NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 19 June 2007
Executive Committee Business
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Libraries Bill [NIA 05/07] be agreed.
The proposals behind this legislation will advance the process to develop and modernise the public library service. The process began last year, with the publication of ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’, which sets out the policy direction for the library service, identifying its core business and its major contribution. The document specifies targeted action to enhance the value of the service and sets out a series of standards against which to measure performance.
Most of us have experience of libraries, whether as children or adults or when we take our own children to visit them. The public library is a freely available and enormously significant source of enjoyment, inspiration and independent learning. There is no doubt that libraries have the capacity to empower people and communities. The use of libraries is voluntary, and there are no entry or eligibility requirements.
As a business that is concerned not with doing things for people but helping people to do things for themselves, libraries are in a position to combat social exclusion and provide equality of opportunity. Libraries have a particular role in facilitating lifelong learning for those who have missed out on education, and their welcoming and flexible environment provides opportunity for those who are uncomfortable in formal learning situations.
However, the role of libraries is not solely concerned with education. They also cater for recreational, cultural and community aspects in meeting modern-day needs. Libraries support social, educational, artistic and economic endeavour and contribute to thriving communities. As such, they are a significant element in the achievement of a range of Government policies and priorities.
The Library Service has a good record of reacting to change and responding to new needs. For example, many senior citizens gain their first experience of IT, emailing and the Internet at their local libraries, which accommodate more than 1,000 computer terminals across Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the Library Service has reacted quickly to the needs of recent immigrants by providing books and other materials in their languages.
Libraries provide community spaces, learning spaces, locations for cultural events and meeting places. One has only to visit some of the new libraries in Ballymena, Lisburn, Strabane or Cookstown to see examples of modern, accessible public spaces that are visually attractive, functional and efficient. Those libraries have transformed their local communities by providing traditional library services and by introducing space for new activities.
I wish to acknowledge the work of library staff in delivering public services over the past three decades. Their contribution increases the effectiveness of libraries through their offering structured advice and guidance. The joint working of those staff across the education and library boards in recent years has demonstrated the value of a single unified service.
The Bill will establish a single library service for the whole of Northern Ireland and will streamline the five existing library services, providing a unified seamless service that can ensure equity in delivery and transmission of best practice. The Bill will establish a non-departmental public body (NDPB) at a regional level to deliver that service — a library authority that will be led by a board comprising people who will be selected specifically for their ability to oversee a library service that meets modern needs.
We expect efficiencies in the long term due to reductions in management and administration. The protection of staff who transfer from existing bodies to the library authority has been negotiated centrally with the trade unions. All staff will be protected by the provisions of The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE). Pension entitlements will also be protected. Those important matters are addressed in schedule 2 to the Bill.
During public consultation on the draft legislation, there was strong support in principle for a single library service that would be led by a library authority. Comments were also submitted on certain aspects of the draft legislation. Following that consultation, changes were made to the draft legislation in two areas to reflect the concerns that were raised. The first change related to maintaining public access to core library services that is free at the point of use. That commitment has been made clear in the text of the Bill. The second change was to increase the maximum size of the board to reflect concerns about achieving a quorum and reflecting diversity.
Our main objective is to improve the quality of service to the public. Libraries have the potential to make a greater contribution to quality of life and to meeting Government priorities. Ensuring the establishment of the right structure to deliver that potential is crucial. A library service that is delivered by a single body better reflects the multifaceted role of libraries and their wide potential customer base. The library authority will provide a clear central focus for the development and promotion of the new service and will be a better vehicle to establish partnerships for new service delivery at regional and local levels.
The Bill represents an innovative proposal, which is unique in the United Kingdom and has generated considerable interest beyond Northern Ireland. I am firmly of the view that the Bill represents the best way to provide the most effective public library service most efficiently.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht ar an Bhille. I welcome this opportunity to address the Assembly. The Committee wishes to place on record its formal concern at the process that was used by the Minister to introduce the Bill to the Assembly. The absence of appropriate notification to the Committee is not acceptable practice and spells out the need for improved communication among the Minister, the Executive and the Assembly on legislation matters.
An example of that failure of communication, at best — and perhaps disregard, at worst — was the Minister’s introduction of the Bill at First Stage on Monday 11 June 2007.
It was the last item of business and did not appear on the Order Paper. I ask the Minister to explain why he introduced the Bill to the Assembly in that fashion and why the Committee was not consulted about changes to the Bill’s legislative timetable, particularly as those matters have a direct bearing on the Committee’s future work plan.
The Committee commented on the Minister’s announcement of the appointment of a chief executive designate to the single library authority, which will be created by the passage of this Bill. The Committee seeks an explanation from the Minister as to the rationale behind the early announcement of an appointment to a body that, as yet, has no legislative base. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr David McNarry, will develop that point in his contribution.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr McElduff: I will not give way. Thanks all the same, Sammy.
The Bill’s key purpose is to provide for the establishment of a library authority to deliver a single public library service for all libraries here. This is an inheritance from the review of public administration (RPA) conducted under direct rule, and it is now the responsibility of this Assembly to decide if that is the most appropriate form of management for our libraries.
Three management options have been considered by the Department following the RPA proposal that a new education support body replace the five education and library boards. The first option was that libraries should be the responsibility of local government on the basis of no more than seven local authorities. That was rejected because it was felt that it would fragment the service by increasing five bodies to seven and break up an increasingly unified system in which joint working at regional level has brought benefits. The second option was that the libraries should remain institutionally linked to education delivery. That too was rejected on the basis that libraries have cultural, recreational and community roles as well as an educational one and that the service would benefit from a separate, dedicated managing body. A third option called for a single management body, which, it is said, will promote operational efficiencies in the longer term. I seek an assurance from the Minister that he has not opted for a single library authority solely on the basis of cost and financial efficiencies.
The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure will consider carefully the legislation and examine in detail each clause of the Bill. It is committed to conducting a detailed scrutiny and intends to consult widely and to take evidence from interested parties. Libraries have vital cultural, recreational and community roles and belong to everyone in our society. They are there for everyone to use, irrespective of age, cultural background, or address.
The Department indicated to the Committee that it has no plans to change the current Government policy of providing core library services free of charge. However, there is concern that that commitment is not fully reflected in the Bill, and I seek reassurance from the Minister that he has no plans to introduce charging for core library services. He may also wish to consider making that commitment more explicit in the legislation. Core library services elsewhere are provided free of charge, and legislation should not be introduced in the North that could potentially include a loophole that would allow for charging at some date in the future.
The Committee expects that any change in the management of libraries will be for the purpose of providing a service that accommodates everyone in society — children, the elderly, families, the visually impaired, speakers of indigenous languages and people newly arrived from other countries. It must be recognised that different groups have different needs and requirements of libraries — for example, in relation to opening hours, library stock and other resources and facilities. Libraries must be accessible if their full potential is to be maximised.
The creation of a single management body to replace the current five education and library boards requires a geographical spread in the composition of the board. The constitution of the new body should reflect the entire population; urban and rural, and east and west of the Bann. It should also represent people from different cultural backgrounds.
Crucially, the body should also include elected representatives to address the democratic deficit. It should also have trade union input. Those with expertise in the management of library services should also be consulted. That will be essential if the new authority is to reflect the aspirations and needs of all of the people.
As I understand it, one reason for creating a single library authority is to make the management structures more streamlined. I hope that that streamlining will result in more resources being made available for front-line library services. However, I did not hear such a commitment in the Minister’s opening remarks.
Members of the public are concerned about potential library closures, particularly in rural areas. I hope that the new library authority will be able to reassure people that there will be no such closures. Libraries are important tools in targeting social need in rural and urban areas. There are genuine concerns about possible library closures, and the resulting job losses, as has happened with post offices.
Libraries, including the mobile library service, are a key connection to the outside world for many people, particularly older people. I therefore seek the Minister’s reassurance that the new legislation will not endanger library services in rural areas. Similarly, people living in other disadvantaged areas may not have access to computers or places for study or homework. Libraries are a vital facility in that regard. They also have a key role to play in literacy and lifelong learning, as the Minister has acknowledged. They provide a place for people outside the mainstream education system to access information and assistance.
The new library authority will be a non-departmental public body that will be directly answerable to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL). I expect that the Department will closely monitor the new body to ensure that the current standards of service are maintained and improved. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that that will be case and that the Department will monitor the performance and service standards of the new library authority.
The creation of the new authority will result in changes for library staff, who are currently employed by the education and library boards. It is vital that the Department ensures that the experience and skills of the current staff are fully utilised in the new authority and that the transfer is made as smoothly as possible for them.
In particular, I am seeking a commitment from the Minister that jobs will be safeguarded and that staff will maintain their current terms and conditions in the new authority. The Department must also ensure that the current stock and archives — a crucial part of our cultural wealth — are protected during the transfer. Those assets should be passed on to generations to come.
Every organisation can benefit from independent advice, and libraries are no different. There is concern that the legislation does not contain any provision for the authority to attain expert, independent advice, which is available to libraries elsewhere. We should not be treated any differently. I ask that that aspect be incorporated into the legislation. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Nelson McCausland.
Mr Weir: Hear, hear.
Mr Hamilton: Take his temperature.
Mr McCausland: The Member’s enthusiasm knows no bounds. [Laughter.]
I wish to reflect on a number of aspects of the proposed legislation. It is vital that the membership of the new library authority reflects, and is representative of, Northern Ireland society geographically, culturally and in every way, so that the different sectors in the community are all represented.
The make-up of the Equality Commission (ECNI), the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Parades Commission are intended, legislatively, to be representative. However, that is not that case with the current education and library boards, for example. That should be incorporated into the legislation.
As the Minister rightly said this morning, the Library Service in Northern Ireland plays a wide range of social, cultural and educational roles, and contributes to the well-being of society in many ways. Therefore, it is particularly important that the Assembly gets this legislation right and ensures the best possible service for the people of Northern Ireland.
One argument for introducing the legislation, which was referred to this morning, is that the Library Service would be streamlined and that savings in administration could be reinvested in books. In many ways, that is a plausible and good argument, because there has been an underinvestment in books by library services across Northern Ireland. However, as the Bill proceeds over the coming months, I ask that Members be provided with clear figures on the savings and economies that could be made. There is a definite need for clarity on that issue, because when the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure considered that matter a few weeks ago, no figures were available.
Many people will suspect that there will be additional costs in the initial stages. Members will already be aware that the single education authority will not only have a chief executive, but eight deputies. We are therefore moving from a situation in which there are five boards and five chief executives to one in which there will be one chief executive and eight deputies. Therefore, there must be clarity on what savings might be made, and Members need to see those figures. I am confident that the Department will carry out that work over the coming weeks.
Although it is necessary to have a governance structure in place when the education and library boards are removed, we may have to re-examine the situation in the longer term, as part of the review of public administration.
There have been cases in which good integration of health, council and library services can bring benefits to a community. For example, in my constituency of North Belfast, leisure services — the swimming pool, etc — health centre services and library services are being brought together in the Grove Wellbeing Centre. That centre will provide integrated services and will bring benefits to the whole community through the synergy that it will create. The Assembly should examine similar such opportunities in the longer term. Library services could also be provided in community or leisure facilities.
As for the longer-term vision for library services, we will have to revisit that issue through the review of public administration, in particular with respect to local authorities. Community planning will also come into that debate.
One aspect of the legislation that concerned me was that, unlike the other countries in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland does not have a national library. It could be argued that Northern Ireland is not large enough to merit a national library. However, there should be some reference in the legislation to the need to provide a regional service. That is important to Northern Ireland, particularly when one considers the archived material in Belfast Central Library, the Linen Hall Library and other libraries.
I would like to see a greater focus on that matter and some consideration being given to how information in a readily accessible medium, in book form, could be made available to the public, particularly on the history of Northern Ireland and the history of Ulster. Much of that material is not readily accessible, and it would be good to see legislation that provides for a regional library service.
‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’ set out a vision for libraries in Northern Ireland. Libraries play an important role in society. As the legislation is taken forward over the coming months, I hope that the matters that have been mentioned, such as the size of the board and clarity about the economies to be made, will be given serious consideration.
Mr McNarry: As I do not follow the speeches made by the Minister of Finance’s wife — in case she has said something recently about the Bill — and, in light of the demonstration of personal abuse focused on me by her husband last week, it is important that I declare that some of my contribution on the Libraries Bill includes information taken from a research brief.
On a previous occasion, when I spoke on a fisheries issue, I used research, which, unknown to me at the time, was also used by another Member in another place. However, some people have chosen to call that plagiarism. Having put research in its proper perspective, I shall address this Bill.
Clear concerns arise from the manner in which the Department has handled the Bill. The Chairman eloquently expressed the wider view of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on those concerns, and I share his request that the Minister takes note of, and addresses, those concerns.
I am sure that I will not live to regret this, but, as this is my first opportunity to address the Minister in the House, I wish him well for his time in office. I compliment him on the freshness that he brings, not only by knowing his brief, but by approaching matters in a cool, calm, collected and constructive listening mode. That said, I strongly encourage many of his more senior colleagues to copy — or plagiarise — his manner of dealing with his brief.
However, I am concerned about the Department’s apparent desire to rush this legislation through the House. The Committee Chairman has dealt with the major points arising from that. However, the rush appeared all the more obvious and aroused suspicions — perhaps where none may justifiably exist — when, before the new Minister even had his feet under the table, the Department advertised, interviewed and shortlisted applicants for the position of chief executive of the new library authority.
The Minister has been in position for only a few weeks. When the Chairperson and I met him, shortly after he had taken up office, he was unaware that the fast-tracking had taken place, and I appreciated his honesty on that. However, in just a few weeks, the Department has moved further, and in some haste, by appointing a chief executive designate. That move was completed before the legislation for a new single authority had passed successfully through the Assembly.
Is the Department’s appointment of a chief executive in that manner more evidence of control freakery, or is it presumption? If the latter is the case, it is dangerous to presume that the legislation will pass through the house unopposed and that its passage through the Committee would be a mere formality. Will the Minister clarify that matter for us?
I seek a commitment from the Minister that jobs will be safeguarded and staff will maintain their current terms and conditions under the legislation for the new management of libraries, and that library closures will not be used to negate any undertakings that he may give to the House on the safeguards that I am requesting.
In conclusion, the legislation requires the authority to provide a public library service; it does not say how — or to what standard — that will be done, other than in clause 2(2)(a), which cites:
“library materials sufficient in number, range and quality to meet general requirements of adults and children”.
There is no mention of it being either comprehensive or efficient. The Minister must give assurances that library service provision will be comprehensive and efficient and will meet the requirements of adults and children.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Mr P Ramsey: I wish to raise concerns about a number of matters. First, like the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, I ask the Minister to clarify how the First Stage of the Bill came to be on the agenda without the approval of the Business Committee. The Committee was taken aback when the Libraries Bill appeared on the Order Paper on Monday 11 June and had no time to prepare for it.
The SDLP welcomes the shift of responsibility for the Library Service from the Department of Education to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Such a move is logical and will enable the service to develop a range of complimentary activities.
The SDLP wishes to ensure that, following the establishment of a new library authority, libraries will target their activities at all sections of the community, which should include visitors to Northern Ireland. My party is concerned that such visitors are not being specified as a group to be provided for. Also, we are concerned that ethnic-minority language groups are not mentioned in the Bill. Both groups should be included in the legislation as core groups.
The Library Service must be developed and broadened. The existing service is under pressure from cut-price books offered by retailers, and, as the Chairperson of the Committee said, that has led to a serious reduction in borrowing and visits to libraries.
I reiterate some points that I made to the Committee about rural proofing. It is important that rural-proofing measures are applied to the Library Service, as they are to any other public service. Social inclusion is an urgent and ongoing concern in many rural areas, and the problem is being exacerbated by the threats to post offices and small rural schools. The SDLP is concerned that library closures in recent years have taken their toll on rural communities, and it is clear that the libraries most at risk are in rural areas. Library services in those areas must be valued as community hubs, and their closure would be contrary to acute social needs. The contribution of rural libraries to local literacy and skills development must be as valued as it is in urban areas, and any future library strategy must include a commitment to protect that provision.
Some instances of rural library provision should be valued as examples of good practice. Rural libraries are addressing questions about their viability by targeting local schools. To increase their footfall, they are specifically focusing on child literacy provision. Creativity and best practice such as this should be nurtured, encouraged and rewarded.
The SDLP considers the Library Service to be vital. Therefore, the service must be changed and repositioned to reconnect with more people. That repositioning will require new ways to deliver existing services and the addition of new services. That will involve a process of change, which will require leadership.
The SDLP wishes libraries, under the new library authority, to improve their traditional roles as centres for the enjoyment of books and borrowing and become centres of excellence for education, providing complimentary ranges of services in which literacy and numeracy are promoted and facilitated in informal and pleasant environments, and where learning is fun. The SDLP wishes libraries to be centres of lifelong learning for adults of all ages and to actively explore possibilities for the greater inclusion of other forms of art and cultural activities.
The new library authority must have the freedom to carry out its work, but within the democratic accountability and control that is required. For example, when the new authority drafts its standing orders, it is important that they are presented to the Minister and the Committee for approval.
It is important that the Assembly sends a positive message to existing staff. Staff face changes in their employer and in their work practices, and their morale is currently quite poor. They are concerned about the impact on their terms and conditions. It is important that terms and conditions are protected and that new employees are offered the same terms and conditions as existing employees. I urge the Minister to work closely with the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) on the transfer of undertakings to ensure a smooth transition for employees. The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure intends to invite NIPSA officials to a meeting to discuss their concerns.
In order to provide a modern, vibrant and expanded Library Service, working practices will have to change. Old working practices will be conducted in different ways, and there will be new working practices, which may or may not turn out well; that is the nature of change. It is important that the Assembly values staff and urges them to continue to provide a professional service for everyone. Members want to work with library staff and retain their expertise. We also want to lead, promote and improve the Library Service so that by the end of this process, we will have a better service. Members, and the public whom we serve, value the contribution of Library Service staff, and we thank them.
I ask the Minister to consider carefully the location of the new library authority. I am sure that he will consider all regions in Northern Ireland, including the north-west.
Mr McCarthy: Much of what I intended to say has already been rehearsed by the Chairperson and members of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.
Mr Kennedy: No need to say it again, then.
Mr McCarthy: No, absolutely not.
However, I want to ask the Minister a question. Is the public library service intended for all citizens, or is it only for people who can use library premises? For instance, what provision is there for hospitals, prisons, residential homes, and so forth? Staff in those institutions do not have specialist library knowledge and will be unaware of the range of available materials. Library provision for such institutions should be a statutory obligation on the service.
The schools library service will become the responsibility of the Department of Education. As Members have already said, the centralisation and relocation of that service will have implications for rural primary schools, in that it will cut them off from book and information specialists. Previously, teachers in rural schools, who do not live near bookshops, had access to those specialists. However, they and their pupils will be disadvantaged because they will now not be able to consult specialist library staff whose advice is based on their constant use of information resources.
Consideration must be given to the needs of blind or partially sighted people. A framework for their needs should not depend on commercial organisations.
Most of the Alliance Party’s concerns have already been voiced during the debate. I await the Minister’s response to those contributions.
Lord Browne: I have spent the majority of my working life in the education service, so I am acutely aware of the tangible benefits that libraries provide to education. The local education and library boards are being subsumed into one streamlined authority, so it is natural and, indeed, sensible that the provision of library services should enjoy the same efficiency savings and rationalisation that will ultimately benefit those people who use the facilities and the many others who expect Members to administer public finances in a mature fashion on their behalf.
Although I intend to support the Second Stage of the Bill to that end, as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I have yet to be totally convinced of the need for a separate autonomous authority specifically for the provision of library services.
The Libraries Bill was, of course, introduced by the direct rule Ministers and inherited by my hon Friend the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr Poots. However, there will be time in the weeks following the Second Stage of the Bill to deliberate on its contents and effects, and, if necessary, consider local alternatives and other options that would enhance the effect of such legislation.
As it stands, schedule 1(2)(1)(b) of the Bill states that the authority should consist of:
“not fewer than 7 or more than 14 other members,”
— that is, alongside the chairman. Although that number may be correct, unwieldy and cumbersome bodies tend to operate at a much slower pace, as my personal athletic record would attest. [Laughter.] There is no provision in the Bill for a specified number of interested stakeholders or local representatives.
Local representatives have built up years of experience serving on education and library boards, which would be of infinite benefit to any such authority and maintain a local dimension to a dramatically centralised body. In addition, as we have heard, the trade unions, focused interested bodies and other stakeholders could potentially make a great contribution; however, the legislation does not guarantee a place for those agencies.
Neither am I convinced by the argument for separating library services from the provision of education. As some Members pointed out, adults and others with learning difficulties are often sidelined or ignored by education and library boards, which, perhaps, focus more on primary and post-primary provision. That situation highlights the need for greater harmonisation, or, if necessary, an amalgamation of the relevant functions of the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning rather than a separate library authority.
The diversity of views in the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure ranges from support for the new authority as outlined in the Bill, to input or even control by local government, or for removing altogether the idea of a separate authority and simply administering libraries through the new education body. In supporting the Second Stage, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure knows that it must thrash out those issues in the weeks ahead. It is to be hoped that with the agreement of the Minister, the Bill will proceed either intact or amended, having achieved a consensus among Members of the House.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will be brief, because my hon colleague Mr McElduff, speaking as Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, made a comprehensive presentation. It would be remiss of me, and Mr McElduff would be disappointed, if I did not also mention that he played corner-forward for the Tyrone minor county Gaelic football team.
Some years ago, a very clever gentleman cynically said:
“People who read books do so because they are too lazy to think for themselves.”
I disagree; reading encourages people to think. There is no point in reinventing the wheel, so I will simply reinforce the need for libraries and access to books.
When William Ewart introduced his Public Libraries Bill to the House of Commons in 1849, he encountered a great deal of opposition from the Conservatives, who argued that the rate-paying middle and upper classes would be paying for a service that would be mainly used by people like us — the working classes. One Member of Parliament argued that:
“People have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get, the more difficult they are to manage.”
There is no better argument to be made for promoting libraries and for having the very best library authority.
Mr McCausland mentioned the obvious necessity that the board in charge of libraries be representative. Before the appointment of that board, which will be made up of a chief executive and eight deputies, it is important that we ascertain that it is totally competent to do the job that it has been employed to do. Prospective board members must display to the interview panel that they know all about the job.
It would be a pity if the proposed savings of £0·6million in 2009-10, which are set to double in 2010-11, were to be gobbled up by a chief executive who thought it necessary to employ a consultant as soon as the first difficult question arose.
Schedule 2 to the Bill has important implications for education and library boards’ current employees. Contracts are to be transferred from those bodies to the library authority. Dealing with unions and ensuring fair treatment for employees, who have done a very good job up until now, will take up a great deal of time at Committee Stage. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: Efter 25 yeirs o’ gye bad unner fundin’ an no bein’ leuked aboot, hit’s lang past the tim’ at this Semmelie saen hoo important hit bes tae hae a library system at hes eneuch staff an catter in onie forrit an’ richt thinkin’ society. Tae knaw quhar ye ir heided a boadie furst hes tae ken quhar yin hes bein an this bes sae in Norlin Airlan es we see at the library isnae onie a place fer learnin’ bit bes aboot the celebration o’ heirskeip an’ history forebye. The Libraries Bill – quhar yin authority – at hes the input o’ members o’ the Depairtment o’ Cultur’ Airts an by tim’ wul bae accountable an airted onie aa the bes’ provision o’ services tae ivryboadie in the community.
After 25 years of severe underfunding and neglect, it is high time that the Assembly recognised how important it is that any forward-thinking, right-thinking society has a fully staffed, fully financed and fully operational library system.
To know where one is going, one must first know where one has been. That is applicable in Northern Ireland, because we recognise the library not only as a place of education but as a place that celebrates culture and history.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will have input in the library authority, which will be accountable to all members of the community, and dedicated solely to providing the community with superior services.
I congratulate the chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, Irene Knox, on being appointed chief executive designate of the library authority. She is a lady of tremendous experience and ability who will provide the necessary drive and the focus for the new authority.
It is of the utmost importance to retain high-quality services at least cost to the public. Understandably, a charge must be levied for certain services, but I stress how important it is that all age groups have free access to books, and to information through the Internet. Our young people are trained in school, but it should be libraries’ priority to train and help the older generation, who can benefit as much — if not more — as our children from the Internet. Training and enhancement of skills for all should be a priority for the new library authority.
The library authority must also honour the promises of the previous library-service provider. People from Newtownards and the Ards Peninsula are still trying to squeeze into a tiny building, which has insufficient books and inadequate computer access, even though Newtownards was promised a new library in 2002.
I have written to the Minister to ask for an update on the newbuild in Newtownards, as the present library has neither been updated nor refurbished for some 30 years. It remains as it was some time ago. Although the population of Ards has grown, its library has not kept pace with either the demographical trends or the level of building in the town.
As far back as 2002, I requested details of the new library for Newtownards from the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Michael McGimpsey. He replied that Bangor was second on the Department’s priority list and that Ards was next. In 2003, my colleague Iris Robinson asked a similar question in Westminster and was told that the Department was considering the new library.
Here we are four years further on, and there is no sign of a new library for Ards. Work has begun in Bangor, of course, and, therefore, I ask that the new library authority honour the previous arrangements and begin plans for the Newtownards library. It is imperative that the new library authority retain the understanding that Ards will receive a newbuild library.
Once again, I have asked a Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the cost, proposed location and likely completion date for the new library. I look forward to the reply. In 2002, it was estimated that the newbuild would cost £2 million. I have no doubt that, as time has marched on, that amount has risen. However, it is for the newly constituted library authority to deliver on the priority list to which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is working. The new library in Newtownards must be delivered urgently.
The new library authority must cater for people with visual disabilities, as, at present, they are not provided with the necessary services.
Previous Members who spoke referred to mobile libraries. For some of my constituents, mobile libraries provide their only contact with people outside their own homes. Many people are keen that the service provided by the mobile libraries be not only retained, but enhanced. I request that that be the case, not just for my constituency of Strangford, but for the whole of the Province.
I support the Second Stage of the Libraries Bill. It is vital that Members remember what we were told yesterday: consultation, and the opportunity to table amendments to the Bill, can continue until the second or, perhaps, even the third, week of September. Therefore Members have a long time in which to consult on the Bill, table amendments, and ensure that all points of view are taken on board.
Everyone should have an interest in our libraries, and it is important that those who do not are encouraged to change. I hope that steps are taken to encourage our society, which was once rich in the gifts of story telling and tales, to discover the joys of our culture and heritage that can be found in the books and other services that the new library authority will provide.
I support the Bill.
Mr T Clarke: Given the number of Members who have spoken, many of my questions have been asked. Therefore I will not rehearse them.
I have concerns about the level of local involvement in the Libraries Bill and that local people might become detached from the process. Therefore will the Minister tell me how local people can ensure that they have input in the decision-making process? For example, will they have a say in the location of new libraries?
Is the Minister aware of the timescale for the commencement of building the long-awaited library in Railway Street in Antrim?
Mr S Wilson: I am disappointed that the Minister has chosen to introduce the Libraries Bill at this time. The Department seems to want to drive forward decisions before any real consultation has taken place. Whether it is, as was announced this morning, setting a nine-day deadline for the decision on the stadium at the Maze or the premature introduction of the Libraries Bill, we are seeing the dregs of direct rule — Departments think that they can still behave in an unaccountable way.
Mr Beggs: Ministers.
Mr S Wilson: I will come to that in a moment or two.
There is still a Civil Service mentality in Northern Ireland. Civil servants and Departments have been used to controlling Ministers like puppets on strings and still think that they can drive through measures that may or may not be good for Northern Ireland or have public support. They are not even prepared to have their proposals tested in the Assembly, which is the forum in which such decisions are meant to be made.
As far as the current structure is concerned, I understand what the Minister has said. Although we do not yet know what will happen — as the Minister of Education has not yet announced what she intends to do with education and library boards — the current structure for education could be dismantled by April next year and, if that happens, a structure needs to be put in place for libraries. However, I would have thought that, rather than changing the current structures immediately, we would have had some opportunity to consider alternative temporary measures until we know what will happen under the RPA.
The changes proposed in this Bill are linked to decisions on education and local government, but we do not know what those decisions are as yet. Indeed, if anything, this Bill jumps ahead of those aspects of the RPA. I had understood that all parties in the Assembly shared a desire to ensure that, even if the RPA process has to be lengthened out a little, it leaves us with a structure of government in Northern Ireland that provides for more efficient delivery of services and stops the uncertainty for a long time to come.
In his opening remarks, the Minister said that he had had to make some quick decisions — whether those decisions needed to be taken as quickly as possible is a matter of debate — but that we would be able to revisit the issue. However, that is not what the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill indicates. The memorandum states that the Bill will put in place:
“the framework for the direction of the library service over the next ten years”.
That does not strike me as an interim measure that could be easily changed or revisited, either during the RPA process or at some point subsequent to that.
Another point that I want to make concerns the appointment that the Minister and his Department — and, again, they are not unique in this — have made. I make no comment on the person who has been appointed, but am concerned by the fact that, before the Bill was introduced and before the Assembly had had an opportunity to comment on the proposed structure, a person had already been appointed to head that structure. The Department of Education has done that as well.
Eventually, the Minister of Education will introduce a Bill to determine what kind of structure we should have for education — and that structure will, supposedly, be for debate in this Assembly. If the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure thinks that I am being hard on him, he should wait until I deal with the Minister of Education —
Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: No. I offered to make a helpful intervention during the speech of the Member opposite. I am always happy to give way, but I like to see some reciprocation and, without that, I will not give way.
The same thing is happening in education, where a chief executive designate has been put in place before we even know what the structure will be. We need to escape from that. If this Assembly and its Committees are to have any genuine input into policy in Northern Ireland, we must have an opportunity to discuss these issues properly, not within a framework of tight legislation with decisions already made and people already appointed.
There appears to be a belief in the Assembly that we should try to get decision-making down as close to communities as possible — and that may affect debate on a whole range of other issues as well, including education and local government. Perhaps that belief is coloured by the fact that most Members have also served on local councils, and having served in local government for 20-odd years, I think that that is good. Sometimes councils can be frustrating places, and the decisions that are taken can be bad — just as they can be elsewhere — but at least they are taken at a local level. This Bill will ensure that decisions about what is a basic service will be taken at a regional level, and not at a local level.
Mr McNarry: Control freaks.
Mr S Wilson: It is not a case of control freakery. It is something that originated during direct rule: civil servants hoped that they would never have to have any interface with local politicians, which can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable.
There will be inefficiencies if decisions are taken away from local areas, and I will give an example of that. The Member for North Belfast Nelson McCausland referred to the Grove Wellbeing Centre. When the decision had to be made about putting health and library facilities in one centre — which made sense, as it brought leisure facilities together, and there were certain economies of scale — Belfast City Council had to deal, not with a regional authority, but with the Belfast Education and Library Board. It was a different authority, but at least it was operating in the same geographical area.
However, it took two and a half years to get a decision on whether the Belfast Education and Library Board could buy into the library facilities. One reason for the delay was that the Belfast Board had a certain path for its capital spending programme, and Belfast City Council had a different path for its capital spending programme. Belfast City Council had £15 million to spend on a well-being centre, and the Belfast Board had other priorities. It took two and a half years to bring those two things together and make a decision. If Members believe that libraries are part of leisure, and that local councils will be delivering leisure, then it makes sense to have the decision-making process all under the one roof.
The Minister talked about efficiency, and Sinn Féin, wrongly, rubbished it. Sinn Féin’s view on the whole question of efficiency is that things should not be done in order to save money; that that should not be a factor that counts in this decision.
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr S Wilson: I doubt whether the Member is making a point of order.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Point of order.
Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to clarify that when I spoke to the House this morning, I was doing so in my capacity as the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure —
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order, Mr McElduff.
Mr S Wilson: I did not think that it would be a point of order, and I am glad that you intervened quickly, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I know that Sinn Féin does not care too much about spending taxpayers’ money. Its control of the purse strings, and its unending demands for spending, in local government show that Sinn Féin is not a good custodian of public money.
The Minister is right. If efficiencies can be generated, then that should be one of the factors involved in deciding whether to have a single authority or devolve matters locally. It is only one factor, but it is an important one.
The explanatory and financial memorandum, however, gives no indication as to whether savings will be generated. There is an indication that there will be upfront costs and that, indeed, in the first year it might cost more — actually, that will also apply to a lot of the other reorganisations. Based on the memorandum, it is impossible to make a judgement as to whether there will be savings. It states:
“There is no separate accounting process within the Education and Library Boards … part of corporate services … therefore the existing libraries budget within DCAL covers direct costs only.”
Members do not actually know, therefore, the total cost of delivering the Library Service under the existing boards. How, then, can we know whether there are going to be overall savings? That is something that we should know before we make a final decision on the Bill.
The other thing that I have noticed is that upfront costs have been identified already. New premises are mentioned. Again, Members must ask whether, if we went down the road of keeping libraries within the education and skills authority — if that is set up — we would need separate premises. Would we need separate premises if the service were given to local councils? Would there not then be certain costs that could be shared, rather than setting up a brand new structure for libraries?
My last point is on accountability. Under schedule 1 to the Bill, the Department may appoint up to 14 members to the library authority. The Bill does not say whether those 14 members will include any public representatives; therefore, the quango that will be set up will be able to delegate decision-making to committees and to officers — a further remove from accountability. Decisions have to be made about the types of services, the costs of services, the opening hours of libraries, the location of libraries, and everything else, and I am not sure that those are the kinds of decisions that we want to give to a quango in an era when we want to involve local people more.
Those are all issues that need to be addressed. I hope that those issues will be teased out during the debate on the Bill and that there will be a close scrutiny of all of those kinds of points. I regret that this has been rushed to the Assembly in the way that it has. I understand that, to a certain extent, it is an inheritance from direct rule. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the process could have been slowed down. The message must be sent very clearly from the Assembly today to Government Departments that the period of un-scrutinised Government, which happened during direct rule, is over. Assembly Members will want to have their input and to ensure that, whatever decisions are made about future structures in Northern Ireland, there are clear opportunities for Members to do so.
In the Education Committee, I have already encountered people who have come along and been asked awkward questions and have then gone back to their various bodies and said: “That crowd there — sure, they know nothing. Did you hear the questions that they were asking?” Just because the questions were awkward does not mean that they should not have been asked. For a long time, those professionals have not had any scrutiny. Perhaps sometimes Members do ask stupid questions — there is a learning curve for us — but that is what democracy is all about, and that is what we should be standing up for in this House today.
Mr Poots: On the whole, it has been a useful and informative debate, and I thank Members for their contributions. Most of the points that have been raised I can cover now; if there any that I am not able to, I will write to the Members involved.
The Chairperson of the Committee of Culture, Arts and Leisure, along with Mr Brolly and Mr Ramsey, made a point about the introduction of the Libraries Bill to the Assembly. That process reflected the Executive’s wish that, when devolution returned, Bills be should be brought to the Assembly for early consideration. My Department thought it timely to introduce the Bill. The First and Second Stages were introduced in a form intended to assist the House in allowing the matter to go to Committee and to allow the Committee to get its teeth into the issues.
Next week, I represent my Department at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, and will, therefore, be unavailable. That is why the Libraries Bill was introduced in that way — it was not a Machiavellian exercise, and there was no sleight of hand. My intention was to get the Bill onto the table before the summer recess to allow the researchers to start on their work and the Committee to address the issues.
I look forward to the Committee process. By introducing the Libraries Bill in that way, the Committee will have not only its full 30 days but the possibility of an extension to that time, should that be considered necessary. Making haste now will allow Committee members to take their time in considering the real issues, and the Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill will benefit. My officials briefed the Committee in advance of the Bill’s introduction. I will work closely with it in developing the Bill and in considering proposed amendments. I shall be surprised if none is proposed.
Mr McElduff raised the issue of library closures. Over the past few years, several libraries have closed; however, over the course of time, populations and people’s needs change. Library services have to adapt to those circumstances. I do not anticipate a significant number of library closures, but I cannot state categorically that no libraries will close. I do not have a crystal ball and cannot look into the future.
Ultimately, the wish is to improve library provision, increase library service and make it more readily available to the public. My Department will take that role.
The Libraries Bill offers an exciting way forward. Library services will no longer be a poor relation, or an after-thought, among the responsibilities of an education and library board; rather, the proposed Northern Ireland libraries authority will drive them forward. The authority will be exclusively committed to meeting the needs of those members of the public who use library services, and will compete for the finance to deliver library service. That commitment will be to the benefit of library users.
Mr McElduff mentioned the issue of opening hours. People want public services to be available when they are free to make use of them, and when they can do so as families. Libraries must, therefore, be open in the evenings and at weekends. My Department has set targets to ensure that opening hours are extended beyond the working day to accommodate local need.
I welcome Mr McNarry’s return to terra firma. [Laughter].
I thank him for his kind remarks. However, as his speech progressed, I began to think he was again going into orbit. I thank him, nonetheless.
With regard to the appointment of the chief executive designate of the proposed Northern Ireland library authority, I declare again that there has been no sleight of hand. The post of chief executive designate is a secondment, and the position will not become permanent before the Libraries Bill has become law.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister clarify that statement? I understand that the position of chief executive designate is a secondment. Is it therefore true that the appointee will be chief executive of an education and library board that will become defunct? How long will the secondment last?
Mr Poots: The chief executive designate is the current chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. If the House should reject the idea of establishing a single library authority, the secondment would end immediately. The chief executive designate will carry out the professional arrangements for establishing a library authority by March 2008.
It is important to recognise that, come March 2008, the education and library boards will cease to exist. If, for some reason, the boards happen to survive beyond March 2008, we are prepared for that situation. However, if the boards do not survive, and we have not done what is required of us and taken care of arrangements for libraries, there will be no organisation with the competence to deal with library services.
It is therefore essential that we put the wheels in motion to establish a single library authority. That is not to presume that the House will automatically follow. The Department requires the House to make the decision to proceed with a single library authority before the post of chief executive can become permanent. The chief executive designate has accepted the position on the understanding that it is a designate position and a secondment and the post cannot become permanent until the House decides to approve the establishment of a single library authority. I trust that that clears up the matter.
Mr McElduff and Mr P Ramsey mentioned employment and staff contracts. Employment contracts will transfer to the new employers, and contractual terms will be agreed under the TUPE regulations. In addition, contracts may only be varied subject to constraints specified in those regulations. The TUPE regulations provide only limited protections for pensions. As public-sector pensions are an important part of the remuneration package, it was considered important to provide additional protections for them. The Libraries Bill does that, so it is actually more helpful to staff than the TUPE regulations.
Mr McCausland raised a number of issues. He mentioned the joint provision of services at the Grove Wellbeing Centre, which is under development in north Belfast. Library services are being delivered alongside other public services in many other places, too. They can add to health and education services and retail outlets. I would like to expand that approach in other areas. We will continue to give full consideration to useful partnerships that can improve the accessibility of libraries for the public. Mr McCausland also mentioned that we do not have a national library, and I will consider that matter in due course.
Start-up costs have been estimated at £67,000, and the Department has the funding for that.
Mr McNarry mentioned delivery standards. The first set of public standards for Northern Ireland was published in the document ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’, which was launched last July. Those standards include maintaining expenditure and stock and improving opening hours and accessibility. Library service performance will be monitored against those standards, and my Department will publish reports on how the service is meeting them.
Mr McElduff and Mr Shannon raised the issue of charges. There are no plans to introduce charges for core library services, and I want to put that into context. At the moment, there are charges for some library services; for example, users will incur charges for the late return of books or for photocopying documents. However, there are no charges for core services, nor will there be. I want to make it clear that core services will continue to be provided free to the public at the point of delivery. There will be no charges for those services unless approved by the Department under a particular scheme.
Several Members, including Mr Ramsey, referred to services in rural areas. There are clearly difficulties in delivering any public service to an area where the population is dispersed. Library services are provided in some of those areas through mobile libraries when it is not viable to provide such areas with a purpose-built library. To ensure that local library services are maintained, ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’ requires that 85% of households should have access to a library building or have a regular mobile library stop within two miles.
Mr McCarthy asked about library services for schools, which will continue to be the responsibility of the Department of Education. The chief executive designate of the library authority and the Education and Skills Authority will consider the best way of ensuring that all parties work closely together for the mutual benefit of all services.
Lord Browne raised the matter of appointments to the board. Board members will be appointed on merit, in line with the code of practice that has been issued by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I do not see any need for a large number of board members, and the plan for between seven and 14 members is in line with recommended good practice. I am happy to consider the views of the Assembly, and of the Committee in particular, on nominated places. The democratic involvement of people at a level at which local accountability can be introduced is important, if not crucial, and that is something that we are happy to consider.
On options for library services, Lord Browne raised their remaining within the education authorities. Libraries have cultural, recreational and community roles, as well as an educational one, and they also have a wider customer base than schools. Moreover, they play a significant role in providing informal learning opportunities. Delivery alongside schools does not reflect that wider and more informal role.
There is some evidence to suggest that the junior status of libraries in the education and libraries boards has not been to their benefit and to the benefit of their customers. For example, there has been an historic lower level of library use in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Earlier, I stressed that libraries could make a better case for themselves under their own authority, because they would be wholly committed to the delivery of library services.
A number of Members raised the need to protect the interests of staff. The policy objectives behind schedule 2(4) were agreed with the Public Service Commission and the trade unions. That demonstrates the commitment to staff and to their interests.
Mr Shannon raised the issue of Newtownards Library. It is unusual for Mr Shannon to be parochial, but I will forgive him in this instance. [Laughter.]
The South Eastern Education and Library Board is revising an economic appraisal and considering the cost and option of delivering a replacement library on the site of the old Castle Gardens Primary School. The board anticipates that that appraisal will be submitted to the Department by the end of June 2007, and, subject to consideration and approval by my Department and by the Department of Finance and Personnel, it should be possible for construction to commence on the site in about a year to 15 months. That is to allow for detailed design work, the planning application and the approval process, so if the planning process is held up, do not blame this Minister.
I also agree with Mr Shannon about the importance of the mobile library service for meeting the needs of people in rural areas and of people who have difficulty in gaining access to those services in other ways.
Trevor Clarke referred to local accountability, and I trust that I went some way towards dealing with that matter when discussing the library authority’s membership. Ultimately, the library authority will be accountable to my Department, to whoever the Minister happens to be of the Department, and to the Assembly Committee of the day. Democratic accountability will not be lost as a result of the Bill.
I make it clear to the House that the Assembly will have control over the library authority, its operation and its chief executive. Members should bear in mind that all matters relating to the authority will come before the Minister and, ultimately, the House.
Mr Trevor Clarke mentioned the newbuild library in Antrim. Subject to approval, it is anticipated that work on the site will begin in November or December this year. I thank the Member for attending this debate, and for his interest in the new library and his ongoing work in relation to it.
My colleague Sammy Wilson was the last Member to speak in the debate, and he raised a number of issues. Prior to its introduction, there was a consultation process on the Libraries Bill. Of the 24 consultation responses received, only one consultee suggested that library functions would be better served by local authorities. The RPA considered that increasing the number of education and library boards from five to seven would make the system more unwieldy. Similarly, if the Assembly were to opt for 11 or 15 councils in Northern Ireland, that would be akin to moving from the ridiculous to the ludicrous. While I certainly would not recommend that route, I shall, however, be in the hands of the House on whatever decision is taken.
Mr Wilson also mentioned the mentality of the Civil Service. The main difficulties that I have had with the mentality of the Civil Service, especially when the Assembly was suspended, were its inability to make decisions, its tendency to be risk-averse and its apparent lack of courage to make decisions. I assure the Member that my courage will not be found lacking when difficult decisions have to be made. I will not make decisions as a puppet of a civil servant. Decisions will be made based on evidence that I, as Minister, will receive.
Sammy Wilson suggested that the Department should have considered other alternatives. I have not heard any alternatives. Neither have I heard an alterative on the other subject that he mentioned — I have been waiting for two and a half years for an alternative on that issue, so setting a deadline now might not be a bad thing, as it might concentrate minds. However, I cannot afford to wait two and a half years for an alternative to the new library authority, because something must be in place by March, otherwise there will be no library service. I will not wait for two and a half years for alternatives from anyone else.
I also remind Members that the explanatory and financial memorandum is not part of the legislation, and we are dealing only with the Bill.
New premises are usually located wherever the Government have an existing stock of premises, and, under the RPA, premises will become available for library headquarters. If no premises are available — and if Sammy Wilson is ruling out east Antrim as the potential location for the headquarters of the new library service — that will be noted.
I thank Members for their contributions, and I look forward to working with the Committee on the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Libraries Bill [NIA 5/07] be agreed.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA 2/07] be agreed.
The Bill amends the provisions of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 in relation to the regulation of the four family practitioner services: general practitioners; opticians; pharmacists; and dentists. It sets out a legislative base for new contracts for dental practitioner services
The Bill allows for greater protection of patients and equality among practitioners providing treatment to them. The health and social services boards and Health Service tribunals have a role to play, and the measures included in the Bill will strengthen their roles further.
The Bill also amends the Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and makes provision to permit smoking by performers taking part in performances if artistic integrity so requires.
The measures will also help Northern Ireland to retain parity with rest of the UK as far as possible. The draft Bill has been the subject of a wide-ranging consultation exercise, and I am pleased to say that respondents were generally in favour of the new policies.
The main provisions will allow for the implementation of a new contract for the provision of dental services by general dental practitioners that will underpin a modernised, high-quality dental service provided through real contracts between health and social services boards and general dental practices.
There is consensus that the current contractual arrangements for Health Service dentists no longer meet the needs of dentists or patients. Many Health Service dentists are particularly unhappy with the current fee-per-item payment, a system that focuses on treatment carried out rather than on preventative measures.
General dental practitioners do a valuable job and it is our intention to involve them in the wider process of Health Service modernisation including pay reform, improving working lives, lifelong skills improvement and clinical governance.
The new primary dental service will improve the working lives of dentists by reducing the treadmill effect. It will allow them to provide accessible, good-quality, patient-focused care. The primary dental-care strategy, which was developed with input from all stakeholders, was published in November 2006. I have accepted that strategy as the blueprint for the new service, subject to adequate piloting. The clauses relating to dental services in the Bill will provide the legislative framework to deliver the new arrangements.
Dentists will receive a guaranteed regular income that will reward them for their time rather than for the volume of work they produce. Dentists are under no obligation to treat Health Service patients, but under the new legislation, services will be commissioned locally to meet requirements, and access to Health Service dental treatment will be integral to that. The new commissioning powers given to health and social services boards will ensure better access to Health Service dentistry and place greater emphasis on prevention than the current contract permits. That alternative approach will put in place a regional contract with local flexibilities that will deliver an improved patient experience, greater clinical consistency, and clarity between private and Health Service care.
To improve the safety and protection of patients, the Bill will extend the powers of the health and social services boards to allow them to directly suspend a practitioner. That will apply to the four family-practitioner services: general practitioners, opticians, pharmacists and dentists. Suspension could take place, pending, for instance, referral to the Health Service tribunal, the outcome of a court case, or a hearing by a professional regulatory body.
There will be no right of appeal against a board’s decision to suspend. Suspension in such circumstances will be classed as a neutral act: not a disciplinary sanction. The intention is that the power will protect the interests of patients, staff and the practitioner who is suspended.
Suspension is a temporary measure. It does not imply guilt and will be a neutral act during an investigation. It will be important to a board that the person who takes the decision to suspend a practitioner is able to substantiate that decision. Currently a practitioner may continue to treat patients while a court case is being decided, but boards will be able to take fast and effective action when concerns about a practitioner are raised. The Bill will also enable a board to allow a practitioner to practise as long as he or she agrees to be bound by specific conditions. Those powers will now extend to all practitioners, including locums, deputies and employees.
The Bill also extends the powers of the Health Service tribunal, allowing it to deal with a practitioner who has been referred because of inappropriate professional or personal conduct, and to categories of persons subject to the tribunal’s jurisdiction to incorporate all practitioners, including those who assist with the provision of services.
This Bill as it stands includes an exemption for performers from the smoke-free legislation. Clause 15 of the Bill would amend The Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 by providing a power to exempt by regulation from smoke-free provision smoking by a performer in a performance in which the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate to smoke. The previous Administration inserted that clause in the original Order in Council at Westminster. The Order was subsequently translated into the Assembly Bill that is now before Members. To avoid any delay in introducing the Bill’s important provisions, which, as I have just outlined, will increase patients’ safety, I agreed that the proposed amendment in clause 15 could remain in the Bill at least until it could be debated in the Assembly.
I have considered the theatrical profession’s arguments in favour of the exemption. Those arguments were based on the premise that to outlaw actual smoking would severely compromise a production’s artistic integrity. I have also listened carefully to representations from health professionals and others on the exemption. Those representations focused largely on concerns that such an exemption would undermine the rationale behind the introduction of the smoke-free legislation; namely, the protection of public health.
On the subject of artistic licence, the Lone Ranger, for example, managed to rule the wild west without firing real bullets. Those who have portrayed Julius Caesar on stage and screen have cause to be grateful that the assassination scene did not require them to shed real blood for the sake of their art. Actual smoking is not essential in order to protect the integrity of a particular performance. Even if it were, however, the argument that artistic integrity would be compromised does not outweigh the public-health argument. I am therefore minded to table an amendment to the Bill to remove clause 15.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McGimpsey: I recommend the Bill to the Assembly, as I believe that it provides the opportunity to strengthen the quality of primary-care services in Northern Ireland by introducing measures that will enhance patients’ safety and will provide new arrangements for commissioning general dental services and contracting with general dental practitioners. However, as I have said, I will not support the exemption to the smoke-free legislation for performers and others.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is relatively short, but it certainly lives up to its title. One might say that it does exactly what it says on the tin. As the Minister has already explained, the Bill contains several separate and unconnected measures, three of which I shall deal with briefly.
The first relates to measures aimed at enhancing public safety that have already been implemented in England, Scotland and Wales. As the Minister has said, the introduction of those measures arose out of concerns about the case of Dr Harold Shipman. Dr Shipman, as Members will know, was jailed for life in 2000 for the murder of 15 of his patients. He was subsequently found to have been responsible for more than 200 murders. Part of the Bill’s provisions seems to be aimed at ensuring that a similar case cannot ever happen again.
I have some concerns that, although those public-safety measures were introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom some time ago, they were not introduced in Northern Ireland much earlier. The Bill will give health and social services boards the power to suspend a range of family practitioners — GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists — pending a hearing by a professional regulatory body, a court case or the Health Service tribunal. During the Committee’s initial consideration of those provisions, some members expressed concern that, although such a suspension by a board would be described as a neutral act, pending the outcome of any inquiry, the public would not perceive it as such. As a result, the good name and reputation of a practitioner would risk being seriously and irrevocably damaged.
Other Members of the Committee may wish to elaborate on that matter and more fully explore that concern during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
The availability of dental services is a further concern. The relevant provisions of the Bill are intended to give the health and social care trusts the tools to deal with those areas where patients find it difficult to register with a Health Service dentist. An increasing number of dentists no longer offer Health Service treatment and provide only private dental treatment.
It is widely recognised that Northern Ireland has the worst dental health in the United Kingdom, and that has been the case for a considerable time. Last week, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, briefed the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on public health services. His report highlights the scale of the problem, which is particularly bad for children from the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. The Committee was told that, compared to the UK average, 12-year-olds in Northern Ireland have almost three times the level of decay for their age group. That is an issue that can and must be tackled. I support the Health Bill if its provisions will help in even a small way.
I welcome the decision by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to drop the clause that exempts performers from the smoking ban. The Committee had not yet taken a position on that exemption, but I had intended to highlight the strong opposition that has already been voiced by some Committee Members during an initial briefing by the Department of Health. Removing the exemption for performers is correct because there is no more suitable group to provide appropriate props.
Last Thursday, during an evidence session of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on public health issues, the Chief Medical Officer pointed out that the recent introduction of a smoking ban in work places was a major step forward, but that much more needed to be done. He also reminded us that smoking claims the lives of approximately 2,300 people a year in Northern Ireland, which is a damning and shocking statistic. I welcome the smoking ban in workplaces. Any relaxation of the ban would send the wrong message.
Commenting on the proposed exemption for performers, the Chief Medical Officer told the Committee:
“From a public health perspective, which is the only perspective from which I, as Chief Medical Officer, can comment, I could not support the introduction of such a provision.”
He also referred to dangers to the actors and audiences involved in the performances, and the message that that would send to the wider public. In the light of the advice from the Chief Medical Officer, I am not surprised that the Minister of Health has rethought the matter, and that is welcome.
When the Department of Health undertook a public consultation on the exemption of performers from the smoking ban earlier in the year, there were 26 responses, of which 22 were strongly opposed to the exemption. That only four responses — three from organisations and one from an individual — supported the exemption makes its own case. I welcome the Minister’s change of heart, and his commitment to remove that clause from the Bill at Consideration Stage. Aside from that clause, I support the general provisions of the Bill.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. My comments will be made without prejudice to the possibility of tabling an amendment at a later stage.
Members agree that transparency is good for health professionals and their patients. There are concerns about the potential misinterpretation of ambiguities in the legislation. Everyone agrees that regulation is the right way forward, but the manner in which that regulation is carried out may lead to lobbying from groups of doctors and their representatives.
There are concerns regarding the principle of ensuring that professional regulation and workplace regulation connect in a manner that is respectful to distinct but complementary roles.
Doctors are working under pressure and are delivering healthcare in difficult circumstances. However, they would welcome particular aspects of regulation. For doctors, personal regulation is about putting patients first, which is an ethos that is enshrined in medical practice. Team-based regulation is about the performance of the team and risk-management strategies for patient care. Workplace regulation is about governance and performance-management systems. Professional regulation includes ongoing work on standards, education and regulation licensing to include revalidation and fitness of practice procedures. If all those items could be included in the Bill’s explanatory and financial memorandum, the potential for misinterpretation would be reduced.
I am delighted that the Minister is going to table an amendment to remove clause 15 from the Bill, as the argument about artistic integrity is not valid. I am sure that many Members have been lobbied by various health promotion charities, such as Action Cancer and the Ulster Cancer Foundation, and the families of people who have died as a result of disease caused by smoking. I hope that the proposed removal of clause 15 from the Bill is a good-news story that will be reported by the media, because it is an action that puts the needs of people first.
I am also glad that there has been adherence to the smoking ban, and that the first opportunity for an amendment to dilute it has been resisted.
I have no major concerns with the Bill. However, as I have said, Members will be examining it again and will be making further representations at Committee Stage. I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Bill, and I appreciate the remarks of the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. Go raibh maith agat.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding artistic integrity and smoking. I cannot see the logic of keeping that particular part of the Bill, and I am glad that the Minister has made it clear that it will not be retained. When a precedent like that is set, through pressure from a particular section of the community, it encourages others to seek other changes in the legislation. I fully support the Minister’s intention to remove the clause relating to smoking from the Bill.
Recently, when speaking in the debate on junior doctors, I emphasised how important it is that the medical profession regulates itself. I am deeply suspicious of doctors being regulated by anyone other than fellow doctors, and I will set my face against administrators regulating doctors. The medical profession has regulated itself successfully for many hundreds of years, with few notable exceptions.
I am concerned that there are elements of the innocuously named Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that will undermine and dilute the principle of self-regulation in a manner that is neither justified nor acceptable. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has spoken about his strong support for the professionals in the Health Service and their integrity. From my personal experience of the Minister, I know that his support is genuine.
The failure of the Bill to mention the widely accepted and recently reformed disciplinary mechanisms of the General Medical Council (GMC) is difficult to explain and could be construed in some quarters as ominous. How can a Bill that purports to address regulatory mechanisms fail to refer to such tried and tested devices? That seems a strange omission. To fail to set any new regulatory mechanisms in the context of recently revised GMC standards raises doubts as to whether the new provisions are designed to undermine, rather than complement, existing regulations and regulatory bodies. I know that there is considerable disquiet in the medical profession about the extension of powers to a health and social services board to suspend a medical practitioner before — and I repeat, before — referral to the Health Service tribunal. The Chairperson of the Health Committee rightly said that such a suspension would cast a shadow of doubt over that individual and would raise concerns among those whom he has been treating. Not only that; it would cast a doubt into the practitioner’s mind that would prove very difficult to remove, even if the suspension were lifted.
No one would deny the local board the right to act in matters of patient protection. However, not all matters are quite so clear-cut. The provision conjures up visions of possible victimisation and has the potential, in the wrong hands, to be misused.
We should not entertain the prospect of unilateral action by a health and social services board without the sanction of any balancing and medically competent counterweight. I always look closely at any new legislation that comes before the Assembly and ask myself what is its real intention. I try to discern the true intentions behind what is being proposed. In the case of this Bill, the definition of the new grounds for disqualification — to be added to those of fraud and prejudice to the efficiency of the service — lack clarity, to my concern.
Lack of clarity could be construed as another attempt to undermine the medical profession’s independent standing and to subject doctors to still further decision-making by bureaucrats. Ill-defined law is always bad law. The Bill therefore requires further scrutiny to address the growing concerns that many doctors and other professionals, and their professional body, the British Medical Association (BMA), have about it. I am sure that all MLAs will see that as the bounden duty of the House, and I look forward to the Committee Stage of the Bill.
Mrs Hanna: I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
I also welcome the Minister’s decision not to water down the Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. That would be to clearly contradict and undermine the aims of the Order by putting at risk the health of actors, stage workers and audiences. Consistency of the regulations is essential in order that we do not send out mixed messages. Certainly, the SDLP still believes that a total ban on smoking in all enclosed places is the only way in which to protect all workers from the harmful effects of passive smoking.
The Bill also makes provision to further strengthen the quality of primary-care services and to bring our services in line with those in England, Wales and Scotland. I welcome the move to include all practitioners — GPs, dentists, opticians, pharmacists, and ophthalmic and pharmaceutical bodies — on a single list of performers of primary medical services in each health and social services board.
Although this is not part of the Bill, it is equally important to note that it is essential that all health professionals, and indeed, all professionals allied to health matters, be around the table of primary-care partnerships to ensure that a more holistic approach to healthcare in the community is developed.
Many new parents need the support and encouragement of midwives and others with parenting, and older people may need a podiatrist or an occupational therapist much more than they need any other health professional.
It has been mentioned that the proposal to extend the powers of health and social services boards has concerned the BMA and the GMC. Those bodies have acknowledged that patient protection is the reason behind the argument for local suspension. I have no doubt that those concerns will have to be taken on board. However, I believe that all practitioners should be independently regulated, and patient safety is the bottom and top line for me.
The SDLP believes that wider access to NHS dentistry in all areas is necessary. There should be more training places for dental hygienists and nurses, and the working environment of NHS dental-care staff should be improved.
The fact that many dentists have pulled out of contract negotiations in England and Wales is worrying for us. There must be plans to ensure that dentists are satisfied with their contracts and will stay in the NHS in order that everyone, particularly children and young people, can register with a National Health Service dentist. It is frightening that the children of Northern Ireland cannot at present be treated on the NHS. According to the British Dental Association (BDA), children’s teeth in Northern Ireland are much worse than those of their contemporaries in the rest of Ireland and the UK. As NHS dental cover declines, so does dental health, and, indeed, our poor record of dental health is increasing. It is essential that every patient who is eligible to register can do so. Furthermore, dentists should be local — patients should not have to travel many miles to find a National Health Service dentist. The proposed policy change must ensure that the health and social services boards have the power to commission dentists. I will certainly monitor that closely to ensure that NHS dentists are available and that access is widened adequately. We must ensure that we get away from the “fill and drill” culture of the contracts. We must recruit and retain good dental-health staff.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McCarthy: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
The Bill’s provisions on dentistry are almost replicas of legislation that has been implemented across the water, primarily in England. However, those have not been regarded as very successful. The legislation in England was meant to improve access to dentistry, but the three price bands for treatment has meant that that has not happened. The top price band of £189 means that dentists simply will not take on treatment that is worth up to £900, thus those who need dental treatment will not receive it.
The legislation in England was also meant to improve prevention of tooth disease; however, there has been an increase in extraction and a reduction in root treatment. The real problem is that health spending in Northern Ireland has increased by some 64% in the past decade, but dental spending has risen by only 22%, resulting in a real crisis in dental services. Surely we cannot and should not blindly follow a system that does not work.
As I understand it, the Scottish Parliament rejected similar proposals, acknowledging that such a system would not help prevention or access, but would only make a bad situation worse. More work is required in that regard.
My party is totally opposed to any regulation that makes it possible to smoke in public places — even for performers or artists, for whom I have the highest regard. It should not be beyond the imagination or innovation of those in that business to think of a substitute for the act of smoking.
It was agreed earlier this year in Northern Ireland that smoking in public places was detrimental to the health of our people, and action was taken to put into force measures to address that. The vast majority of Northern Irish people have accepted that smoking is a deadly habit. It has also been accepted that non-smokers should not have their lives endangered by other people’s smoke.
Real progress has been made in Northern Ireland on the issue of smoking, and many people now acknowledge that smoking is, and has been, detrimental to health. Considering the efforts made by many Members of this Assembly, by local councils across Northern Ireland, and by organisations that are concerned with health, it would be a real slap in the teeth to all of us and all of those organisations if the provision to allow performers or artists to smoke during a performance remained in the Bill.
I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the will of the people and that he has listened to the people on that issue. I hope that the Minister throws out that exemption. That will enable people in Northern Ireland to continue to have a smoke-free workplace. I am glad to support the Bill.
Mr Easton: It gives me particular pleasure to support the vast bulk of the Bill, which is designed to strengthen further the quality of primary-care services in Northern Ireland.
Prior to my election to the Assembly, I worked in the Health Service for 16 years. I had ample opportunity to appreciate the commitment and contribution of so many people in caring, nursing and other areas of the medical community. Those people, unstintingly, give their time and talents in the service of those who are ill or in need of treatment. I have often been concerned that their work has been made more difficult by the requirement to work within restrictive bureaucratic parameters. These particular proposals are therefore most welcome.
Patients’ safety and patients’ confidence in the system must be major priorities. It is vital that patients have complete confidence in the ability and experience of their GP, dentist, pharmacist or optician, or, indeed, in anyone involved with their examination and treatment.
Experience has taught us that patients must never be left in a position of doubt or insecurity. Where the competence of a medical practitioner is in question, the health authority must have the ability to conduct prompt investigations, or to impose appropriate limits and conditions. It is better in such situations to take no risks and to err on the side of caution, rather than to ignore concerns or to sideline a problem situation.
I am also happy to support legislation to introduce improvements in the way in which dental services are organised. No one should be in a position where they have difficulty in accessing dental care. The facility to allow health boards to commission local dental services is a very sound one and has my full support.
I cannot, however, in all conscience, support the proposed legislation to amend the Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in order to permit smoking by those taking part in performances. Legislation has been the critical factor in shaping the cultural change in community attitudes to smoking. The vast majority of people are opposed to smoking and do not want any watering down of the legislation. Smoking is a killer and treating those made ill by smoking is a huge drain on our medical resources.
Members will remember the days when having actors smoking in films was used as a subliminal vehicle for cigar and cigarette product placements by unscrupulous tobacco companies. If actors are required to smoke on stage, it should be in a simulated form only — that would be a challenge to their acting ability. There must be no weakening in our determination to make Northern Ireland a smoke-free country. There should be no tinkering with the legislation, and I welcome the Minister’s response today.
I broadly welcome the changes proposed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of age with regard to the retirement age for GPs and dentists. I know of many older people working well beyond their normal retirement age. There is no substitute for experience.
I am a little concerned that the provision for exemption from Health Service charges could be exploited by those who are known as medical tourists to the detriment of people in our own community. If we want to exempt those granted leave to enter Northern Ireland from paying for a course of treatment, or other medical services, we must carefully monitor the situation to ensure that it is not over-exploited.
Any treatment that is given free of charge to foreign visitors is given at the expense of those who have paid National Insurance contributions for many years. Although all visitors should be welcomed to Northern Ireland, we should nevertheless ensure that the humanitarian grounds in such cases are exceptional and are supported by firm evidence.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat. I too welcome the opportunity to comment on the Bill at this stage. I look forward to its coming before the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for further scrutiny and to hearing evidence from those who have an interest in it.
The Bill’s main purpose is to introduce policy changes that are designed to strengthen the quality of primary care services in the North. My colleague, Ms Ní Chuilín, has commented on concerns in respect of patients’ safety, greater accountability and the relaxation of the smoking ban. I welcome the Minister’s decision not to relax the smoking ban.
I will comment on dental services across the North and the proposals included in the Bill. I must agree with the Minister on the unacceptable lack of availability of dental services. At present there are people who cannot locate a dentist in their area with whom they can register as an NHS patient. That cannot be allowed to continue, especially in the light of the poor oral health of the North’s population.
Oral health in the North has been poor for many years, with those living in deprived areas being most affected. It is a well-recognised factor that social deprivation has a strong influence on dental decay. Children living in the 20% of most deprived wards in the North are almost twice as likely to have experienced dental decay as children from the 20% of most affluent wards.
Overall, the poor state of oral health is particularly bad in comparison to the South of Ireland and to England. The average five-year-old child in Belfast has approximately 2·5 teeth affected by tooth decay, whereas a child of the same age in London has 1·5 teeth affected by tooth decay, and a child in Dublin has only one tooth affected by tooth decay. Those comparisons make it ever clearer that there is a crisis in dental services.
The Bill will provide the Department with the opportunity to commission dental services and to directly employ dentists. That should go some way towards achieving better outcomes. However, the Department needs to target resources to the areas of greatest need and to encourage dentists to register and provide care for those patients with the greatest need. That needs to be a priority for the Department.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mrs O’Neill: I am almost finished, if you do not mind.
As I said, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Bill. However, I reserve the right to make amendments and further comments when the Bill comes before the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee.
Mr McCallister: I welcome the forthcoming opportunity to review the Bill in the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee and to discuss it in more detail. I welcome the proposed changes to some of the dental services. I also welcome the Minister’s comment that he will discuss those changes with dental practitioners. It is most important that they are involved in the process. It is also important that huge steps forward are taken in patient care, perhaps including a long-term strategy on preventative dental care.
Other Members have highlighted the fact that we, in Northern Ireland, lag badly behind in the provision of dental care and in preventative dental care. The Bill also proposes changes regarding tribunals that will bring Northern Ireland into line with England. The smoking ban has already been mentioned, I welcome the Bill’s provisions on that.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is ideally placed to make judgements on the extension of the smoking ban to cover theatres as he is a former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The most important issue regarding the extension of the ban is the message that it sends out, as Members from all sides of the House have welcomed it. I look forward to discussing the Bill at Committee Stage, and I give broad support to its provisions.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank all of the Members who contributed to the debate for their remarks. I shall attempt to deal with some of the issues that were raised, and I look forward to discussion of the Bill at the Committee Stage.
The changes to the powers and duties of the health and social services boards and of the tribunal will strengthen quality assurance and improve protection of patients. A new dental contract will allow local commissioning of a high-quality dental service that is responsive to the needs and wishes of patients. The proposed legislation reflects the Department’s desire to improve primary care services for the people of Northern Ireland.
As I mentioned at the outset in my opening speech, the Bill contains the clause on smoking. I am grateful for the comments of colleagues about the smoking provision, and I assure them that, bearing in mind my responsibility for all the people in Northern Ireland and that I was previously the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I see no reason why the recent smoking ban in public places should be broken to permit that activity. At the Bill’s Consideration Stage, I shall table an amendment to withdraw that clause. The issues that follow are dealt with in no particular order.
Local commissioning for dentistry will be introduced to provide for and meet the needs of the local community, and access to Health Service dental treatment is an integral part of that. Boards will be required to define the services that they want to commission, and that service must take the oral health needs of the population into account. Primary dental services must be provided, and their provision secured.
Mrs Robinson made the point that that provision should have been available earlier, and she is correct; however, apart from Orders in Council, to which I referred, this is the first opportunity that the devolved Assembly has had to progress the issue. The timing was under the control of the previous Administration. Legislation on the provision of primary dental services was set up for an Order in Council, and, as I explained, rather than delay matters, I allowed it to come forward to give the Assembly an opportunity to discuss it. Before devolution resumed, the legislation was offered to me as an Order in Council, but that is part of the old, bad ways, and I know that the House will approve my taking the view that it was a matter for the Assembly.
Concerning the dental contract, dentists are currently paid for activity, and Mrs Hanna referred to that as “drill and fill”. That will no longer be the case; dentists will be paid according to the time that they have spent. Therefore, they will have more time to advise their patients, particularly on oral health. As Mrs Robinson correctly pointed out, Northern Ireland has the worst dental health in the UK: we are bottom of the list. Our dental health is much worse than that of the Irish Republic. In that important area, prevention is better than cure.
There is a need for more dentists, and a review, published at the end of March 2006, contained plans to increase, as soon as possible, the number of places in the dental workforce by at least 40 a year.
I welcome Robert Coulter’s support on the smoking amendment. Moreover, he raised concerns that bureaucrats are responsible for the regulation of practitioners. That does not run against the powers of the General Medical Council (GMC), which is still the regulatory body. Only the GMC has the power to strike off a general practitioner.
However, in the wake of the Shipman Inquiry, the Donaldson Report recognised that there is a gap between national and local regulations. The provision is designed to close that gap. If there is lack of clarity, as Bob Coulter says, the process will aim to provide clarity through the enabling powers of the Bill.
Suspension is a temporary measure that is designed to protect patients and practitioners. The statement is designed to be neutral, and the Committee can give me its opinions on that. Suspension would occur during an investigation, and the suspending authority must be able to justify and substantiate such a decision. It is a double-edged sword — a two-way situation — because the onus is on a board or tribunal to justify exactly why it has taken an action. If the board or tribunal cannot do that, the stigma will be on it, rather than on the practitioner.
I appreciate that Members have raised other questions, to which I have not had time to respond. I look forward to the Committee Stage and to the Committee’s deliberations and conclusions, which will inform the legislation as the process progresses. I am grateful to Members who have contributed to this helpful debate on an important piece of legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA 2/07] be agreed.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. The Further Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Deputy Speaker: No amendments have been tabled to the Bill. The Further Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately on suspension for lunch. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.49 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —
Teacher Induction Year
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has allowed up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Two amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. If amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall. The proposers of the amendments will each have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for winding up.
Mr Ross: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that, following the McCrone Report: ‘A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century’, a teacher induction scheme guarantees a one-year teaching post to every student graduating from a Scottish university with a teaching qualification; and calls upon the Minister of Education to liaise with the Scottish Executive on this matter, with a view to a similar scheme being introduced for teachers who train in Northern Ireland.
I am willing to accept amendment No 2, tabled by the Members opposite for Lagan Valley and for Mid Ulster. Therefore, I reject the amendment tabled by the SDLP. I am somewhat bemused by its content, as it deals with current teachers and does not seem to address the issue at hand. Undoubtedly, Mr Bradley will elaborate on that.
I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of teacher induction. It is increasingly difficult for university graduates to find work, particularly newly qualified teachers. Northern Ireland does not have the same teacher shortages as other regions of the United Kingdom. Teaching courses and Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses remain heavily oversubscribed, with sometimes as many as five times more applicants than available places.
Currently, only about 22% of new teachers manage to find work in the first year after graduation. That indicates a significant problem, about which I have been contacted numerous times in my constituency.
Figures for 2001-02 reveal that 83·4% of those recently graduated teachers who returned destination information forms were employed as full-time teachers six months after graduation. That figure fell to 77·7% in 2002-03 and to 73·7% in 2003-04. The figures reached an all-time low in 2004-05, with only 62·2% of new teachers finding work.
The statistics can be misleading because many recently qualified teachers who have not managed to find work have not returned destination information forms. There is little doubt that the situation is getting worse, and evidence that I have recently heard leads me to believe that even more young people have been unable to find work in the last year. Seamus Searson of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) suggests that that figure might be as low as 22% and that the situation is reaching crisis point in Northern Ireland. He also suggests that 25% of graduates have gained only temporary posts. With that in mind, the Assembly must look at ways to help young teachers enter the profession.
One option, which was implemented in Scotland with the support of the NASUWT, is to guarantee new teachers a job for at least one year. That policy emerged from the McCrone Report, which was welcomed by many in the profession and has met with much praise since its implementation.
We are clearly not calling for that policy to be introduced immediately in Northern Ireland. We are simply asking the Minister to liase with her Scottish counterpart and to examine whether it is a desirable and worthwhile policy that could be introduced in Northern Ireland.
At present, huge amounts of money are spent on training new teachers, but once students complete their courses, they are unable to find permanent employment in teaching. Many of those graduates cannot find work as supply teachers because many older teachers are taking early retirement and are doing supply work or covering for maternity leave. It is far more attractive for principals to take on someone who has years of experience, rather than a complete novice. Young teachers have no experience, but how can they gain experience if no one will employ them?
Former full-time teachers are ideal candidates for supply work; they know the job and they have the experience that headmasters need. However, that makes it difficult for new teachers to get started.
The age profile of current teachers is another issue to be addressed, as well as falling pupil numbers. Added together, those circumstances contribute to a significant problem. How can the Assembly address the problem and get younger teachers into schools? How can graduates gain the experience that they need if they cannot find jobs, even as supply teachers?
A guaranteed year of teaching for all new teachers is one possible way forward. That policy has been implemented in Scotland, and should be given serious consideration by the Assembly.
The introduction of a teacher induction year would also ensure that young teachers were not thrown in at the deep end, but given an individually tailored programme that built on skills that they had already gained during their training period, while providing a system of support. Young teachers would be mentored and supported by experienced staff, and principals would monitor progress to ensure that individuals received that support.
The NASUWT and the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) support the idea of a teacher induction year. In its final report for the Department of Education, the GTCNI recommended the introduction of a guaranteed induction year for all newly qualified teachers. The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) also expressed its concerns about losing the most talented teachers, saying that it feared that:
“our brightest and best young teachers were to be lured across the water by an offer of £5,000.”
Although the guarantee of full employment would be for only one year, it would go some way to giving a degree of experience to student teachers. That experience would be beneficial in building a new teacher’s portfolio and helpful when applying for jobs.
It is important that consideration be given to how best to facilitate the placement of, and provide support for, new teachers. Surveys have shown that the quality of support that teachers receive in their early years has a major impact on their experiences as a teacher. Many young teachers have become demoralised simply because they cannot find work. On 6 April 2005, ‘The Scotsman’ reported of the McCrone report that:
“One of the greatest achievements has been the organised system for probationer teachers in their induction year.”
What will be the consequences if Members do not take action to help young teachers? Unlike other regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is unique in not having a shortage of teachers, and, therefore, we have a generally higher standard of teaching due to competition for places, which results in a requirement for higher entry grades. If graduates cannot find work in Northern Ireland they will be forced either to abandon their chosen profession, which they have been trained for, or to consider going to the mainland to teach. Given that students already get paid to undertake PGCE courses in some parts of the UK, there is a risk that many of the most talented young teachers will be forced to leave Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that, having settled into a new job in a new place, they will ever return.
I have already mentioned the vast amounts of money that are spent on the training of teachers in Northern Ireland. Is it prudent to spend such money on teachers who ultimately head for the mainland to find a job? Should Members not ensure that there is a return on that investment by keeping teachers for schools in Northern Ireland?
The brain drain has received media attention in recent months, and it is undoubtedly of concern to Members. As with other skills, the most talented local people must be kept and availed of in Northern Ireland rather than elsewhere.
I was struck by the story that the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond told in his address to the Assembly yesterday. He told of a man he had spoken with at Westminster who said that he had gone south in search of work. When asked if he would return to Scotland, the man said that he would if the opportunity were there to do so. That is the crux of the issue. Do young teachers have the opportunity to follow their chosen career at home, or must they leave Northern Ireland?
Members should be creating opportunities for those talented teachers; opening doors, instead of closing them. If Members fail to do that, the likely outcome will be that school-leavers who are enthusiastic and keen to follow a teaching career will decide that it is in their best interests to follow another path.
Publicity about shortages of teaching jobs in Northern Ireland acts as a disincentive to even the keenest students. That should not be the case. Members should be encouraging the brightest and most enthusiastic students into that profession.
I look forward to hearing the views of Members — particularly those who are former teachers. I refer, of course, to my esteemed colleagues Mr Sammy Wilson and Miss Michelle McIlveen, who may have an insight into this problem and who might elaborate on their experiences and the finer details of the idea of having an induction year.
The introduction of an induction year might not mean that a teacher would be guaranteed a job at the end, but it would mean that they would at least have a fighting chance. I hope that Members will give the motion their careful consideration and their support.
Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “post” and insert
“in Scotland to every student teacher graduating from a Scottish university; further notes the publication of the Curran report ‘Improving Conditions, Raising Standards’, with the recommendation that a similar induction scheme is introduced in Northern Ireland; and calls on the Minister of Education and the Executive to implement the recommendations of the Curran report, including those on newly qualified teachers.”
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the motion in the names of Mr Ross and Miss McIlveen. The motion seeks to give one year’s teaching experience to newly qualified teachers from Northern Ireland’s teaching university colleges and sources the historic changes that took place in Scotland after the publication of the McCrone Report. However, in moving amendment No 1, I want to draw to the attention of Members to two important facts that are not covered in the original motion.
The source document for the improvement of teachers’ conditions of service in Northern Ireland is the Curran Report, part 1 of which was published in 2003, with part 2 being published in 2004. The independent Curran inquiry into teachers’ salaries and conditions of service was set up by a former Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness. The inquiry had the unanimous support of the five recognised teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland and all the employing authorities on the management side of the teachers’ negotiating committee. Sean Curran CBE chaired the committee, which considered developments in Scotland under the McCrone Report and the subsequent negotiations, as well as developments in England and Wales, where there are no independent negotiations but instead a schoolteachers’ review body and a national agreement.
Significantly, the key objective of the Curran committee was to take the best features of the Scottish and English experience and to contextualise them in the largely small-school system in Northern Ireland. The Curran committee of inquiry was established with almost exactly the same terms of reference as the McCrone committee of inquiry, and it reflected best practice in England and Wales. For those reasons, I call on the Assembly to accept my amendment, because it reflects the best independent judgement of an inquiry that was established by our Department of Education and that reported to our teachers’ negotiating committee.
I am pleased to report that all the Curran inquiry team recommendations were accepted by the management side, which represents the education employing authorities, and by the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council, which represents the unanimous view of the five recognised trade unions.
Today’s DUP motion is worthy, but I am sure that that party would accept that its recommendation is also one of the key recommendations of the Curran committee of inquiry. The SDLP agrees with the Member who moved the motion that newly qualified teachers need one year of guaranteed employment. A complex range of factors combine to ensure that most of those teachers, in the first year after graduation, do not secure permanent teaching posts and are therefore unable to complete their professional teaching induction qualification. That is disastrous. Our schools and pupils need these young enthusiastic teachers, and the teachers need to complete their teaching qualifications. As Mr Ross said, it is a vicious circle.
I therefore call on the Member who moved the motion to accept that the motion’s objective already forms the basis of a key recommendation of the independent Curran committee of inquiry. The motion, and the Curran recommendation, must be implemented as soon as possible, and my amendment would facilitate that.
What happened to the Curran committee of inquiry and all its recommendations? The inquiry team comprised distinguished persons, many of whom had long years of experience in education. The independent Curran inquiry into teachers’ pay and conditions was established in the final days of the Assembly’s first mandate, and the implementation of the recommendations fell to successive direct rule Ministers with responsibility for education, the first of whom was Barry Gardiner. The rules of the House do not allow me to elaborate on the description of him that readily comes to mind. In any case, all the Curran recommendations, including the important recommendation to guarantee one year’s permanent employment to all newly qualified teachers in Northern Ireland, were left hanging in the wilderness because the direct rule Ministers were not prepared to seek the resources to implement them. I hope that our devolved Ministers will not leave themselves open to the same accusation.
The proposal to introduce an induction scheme for newly qualified teachers has been discussed in detail by the joint working party of the teachers’ negotiating committee. A business case for the phased implementation of the scheme, which was unanimously agreed by management and the teachers’ unions, has been presented to the Minister of Education. Why should the Assembly refer to the Scottish experience when we are already moving towards implementation?
I call on the Minister of Education to implement the scheme and relieve school principals of the pressures and the intolerable workloads that they have endured for too long. Pupils from largely rural communities would benefit enormously from the scheme proposed in this admirable motion.
It is important that the Assembly unanimously supports assistance for newly qualified teachers. However, it should also be noted that a range of significant recommendations made in the Curran Report were placed in limbo under direct rule, such as the implementation of planning, preparation and assessment time — a proposal that became a statutory condition of service for every teacher in England and Wales on 1 September 2005 — and the provision of two days’ administration time for every teaching principal in small schools across Northern Ireland. Those innovations would be a boon to teaching principals, their pupils and the largely rural communities served by their schools.
Leading education administrators have been working for more than 20 years to achieve those aims, and the case is unanswerable. The trade unions and the management side have prioritised the proposal and have put a business case to the Minister of Education. The SDLP wants the Minister to enact the Curran recommendations.
My amendment calls on the Assembly to recognise that Northern Ireland has already established a high-powered committee of inquiry under Séan Curran’s leadership, which has made detailed recommendations, including specific proposals relating to newly qualified teachers. The Curran Report is available on the Department of Education’s website and those of the various employing authorities and teachers’ unions in Northern Ireland. There should be no more dithering: the recommendations of the Curran Report must be implemented, and to that end, I am pleased to move my amendment.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Assembly is responsible for teachers’ salaries and conditions of service in Northern Ireland. What better way to implement that mandate responsibly than by accepting my amendment and adopting all the recommendations of the Curran Report, which would end the dithering that was the hallmark of direct rule Ministers.
The DUP motion is worthy; we have the Curran Report with its set of recommendations, and the teachers’ unions and the employers have already presented a case to the Minister of Education and her Department. Why should we delay all of that by referring to the Scottish experience? We have already learned from the Scottish experience, and from the experiences of the English and Welsh education sectors. The sum total of that experience and best practice is reflected in the Curran Report. I ask the House to support my amendment to the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Butler: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after the third “to” and insert
“asking the Executive to consider the matter in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and in light of other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.”
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Ross and Members of the House for accepting my amendment, which represents a more sensible approach to teacher induction.
I support the spirit of the motion, because there have been a lot of positive developments for newly trained teachers in Scotland arising out of the McCrone Report.
It is generally accepted that the McCrone Report has been good for the teaching profession in Scotland and has led to an increase in teachers’ salaries. The teacher induction scheme mentioned in the motion puts great emphasis on continuing professional development for teachers. The scheme in Scotland has produced an increase in support staff.
There are obvious concerns for new teachers, such as the lack of guaranteed employment after the one-year induction period. Probationary teachers will have to compete in the job market against other applicants. That said, the McCrone Report has been good for the teaching profession, and the Assembly could learn much from it.
Mr D Bradley: From his comments, am I now to assume that Mr Butler disowns the report initiated by his colleague, Martin McGuinness, the Minister for Education in the former Assembly?
Mr Butler: I am addressing the motion before the House, which concerns the McCrone Report and teacher induction schemes.
Teachers in the North of Ireland are finishing their training without a proper induction period. We must also accept the reality that school rolls have fallen, with 50,000 empty desks across the country. There has been an overproduction of teachers. For example, at St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College, the number of places on teaching courses has been limited. The subject of the motion should be considered in that context.
Mr B McCrea: Does the Member accept that, if he has read the very fine report by Mr Curran, the number of newly qualified teachers has been falling since 1978? At that time, there were 1,000 new teachers, 75% of whom were in permanent employment. The extensive literature on the matter shows that, by 1996, the number of new teachers had fallen to 782, with only 34% in permanent employment. Those issues have been properly and thoroughly dealt with already, and there is no need to go over the same ground.
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for Lagan Valley for that piece of information.
A structured approach to graduate teachers is needed and, alongside that, the money to implement the proposal in the motion. That is where Sinn Fein’s amendment is relevant. The Executive should consider the proposal in the context of the comprehensive spending review. The Department of Education has estimated that the cost of implementing the proposal in its first year to be around £12 million.
We must recognise that the teaching profession here is organised differently than in Scotland. Furthermore, the Scottish Parliament is far more advanced than this Assembly, not least in the area of economic decision-making and the ability of the Scottish Executive to set their own priorities. This Assembly is less than two months old and, although I am all for setting the Assembly ambitious targets, we must be realistic about what we can achieve. For that reason, I ask the House to support the Sinn Féin amendment to the motion. I acknowledge that the Member who proposed the motion has accepted it. It is prudent to await the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, rather than set priorities that cannot be met.
The issue of teaching principals, and whether they should work all week or possibly three days a week, has been raised with the unions and needs to be addressed further. Dominic Bradley mentioned the time required by teaching principals for planning, preparation and assessment. Teachers in Great Britain devote 10% of their time to those tasks. It must also be recognised that, according to the Department of Education, 90% of teachers here find gainful employment after graduating from teacher-training college.
Mr B McCrea: I am pleased to address the House on this important issue. As the House will know, my party included a commitment to a guaranteed induction year for teachers in its election manifesto, and my party takes the matter very seriously.
I am somewhat surprised by amendment No 2. During the debate on the Second Stage of the Libraries Bill this morning, I thought that I heard parties on the opposite Benches deciding that money was not an issue and that if something is the right thing to do it should be done.
I fail to understand why — now that we are debating education, rather than libraries — Sinn Féin feels that that argument no longer applies. Furthermore, Mr Butler stressed that Scotland is not the same as Northern Ireland, and neither is England or Wales.
I take the point that my hon Friend Mr Bradley made, which was that, if we have done all the work, why should we attempt to reinvent the wheel? Why should we consider the Scottish experience? The situation is different there. I accept, however, that there are lessons to be learned from Scotland, and the Curran Report has taken those on board.
In Glasgow, the biggest problem that the authorities face is that there are far too many qualified teachers. The authorities have to offer those teachers incentives and bonuses to teach in areas outside Glasgow. However, barely 30 miles down the road, in more rural areas, the authorities find it difficult to attract teachers because teachers do not want to work in those areas.
Perhaps the situation in Glasgow is understandable, but it is not the same as the situation here. In fact, one of the big questions in Scotland lies in the fact that, despite its producing lots and lots of teachers, the authorities do not know where they go. That is their big question: “Where are all the teachers that we trained?”
To reiterate the point about differences, paragraph 79 of the Curran Report states that:
“There is a problem with teacher retention in Northern Ireland. It is unlike the situation in England and Wales where there is a problem in retaining young teachers.”
Therefore, the set-up in England and Wales is completely different to ours.
People often ask why there are so many premature retirements from the teaching profession. Is it because of stress? Is it because of the workload? If it is for either of those reasons, we ought to find a way to employ more teachers. Another situation that is addressed in the Curran Report is the question of why teachers are allowed to retire early, only to come back to work as substitute teachers. That seems to be counter-intuitive. Allowing such a practice does not seem to give younger teachers any opportunities.
I was struck by an issue that we discussed yesterday when the Minister responded to questions put by myself and members of the Alliance Party. We raised the issue that, in Northern Ireland, there are, apparently, 50,000 empty desks. What impact does that have on teacher training? Members are agreed that numeracy and literacy are among the highest priorities. Why, therefore, can the resource that we are producing — surplus qualified teachers — not be used to deal with the very important issue of those empty desks?
Why can we not agree that that is a prime problem, and use those people to solve it? All parties have agreed that that is a problem, and every year that we delay blights someone’s life. That is not contentious; the Assembly has agreed on that issue. We must take action now. There is too much prevarication and talk of pushing the matter back. The people of this country elected us to do something, not to commission more reports.
This is a strategic decision. The subject of today’s motion has been debated time and again. We merely talk about solving the issue before bouncing our decision back to the Executive to see whether we can afford the solution. What, therefore, is the purpose of the rest of us, who are not in the Executive, talking about these matters? If we are only here to rubber-stamp decisions, if we have no voice, if we are not important, why waste taxpayers’ money by being here? The Assembly should be making decisions, giving guidance to the Executive and demanding action.
The Ulster Unionist Party supports amendment No 1 and rejects amendment No 2.
Mr Ford: The timing of today’s debate is welcome because it addresses a matter that is of significant importance to many young people in Northern Ireland and to their families.
As student teachers approach their graduations, too many of them face the future with no certainty of jobs ahead.
I can remember conducting interviews, as a member of a board of governors, a few years ago on 30 June for a post that was to be taken up on 1 September. More than 50 applicants — all girls, as it happened — applied for that junior primary school post. They were all leaving college and at that stage, apart from a small number who dropped out of the process, they had no prospect of employment in the profession for which they trained. Clearly, that is a significant issue that we need to address.
However, as when we considered the employment and training prospects of junior doctors a few weeks ago, we must also bear it in mind that we do not need a short-term, one-year fix but something that ensures a degree of continuity and provides some career progression. It is questionable whether the scheme currently operating in Scotland is necessarily what we need in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Scottish scheme may not be applicable at all because the demographics are quite different here. I certainly do not wish to oppose the sentiments of the motion, but we must be extremely careful about the fine detail of what is proposed. If we want to ensure that we provide for those teachers who aspire to a career that lasts a considerable number of years — rather than until early retirement — we need something more than just the one-year fix that the motion is in danger of leading us to. Therefore, let us send a message to the Executive that we want the potential for such a scheme to be explored while recognising that the scheme that the McCrone Report laid out for Scotland may not be entirely relevant to Northern Ireland.
Mr D Bradley: Does the Member accept that, if we introduced 10% planning, preparation and assessment time and two days’ administration time for every teaching principal, newly qualified teachers would benefit from that? That would mean that we would provide not just a short-term fix but more employment on a longer-term basis for newly qualified teachers.
Mr Ford: The Member makes, more eloquently than I hoped to do, a similar point to the one that I was about to make on the issue of class sizes. In discussing our priorities for education funding, it may well be that we conclude that additional posts will need to be created if we are seriously to address the problem of class sizes in some of our schools, especially those in which we are trying to mainstream pupils with special needs. The need to reduce class sizes might provide opportunities, as might the need to provide suitable relief for teaching principals in the way that the Member has highlighted.
Unless we provide such opportunities, however, we will need to face the issue that we currently train too many teachers. Indeed, despite the statistics that Mr Basil McCrea quoted that show a reduction in the number of people being trained, an increasing proportion of the students still do not have long-term employment at the end of their course. We need to ensure that we go beyond the one-year, short-term arrangement that is proposed and consider the details of the issue. It is rather sad that, as I understand it, those who are training for teaching posts in Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College are encouraged to develop other skills because of the threat that they might not secure a job in teaching. We need to be rather more careful than the motion suggests that any proposed scheme should suit the needs of Northern Ireland rather than be based too closely on the Scottish one.
We also need to ensure that we have the money to deliver. If we do not have the money to deliver reductions in class sizes, we will not be able to go down that route. That prompts the question that other Members have raised about the spare capacity of 50,000 school places. There is an urgent need to rationalise the school estate to ensure that money goes to employing teachers and providing for the needs of pupils rather than to maintaining buildings and bureaucrats. I suspect that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who is the deputy leader of the party to which the proposer of the motion belongs, will be grateful for the Sinn Féin amendment because, as Mr Butler highlighted, it would be dangerous to adopt the proposal without ensuring that matters have been fully costed.
We also need to ensure that, overall, there is a balance in the teaching profession. We have heard talk of teachers leaving early because of stress. The reality is that an apparently ever increasing number of teachers do not continue in work until the normal retirement age because of the difficulties that they experience. The danger is that we could end up with a scheme that artificially gives jobs to young teachers at the expense of mature teachers. That issue needs to be addressed.
Miss McIlveen: I find it disappointing that a motion to help newly qualified teachers who have invested so much in their education is now being hijacked by SDLP Members, who have taken us down a cul-de-sac by referring to a report that is of little relevance to what we are concentrating on today.
Furthermore, Mr McCrea’s comments confused me somewhat. I thought that his party was represented in the Executive.
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Miss McIlveen: No, I do not have much time.
I can speak on this subject from a personal perspective. I was once a young teaching graduate fresh out of Queen’s University and filled with great ideals of educating, and I was fortunate in obtaining employment early in my probation period. However, many colleagues from my postgraduate certificate in education course — competent people with a huge amount to offer the education system — fell by the wayside. Indeed, I found myself employed alongside Mr Sammy Wilson in my first teaching job, and now, in my new post, I find that the same Sammy Wilson is the Chairman of the Committee for Education.
Northern Ireland faces a problem as a result of falling pupil numbers. A surplus of newly qualified teachers is currently unemployed. Around 370 newly qualified teachers emerge from Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University, the University of Ulster and St Mary’s University College each year. According to figures released in 2004-05, only 62·5% of graduates were employed as full-time teachers six months after graduation. For Members whose mental arithmetic is not up to scratch, that represents 138 teaching graduates who are still not in employment six months after graduating. Those figures are conservative, but they show that Northern Ireland has a pool of teaching talent that is going to waste as supply teachers, engaged in alternative employment away from teaching, or, increasingly, applying for teaching jobs in other parts of the United Kingdom.
There is a further problem. The teaching talent that remain in Northern Ireland and attempt to establish themselves in such a competitive area face difficulties in adequately completing their induction period. Five competencies must be satisfied within that period: understanding of the curriculum and professional knowledge; subject knowledge and subject application; teaching strategies and techniques and classroom management; assessment and recording of pupils’ progress; and foundation for further professional development. If full-time employment is not available, how will it be possible to attain those competencies to an appropriate professional standard?
Under the current scheme, induction can be started if the newly qualified teacher is working as a supply teacher, or is employed on a short-term contract. If an inductee moves from school to school, perhaps works a week here and a week there, or is in different schools on different days, it seems highly improbable that any of the competencies would be satisfied.
Furthermore, under the current induction scheme there should be a teacher tutor. That person would be responsible for monitoring, supporting and assessing the inductee. One must wonder how someone moving from job to job throughout a year could be properly monitored, supported or assessed.
The motion proposes that the Minister of Education should liaise with the Scottish Executive in order that a scheme, similar to that in Scotland, could be introduced in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, inductees are guaranteed a one-year training post, a maximum class commitment of 70% of a full-time equivalent, dedicated time set aside for professional development, a nominated mentor and a salary of around £19,500 a year.
Obviously, Northern Ireland and Scotland have different education systems. While Northern Ireland has no shortage subjects, Scotland has a number of more remote areas where teachers are required. Valuable information could be gathered from our near neighbours on that innovative and successful scheme that could be applied to Northern Ireland, with a view to improving our current situation.
However, such a scheme is not cheap. The induction scheme in Scotland costs around £24 million a year, and involves around 2,730 inductees. I am not suggesting that we are required to spend that amount of money, but surely, if the Minister, and her Department, were to do some creative thinking, and take into consideration the colossal amount of £45 million that was spent on supply teachers in 2006-07 alone, something could be done. We must remember that, in return for such investment, we will have teachers who will have a full year’s experience, who will be properly mentored and assessed and who will be suitably prepared to enter the job market — a much more attractive employment proposition than the current situation.
It is vital for Northern Ireland to have a high standard of teaching talent, with relevant and appropriate post-qualification training, to tackle the continuing challenges of literacy and numeracy.
In supporting the motion, I ask the Minister to liaise with the Scottish Executive to establish a best-practice model for Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I congratulate the Member on retaining her sanity, having served under Mr Wilson.
Mr K Robinson: Perhaps I also have suffered under Sammy Wilson, so my sanity is up for grabs as well.
I should like to preface my remarks by thanking the Members who have brought this important issue before the House, and by declaring an interest by virtue of my role as a governor at two Newtownabbey schools.
The topic of the debate highlights not only how the Scottish Administration can address fundamental flaws in the field of education, but also how the community in Northern Ireland has drifted under the dead hand of a succession of direct rule Ministers. The NIO continues to churn out trainee teachers from four institutions while simultaneously overseeing other education bodies that are engaged in closing and amalgamating schools. What sort of coherent manpower planning does that suggest?
We require the highest level of entry qualifications from our young teachers of any part of these islands, yet when they emerge with their qualifications after extensive training and a considerable cost to the public purse, we fail to provide them with opportunities to practice their craft. We produce the best young teachers in the UK, so it is small wonder that when we fail to employ them here, they are snapped up with glee by education authorities across the UK and beyond. At the weekend, I heard of one going to the Gulf after a telephone interview.
This is another glaring example of the brain drain that has so afflicted Northern Ireland under direct rule. McCrone’s report on the difficulties encountered by Scottish teachers going through their induction process is worthy of note, and could be adapted to suit conditions in Northern Ireland. It is but one example of how the Scottish Executive are seeking to seriously address the shortcomings of the Scottish education system.
Other elements are designed to improve standards. They include a substantial pay rise to attract and retain teachers; improvements to their conditions of service; and a commitment to reduce class sizes and deal with disruptive pupils. All of those approaches indicate a co-ordinated drive to put in place a system that can provide the skills required to develop a knowledge-based economy. We cannot do this on the cheap. If we are going to invest in education — if we want a knowledge-based economy — the money has to go in now.
This lesson must be grasped by the Department of Education. No amount of Celtic mythology from the Minister can be allowed to mask the fact that her Department is failing young teachers. The present trend for isolated days of temporary teaching, spread over several schools and many months, is not the best way to ensure that they complete their induction process in a coherent, cohesive and consistent manner. The best way to ensure that the desired high standards are consistently reached is for new teachers to be under the constant tutelage of experienced mentors. This critical stage of teacher development, and the subsequent stages of early professional development, require a more stringent process of standardisation than can be adequately achieved under the present approach.
The McCrone Report has lessons for all of us in its attempts to bring stability and order to the induction year by providing a one-year window of opportunity for new entrants to the profession. However, it does not fully address the issue of teacher employment after that initial year, although the Scots are now moving towards a more realistic pupil-teacher ratio, which should provide more teaching posts and enable them to focus on the core issue of raising the level of basic literacy and numeracy skills in their primary schools.
The Department of Education’s approach of producing time-limited, ring-fenced, bolt-on initiatives to tackle specific problems must end. The current policy means that, once improvement has occurred, funding is promptly removed from the schools in question. The end result is that any progress that has been achieved is eroded, thereby leading to greater disillusionment for pupils and teachers.
The Department should instead form a task force, with young, post-induction teachers assigned specifically to those schools wrestling with literacy and numeracy problems. In such a scenario, the young teachers can learn their craft from the more mature staff members who are currently being burnt out by having to cope with impossible burdens. It would also help to reduce the sickness levels among teachers that were reported recently.
The impact of such groups would be beneficial to both sets of teachers and to those pupils who most need to be enthused by education. Let us now match the needs of our education system with the children it seeks to serve through adequate numbers of properly trained, professionally inducted and enthusiastic young teachers. Perhaps then we will achieve a competent and cost-effective system upon which to build the knowledge-based economy that we all aspire to see in place.
Mr Storey: I support both the motion and amendment No 2, and I commend my colleagues for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.
There will always be dissatisfaction when substantial investment is made from the public purse towards the education and training of individuals who then choose to ply their trade outside Northern Ireland, although there will always be cases that are entirely understandable. We must accept that individuals may move overseas or change occupation as a result of wedlock. We cannot disallow people from travelling and choosing to live elsewhere. However, it is essential that we do not operate policies that encourage people to leave Northern Ireland. I trust that we have left those days behind, and that no Member will encourage that.
I speak not only of the teaching profession, for this issue has implications for the Health Service and for many professions in Northern Ireland. We must ensure that training, recruitment and retention practices are appropriate and effective, particularly in view of growing competition from other parts of the world for talented graduates from the Province.
The number of training posts in all professions must match the demand in the workplace. We cannot afford to train too many teachers for the available full-time posts, particularly given the fall in pupil numbers predicted for the coming year, which has already been referred to.
Perhaps, since the Minister is present, she will tell us the average cost to the public purse of training a student teacher in Northern Ireland. It must be soul-destroying for young people in this part of the United Kingdom to put so much work into studying, only to find that they cannot obtain a job in Northern Ireland — the very place where they want to work.
Substantial numbers of newly trained teachers leave for England and Scotland each year. At their age, many will not return to live here.
For those teachers, it must be infuriating to see older, retired teachers, supplementing a healthy pension, through being employed by schools on a short-term basis.
Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister agree that, sometimes, principals of primary schools, when faced with disruptive pupils, have no alternative but to bring in experienced teachers for their prowess in discipline, rather than employ younger teachers, even though they may wish to do so?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for elevating me to the position of Minister; I thought that I was but a humble Member of the Assembly. However, given that the Member’s party colleague Mr McCrea referred to his commitment to a pledge in an election manifesto, delusion may exist in the Ulster Unionist Party in many spheres.
Mr B McCrea: Since the Member discusses facts and figures, will he comment on the ‘House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts: The management of substitution cover for teachers: Twenty-seventh Report of Session, 2002-03’, which includes suggestions on how we might better manage the supply and demand of teachers? We have failed absolutely to achieve that. Should that not be raised with the Minister?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention. Since the DUP has control of the finances of Northern Ireland, it will have no difficulty in ensuring that the Executive’s duties will be exercised prudently. We need no lectures from the Member: to date, his party’s policies have failed.
As I said, it is infuriating for newly trained teachers to see schools resort to the temporary employment of retired teachers. I accept the point made earlier. A principal running a school is in an unenviable position, for he must satisfy ever-increasing demands.
Members must ensure that the spirit of the motion is preserved. The SDLP spokesman took us down a cul-de-sac to divert Members from the motion. He failed to understand that the motion reads:
“That this Assembly notes … the McCrone Report … and calls upon the Minister of Education to liaise with the Scottish Executive”.
I fail to see, therefore, how —
Mr D Bradley: Does the Member not recognise that the Curran Report already encapsulates all those issues and contextualises them in the Northern Ireland situation? That is not taking a trip down a cul-de-sac; it is travelling straight up the main road towards the objective.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention.
I shall conclude by quoting from the Audit Scotland report, ‘A mid-term report: A first stage review of the cost and implementation of the teachers’ agreement — A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century’. The report stated that the induction year:
“has successfully addressed the significant weaknesses in previous induction and support arrangements … It is well-regarded by those involved and has been particularly successful in reducing the length of the probation period, increasing training and development opportunities for probationers and increasing entry to the system from university to probation.”
I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: After the Member’s brief elevation, I am glad that he has acknowledged that he had every right to be humble. [Laughter.]
Mr McCallister: It is vital that the House has an opportunity to debate this important matter. Many issues have been raised. My colleague Mr Ken Robinson talked about building a knowledge-based economy. Of course we must to do that, and schools are the place to start. It is important to get teacher training right and for teachers to have a year’s mentored experience in schools so that they can have some consistency.
Miss McIlveen is an excellent example of someone who has been mentored throughout school and into the Assembly —
Mr B McCrea: And beyond.
Mr McCallister: And beyond. However, I should point out that Mr Wilson’s control has started to slip. It was refreshing to see that Mr Wilson was not afraid to get stuck into his own Minister this morning, whereas Miss McIlveen wishes to protect the DUP party line that the Minister of Finance and Personnel controls everything.
Miss McIlveen certainly missed Basil McCrea’s point that money was suddenly not an issue for Sinn Féin during this morning’s debate on the Libraries Bill. More cynical people than I might note —
Mr S Wilson: The Minister was converted by my argument.
Mr McCallister: As many of us have been.
If Mr Wilson wants to call on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to resign, we will be happy to support him.
Money was not an issue for Sinn Féin this morning. Yet, when a Sinn Féin Minister is involved, Sinn Féin Members all cuddle around and try to get the DUP on board. Suddenly, money is the big issue. However, the real issue, as my colleagues have said, is the need to introduce a better, more focused, system of training.
Preparation time for full-time teachers was discussed.
Mr K Robinson: The Member has raised an important point, which was also raised by some of my colleagues on this side of the Chamber. Preparation time is absolutely essential. We have talked about giving young teachers proper inductions and quality training time. However, it is equally important that teachers who are already in post have good quality preparation time at their disposal as well. Otherwise, how can the level of expertise and content of their lessons be quantified?
Mr McCallister: I could not agree more, and I am sure the rest of the House also agrees with the Member.
Preparation time is vital. The teacher induction scheme could improve teachers’ lives in a range of areas; it could boost morale in the teaching profession and, of course, could reduce the burden on principals. This is a vital issue, and it is incumbent on all of us to support the proposals.
Mr B McCrea: I wonder whether the Member supports the recommendation at paragraph 78 of the Curran Report — a report commissioned by the then Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness — that:
“A support scheme should be introduced to assist unemployed [newly qualified teachers], in the first year after qualification, to have a guaranteed full-time teaching post and this should be in place by September 2005.”
Mr McCallister: And, nearly two years later, nothing has happened.
Mr B McCrea: It does not appear to be important.
Mr McCallister: Well, shame on those responsible. I do not know whether the DUP Members have read that report.
Mr B McCrea: I do not think that they have.
Mr McCallister: Well, perhaps the Member could read it for them.
Mr B McCrea: Or they could ask Sinn Fein.
Mr S Wilson: Can I have a copy of the Member’s speech?
Mr McCallister: I am happy to give the Member a copy of the speech. I do not have a problem with that, as long as somebody can read it out for him.
Mr McNarry: Can the Member tell the House if he knows at what time on Fridays the Ministers queue up outside Peter Robinson’s office to get their pocket money and to tell him what money they need for the next week?
Mr McCallister: I cannot, but I will get some research done to see if I can find the answer.
On a more serious note, I support the motion and the amendment.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Perhaps John should join us all in the group huddle. He is obviously feeling very excluded from it.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht ar an cheist tábhachtach seo. Sa tréimhse ghairid seo dom i m’Aire, tá ardchaighdeán, chomh maith le tiomantas agus gairmiúlacht, ár múinteoirí feicthe agam ar láthair na hoibre.
I would like to pay tribute to the professionalism of our teachers. They do a tremendous job, and I wish to give them every possible support. We are fortunate in that we continue to attract large numbers of very able and very professional young people.
As I have said before, we need to sustain the conditions in which we have confident, articulate and creative young adults coming out of the school system, many wanting to be teachers. The 2005 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ‘Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers’, points out that improving the efficiency and equity of schooling depends in large measure on ensuring that competent people want to become teachers, that their teaching is of high quality, and that all students have access to high-quality teaching.
As the most significant and costly resource in schools, teachers are central to school improvements. In other words, teachers are central to the quality of education and, increasingly, social outcomes. The demands on schools and teachers from society and from parents are becoming more complex. Schools are now expected to deal effectively with students from different ethnic backgrounds; to be sensitive to culture and gender issues; to promote tolerance and social cohesion; and to respond effectively to the learning needs of disadvantaged students. This is a considerable set of expectations.
The 2007 teaching award ceremony at the Waterfront Hall yesterday provided an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the important role that teachers play in the development of young people in the North. I am sure that all my colleagues will want to join me in congratulating all the award winners.
In the past few weeks, I have met many educationalists and education stakeholders to hear their concerns, ideas and thoughts. I have also attended a number of important conferences. By listening to people on the ground, I get a real sense of the key problems facing the education system. I am very keen to listen to the views of everyone with an interest in education, and I include the Education Committee in that.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Yesterday — and I welcome Michelle McIlveen’s comments — I met Alex Salmond, the recently elected First Minister of Scotland. We had dinner at the request of the First and Deputy First Ministers, and we agreed that it would be useful if I met Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, to discuss a range of educational matters, including the education of teachers. Scotland has only one Minister for education. I spoke to Reg Empey this morning, and this is something in which he is interested. So I agree with what Michelle said about learning from Scotland. We need to.
With regard to the motion in the names of Alastair Ross and Michelle McIlveen, issues relating to teacher supply are complex. There is no point in pretending otherwise; and I welcome Mervyn Storey’s comments on that.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: I will in a few minutes, Basil. Let me get going on my argument first. Members know that while some young teachers find it difficult to get full-time jobs, they may secure some temporary part-time teaching. The higher education statistics agency (HESA) collects information on student destinations through the destinations of leavers from higher education survey (DLHE), which is conducted six months after graduation. The latest available HESA data refers to the 2004-05 academic year. It shows that of those students who returned destination information and had gained initial teacher training qualifications in the higher education institutions in the North of Ireland in that year, 85% were employed as teaching professionals and 62·6% as full-time teachers six months after graduation. Figures obtained from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for April 2007 show that 258 jobseeker allowance claimants specified teaching as the occupation sought, and 53 of those claimants were underage. I do not know where Basil McCrea got his figure of 50,000, but I respectfully suggest that it was the wrong figure. Perhaps, he was referring to the substitute register, which has over 5,000 names. I suggest that Basil revisits his figures.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: I will give way to Basil if he tells me what the 50,000 refers to. I look forward to that.
Mr B McCrea: I will deal with that, Minister. You know that we try in the cut and thrust of things. There are plenty of Ministers round here apparently — at least there were, although I see that one of them has left.
I mentioned the 50,000 empty desks in schools across the country due to the fall in school registers. Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that I sound slightly jokey, but my question is serious: does the Minister accept the Curran Report? I got my information from that report, and it contained some recommendations. Furthermore, if I could be cheeky, is it the Education Minister or the Finance Minister who runs education policy?
Ms Ruane: I will answer Basil McCrea’s first question in the course of my speech. To the second: the Member knows I am the Minister of Education, but the Executive work jointly to make decisions; we are a team. Perhaps that has been lost on the UUP Benches.
Mervyn Storey asked about the cost of training teachers. It varies by institution and type of training, but I require further information from the Department for Employment and Learning on that subject, and I will give Mr Storey a written response.
Other Members raised important issues. There is a shortage of teachers in such subjects as Irish language and mathematics. The direct matching of supply and demand is difficult given that young people make their own choices of specialisms and sectors. Demography is an important factor in that area. Pupil numbers have declined from almost 347,000 in 2001-02 to almost 333,000 in 2005-06. In the same period, the full-time equivalent teacher count dropped by just over 1,000. It is the Department’s understanding that numbers will continue to fall over the next five years. Demography and those falling numbers are a huge problem for our education system, and the continuing decline will have a significant impact on the number of newly qualified teachers required in the coming year.
The Assembly could bury its head in the sand — as some Members appear to be doing — or it can deal with reality. We must deal with reality: if we do not, the numbers of teachers trained will far exceed the jobs available. There is no point in giving teachers a year’s employment merely because the Assembly passes a nice motion, only for the young teachers to discover that there are no jobs for them after that year.
Mr Attwood: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: No, I will not. I want to keep going on my argument. The North of Ireland has not experienced difficulties in teacher recruitment. In 2006-07, there were 776 intakes to the initial teacher-training courses offered by the North’s four main initial teacher education providers.
All the courses that are on offer are heavily oversubscribed, with up to eight times more applications than places. That is an indication of the strength of the education system, the attractiveness of teaching as a career and the life choices that young people wish to make.
We have to look at this issue in two ways. We must find alternative educational opportunities for the teachers who are currently trained; there is much potential in them and the system will benefit from having them. However, we also must examine the career opportunities that are on offer and whether it is correct to say that we do not have enough educational psychologists and speech therapists, but are oversupplied with teachers. We must get real. We must face demographic decline. Unless there is some amazing increase in the birth rate; fewer teachers will be needed.
I turn to the issue of demand. The number and type of vacancies for which newly qualified teachers may be eligible to apply in any one year is influenced by a wide range of factors, but principally by the decisions of schools on the desired size of their teaching complements and on the designation of teaching posts as full time or part time; permanent or temporary.
Schools make those decisions in the context of their overall budgets and particularly in the light of the funding that they receive under the local management of schools (LMS) common funding formula arrangements. I will continue to seek to maximise the resources that schools receive under those arrangements so that, on the demand side, schools have the finances to employ their most valuable resource.
The demand for teachers is also affected by the numbers who leave the education service each year. Over the last three years, about 2,300 teachers have left our schools due to age retirement, efficient discharge, infirmity and redundancy. The age profile of our existing workforce will also influence the number of newly qualified teachers who are employed in future years.
Of the 19,796 teachers who are on permanent or temporary contracts registered with the General Teaching Council (GTCNI), nearly 30% — that is 5,878 — are 50 or over. The Department of Education has already recognised the impact that demography is having and will have on the number of teachers that we need. The level of intake to teacher-education courses is determined annually by the Department, with the aim of maintaining a reasonable balance between the numbers being trained and the projected number of teaching vacancies. That determination is informed by a statistical teacher-demand model that is sensitive to a number of supply-and-demand factors. The annual intake numbers for the initial teacher-education institutions have been reduced by almost 20%, from 800 to 699, in 2007-08.
As for the point that Alastair Ross raised, my Department has issued guidance to employers, exhorting them to give preference to newly qualified teachers and experienced non-retired teachers who are seeking employment. Schools have also been advised that they should recruit to vacancies on a permanent rather than a temporary basis, unless the vacancy is clearly of a temporary nature.
Before 1999-2000, evidence suggested that schools were appointing low-cost substitute teachers when the costs were met from the schools’ budgets, but high-cost teachers when costs were met centrally. Since then, the reimbursement of substitute teachers from all boards’ centrally held funds has been restricted. That measure enabled more funds to be delegated to schools while providing an incentive to schools to employ newly qualified teachers for substitution purposes. However — and this is an important point — schools have the flexibility to decide to engage a teacher at a higher cost.
The suggestion that teachers should effectively be banned from seeking further employment after early retirement has been made on a number of occasions, and while I understand the sentiment behind that point, the Department has resisted it on two grounds. First, that has been resisted on the grounds of age discrimination. As a restriction of someone’s right to seek employment, such a measure would be open to legal challenge. Secondly, that has been resisted because schools have to depend on the ability of substitute teachers to meet urgent demands.
In some areas, a prematurely retired teacher may be the only one who is available at short notice or with the experience that is required.
Mr Attwood: The House is listening very attentively, but the Minister seems to be singularly avoiding the core issue at the heart of the motion and the amendments — namely whether the Department will introduce a scheme such as the Scottish model, whereby those coming out of teacher training colleges have a year’s guaranteed employment? The Minister has not, in 12 or 13 minutes of her speech, yet addressed that matter.
The Minister said earlier that some teachers coming out of college who have not found employment:
“may secure some temporary part-time teaching.”
Does the Minister think that it is good enough that, after the years of primary, secondary and third-level education that those students have spent preparing for a vocation, the best guarantee that she can offer them is that:
“they may secure some temporary part-time teaching”?
Ms Ruane: If I were not being constantly interrupted, I would have got to that point.
First, people must be careful not to act like ostriches, with their heads in the sand.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: No, I will not. I have one minute left, and —
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister ever give way?
Ms Ruane: I have already given way.
I would welcome the additional resources to support the education service’s many priorities. However, like all Ministers, I have a budget within which I must operate and difficult decisions to make on spending priorities. We play as a team. I request that the UUP and the SDLP join us in playing as part of that team.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister give way now?
Ms Ruane: No, I will not give way.
The potential costs —
Mr McNarry: There is no point in —
Ms Ruane: I am not giving way.
The potential cost of introducing a scheme that guarantees a one-year teaching post for all students here who graduate with a teaching qualification, similar to the scheme introduced in Scotland following the McCrone Report, is substantial. It would cost £12 million in the first year and £19 million in subsequent years.
I look forward to receiving support when I bring our comprehensive spending review proposals to the Executive table, and I very much look forward to support for my proposals from UUP and SDLP Ministers. I am nearly out of time, so I welcome the fact that the proposer —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister will draw her remarks to a close, please.
Ms Ruane: I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also ask that people do not interrupt me. Not you, Mr Deputy Speaker, obviously.
I welcome the fact that the proposer of the motion has accepted the amendment standing in the names of Paul Butler and Michelle O’Neill. That amendment deals with the financial reality that all in the Executive face. Mr Bradley’s amendment does not.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat. Sinn Féin believes that the Assembly should be doing all that it can to support newly qualified teachers. We recognise the value that they bring to our children’s lives. As one Member has said, Audit Scotland analysed the McCrone proposals. It concluded that the teacher induction scheme was one of the most successful elements of those proposals. That is widely agreed across the board, but we must look at what is best for us. We must examine all aspects of our education system. How many of our graduates are achieving employment? What are our pupil-teacher ratios? We need to examine our own needs.
That is not to say that we cannot learn from others. Yesterday’s visit by the First Minister of Scotland has led the way in working with others and sharing experiences. However, it is clear that Basil McCrea and Dominic Bradley were not paying attention in class yesterday when Alex Salmond was addressing Members in the Senate.
Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way?
Mrs O’Neill: No, I will not. [Laughter.]
Alex Salmond addressed us in the Senate and suggested that we learn from one another and work together. We should examine what others have done and learn from good practice. The Assembly, as we now know it, is still in its infancy. Our approach to the various pressing issues that come before the House must be a realistic one. We are today expressing the wish of the Chamber, and I am sure that the Minister will take on board the issues raised in this debate in any decisions that she may make.
Amendment No 2 adds to the motion and offers a more realistic approach by asking the Executive to consider the issue in the context of the comprehensive spending review.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm achoimriú a dhéanamh ar na hargóintí a rinneadh ar son leasú uimhir a haon. I am please to deliver the winding-up speech on amendment No 1.
What a ridiculous situation the House finds itself in today. We have a report from a high-powered Committee, an inquiry initiated by a devolved Minister — a representative of one of the parties in the House — yet we debate a Scottish report. Have we lost our senses altogether? What is the point of having devolution, and spending public money to produce reports, and getting agreement from employers and trade unions on them, if we then run off to take advice from Scotland? That is ridiculous, and, as my colleague Mr Basil McCrea said, worse than re-inventing the wheel.
Today was “dump Marty day”. Sinn Féin dumped their colleague, the former Minister of Education Martin McGuinness — big time. Mr Butler disowned a report that was initiated by his colleague Mr McGuinness. Later, Mr McGuinness was dumped by Michelle O’Neill, and, finally, came the worst cut of all: the current Minister of Education stabbed him in the back. Et tu Caitríona?
The introduction of planning, preparation and assessment time will create long-term employment for hundreds of young teachers. The introduction of two days’ administration time for teaching principals in small schools will alleviate their burden of stress and reinforce the creation of employment.
The lessons of best practice that have been learned from England, Scotland, and Wales are encapsulated in the Curran Report, in the form of a business case supported by a teachers’ union and employers’ representatives. The outworking of that report is already with the Department of Education; however, the Minister of Education did not refer to it — perhaps she has not yet heard about it. Should the Assembly tell those people that they are wrong, and that Sinn Féin and the DUP want to take the scenic route?
Perhaps the DUP will take the high road and Sinn Féin the low road, but where will it end up? It will end in a delay for newly qualified teachers’ being guaranteed a year of full-time employment, and delay a measure that will add to their chances of full-time employment well beyond that year. It will delay teachers’ in general being given 10% extra planning, preparation and assessment time, and principals’ in small schools being given two days’ administration time.
All of those matters are interrelated. A guaranteed first year of employment for newly qualified teachers is interdependent with planning, preparation and assessment time, and with administrative time for teaching principals. The initiatives support each other. Without planning, preparation and assessment time, the newly qualified teacher’s guarantee of a year of employment will end abruptly. Administrative time for principals of smaller schools will increase the chances of longer employment for newly qualified teachers.
One problem with the DUP’s motion was a failure of mentoring. Miss McIlveen’s guru Sammy Wilson has let down his protégée; he should have told her about the Curran Report, before she went wandering through the heather in search of a wee dram. Sammy should have told Michelle the facts of life. We have the answer in Northern Ireland, and a business case is already with the Department of Education.
I commend the first amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call on Mr Sammy Wilson to wind up the debate on the substantive motion. I remind Members that we are winding up the debate and not the House.
Mr S Wilson: I will do my best to wind up both. [Laughter.]
I welcome the debate. My two colleagues have brought an important issue to the attention of the House and of the Minister, and have given it a public forum.
That issue is about those who invest heavily in their own education — and there is a substantial investment in time, money and commitment — and who find themselves subsequently unable to pursue their chosen career.
Secondly, I welcome the debate because for the first time I have seen SDLP Members awake in the House. Dominic Bradley seemed positively excited during the debate, which is the first time that I have noticed any SDLP Member getting excited. The reason for his bluster was that he knew that his arguments were weak. He therefore decided to set them aside and cover them with a bit of bluster.
Mr Bradley has taken the opportunity, in this House, to perhaps mislead people who have not had a chance to read the Curran Report.
Here is the scandal of what Mr Bradley and the Ulster Unionist Party, which apparently is going to support him today, are doing. This motion is about the newly qualified teachers coming out of teacher training college who do not have an opportunity to gain a years experience and complete their probationary year. What is Dominic Bradley doing? I can understand why he proposed his amendment — it is a prime example of the vested interests in teaching that ignore the needs of young teachers.
The Curran Report does not just have the two recommendations that Dominic Bradley quoted freely and often, and that Mr B McCrea repeated: the majority of the recommendations in the report deal with existing teachers; their pay structures, career structures, workload and organisation. The SDLP is scandalously and shamelessly diverting attention away from the issue of spending some resources on teachers who are just —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: The Member can shout and bully all he wants. I may give way, but not until I have finished my point. Most of the recommendations in the Curran Report deal with people who are already in the teaching profession. The motion — and I admit that it has limitations — is about investing the limited resources that are available in measures that may give students emerging from teacher-training college the opportunity to get their probationary year out of the road and gain some long-term experience that is more substantial than the short-term experience they would gain in a school during that one-year period.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will give way in a minute. Will the Member just sit down and behave? [Laughter.]
Dominic Bradley is diverting attention towards other issues that could absorb millions of pounds of the education budget. Those who know what is in the Curran Report should realise the implications of the amendment. It takes away from the thrust of what Alastair Ross and Michelle McIlveen are trying to promote in the House today. I will give way now.
Mr B McCrea: Thank you Sammy. Only you are in the full flow of histrionics, and, apparently, it is only you who are allowed to be so. The Ulster Unionist Party also cares deeply about the issue. The reason we are supporting the SDLP is that we want to introduce the measure now. It is something that has been agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member please address his remarks through the Deputy Speaker?
Mr B McCrea: My apologies. A hushed House will now hear a calm question. Does the Member accept that everyone in the House wants to see action for newly qualified teachers as quickly as possible, which does not require a huge debate and is something that the Assembly should get on with?
Mr S Wilson: If the Curran Report is introduced into the equation, huge debate will be necessary. If we are to address the matter we must do so in the context of resources, whether the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP or anybody else likes it.
If amendment No 1 were to be made, it should be noted that the amended motion would be calling for the Curran Report’s recommendations to be implemented in full. As I have pointed out, if that were to happen, the majority of resources that the amended motion would be demanding from the Minister would go not to newly qualified teachers but to the teaching profession in general. That is OK for someone who lives in an unrealistic world in which the infantile economics that some Ulster Unionist Members talked about operate: the “Gimme, gimme, gimme” stance.
Mr McCallister said:
“money should not be the issue”.
Those words were fairly similar —
Some Members: He was quoting Sinn Féin.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr S Wilson: A bit of barracking does not matter; it raises the temperature in here a little.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that this is the Northern Ireland Assembly, not some ancient school.
Mr S Wilson: It is like a bad third-form class on a Friday afternoon, and the bad boys are in the corner to my right.
Mr McCallister: Snitch. [Laughter.]
Mr S Wilson: We cannot divorce the matter from the fact that resources are finite and that we must therefore target them. There is no point in blaming Peter Robinson for the lack of resources. We get a block grant, and we can raise extra money from the regional rate. Some Members have said that we must spend the money on implementing the entire Curran Report, and I am waiting to hear from them what they will make a lower priority and from where they will get the money.
Mr D Bradley: I remind the Member that I said that the Curran Report’s three elements — guaranteed teaching employment in the first year after graduation, more planning, preparation and assessment time, and administrative time set aside for principals who teach — are interrelated and feed into one other. I understand that the business case that has been given to the Minister proposes a strategic, incremental pathway to the introduction of those measures. That pathway would not eat up all the resources in the manner in which the Member thinks.
Mr S Wilson: Whether the measures are introduced incrementally or all at once makes little difference: resources will still be diverted from the particular issue that was the thrust of the motion. Do not forget that about 95% of the recommendations of that report have nothing to do with newly qualified teachers.
We must live in a world in which resources are finite and in which we must decide on priorities. I welcome the fact that, as recently as this morning, Sinn Féin was willing to engage in reckless fiscal behaviour, yet that attitude had changed by this afternoon. That is one reason why Mr Ross accepted that party’s amendment. Such a conversion should be welcomed, not pilloried. Those Members should not be blamed or condemned for making that change — it should be welcomed.
Mr McNarry: Will the hon Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: Ah, why not?
Mr McNarry: I thank the hon Member for giving way.
Earlier, the Minister said that the House was bound by the Executive’s making decisions as a team. In view of the hon Member’s earlier excellent speech on the Libraries Bill, in which he certainly won all five stars that —
Mr S Wilson: Let me answer that quickly. I know the point that the Member — [Laughter.]
Perhaps the Member would remind the Minister for Employment and Learning that — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Two Members cannot be on their feet to speak.
Mr McNarry: Does the Member accept that the freedom that he expressed this morning has been lost by the Minister of Education? Are we to be subjected only to Executive approval or —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, order. Will the Member resume his seat?
Mr Wilson, I will allow you a few seconds to finish.
Mr S Wilson: I appreciate that very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let me just remind the Member that —
Mr McNarry: Does he want to hear it again?
Mr S Wilson: No, I do not need to hear it again. The Member might need to read things again, but I do not need to hear them again. [Interruption.]Let me just remind the Member that the same constraints that the Minister of Education will serve under, and which other Members will serve under, his Minister for Employment and Learning — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, order.
Mr S Wilson: —will serve under as well, when it comes to the payment of teachers and lecturers.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The time is up.
Mr McClarty: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Only those Members who have five minutes or less to speak are allowed extra time for interventions — those who have more than that do not.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, colleague and fellow Deputy Speaker, for that useful advice. I thought that, in the circumstances, Mr Wilson deserved an extra few seconds.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I think that we all can be grateful that the modern classroom is not conducted in this manner: I spent 30 years in it.
I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, then amendment No 2 will fall.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 26; Noes 54.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Burns and Mr Gallagher.
Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mrs Long, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McHugh, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Miss McIlveen and Mr Ross.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes that, following the McCrone Report: ‘A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century’, a teaching induction scheme guarantees a one-year teaching post to every student graduating from a Scottish university with a teaching qualification; and calls upon the Minister of Education to liaise with the Scottish Executive on this matter, with a view to asking the Executive to consider the matter in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and in light of other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech; all other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr D Bradley: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to take immediate action to settle the issue of job evaluation for classroom assistants, by giving approval to the Education and Library Boards to put an equitable offer to the representative Trades’ Unions.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá an-áthas orm an rún seo a mholadh. I am pleased to move the motion. I declare an interest in the classroom assistants’ dispute. I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I know at first hand the work that classroom assistants do in support of pupils in mainstream education and in support of pupils with special needs. Classroom assistants are an essential and integral part of the education workforce. Their professionalism and dedication are highly respected and valued by all those who work with them, and by the parents of the children with whom they work. The pupils themselves, when they are old enough, tell me that they appreciate the tremendous work that classroom assistants did on their behalf.
Classroom assistants facilitate access to school and to the curriculum for thousands of pupils. They support and encourage them. They provide a front-line service and work directly with pupils every school day. Investment in classroom assistants is investment in front-line services.
A letter that I received recently from a primary-school principal illustrates the important role that classroom assistants play in the education system. That letter states that the successful implementation of the revised curriculum will require additional assistants — personnel who are so essential in today’s primary schools as aids to the quality of learning and to the inclusion of all children, without discrimination.
When morale in the profession is already so low, I wonder from where those much-valued classroom assistants will come to implement the revised curriculum. I also received a letter from a classroom assistant. That assistant wrote that morale is low, and that tension and stress levels are at breaking point. Sadly, industrial action may loom on the horizon.
The way in which classroom assistants have been treated by their employers is nothing short of being the biggest industrial relations scandal in the history of Northern Ireland. It is incredible that the dispute has been ongoing for 12 years without resolution. Nevertheless, that dedicated group of professionals has continued to serve children without major disruption. It is shameful that its legitimate demands have not been equitably met. The dispute involves over 7,000 classroom assistants. Unions have described the £30 million that has been offered to solve it as a drop in the ocean.
Almost all job advertisements for mainstream, primary 1 classroom assistants state that NVQ level 3 is an essential requirement for the job. However, their employers — the education and library boards — insist that NVQ level 3 is not essential for classroom assistants in their job evaluations. How can a qualification be deemed essential for people to be employed to do the job, but be totally ignored when it comes to the job evaluation? Employers demand that people have the qualification. However, they choose to ignore it when it comes to the evaluation. Why do they adopt that attitude? They do so simply because they know that to take account of the qualification would have a positive effect on the job evaluation. That is a totally hypocritical stance. If a qualification is necessary to do a job, and people have that qualification, surely they should be given credit for it in their job evaluation.
The boards insist that the special needs allowance is incorporated into the job evaluation exercise and should not be an extra payment. However, teachers who are in receipt of a special needs allowance are paid it over and above their salaries. The teachers’ special needs allowance is either £1,818 or £3,597 per annum depending on the duties that are involved. Classroom assistants are the only group of school-based board employees who work directly with pupils in the classroom setting. In respect of the special needs allowance, it seems legitimate that the comparison be made with teachers, and not with other staff who do not work in the classroom setting.
Historically, as part of their terms and conditions of employment, classroom assistants’ full-time hours equated to 32·5 hours each week. The boards now insist, on the basis of equality with clerical officers and manual workers, that that should be increased to 36 hours each week and that their hourly rate of pay be calculated accordingly. However, as their title clearly indicates, classroom assistants are classroom-based staff. Once again, the obvious comparable group is teachers, who work full-time hours of 32·4 hours each week, which is almost equivalent to those of classroom assistants.
Had employers settled the dispute between 1995 and 2002, many of the current difficulties would not exist. Classrooms assistants are being made to pay for their employers’ maladministration. All of this may impact on their pensions, and that aspect of the dispute has not been taken into account.
I am pleased that no amendments have been proposed, and I ask Members to support the motion and to support the classroom assistants in their attempts to achieve the equitable settlement that is their due, and for which they have waited 12 long years. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): I echo Mr Bradley’s words. Those people who have waited for 12 years for a job re-evaluation, hoping that their work would be recognised at the end of it, must be gravely disappointed, especially when one considers the consequences of the completed evaluation.
When the Minister took over, she quickly announced that £30 million would be made available to settle the dispute and to complete the job evaluation. Many people hoped that that would put to rest an issue that has been festering for a long time. However, rather than putting the issue to rest, it caused massive disappointment and has had severe consequences for classroom assistants. Let us not forget that classroom assistants are not extremely well paid. Many of them fall into the lower-paid bracket.
The problem seems to be the decision to move from the previous arrangements, whereby the hourly rate of pay was based on a 32·5-hour week, to a 36-hour week. As the hourly rate is worked out by dividing the weekly rate by 36, that brings the hourly rate down. Many classroom assistants do not work a full week anyway; they might only work for 10 or 12 hours. Therefore, the hourly rate is important to them.
What surprises many people is that, up until now, payment was based on working a 32·5-hour week. Secondly, even if a classroom assistant wanted to work a 36-hour week, because he or she is tied to the school working week, he or she could not do so. Even if a classroom assistant works for the full week, he or she could only earn 90% of the annual salary as a result of the way in which the new rules have been implemented.
I do not suppose that it will be helpful to go into the technicalities, because the negotiations are detailed and complex. However, I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, when the Department allocated the £30 million, did the Minister question officials and assure herself that it would lead to a fair settlement, or was she aware of the consequences of the settlement?
The consequences are that most of the 6,000 classroom assistants will not get any back pay for the 12 years that they have been waiting. They will actually end up with a pay cut when they come off the old pay scales in June. When they start again in September, they could lose up to £1·50 an hour because the new scales divide the week by 36 hours rather than by 32·5 hours. Given that they cannot work a 36-hour week, there are implications for their pensions.
Did the Minister apprise herself of that? If so, did she simply, for the sake of spin, decide to go down that route because £30 million looked good?
I hope that this Minister is different from the previous Sinn Féin Minister of Education, who had form on the issue. When he was out of office, he promised those low-paid, term-time-only workers that he would support their pay claim — and then denied it when he was eventually in office. I trust that there will not be a repeat of that.
If the right questions were not asked, the Minister must go back and ask them again. If there was a deliberate decision to spin the allocation of £30 million in order to look good, with the consequences being unimportant — that is scandalous.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I acknowledge the great work that 7,000 classroom assistants have done over many years in the education system. They have filled a vital role in that system, particularly in working with children with learning difficulties and special needs in special and mainstream schools. The work that classroom assistants do with those children ensures that they are not left behind by the education system. Classroom assistants are an essential part of the teaching staff in all schools, and Members should acknowledge that and pay tribute to them.
The dispute about job evaluations for classroom assistants has been running for a long time —11 years, in fact. The Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, responded as quickly as she did after coming into office in order to settle the dispute. The Minister approached a resolution to the dispute by recognising —
Mr D Bradley: The Member said that the Minister responded after coming into office. Discussions that I have had with officers in the education and library boards reveal that that £30 million has been around for two years.
Mr Butler: I thank Dominic Bradley for that information. This is one of the first items on Caitríona Ruane’s agenda, and negotiations with the classroom assistants’ unions are ongoing.
The issues of remuneration and the correct grading of jobs are important. The Minister is operating within existing resources, and she has made a credible offer to resolve the dispute and has set aside £30 million to cover the costs of that settlement. It is a complicated matter that involves many interests: classroom assistants, their trade unions and the education and library boards. Coherence should be brought to each element of the ongoing negotiations, with the aim being to settle the dispute.
As has been said about many issues in the Chamber, each Minister has a limited amount of money to spend. I understand that this issue is frustrating for classroom assistants, and efforts have clearly run into some difficulties. However, I am satisfied that, with good faith on all sides, a fair and acceptable settlement for classroom assistants will emerge. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr B McCrea: I support the motion on this important issue. If a dispute goes on for 12 years, there is a tendency to think that something will eventually be done. Although I did not know the details, when I heard earlier this year that £30 million was to be put aside, I thought, like Sammy Wilson, that that was the matter sorted out. Therefore, it is disturbing to discover that a well-intentioned action has caused more problems that it hoped to solve, which highlights a number of serious issues raised by other Members.
All the evidence that I have seen supports the fact that better training, early intervention and people looking after young people provide immense results for society, and Members owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who help in that part of the education system.
I note Mr Bradley’s point that it is inconsistent to make a NVQ 3 qualification an essential requirement for the post of classroom assistant while at the same time failing to offer adequate remuneration for the job. There is a flaw in the negotiation process; either possession of a NVQ 3 is adequately recompensed, or a lesser qualification is accepted, in which case a different pay grading or structure is required.
The nought-to-seven strategy was discussed yesterday during questions to the Minister of Education — I mentioned the situation in Finland, and Mr Bradley mentioned Moldova. I have been struck by the level of professionalism, commitment and skill demonstrated by those who look after young people in other parts of the world. We could make a step change in the way in which we educate our young people in the social and behavioural spheres as well as in literacy and numeracy. We must get that right.
No amendments to the motion have been tabled, so we will not have the type of discussion that we had with the previous motion. However, I am pleased to note we do not have to refer this matter to the Executive, nor does it depend on resources becoming available. We must deal with this matter now. I support the motion, because it is not for me to say what is equitable and what is not. Sammy Wilson said that the issue is highly detailed and complicated. I urge Members to get into the detail and try to sort the matter out.
In yesterday’s discussion of the nought-to-seven strategy, I agreed with the Minister of Education when she said that:
“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”. — [Official Report, Vol 22, No 12, p 495, col 2].
Many children — of all ages — need help in coping with that shock to the system, and the classroom assistants take the load of that shock. Without them, the whole situation would be immeasurably worse.
We must increase the effectiveness of the resources in the education system, and I urge the Minister of Education, when she considers the nought-to-seven strategy, to resolve the dispute equitably and as soon as possible.
Mr McCarthy: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. However, I am extremely disappointed that the motion has had to be tabled in the Assembly, considering that the matter in hand was first raised in 1994.
The evaluation of the work of classroom assistants was agreed several years ago, and it is a disgrace that those most valuable members of the learning profession have not yet received fair and proper remuneration. The important role played by classroom assistants in the education of children should have been recognised by the employers a long time ago, and proper remuneration should have been paid to those staff who have given so much service over the years.
I have stood on picket lines with classroom assistants and marched with them to the headquarters of the education and library boards to appeal to employers to come clean and pay those workers the wages that they deserve. There can be no more delays or excuses: payment must be made now. As a parent of someone with learning difficulties I recognise the dedication of classroom assistants and the work that they have done over the years. It is a shame and a disgrace that this dispute has been allowed to fester for the past 12 years.
Similar evaluations have been carried out for caretakers, drivers, secretaries and gardeners and other workers. Classroom assistants in England have had their work evaluated and are now being paid the appropriate amount. The time for speeches, marches and pickets is over. It is now time for the Minister of Education to authorise payment to those dedicated workers. I support the motion.
Mr Shannon: The Independent Regulators – OFSTED hae foun’ tha’ haein clessroom assistants maks betther the quality o’ learnin fer weans in primary schuils an’ they ir gyely valuable tae the education o’ weans wi’ special needs. Thair isnae onie doot at they hae baecum an intricate pairt o’ the education system heir in the Province gien extra attention tae thaim at ir needfu’ o’ a wee heft tae grasp the notions, mebbe especially fer thae weans wha ir ‘young’ in thair yeir bein boarn in Mai ir Juin an wha ir fit tae thrive wi’ a wee bit extra tim’ at the teacher hasnae gat tae spare.
The independent regulator Ofsted has found that the presence of classroom assistants to improve the quality of learning for pupils in primary schools is invaluable to the education of special needs students. Although the role of the assistant was originally intended to ease the workload of overstretched teachers, they have undoubtedly become an integral part of the education system in the Province, giving extra attention to those who need that little bit of extra help to grasp the concepts and reach their full potential. They are vital to the growth of our children, especially those who are a little young for the year having been born in May or June, who would thrive with the little extra time that the teacher cannot afford to spare. Those in special needs education are able to achieve greater goals when aided by a classroom assistant than without one.
The Minister of Education has made much of her pledge to provide £30 million for the sector, but as so often happens, strings are attached. While the dispute rumbled on for 12 years, classroom assistants proved themselves invaluable in controlling classes and offsetting large class sizes. As more smaller schools face closure and class sizes swell again, the added help that those workers bring is essential. They are indispensable in helping with statemented students, and their input to overall grades and class management is not to be sneezed at.
As the classroom assistants play such a major role they deserve to have their pay agreed. No wage agreement can go ahead if the side deals include a large number of classroom assistants facing wage reductions, or, as my colleague Sammy Wilson points out, a loss of pay protection.
I call on the Minister of Education to sort out this issue once and for all. Classroom assistants truly deserve the wage increase without the strings. They have waited long enough. I have been contacted by numerous constituents who fight for fairness for their children by fighting for their classroom assistants, whom they regard as having a very positive influence upon the schooling of their children. I have also been contacted by teachers, and by assistants themselves, who are caught in the confusion. Amidst all the talking they do not know where they stand.
The issue affects 7,000 jobs in the Province through the classroom assistant placements, and further affects countless teachers, head teachers and boards of governors, as well as the parents and pupils themselves. It deserves the focus and attention of people who are dedicated to sorting it out. If this were Shorts, or any other employer, the issue would not have taken so long to resolve.
The Minister and her Department need to take heed of the Assembly and the proposal before the House today. She needs to listen to the classroom assistants and the people of the Province, and to ensure that the dispute is sorted out properly and satisfactorily for all involved.
Mrs Long: Would the Member agree that it is imperative that it is the Department of Education that takes this forward? Simply to agree pay within current education and library board budgets will lead to an overall reduction in the number of classroom assistants but not actually benefit children in the classroom. Increased budgets are required.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for her intervention, and I agree wholeheartedly with what she has said.
To give an example of the numbers, there are 1,362 classroom assistants in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area in my own constituency. It would be remiss of me, in my duty as an elected representative, not to mention them, fight their corner and put forward their case at the highest level in the debate today.
The education board needs to push for a settlement, as my East Belfast colleague Mrs Long so rightly said.It is up to the Minister of Education not only to pledge the money, as she has done, but also to solidify the position. Our teachers, who are currently overstretched, would not be able to cope without the aid of classroom assistants. It would be to the detriment of the child if we did not follow this through. A leading teachers’ union, the NASUWT, stated that teachers highly valued the support and appreciated the benefit of having another adult in the classroom.
In these days of very stringent child protection the presence of another adult also gives peace of mind. Loss of the classroom assistants would be sorely felt by teachers, and would have an adverse impact on the students.
I support the motion.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak in favour of the motion, which calls on the Minister of Education to address the issues around the pay dispute. I fully accept that the matter is complex, so I will comment only on the broader context.
The issue has been drawn out for far too long, so there is an urgent need to address the matter promptly, as morale among classroom assistants is low and they feel undervalued and demoralised. Classroom assistants are professional people who want their work to be recognised, and we fully support them in that.
It is important to clarify from the outset that there is no dispute about the contribution that classroom assistants make. We all recognise the important role that they play, especially in providing assistance to children with special educational needs. Like the previous speaker, I have stood on the picket line with classroom assistants in support of their role.
In her short term in office since devolution, the Minister has tried to address the matter within the narrow confines of the budget. The £30 million that she made available was a genuine attempt to alleviate the situation. I totally sympathise with the classroom assistants, but we need to deal with the matter in the framework that we have before us. I am sure that all Members are only too aware of the confines of her budget but, despite that, the Minister has committed to resolving the dispute. I fully support her on that.
I hope that, through ongoing negotiation, the matter can be resolved to the satisfaction of all and in a quick manner. Go raibh maith agat. .
Ms Purvis: I thank my hon Friend Mr Dominic Bradley for moving the motion. I had initially considered proposing an amendment but none is required. Given the offer that her Department has made, the Minister of Education has not settled the issue of job evaluation for classroom assistants. The education and library boards have not made an equitable offer to the trade union representatives.
“A Gender Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland” states that the Executive aims:
“to ensure the economic security of both men and women”
“to achieve equal value for paid work done by women and men, and promote their equitable participation in the paid and unpaid labour force”.
Economic independence is a vital element in ending the discrimination and disadvantage that women face. I believe that the way in which classroom assistants have been treated since 1995 goes against the grain of our gender equality strategy. In my opinion, the treatment of classroom assistants could amount to indirect discrimination, on the grounds that all those affected are women.
Mr D Bradley: Does the Member agree that, if the majority of the classroom assistant workforce were male, the dispute would probably have been settled years and years ago?
Ms Purvis: I thank the Member for his intervention. The issue would surely have been settled in months in 1995 rather than 12 years later, in 2007.
This whole sorry episode has involved the downgrading, devaluing and demoralising of classroom assistants. Although colleagues have referred to 7,000 classroom assistants, the number of women affected is actually somewhere in the region of 10,000 because, in addition to the 7,000 current employees, some 3,000 members of staff have left over the past 12 years. Some have actually died waiting for their arrears to be paid. That is an absolute disgrace.
Classroom assistants provide a valuable service and they were previously treated on a par with teachers. In some cases — and I refer Members to a document on leave of absence, issued by the South Eastern Education and Library Board — that parity continues, as the policy treats classroom assistants and teachers as one and the same. As my colleague said earlier, classroom assistants are classroom based, but the insulting offer from the Department of Education downgrades their role from a professional grade to a clerical grade.
As Sammy Wilson mentioned, paying classroom assistants pro rata for 36 hours will actually make them part-time employees. How will that affect their superannuation and future pension arrangements? Classroom assistants work the same hours — 32·5 hours per week — as teachers. There is no work available for them for 36 hours per week. The Department has simply engaged in a cost-saving exercise. Calculating arrears based on the new hourly rate is just a money-saving exercise that, in effect, robs classroom assistants of what they have been due for the past 12 years.
I will give Members an example of the potential arrears. The arrears due to one classroom assistant who came to see me, if calculated on the previous hourly rate, would be £24,000 of back pay over 12 years. Under the new hourly rate, the back pay would be in the region of £3,000. The Department is seeking to claw back money. Pay them what they are due.
Removing the special-needs allowance cuts the wages of classroom assistants by up to 60p an hour. It also removes the specialism of dealing with children with varying needs, preventing those children from accessing the education that they are entitled and thereby enabling them to reach their full potential. That is further evidence of the devaluation of the work of classroom assistants.
The treatment of classroom assistants over the past 12 years had been scandalous. Offers have been made and retracted, there has been uncertainty and instability, salaries have been changed from monthly pay to lunar pay, and for what value? Some classroom assistants have had to borrow a week’s wages from their lying month just to get by. That shows how low-paid they are. Why? To save the Department money.
Now there is this offer. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Department’s action over the past 12 years has been nothing but a stalling tactic and a money-saving exercise, in the hope that classroom assistants would get fed up and leave. Many have left — over 3,000 — but 7,000 remain. Those 7,000 classroom assistants need to be valued, to be fairly treated, to have security of employment, and to have an equitable offer.
My colleague Mr Butler said that the offer put forward by the Department was a “credible offer”. That is Sinn Féin speak for “protect our Minister at all costs”.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Purvis: I look forward to being proved wrong. I support the motion.
Mr K Robinson: It is a scandal that this dispute has been allowed to drag on for so long. It is another indictment of the direct rule approach to education in Northern Ireland over many years.
Members have just debated a motion on teacher induction and employment. Reference has also been made to that long-running dispute, which continues to bedevil progress in the further education sector. Those disputes do nothing to support and encourage the very groups that this society is relying on to deliver the often-quoted “knowledge-based economy”.
Since their introduction into schools some years ago, classroom assistants have increased, both as regards their numbers and their impact on quality learning situations in our schools. The stability of classrooms is important at a time of flux and uncertainty, with the rationalisation of the number of schools very definitely on the agenda. That is why we can do without another added element of uncertainty.
Between 1997 and today, the number of classroom assistants has multiplied steadily, and they now represent a sizeable component of the educational workforce. The primary-school sector has 8,063 full-time equivalent teachers; the post-primary sector has 10,509; in special schools, the figure is 789; while there are currently 7,144 classroom assistants. My colleague mentioned those who have left the service over previous years for a variety of reasons.
Classroom assistants are not negligible or marginal add-ons. They are clearly an intrinsic part of the delivery of quality education to our children. Properly qualified and specifically tasked classroom assistants have brought an added dimension to the learning process. The stability of the classroom-assistant workforce impacts directly on schoolchildren. Quite frankly, I am at a loss to understand how the boards and the Department have got themselves into such a mess in this long-running saga.
On the face of it, the £30 million recently announced by the Minister as a final settlement sounded both generous and conciliatory. However, on closer inspection, it is obvious that it has impressed neither the unions nor the classroom assistants. When divided between serving and former classroom assistants — and considering that the offer seeks to address some 11 to 12 years of dissatisfaction — the individual sums are not nearly so impressive as at first glance.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, as a result of the new formula, many classroom assistants will face a pay cut? They could be financing their own pay deal in future years.
Mr K Robinson: I thank Mr Wilson for his intervention. The issue was referred to earlier, and it is another one that must be dealt with by the Minister.
Another puzzling aspect is the boards’ insistence, when advertising classroom assistant posts, that NVQ level 3 is an essential criterion for the position. However, when it comes to evaluating the job, the boards appear to insist that that is not a consideration. The boards cannot have it both ways.
Removing the special needs allowance from classroom assistants who are central in enabling children with a variety of individual and special needs to reach their full potential is also a concern.
It is incumbent on the Minister and her Department to spell out clearly to the House how what appeared, at first sight, to be a reasonable settlement to the dispute has become the focus of so much anger and dismay among classroom assistants and their union representatives. The Minister must also specify what impact removing the special needs allowance will have on the pay of some classroom assistants. Changes in the methods of calculating hourly rates of pay, both future and retrospective, are an obvious focus for the suspicions and the fury of classroom assistants. Members must be clearly informed of the impact of the changes.
Mr Newton: I welcome the motion and add my support for it. It is valid and deserves the support of the whole Assembly.
The issue is highly emotive. Every Member has been lobbied by trade unions, individual trade-union members or groups of classroom assistants from schools in their constituencies. The Minister has called on the education and library boards to settle with the trade unions. However, a settlement has not been achieved and the trade unions have warned of the possibility of strike action. As has been said a number of times, the issue has been ongoing for 12 years, during which time there have been protests by trade unions. Reference has been made to the vital role that classroom assistants play in school life. They relieve teachers of some duties and they allow pupils to receive more attention and further assistance with their studies.
The issue is being dealt with through a job evaluation process, which is a process that is agreed with public-sector employees and their trade unions. The evaluation process provides a means of ensuring that pay grades are determined in a fair and consistent manner and ensures that jobs of equal value receive equal pay. The solution to the problem lies in the job evaluation exercise, which forms the last part of a major programme of job evaluation for all board staff.
The Department of Education has given approval to the education and library boards to make a final settlement. The evaluation of classroom assistant jobs extends to some 7,000 staff. I read that the Department has made £30 million available for the settlement; I do not know whether that figure is correct. We must have some clarity on that: we need to know how that figure has been arrived at and how it will be spent.
Ms Purvis: Is the Member aware that the £30 million announced recently by the Minister was already announced, some time ago, by the direct rule Minister Maria Eagle as being ring-fenced for classroom assistants?
Mr Newton: I thank the Member for that intervention.
Employees and employers have been unable to agree upon terms for a settlement.The very principle of job evaluation means that no classroom assistant should suffer any financial loss as a result of the exercise. However, reference has already been made to the fact that there may be losses and that those who have moved on from the scene may well emerge as losers.
As has already been said, this issue has been ongoing for 12 years, and a settlement is long overdue. It is only reasonable that classroom assistants receive a fair and equitable settlement, as their role is of the utmost importance in the education and development of the children in their care.
Supporting this motion will be a step towards securing a fair and equitable settlement for classroom assistants, and it will confirm that Members value classroom assistants and their work.
Mr Savage: I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate.
I welcome the Department of Education’s intentions, and I acknowledge its apparent willingness to resolve this matter, which has gone on for far too long. A sum of £30 million is nothing more than a step in the right direction. This debacle has lasted for 12 years, which is 12 years too long.
It is abhorrent to think that many classroom assistants in gainful employment are working with kids and full-time teaching staff but are not receiving adequate reward and remuneration for their work. The situation must be urgently addressed.
With every passing year, the number of classroom assistants grows and their role becomes more important. In 1997, there were 2,181 part-time classroom assistants and 705 full-time classroom assistants. By 2003, those figures had risen dramatically to 5,133 part-time, and 1,178 full-time, classroom assistants. We can safely assume that now, midway through 2007, those figures have increased again. I conservatively estimate that there are now around 6,500 part-time classroom assistants and 2,500 full-time classroom assistants.
I want to highlight one important statistic. The Southern Education and Library Board area, which covers my constituency of Upper Bann, has the highest number of classroom assistants of any board area. Figures provided in January 2006 show that there were 1,249 classroom assistants in the primary-school sector; 267 in the secondary-school sector; and 132 in the special needs sector. That leads me to conclude that most of those currently involved in this dispute over back pay come from, or work in, my constituency. I want to know what the Minister intends to do to sort out this problem, because, frankly, £30 million for the whole of Northern Ireland is an insult. Classroom assistants put a lot of effort and hard work into what they do. Sadly, they are taken for granted and do not receive an adequate reward for their efforts.
I am particularly interested in the Minister’s view on some of the issues that the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) raised. NIPSA has, justifiably, raised concerns about the boards’ intentions as regards changes to how the hourly rates of pay are calculated, both in future and retrospectively. One can understand that the proposed new education authority must review the calculation of the hourly rates of pay, but it is deeply worrying that the boards wish to apply that retrospectively. It is unjust and unfair. Classroom assistants should be paid properly for the work that they do, and they should be paid the money that they are owed.
The removal of the special needs allowance for classroom assistants is a major bone of contention, and it only compounds the problem with the hourly rates of pay.
The removal of the allowance is a kick in the teeth to the thousands of patient and caring classroom assistants whose work enables children with special needs or learning difficulties to learn at their own pace and to reach their full potential.
Further concern has been raised about the boards’ insistence that the national vocational qualification (NVQ) level 3 is not a prerequisite for the position of classroom assistant, when their advertisements for such positions specify the NVQ level 3 as an essential criterion. The boards must decide exactly what the criteria are when advertising for classroom assistants. The current situation is bringing the vocation of classroom assistants into disrepute, and the boards must make a decision and stick with it.
I trust that the Minister will respond in detail to the points that I have made, and I look forward to her response. I also put on record my sincere thanks and appreciation to classroom assistants, who do sterling work in serving young constituents across the area.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá a ról mar chroílár ár n-iarrachtaí leis an chuimsitheacht a chothú agus le ligean do níos mó páistí agus daoine óga oideachas a fháil i scoileanna príomhshrutha i gcuideachta a gcomhpháirtithe.
I welcome the opportunity to engage in this debate and the chance that it presents to set out the steps that the Department of Education has taken to help secure settlement of a dispute that — Members are agreed — has gone on for too long. I also want to echo the comments made by those Members who have spoken and to put on record my appreciation of the work of the over 7,000 classroom assistants who work in our schools — large and small — across the North of Ireland.
I have been fortunate enough to have many opportunities to visit schools since 8 May, and I have seen at first hand the dedication and commitment of many individuals. One of the first schools that I visited was a special school, where I saw highly professional classroom assistants providing learning support to some of society’s most vulnerable young people. In that school, I saw not only the professionalism of the classroom assistants, but their caring and sensitivity to the needs of the children that they were supporting.
In other schools I witnessed the excellent work of classroom assistants whose role is to support children in mainstream settings. Their role is core to the Department’s efforts to promote inclusion and to allow more children and young people to be educated in mainstream schools, where appropriate, alongside their peers.
Ní foláir do na boird agus na ceardchumainn teacht chun réitigh, laistigh dá gcóras caidreamh tionsclaíoch, ar na hábhair chúraim eile seo.
Classroom assistants do more than support children with special educational needs. Under the Making a Good Start initiative, the Department provides funding for a classroom assistant for every primary 1 class, and for primary 2 classes in areas where attainment is low and social deprivation is high. In my visits to primary schools I have seen at first hand the invaluable role that classroom assistants play as support to the class teacher and as a hugely positive force in the lives of the children in those classrooms.
There is no doubt about the value of the role that classroom assistants play in the education of our children and young people. So, if we are in agreement about that valuable role, why has it taken so long to reach agreement on a job evaluation process designed to ensure a fair rate of pay for the important job that they do?
Job evaluation is not a means of giving staff automatic pay increases — no matter how highly valued they are. It is an agreed process between public-sector employers and the trade unions to ensure that job grades are determined in a fair and consistent manner, and that jobs of equal value receive equal pay. The boards have advised that the results of the evaluations show that many of the classroom assistants are correctly graded and that their pay compares favourably with that of their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.
The job evaluations have been completed, and three generic job descriptions covering the different roles played by classroom assistants have been agreed: classroom assistant in — so-called — mainstream schools; classroom assistant in special needs; and classroom assistant in additional special needs. If an individual —
Mr Shannon: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: No. I have a lot of issues to deal with. I did not get a chance to finish my last speech, so I want to ensure that I say all that I want to in this debate before I give way.
If a classroom assistant considers that the duties that he or she performs fall into a higher grading, an appeal mechanism exists for that person to have their grading reconsidered.
The £30 million funding has already been provided to the education and library boards in anticipation of a settlement of this long-running story. Naomi Long suggested that this money is not additional, but it is and will not in any way detract from other areas of the boards’ work. At a time when education budgets are under pressure, that investment represents a huge commitment to our classroom assistants, but it cannot be right for a sum of such magnitude to sit in board accounts year after year. The priority must be to reach a settlement that will allow the money to be released into the pay packets of hard-working classroom assistants.
I want to clarify a couple of issues that were raised by Sammy Wilson and others. Money has been allocated to education and library boards, and the bulk of the £30 million has been with the boards as employers for some time on the basis of their calculations of the cost of implementing the agreed job evaluation scheme. The boards remain of the view that £30 million is more than adequate to meet the costs of the agreed scheme. Lest there be any confusion, I, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel, gave approval to the employers to make a formal offer to trade unions, which reflected the negotiations to date.
The motion calls on me to give approval to the education and library boards to put an equitable offer to the representative trade unions. That I have already done. Following a lengthy process, one that I fully agree has taken far too long, I was pleased to note that the employers and the unions had reached a point in their negotiations where the employers were ready to put a formal offer on the table.
Members will appreciate that, in line with Government accounting rules, any offer required the prior approval of both the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel. Following consideration of the proposal received from the boards — who are the employers in this case, not the Department of Education — the two Departments gave their approval to the proposed deal. That was communicated to the employers on 31 May 2007.
What are the next steps? I hope that the recent progress will enable the boards and the unions to press ahead to secure an early and final settlement that will allow the funding to be released into the pay packets of eligible classroom assistants as soon as possible. The boards have tabled their final settlement offer to the unions and the unions are consulting their members.
The trade unions raised concerns about salary protection arrangements, which have been included in the proposed settlement to ensure that no classroom assistant will suffer any financial loss as a result of the evaluation of their post. Unions also voiced concerns about pro rata pay arrangements and the level of GNVQ qualifications required for mainstream classroom assistant posts.
The priority must now be for the education and library boards and the trade unions to reach agreement through their established industrial relations machinery on these additional concerns.
I welcome the role that the Labour Relations Agency played recently in helping to deliver progress, and I call on all those involved to work together to reach a final agreement with the further assistance of the Labour Relations Agency, if necessary.
The role of the Department of Education was to ensure that the proposed settlement was workable and affordable. That is the basis on which the boards were given approval by the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel to proceed to the final settlement. This matter is urgent and I am engaged in meetings with all the boards and the trade unions about it. However, it would not be appropriate for me to become directly engaged in the established industrial relations machinery or to intervene while negotiations between the two sides are at such an advanced stage.
However, I will encourage both sides to reach an early settlement, which will allow funding to be released into the pay packets of classroom assistants at the earliest possible date. That is what is needed here and now.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs M Bradley: After listening to the Minister of Education, I am angry. I am not at all pleased.
Over the years, classroom assistants have been used. Their case has been like a football, kicked between the education boards and the Department of Education. Today, all Members agree that classroom assistants, who do wonderful work, and do it well, deserve to be recognised.
I do not believe that they will be recognised. If the Minister of Education has made an equitable offer, why are the unions and classroom assistants so angry? Why are they considering industrial action? That threat is coming from people who are dedicated to their jobs, and have been for years. People on whom our children depend every day of the week, and on whom teachers and principals depend for the help that is required to give our children, and especially those with special needs, the best education and care possible.
The work that classroom assistants do cannot be counted in pounds. That work has not been recognised either in the past or by the Chamber today. I feel ashamed that after 12 years, this is the best that we can do for people who have given their all for all our children.
Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that the Minister of Education needs to go the extra mile and ensure that extra funding to resolve the dispute for once and for all — not the £30 million that has been spoken of for umpteen years —is made available?
Mrs M Bradley: The Member must be reading my mind, as that is what I had intended to say. I have a two-page speech, but I am so angry that I feel that what I have written is totally inadequate.
Classroom assistants must get the recognition that they deserve. I agree with Mr Shannon: the Minister of Education must go the extra mile, so that our children do not lose out by being denied the people who look after them and help to educate them.
We all say that we want the best education for our children. The Minister of Education says that she wants to provide the best education. My advice to the Minister is that if she goes the extra mile, she will address that issue and provide the best education for our children. Otherwise, the children who attend our schools will lose out.
After 12 years, it is almost incredible that we are dealing with an issue that the people who went before us disregarded and hoped would go away. The issue has not gone away. It will not go away. Classroom assistants deserve what they are asking for. They should be given what they are asking for.
I thank all Members for their positive remarks in supporting the motion brought by my colleague Mr Dominic Bradley. He was right to bring the matter to the House. However — and I say this with anger — the situation with classroom assistants should have been dealt with 12 years ago.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to take immediate action to settle the issue of job evaluation for classroom assistants, by giving approval to the Education and Library Boards to put an equitable offer to the representative Trades’ Unions.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Car Parking Problems at Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry
Mr D Kennedy: I am grateful to those Members who intend to remain in the House. In the past, I have been accused of having made moving speeches. I am not sure how many people I will move today. [Laughter.] However, Members do seem to be moving out of the Chamber.
Nevertheless, the car parking problems at Daisy Hill Hospital represent an important issue that should be debated in the Assembly. I am pleased that my colleague and good friend, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety Michael McGimpsey has joined us in the Chamber. Hopefully, by the end of the debate, he will be an even better friend.
Car parking problems at Daisy Hill Hospital is a long-standing issue. It has been a concern of local residents, hospital workers, patients and neighbouring businesses.
As a member of Newry and Mourne District Council, an interest that I am happy to declare, I can confirm that the council has continued to make representations to both the former Newry and Mourne Health and Social Services Trust and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the issue. The council has sought to co-operate with the trust and assist wherever possible. In practical terms, the council has recently leased some land on which an emergency helicopter can land.
The issue of car parking at Daisy Hill Hospital must be resolved as soon as possible. Several key problems need to be addressed. Residents face the ongoing problem of vehicles being parked outside their properties for long periods. Those vehicles are effectively abandoned. All-day parkers take up spaces that impact on the light and private amenities of properties.
There is also a lack of adequate road markings. Even where they are still visible, road markings that have been there for a number of years simply identify permanent parking bays that cause a nuisance to local residents and inconvenience them. The issue is cross-cutting. It is not only a matter for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety but for the Minister for Regional Development, who represents Newry and Armagh. I am sorry that he is not present.
A traffic study and a full review of the parking trends on the hospital road and in other nearby areas are needed. When the Minister for Regional Development reads Hansard, I hope that he will respond to that call, which I hope that other local representatives will also endorse. A traffic study is necessary, and it must be undertaken by the Minister for Regional Development in conjunction with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Householders adjacent to Daisy Hill Hospital have been very patient and long-suffering over many years. They have endured major inconvenience and, on occasions, considerable abuse from hostile individuals. Those householders deserve some consideration.
Hospital staff are equally inconvenienced and frustrated due to the difficulties that they face when trying to park at their place of work. They want to see action, too. Perhaps the most important people to be considered are those who attend the hospital as patients or visitors.
Daisy Hill is a large regional acute hospital. We are very pleased with it, and we wish to maintain and retain its services. That is something that I am happy to put on record in the presence of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who I know supports Daisy Hill’s position as an acute regional hospital.
However, this is a hospital that provides essential services to many thousands of people in the south Down, south Armagh, Newry and, indeed, north Louth areas. From a council and a local representation point of view, Daisy Hill Hospital remains the jewel in our crown, providing health services in the region. The many people who attend as patients or who visit patients share the frustration of trying to achieve a parking spot in what can often be very emotional and difficult circumstances; they are there to receive treatment themselves — perhaps urgent treatment — or to give comfort to a relative.
Consequently, parking takes place in a very haphazard manner, and the one-way system and very poor signage at the hospital combine to exacerbate the problems. There needs to be a creative solution and some imagination shown. Earlier today, the Minister used very creative language when he talked about the Lone Ranger, and so forth. Sadly, some of us are old enough to remember the Lone Ranger and Silver and Tonto and Kemo Sabe — but I digress.
In an ideal situation, we would demand a multi-storey car park. That would provide an early solution, but clearly there are cost implications and also the potential introduction of charging for people using such a facility. That might not prove popular to those public representatives who would have to put it forward.
I press the Minister to at least initiate a proper study to review the problems and bring forward a costed proposal to see if we can make progress on this matter. In the meantime, I also appeal, in his absence, to the Minister for Regional Development to carry out the necessary remedial measures to improve the current situation. Short-term improvements in markings and signage can and should be made, and the local trust should co-operate with those improvements as far as it can.
Finally, I express my thanks to everyone for their interest and input into this issue, particularly the Minister for his attendance. I particularly thank the residents, staff and visitors; I know that they will certainly appreciate the input and the attention that the Assembly will want to give this important subject.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that Danny is old enough to remember the name of Tonto’s horse, but we will not go into that at the moment.
On a more serious note, this debate is welcome, and I concur with everything that Mr Kennedy said about parking at Daisy Hill Hospital. It is certainly a sufficiently serious issue to be raised in the Chamber. It is an immediate problem for the hospital, but it is symptomatic of the larger traffic problems affecting the Newry area. Part of it, to a large degree, is the parking issue. In Newry, the vast majority of parking spaces are located on one side of the city, which unfortunately is not the side where the hospital is located. That does not help matters.
A proposal presented to Newry and Mourne District Council by my colleague Turlough Murphy has received the support of the council. The idea is to open Daisy Hill Nursery, which is adjacent to the hospital, as a temporary parking area. That, however, is merely a temporary solution to a much wider problem. A permanent solution, as Mr Kennedy said, must be found.
Photographs are often published of officials considering the traffic problems in Newry; however, nothing ever seems to be done to address those problems. It is time that all the agencies got together to implement a permanent solution that is fit for the city.
Daisy Hill Hospital is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — employers in the area. That creates a problem, as once staff get their cars parked, little room is left for the cars of visitors and those attending outpatient clinics.
Most people who have used the car park would agree that abandoned cars are a problem. Furthermore, there is no regular parking, and the car parks are not supervised: it would be possible to go into the car park and disappear for three months.
Mr Kennedy mentioned the helicopter pad at the hospital, which took up a proportion of parking spaces. One of the playing fields is now used as a landing area; in fact, a sea-rescue helicopter landed there last week. It is easily accessible to the hospital, and ambulances can go down to the field to collect casualties quickly.
The hospital has a big catchment area, and Mr Kennedy mentioned north Louth. I have spoken to people from that area who use the renal unit at Daisy Hill Hospital. A reciprocal agreement is in place that enables people from that part of the South to use those facilities.
I would welcome any study that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety might initiate to solve the problem. It has existed since the new hospital was built at Daisy Hill, and nothing has been done to solve it.
I entirely agree with what has been said about the residents, because in many cases the gateways of the people who live opposite the hospital are blocked off. Furthermore, cars have been vandalised on numerous occasions. I agree with Mr Kennedy and ask that a solution be found quickly. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá an-áthas orm an deis seo a bheith agam chun labhairt ar rún a bhaineann le mo thoghcheantar féin.
I am pleased to speak in a debate that concerns my constituency, and I thank Mr Kennedy for bringing the issue before the House. I also thank the Minister for his presence and for his recent confirmation on the future of the trauma services at Daisy Hill Hospital — a very important issue to everyone in that area.
Mr Kennedy is correct in saying that time and time again the issue of car parking at Daisy Hill Hospital has been raised by public representatives in the Newry and Armagh constituency and by councillors in the Newry and Mourne area. I have had several meetings with the chief executive of the former Newry and Mourne Health and Social Services Trust about the situation. More parking spaces were provided on the upper site, near to the old hospital buildings. Unfortunately, that has not been enough to eliminate the problem.
Daisy Hill Hospital has a wide catchment area that seems to be growing. It serves areas from east Down, to north Louth and to beyond Armagh city. It includes, particularly in the winter months when winter flu and chest infections are prevalent, an overflow from Craigavon Area Hospital. Many of those patients return to the hospital for outpatient appointments, and this adds to the pressure on already inadequate parking facilities. That results in outpatients and some visitors being forced to park on the pavements adjacent to the hospital, as all other parking spaces are often in use during outpatient clinics and visiting hours.
The enforcement of parking regulations has meant that patients, some of whom are already suffering from stress due to illness, have returned to their vehicles to find that they have received parking fines.
Obviously, parking on the pavement is highly undesirable and can cause difficulties for the pedestrians who are forced to walk on the road, exposing them to the risk of injury from passing traffic. Also, it is undesirable for people to walk on a road that is also the route of emergency ambulances. Members know the difficulties and the dangers — Mr Brady and Mr Kennedy have outlined some of them. However, how do we solve the problem?
Mr Brady has suggested one possible solution. Another solution, which might be implemented quite quickly, would be to open the hospital site’s Camlough Road gate and allow the Busy Bus service — if it were well advertised and offered a frequent service — to circulate around the hospital complex. I am sure that that would go some way towards alleviating the parking problem by reducing the need for people to travel to the hospital by car. It may not solve the problem, but it would go some way towards addressing it. Nonetheless, due consideration should be given to that option without further delay.
The road opposite the hospital’s lower entrance, where people park at present, could be improved and parking spaces could be marked out. Once again, although that may add a few extra parking spaces, it would not provide a total solution to the problem — and it would involve the Department for Regional Development, as has been mentioned earlier by Mr Kennedy.
The nature of the Daisy Hill Hospital site is such that, under present circumstances, the number of options remaining is limited. I agree with Mr Kennedy that the multi-storey car park option may be necessary to solving the parking problems and might be advanced as part of the plans for the new Daisy Hill Hospital.
Two years ago, I met with Dr Andrew McCormick and his colleagues at the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. They led me to believe that plans for a new hospital in Newry were moving along; that a business case had been received from the then Newry and Mourne Health and Social Services Trust, and that the Department had considered it and returned it to the trust for amendment. My understanding then was that the resources were in the system for the new hospital. I would be interested to hear the Minister clarify, for us all, the situation regarding the new Daisy Hill Hospital.
Returning to the parking issue, measures to address parking problems would be welcome in the short term. However, I am sure the Minister will agree that those would only be a sticking-plaster solution. In the long term, we need a fully integrated parking solution that, I suspect, would be part of a new hospital complex. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those issues. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr McCallister: I will say, at the outset, that I have only seen repeats of ‘The Lone Ranger’ — I am not even sure if it has been put on DVD. I thank my colleague, the very old Danny Kennedy, for bringing this important issue to the House, and it is excellent that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is here to respond.
As has been said, Daisy Hill Hospital serves a large area covering Mr Kennedy’s constituency of Newry and Armagh, as well as a large part of my own South Down constituency. Everyone from that area is proud of the hospital, its record, its staff, and the services that it provides.
It has already been said that there are serious parking problems at the hospital. There are issues, which Mr Bradley has mentioned, regarding people who cannot find a parking space and who are forced to park on the pavement — something that has a knock-on effect with the involvement of the “red coats”, illegal parking and fines, and the problems those cause. As Mr Kennedy pointed out, local residents have been exceptionally patient —
Mr Elliott: Does the Member accept that Daisy Hill Hospital is not the only hospital that has parking problems?
A similar problem exists at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen. For a long time, the car-parking attendant was not contracted by the local health and social services trust but by an outside body that was responsible for catering and portering arrangements at the hospital. Does the Member accept that it is inappropriate for a car-parking attendant to have to sit in a rodent-infested hut outside the hospital?
Mr McCallister: I accept Mr Elliott’s intervention; in true style, he did not shy away from bringing the debate back to Fermanagh.
There are many hospitals where car parking is a huge issue. At Daisy Hill Hospital, the one-way system forces staff and patients almost to abandon their vehicles. The site of the car park is also problematic; it is extremely steep and is inadequate to meet the requirements of such a large, busy hospital. When patients are being dropped off or collected, they may need two people to help them: one to drive them there and another to accompany them into the hospital, and vice versa. That is unacceptable, especially in winter weather. I join Mr Kennedy in calling on the Minister to review the situation and to work with the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, to find a way through the issue in order to help the residents, patients and staff at Daisy Hill Hospital.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I recognise that car parking at hospitals is a serious problem, not only for Daisy Hill but for a number of hospitals, including the Erne Hospital. The increasing level of car ownership and the rise in the number of people who attend hospitals mean that there is a greater demand for car-parking spaces, which causes stress for many people. However, it is vital that staff such as doctors and nurses have adequate access to their place of work because, without those people, hospitals cannot function.
There is a lack of car-parking spaces, not least at Daisy Hill Hospital. Currently, 442 spaces are available at Daisy Hill, but that creates a shortfall, even when the site is managed. It is estimated that 612 spaces are needed. The Daisy Hill site is so congested, restricted and bounded by roads that it is virtually impossible to find a new area to develop as a car park. Newry and Mourne District Council has offered a piece of adjacent ground for possible inclusion in the complex to allow for car parking. Unfortunately, the council has offered that only on a temporary short-term lease, and the investment costs of its development make it prohibitive, because the hospital does not own the land and does not expect to do so.
The Department estimates that a multi-storey car park would cost around £10,000 for each car-parking space. The creation of the required car-parking spaces at the hospital would cost between £6 million and £7 million. That does not count in the fact that, during construction, which could take between nine months and one year, the car park at Daisy Hill would virtually be taken away because the new car park would be built on the original site.
Therefore there are no easy solutions. Around 80 cars are routinely parked on the street because it offers kerbside parking that is convenient to the front door of the hospital, and there is no charge. Unfortunately, that parking is in a residential area. Given the nature of the hospital, which is open 24/7, cars are always parked there — day and night, seven days a week. Clearly, that is a nuisance to residents. However, neither the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety nor the Southern Health and Social Care Trust can deal with that problem. It is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development and Roads Service. As Mr Kennedy has mentioned, the MP and MLA for Newry and Armagh, the constituency in which Daisy Hill Hospital is situated, is also the Minister for Regional Development and is in charge of roads. I would have thought that he is well placed to alleviate the problems of the residents of that area.
Although the hospital has explored certain solutions, I am not satisfied that everything possible has been done and that no stone has been left unturned. Wider consideration is therefore required. I have instructed my officials to carry out a regional review of car parking in order to establish a consistent policy across all Health Service trusts because there are different schemes in different areas; in certain sites, such as the Royal Hospitals, charging is routine. A consistent policy is needed.
At Daisy Hill Hospital, a review must be carried out of the members of staff who are entitled to free car parking. Those include essential workers such as medical staff, doctors and nurses. Consideration must be given to how to deal with other employees who are essential to the running of the site; it might be possible to accommodate those staff in adjacent sites. The Department is also considering a park-and-ride facility and is in discussion with Translink about how that might be introduced. However, there is also the possibility that examination of the design of the car park will enable the Department to determine whether the number of spaces can be increased.
As things stand, however, with people’s requirement to travel by car and their insistence on doing so, it is difficult to see how everybody will be accommodated during busy times. There will, therefore, need to be some form of rationing of car-parking spaces on the site. I have asked for the review to examine closely the management of the site, the scope for encouraging better use of car-parking space on the site, the restriction of on-street parking in consultation with DRD, and for the trusts to work with that Department to consider what can be done to enhance car-parking restrictions.
A residents-only car-parking scheme on Hospital Road is necessary; that is, if Roads Service can be persuaded to introduce one. If Roads Service can be persuaded to introduce such a scheme there, the question is whether it could be persuaded to introduce schemes in other areas, such as south Belfast. However, that is an old theme of mine.
In response to Mr Bradley’s question, there are ongoing discussions and plans with an outline business case to redevelop the site. The Department is considering that business case, which proposes that the preferred option would be to rebuild and refurbish the existing site, including the provision of a multi-storey car park as part of that redevelopment. That will create an additional 212 spaces, which, the Department believes, will solve the parking problem. It will also contribute to the investment on the site that is required for the hospital to meet the latest standards.
With regard to the Erne Hospital, Mr Elliott will know that, given that Enniskillen is getting a brand new hospital, I visited it last Thursday.
That acute hospital represents a £260 million investment and will occupy a very large site close to the town. There should not be any car-parking problems because the site is so big. However, in the meantime, the Department can ask the trust to review the parking arrangements at the Erne Hospital.
Mr D Bradley: I thank the Minister for giving way, and for his update on the new hospital at Daisy Hill. What will the level of investment be there?
Mr McGimpsey: I was not warned of that specific question, so I am unable to tell the Member how much it will be. It was part of the discussions with the previous trust. It is now a matter for the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, and that context must be considered. However, I will make enquiries and reply to the Member.
I have magically been handed a note, which tells me that it is £136 million. It is a substantial development at a very early stage —
Mr Kennedy: Tonto brought it.
Mr McGimpsey: Kemo Sabe passed it to me. It is absolutely amazing; if only our car-parking technology were as good.
As I said, I have asked the trust to report back to me as quickly as possible, and as soon as I receive that information, I shall convey it to Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr Bradley and others.
Adjourned at 5.52 pm.