Mr McCarthy: The Housing Executive has already issued instructions to landlords that the new payment will come into effect on 1 April 2008. Is the Minister for Social Development saying that that will not happen?

Ms Ritchie: I have made my position clear. I am aware of the leaflet that was issued by the Housing Executive in advance of my conveying information to the Committee for Social Development. I have told the Housing Executive that I will not bring forward a commencement order or regulations until I am satisfied that direct payments to tenants would work. In that case, I will return to the Committee for Social Development and show it due courtesy before choosing that direction.

Mr S Wilson: Will the Minister for Social Develop­ment outline to the Assembly the steps that she intends to take in order to give herself the assurance that she has talked about?

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Wilson for that point of information. The direction that I choose will be based on evidence, which I have not got yet. I want to see the impact that direct payments to tenants may have. I am aware of the impact that evictions can have, and I do not want to see anyone on the streets, having been evicted from their own properties. A basic principle of social justice is that all people should have a roof over their head and their safety assured. I believe that every Member of the House aspires to that principle and wants to offer that protection.

My concern about the provision is that it could lead to an increase in debt for tenants. On the other hand, the social inclusion agenda includes a proposal to encourage people to manage their own finances, just as people in work have to do.

However, I fully accept that it is totally wrong to suggest that because a person is on benefit they are unable to manage their own finances or cannot be trusted to do so. I will return to the Committee with due courtesy before I proceed with anything. I conveyed that to the chief executive of the Housing Executive as recently as last week.

6.30 pm

I firmly believe that the way ahead should be evidence-based and not a knee-jerk reaction. I have therefore agreed with the Social Development Committee that we shall work together on the issue. The amendments seek to fetter the Committee and I in our work and impose conditions without any evidence-based deliberations.

Amendment No 3 provides that housing benefit would be payable directly to the tenant only when the tenant requests it. The obvious danger is that landlords could coerce tenants — who want to manage their own affairs and who are perfectly capable of doing so — into having their housing benefit paid directly to them. Those are precisely the types of issues that I wish to consider in detail with the Committee. If, following further discussions with the Committee, I were to proceed on the basis outlined in amendment No 3, clause 35 as drafted is sufficiently broad to allow us to do so.

My agreement with the Committee must be honoured, and we must move forward on an evidence-based approach. Amendment No 4, which is dependent on Amendment No 3, has resource implications. I would need more time to consider that amendment in con­junction with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. However, debt counselling is one issue to be considered with the Social Development Committee in deciding the way ahead. Like Mr Wilson and Mr McGuinness, and I am fully aware that the Housing Executive —

Mr McGlone: Much emphasis has been rightly placed on the role of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and particularly its debt-counselling function. Has the Minister consulted the Housing Executive on its position on amendment No 3?

Ms Ritchie: As I said to Mr McCarthy, I have sought information from the Housing Executive on the matter. The Housing Executive stated that it would prefer that the payment be made directly to the landlord.

As Mr Wilson and Mr McGuinness said, the Housing Executive already provides debt-counselling advice. Citizens Advice Bureaux, as well as other organisations in the voluntary sector, also provide that advice. For the reasons that I have outlined, and in the light of the assurances I have provided, I hope that Members withdraw the amendments.

Mr McCann highlighted the issue of people having to choose between paying rent and feeding their families. I recognise the pressures upon people on benefits; they sometimes must choose between bread on the table, paying rent, or buying other commodities for the household. However, people on benefit must not be categorised as being unable or unfit to manage their own affairs. We cannot be prescriptive or suggest what people should, or should not, have. We must be very careful because we are dealing with very sensitive, personal, private issues.

Mr O’Dowd raised the issue of parity not being broken. Payment to tenants is a much wider issue as it touches on the social financial inclusion agenda, which Members must bear in mind.

On the issue Mr McCarthy raised, that leaflet was prepared prior to devolution, and I am in the course of responding to him in writing on the matter.

Mr McCarthy: Will the Housing Executive withdraw the leaflet in view of what has just been said?

Ms Ritchie: I have told the Housing Executive that it is for the Minister, the Assembly and the Executive to deal with legislation. The Housing Executive will not be proceeding with that course of action.

I would like to thank the Member for drawing that to my attention; I was able to speak directly to the chief executive about it last Tuesday night.

Finally, to respond to Mr McCann’s claim that landlords will withdraw from the market, experience in the Pathfinder areas in GB was that more landlords were in the market and can move in and out of it. It is simply subject to market conditions.

Mr Speaker and Members, I am grateful for your indulgence. I hope that, because of the reassurances that I have provided the House, the tablers will withdraw the amendments. If the y feel unable to do so, I would urge Members to reject the amendments and to allow the Social Development Committee and me to proceed as we agreed to in taking forward this important and sensitive issue that impacts on many people in the North of Ireland.

Mr Speaker: I ask Mr McCann to make a winding-up speech on the amendment, and to be as brief as possible.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will be as brief as I was last time, when I only spoke for an hour.

I have a number of points to make regarding the amendments. Many people in the House and especially in the Committee said that they had serious concerns about this amendment. The reaction tonight is surprising; I thought that everyone here could have supported these simple, and simplifying, amendments. I appreciate that the Minister told the Committee that she would return to it, but there is no guarantee that this will be taken on board when she does.

In fact, there was some confusion in the Committee when the Minister was giving the commitment that nothing would change. One of her advisors contradicted her and said that anyone new coming onto benefits, or anyone moving house would not be included in the commitment she gave. Mr McCarthy tells me he has tried to clarify things a second time. There seems to be some confusion between the DSD, the Minister, and the Housing Executive. The problem with these contradictions is that Ministers come and go, but Bills stay. We are trying to insert amendments that protect the most vulnerable people in society. I propose the amendment, go raibh maith agat.

Amendment No 3 negatived.

Mr Speaker: As amendment No 3 has not been made, amendment No 4 falls.

Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 36 to 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55 (Medical Examinations)

Mr Speaker: Amendment No 5 has already been debated. As amendment No 5 is dependent on amendment No 1, which was not made, I will not call amendment No 5.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 56 to 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 8 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Budget Bill

Consideration Stage

Clauses 1 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Private Notice Question

Craigavon High School:  Deaths of Young People

Mr Speaker: I have received a private notice question, in accordance with Standing Order 20, for the Minister of Education. The question has been circulated to Members and is available in their pigeonholes.

Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Education what assistance she is providing to the staff and pupils of Craigavon High School, and to students in Tandragee and Laurelvale areas, following the recent tragic deaths of young people from that school; and to detail any measures of co-operation that her Department is undertaking with other Departments and agencies.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): I thank Danny Kennedy for his timely question, which provides me with the opportunity to publicly express my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the young men at the heart of this tragedy. I also extend my sympathies to all of the families, friends and communities, through­out Ireland, who have suffered as a result of suicide.

I spoke today with the principal of the school, and with the school counsellor. I pay tribute to them for the wonderful work that they are doing. I have also spoken to principals of schools in other parts of the North about this issue. Two weeks ago, I hosted a private meeting in an area of my constituency with school principals, counsellors, health professionals, sporting organisations and local clergy. That meeting was held to try to understand, from their perspective, why suicides were taking place, what measures could be put in place to prevent them, and what support is needed, right across the North. I was struck by the compassion and the commitment of the school principals and their teams, and also by what a huge responsibility they presently bear.

On the issue of the latest suicides, I confirm that the critical incident response team from the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) have been working in the school to provide support for individual pupils, groups of pupils, staff and parents. That includes giving advice to office staff who are answering telephone calls.

Today, a fresh support strategy has been agreed with the school authorities, which will focus on the immediate, medium and long-term support needs of pupils and staff. A helpline has been set up in the school for parents, and a leaflet with contact information about support is to be issued to all pupils and parents.

Mr Kennedy asked about the wider measures of co-operation that I am undertaking — I feel that that is the more appropriate focus at this time. People who have been caught up in this tragedy need space, time and privacy to grieve and to try to come to terms with what has happened.

I urge the media — in fact, I make a plea to the media — to respect that need and to treat all discussion on the issue responsibly and sensitively.

6.45 pm

I acknowledge that the immediate crisis focuses on school-age children. However, those who have left education, up to the age of 25, are an equally vulnerable group. Weekends are a particularly vulnerable time, and I want to look at — with all my colleagues — the totality of the education response.

The Youth Service runs initiatives, such as the well-being programme, which encourage young people to build confidence, improve their self-esteem and develop coping skills. Samaritans are considering offering text-messaging support at exam times. We need to engage with other organisations as well. These include children’s rights organisations, such as the Children’s Commissioner.

Mr F McCann: Mr Speaker, may I ask for order while the Minister is speaking. It is a very important speech.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister is speaking.

Ms Ruane: The children’s rights organisations also include Save the Children. The Children’s Commissioner and her team have played a leading role in suicide-prevention. I pay tribute to them all.

Suicide concerns me greatly. It is an issue that confronts all schools and communities across the North. No area, no class and no creed has been spared. It is a blight on our society that affects young and old — but particularly the young — and one that we must begin to discuss in a constructive way and work together to find a way forward.

Education in schools must be part of the solution. However, the response needs to be much wider than that of only one Department. The Department of Education has a big part to play but we cannot do it on our own. From September, all post-primary schools that wish to will have a minimum amount of counselling time allocated to them to support pupils. Following public-tender action, Contact Youth will provide that service. That organisation has operated in the North for over 20 years and has extensive experience of meeting the support needs of young people. The Department of Education will provide advice and guidance on the stressors faced by young people and the issues around suicide and its triggers. Departmental guidance on suicide and self-harm is being updated.

Recently, I met with my colleague the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr Michael McGimpsey. We talked about the issue of suicide and how we might work together more closely and more effectively to support the work of the suicide strategy implementation body.

For a number of years, I have worked very closely with the Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and self-harm (PIPS) and, last week, in my role as Minister, I formally met with its representatives. PIPS is a voluntary organisation dedicated to preventing suicide and to supporting those who have been affected by suicide and self-harm. I learned from them, and from my visits to schools, about work that is going on in schools across the North to raise awareness among teachers about stress and action that can be taken to develop and improve pupil self-esteem.

I am aware of other locally based initiatives, all with similar aims. I pay a very special tribute to those families who have been very brave in speaking publicly about the issue of suicide. It is important that we destigmatise the issue of suicide and that we create safe spaces to talk about it. I welcome the new centre in north Belfast, and the pack that PIPS has produced that also contains a DVD about suicide prevention.

Since I took up office, I have not shied away from talking about the problem. On my visits to schools, I have learned about the experiences of school staff and their concerns about the stresses on young people and the impact that they can have on their general well-being.

As a society, we need to give our young people a sense of hope. We need to be more effective in giving our young people the emotional skills to cope with difficulties. We need to actively encourage them to tell us what is amiss. We need to listen to them, to value what they have to say and to respond to them. We need to give them a future that they will believe in and that they can shape.

Today, I urge directly any young person, whose friend has confided that he or she plans to take his or her life, to tell a trusted adult. It is not breaking a friend’s confidence if you tell a trusted adult. It is not your responsibility, as a friend, to deal with that on your own. Young people could save lives by contacting a trusted adult, Childline, Samaritans or the suicide prevention helpline.

I repeat to any young person watching these proceedings: you can save a life.

I assure the Assembly that all the resources available to my Department to support young people will be used. The Department of Education will work with all other Departments, agencies and organisations with expertise and experience in the areas of suicide and self-harm to make our response to this tragedy the best that it can be. Lessons can be learned from the South of Ireland and Scotland, both of which have a high instance of suicide. Earlier this evening, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, addressed us. In response to a question from Gerry Adams, he said that Scotland was willing to share with us in the North the strategies that it uses. We must learn how to deal with the problem from other countries across Europe; that is our challenge in the weeks and months ahead. Immediate support must continue to be in place for the children who are affected.

In one of the schools that I visited I had what will remain a private discussion, as such matters must be handled carefully. The principals said that they had to deal with the suicide, the aftermath and with the brothers and sisters in the classroom. All Departments must get together and work on the issue. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, I thank you for accepting the private notice question. I also thank the Minister for making herself available to give a detailed statement to the Assembly in answer to my question.

This is a critical and distressing situation that is of concern to all of us, whether as Members or parents. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our profound sympathy to all the families and friends of the pupils involved and also to the staff at their schools. I pay tribute to the work of the staff of those schools. I am sure that Members will join me in paying tribute to the valuable work of education and health professionals such as the critical illness response team and voluntary organisations such as the Pips Project and, not least, local clergy who are involved in church groups. The help offered by friends and neighbours to the families that are affected has been considerable and has been appreciated by the families involved.

The Minister gave a detailed reply on her respons­ibilities as Minister of Education. However, can she outline any additional measures that are being taken by her Department to provide assistance to any individual who is affected or influenced by those tragic events, particularly in the coming days and weeks, which is a critical period leading to the school summer holidays? Can the Minister outline what assistance is available after normal business hours, especially at weekends or in the early hours of the morning, when young people are perhaps at their most vulnerable? Are the necessary helplines available and can the Minister assure the House and the wider community that every support and assistance will be given to anyone affected or influenced by thoughts of suicide?

Mr Speaker: I hope that the Minister will be brief because time is running out.

Ms Ruane: I will be brief. In the shorter term, the helplines are available at weekends, which is one of the key times for vulnerable people. The Samaritans, Childline and Suicide Helpline work around the clock.

The Department is also examining the advice and guidance that is given to young people on how to use the internet safely, which is a concern. Schools provide advice and guidance to pupils on appropriate use of the internet. Departmental policies, which are updated regularly, have been issued to school staff, pupils and parents. In all grant-aided schools, internet access is provided through the Classroom 2000 system, which is filtered in order to ban access to sites that have inappropriate content.

However, the issue is much bigger than internet access in schools. School is probably the safest place where children can use the internet. The debate must be focused on how to support parents at all levels of society in the responsible use of the internet in their own homes. As a parent, I understand that that is difficult.

Prior to my becoming the Minister of Education, my party leader and I met the previous, direct rule Minister to discuss helplines. I am not aware of whether the matter has been since been worked out. Many young people have mobile phones. However, because teenagers are constantly telling their parents that they have run out of credit, we sought to ensure that helplines, like the 999 emergency line, would be free. That must be considered right across the board, and I will provide details.

Short-term measures can be introduced. However, short-, medium- and long-term strategies — especially long-term strategies — must be developed if the situation is to be dealt with effectively. Otherwise, the same issues will simply continue to be discussed in the Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: Time has run out. Unfortunately, there is none available for further questions on that particular item of business. I apologise to the three Members who wished to speak in the debate. Time will not allow it.

Committee Business

Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion to change the membership of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.

Mr McNarry: I beg to move

That Mr Ken Robinson replace Mr David Burnside as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr McCausland: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, there have been five meetings of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, which has had to deal with such contentious issues as the Irish language Bill. David Burnside has not attended a single one of those meetings. Following his replacement on that Committee, he will not be a member of any Committee at all.

Is it in order for a Member who is not a Minister not to sit on any Committee? I do not know the answer to that. However, I do know that it says something about Mr Burnside’s commitment to the cause of unionism in his constituency.

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

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Ken Robinson replace Mr David Burnside as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr Speaker: There is no time available for the debate on pay parity for further education lecturers. I will ask the Business Committee to reschedule that item of business.

Adjourned at 6.58 pm.

< previous / next >