Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 25 June 2007

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement
June Monitoring Outcome

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

Private Members’ Business

Oral Answers to Questions
Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister
Finance and Personnel

Private Members’ Business

Private Notice Question
Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: The Rt Hon Peter Robinson raised a point of order, during the Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill on Monday 18 June, in relation to a Member’s having a right of reply under Standing Order 17 when speaking to a notice to oppose the Question that a clause stand part of a Bill. It was an interesting and genuine point of order — I can assure Members that genuine points of order can be scarce in this House. The Member’s point of order concentrated minds.

I have considered the matter and have noted that Standing Orders 34 and 35 provide the Speaker with discretion to allow a Member to speak more than once during a debate on the Consideration Stage or Further Consideration Stage of a Bill. I intend to use that discretion to allow Members to wind up when a notice to oppose the Question that a clause stand part of a Bill has been published on the Marshalled List.

Mr P Robinson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Should I conclude from your ruling that Members do not have an automatic right to do as you suggest, but that it is entirely at the grace and favour of the Chair?

Mr Speaker: Once again, the Member is absolutely correct. The key to this matter is that there is a slight difference when a notice to oppose the Question that a clause stand part of a Bill has been published on the Marshalled List. We could debate this matter all day. However, Erskine May’s ‘Parliamentary Practice’ is quite clear that notice of an intention to leave out a clause or schedule may be shown and numbered on the Marshalled List.

One would ask the question, if the clause had been voted on, and rejected, in the House, would it have ended up as an amendment to the Bill? That is where the issue of procedure comes in.

Ministerial Statement

June Monitoring Outcome

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I wish to make a statement on behalf of the Executive about public spending in 2007-08, following the June monitoring round. I also want to highlight the actual spending by Departments in 2006-07.

As Members are aware, the in-year monitoring process seeks to underpin the effective management of the overall public expenditure position by identifying emerging pressures and flexibility across all Departments, and seeks to offset such issues on a strategic basis. Therefore, the process is a key mechanism in the system that allows emerging or unanticipated issues to be addressed without detriment to other public services. That is achieved by asking Departments to identify reduced requirements, which are amounts that were allocated to Departments in previous Budget processes on the basis of Estimates of cost and demand for services that were not required in the light of emerging and more up-to-date information. Any and all such amounts should be surrendered for central consideration and reallocation rather than retained in Departments.

Furthermore, the monitoring process offers Departments the opportunity to identify emerging pressures or to firm up issues that could not be fully quantified at the time budgets were originally set.

An additional factor that has a major impact on managing the in-year position is the planned overcommitment of resources. The concept of overcommitment has its origins in the previous Executive, and reflects that, as a consequence of a combination of factors in the early part of this decade, Northern Ireland Departments experienced some significant underspends. In response to that, the previous Executive, and subsequently direct rule Ministers, adopted a planned overcommitment approach, which means collectively allocating more to spending programmes before the start of the year than is actually available, on the basis that some underspend is inevitable. Therefore, the actual end-of-year spend will be within the upper limits of what is available. That approach is designed to maximise the actual spending in any financial year, and, if it is to be considered sensible and pragmatic, it must be used with caution.

The Executive have inherited an overcommitment of a little under £153 million on current expenditure for this year. That means that departmental allocations are £153 million more than is available to the Executive for spending this year.

Although I have already mentioned that some year-end underspend is inevitable, up to £100 million should be retained during the year by exercising a first call on any reduced requirements that emerge in monitoring rounds. That reduces the in-year flexibility available to the Executive. Therefore, reduced requirements are not available for reallocation to emerging pressures.

Assuming that the underspend is in the region of £50 million, that £100 million must be found in-year. Hence, the level of overcommitment must be reduced to that figure by the end of the year to ensure that the risk of exceeding the amount available to the Executive is minimised.

That illustrates how managing the in-year position and seeking to reduce departmental underspend by the use of overcommitment are inextricably linked issues. On the one hand, the allocation of more than is available helps to reduce underspend by anticipating average levels of reduced requirements and, accordingly, adjusting the total level of resources allocated to programmes.

On the other hand, during the course of the year, we need to manage the position through the assimilation of reduced requirements. Failure to assimilate reduced requirements reduces in-year flexibility and the capacity to respond to any in-year unforeseen pressures. We must strike the right balance between the two.

As I have said, the use of overcommitment can only represent a sensible approach to financial planning if it is not taken to extremes. I must say that the position that we have inherited from our direct rule predecessors for the current financial year tends towards that extreme position.

With that in mind, I plan to review the level of overcommitment in future financial allocations. The challenge is to strike the balance between facilitating long-term planning — and, hence, optimum value for money through spending — and the creation of an environment in which some flexibility will occur to provide the capacity for the Executive to deal with emerging pressures. I will return to that issue when I present the draft Budget in the autumn.

I wish to provide some more detail on the current financial year. The starting level of overcommitment that we inherited from the direct rule Ministers was in the region of £153 million. Reduced requirements declared by Departments during the June monitoring round amounted to some £11 million. Members will find summary details of those figures in table 1 attached to the printed copies of my statement that I have provided to Members.

Alongside the reduced requirements, some resources that have been held centrally and not previously allocated — largely as a consequence of the Chancellor’s most recent Budget, which was announced after the financial allocations for the 2007-08 financial year were set — and some other minor adjustments, reduce our overcommitment to a figure in the region of £138 million.

By the end of the financial year, the final level of overcommitment should be in the region of £50 million. That means that, between now and the end of the financial year, we require a further £90 million of reduced requirements to be identified and offset against the level of overcommitment. I am advised that, in previous years, a level of reduced requirements in the region of £120 million to £140 million has been the norm.

However, in the June monitoring round, Departments identified and declared only £11 million of reduced requirements, as against previous patterns of savings in the region of £30 million to £40 million at this stage of the financial year. That difference suggests either that Departments have been reluctant to declare reduced requirements, or that the financial position for many Departments is considerably tighter than in previous years, and thus the previous level of reduced require­ments may not be repeated in the remainder of this financial year.

I have, therefore, emphasised to my Executive colleagues the absolute necessity of undertaking a robust review of the financial position in advance of the September monitoring round, with a view to declaring any and all reduced requirements at that stage of the financial year, rather than leaving it until the second half of the year.

A further issue to consider relates to the flooding that occurred in the past two weeks. Members will know that the Executive made up to £5 million available by way of response to the needs of those in crisis. That amount, of course, did not exist in any Budget lines and, therefore, represents a potential further call on the overcommitment position, taking us from £138 million to approximately £143 million.

My Executive colleagues and I agree that making up to £5 million available was a necessary and proportionate response to the issues that arose. However, allocating that money does place a further pressure on the in-year financial position.

In view of what I have outlined, at this early stage of the financial year, the Executive have concluded that we must adopt a prudent and cautious approach. Therefore, at this time, we do not have any scope for additional current expenditure allocations to Departments. We will, of course, review our position in the September monitoring round.

The June monitoring round has focused primarily on current expenditure. The position on capital investment will be the subject of further and separate consideration, following the conclusion of a departmental capital re-profiling exercise.

The aim of that exercise is to set sensible and deliverable capital investment plans for 2007-08 by allowing Departments to reassess their capacity to deliver their planned capital programmes this year. The outcome should provide an opportunity for the Executive to address any emerging in-year capital pressures.

12.15 pm

I now wish to turn to actual spending by Depart­ments in the last financial year, 2006-07. Details of the provisional out-turn for each Department, in terms of both current expenditure and capital investment, are set out in tables 2 and 3 attached to the printed copies of my statement that I have provided to Members.

Total current expenditure by Departments amounted to some £7·5 billion, representing growth of over 2·5% in real terms on the previous year. Although, as I indicated earlier, we can accept that some under­spending is inevitable, last year’s performance in a number of Departments suggests that there is scope for improvement.

In 2006-07, the total capital expenditure of Departments was in the region of £1 billion, sustaining the level of investment in 2005-06, which represented a significant increase over previous years. Aligned to that, the level of underspend — at just under 9% — represents a significant improvement on previous years.

Again, however, there is scope for improvement, and the development and roll-out of firm capital invest­ment plans represents the key challenge for us in the months ahead through the development of the second iteration of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland.

I will emphasise two key points. First, the public expenditure control environment in which Departments operate means that some underspend is inevitable. The challenge for Ministers and officials is to ensure that, while maintaining the integrity of the control system and ensuring that unauthorised spending does not take place, we maximise the impact of the available resources and achieve as high a level of spend as is possible within authorised limits.

Secondly, we must recognise that none of the underspend is lost to Northern Ireland. All amounts available for spending, but not spent, in 2006-07 will be available to be carried forward for use in Northern Ireland in the future. Although access to this stock of unspent resources represents an ongoing issue with the Treasury, I emphasise that that is an issue of timing.

In the continuing discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the financial package for Northern Ireland, we have made some good progress on both current and capital expenditure. Members will be aware of the public expenditure climate across the United Kingdom and the severe restrictions that the Chancellor is placing on such issues, both for the devolved Administrations and for Whitehall Depart­ments. Therefore, the progress that we have made so far is meaningful and helpful to us in the planning and delivery of public services. However, we will not stop there; we will continue to press the Chancellor as necessary for further improvements in our position.

In conclusion, the June monitoring round has not offered the Executive the opportunity to make any reallocations of expenditure. However, the exercise has been helpful in that it has clarified for the Executive the extent of the challenge, both of the overall public expenditure climate and the position that we have inherited from direct rule Ministers. In the coming months, the key task for the Executive will be to identify any and all flexibility in those existing allocations in order to manage the high level of overcommitment that we have inherited and to generate some flexibility to deal with emerging issues at local level.

The exercise has also served to remind us of the constrained public expenditure position that we face and the need to ensure that any and all financial pressures are considered in the context of the overall position and in the light of the strategic priorities for Northern Ireland. We must all bear that point in mind as we move forward to the remainder of this year’s monitoring process, and also when we consider the draft Budget proposals in the autumn.

I look forward to working with my Executive colleagues and with the Assembly on all these matters.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his statement. I also thank him and his officials for the briefings that they have provided to the Committee in the past few weeks, and to the Deputy Chairperson and me this morning. The briefings have been useful in dealing with the complexities of managing cross-departmental issues.

The Minister has spoken in some detail about underspend and overcommitment. The Committee has discussed those issues, which have been of some interest to it in recent weeks. We will work with the Minister and his team to develop proposals or recommendations. During the Committee’s discussions on the underspend, the added costs of inflation on capital projects was of particular concern.

Mr Speaker: Could the Member focus on a question?

Mr McLaughlin: I am coming to a question.

I welcome the information in the Minister’s statement on the reduction in scale of the underspend this year. However, we must recognise that under­spending remains to be resolved satisfactorily. The Minister has set out the rationale behind what might be regarded as a phenomenon: the planned overcommitment of £153 million. That is £153 million more than is actually available to the Executive. Although there may be a rationale for that, the Minister has recognised through his statement that it can lead to sloppy financial planning and budgetary management in Departments. I very much welcome his commitment to addressing that.

My question for the Minister, you will be relieved to hear, Mr Speaker, is this: will he bring specific proposals to his Executive colleagues on reducing the underspend and the planned overcommitment that he addressed in his statement?

Mr P Robinson: I again emphasise that I am happy to work with the Committee, as are my officials. A well-informed Committee will have a greater contribution to make to the debate.

The Chairperson of the Committee raised several issues. On capital expenditure, I hope to provide the Committee with some papers on the underspend on capital projects before the end of July. The Executive will presumably wish to take a position on whether they will reallocate the funds or on whatever stance they wish to take. My Department and I will be happy to hear the Committee’s views at that stage.

The Chairperson specifically enquired about the advice that I might give to the Executive on the planned overcommitment and the underspend. I made it clear in my statement that an overcommitment is a useful planning tool. I understand that the concept was first introduced during the tenure of the Member for Foyle as Minister for Finance and Personnel.

I wish to continue to have that planning tool, but not perhaps to take it to the extent of £153 million. That would entirely remove the flexibility that might be available in a year. At the same time, however, the overcommitment may have to be reduced in stages, rather than doing so in one fell swoop, as that would clearly have consequences for the overall shape of the Budget.

As far as the underspend is concerned, the financial year 2005-06 showed an underspend somewhere in the region of 1·9%, moving up to 2% in the last financial year. The optimum would be to reduce the underspend to close to 1%. That will require the co-operation of all Executive colleagues. It will also require the early identification of any flexibility that their Departments may have.

Having been a spending Minister myself at one stage, I know the reluctance of such Ministers to hand back funding to the centre that they think could be reallocated elsewhere in their Departments. However, earlier identification of the amount of underspend will allow a much better spending programme, rather than throwing money at projects where it can be spent at the last minute. I am seeking to reduce the underspend and the overcommitment.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that it is vital that, when they rise to ask a question, they actually do so. When Ministers are making statements to the House, Members are continually making statements themselves, and then asking questions. I remind the House that Members should ask questions of the Minister about his statement.

Mr Storey: In order to ask my question, Mr Speaker, I will have to set it in context and, therefore, make a statement. [Laughter.]

I thank the Minister for his statement. I also thank his departmental officials for the briefings that they gave to the Committee, as mentioned by the Chair­person of the Committee, and for their help in trying to ensure that the Committee had an understanding and a grasp of these difficult and complex issues.

The Committee, in its scrutiny role, examined the spending in respect of the priority funding packages, which cover children and young people; skills and science; and the environment and renewable energy. In particular, the Committee examined the actual spend for 2006-07 for those packages, which have an overall budget of some £77·7 million. The Committee found that, during direct rule, the resource underspend for those three funding priority packages amounted to 23% of the available funding. The capital underspend on the packages was over 28·2%.

In that context, can the Minister — and here is the question, Mr Speaker — [Laughter.]

Given the importance of the priority funding packages, can the Minister comment on how they will be progressed in the current financial year?

Mr P Robinson: Department of Finance and Personnel officials are already in discussions with officials in the other Departments that have the lead responsibility for advancing those priority packages. It has become apparent from those discussions that there may be some underspend in those packages. I shall therefore look to the September monitoring round for any reallocation that may take place as a result.

Mr Beggs: Can the Minister confirm that Northern Ireland Departments can declare underspend on a number of occasions throughout the year? What is the Minister doing to ensure that, in future, Departments declare any underspend early in order that money can be spent in a planned fashion? Does the Minister accept that Northern Ireland Departments are performing less well than their Scottish or Welsh counterparts and, furthermore, that we need to ensure that money is spent in a planned fashion?

Mr P Robinson: I entirely agree with the Member that any money that is not spent should be declared as such as early as possible. I hope that all Ministers, including those from his party, will take his very good advice.

As far as the Northern Ireland position in relation to the other devolved institutions is concerned, the latest available UK figures for the end-year flexibility, at the beginning of the 2006-07 financial year, show Northern Ireland stock of end-year flexibility to be 3% of the annual budget. That was lower than Scotland, where the end-year flexibility was 4%; lower than Wales, where it was 3% of the annual budget; and lower than the Northern Ireland Office, where it was 27·3%. The Northern Ireland stock of end-year flexibility (EYF) was also lower than the UK total, which was 3·4%.

The Member’s point about the early identification of underspend is important. As I have said, I am examining ways to ensure less underspend at the end of the year. However, I point out that underspend does not mean, or equate to, lost money.

Mr O’Loan: This Assembly was elected by the people to address an urgent agenda. As such, what assurance can the Minister give the Assembly — and, more importantly, the people who elected us — that resources will be available in this financial year so that the Assembly can be seen to be making a real difference to people’s lives?

Mr P Robinson: The Assembly has considerable resources at its disposal in respect of current expenditure and capital expenditure. I do not think that a Minister with responsibility for finance will ever appear before the House and indicate that he has more money than he needs. We could always do with more finances. If we had more finances, we could use them — and, I believe, use them well. However, it is the job of the Executive to operate within the allocation of resources from the Treasury or, alternatively, to supplement that through the regional rate. We must ensure that spending plans take account of what is available and what our ratepayers can afford to pay.

12.30 pm

Mr Hamilton: The Minister referred to the opening allocations and to last year’s departmental underspend, which I understand is based on a comparison between the actual spend and the final allocations, thereby taking into account any adjustments made as a result of the monitoring rounds. In recent years, what proportion of the opening allocations was not spent on those projects to which that money was allocated? That information might give Members some understanding of any flexibility that there might be in the opening allocations for this financial year.

Mr P Robinson: I think that the figure that the Member is looking for is about 4%. We need to be very careful; during the course of a year, Departments need to have some degree of flexibility. Equally, however, there is a tendency for Departments to hold on to resources that could be reallocated from the centre. I know of examples — Ministers may not think that I know of examples, but I do — where funds could come forward at this stage, but do not. We need more of a collective agreement among colleagues that when resources are available, they are brought to the centre. We have a significant overcommitment to reduce, and there are significant pressures that could be met through reallocation.

Therefore, approximately 4% of departmental funding has been reallocated. It is good sense to allow for that reallocation because, from the time when budgets are set to when they are operated in Departments, changes will take place and new pressures will emerge. To some extent, we rely on underspending to meet those unforeseen pressures and issues.

Mr Attwood: I would like the Minister to clarify a matter. Could it be that the issue is not Departments having more money than they need; rather, is it that Departments have more money than they think? Last Wednesday, at the Committee for Employment and Learning, the Department’s deputy secretary reported that the amount of money returned to the Department of Finance and Personnel in increased receipts and reduced requirements was £5·5 million. However, the tables attached to the statement that the Minister made earlier give a figure of £4 million. There may be an easy way to reconcile those figures, today or subsequently. The Committee was advised that the Department for Employment and Learning’s increased receipts and reduced requirements amounted to £5·5 million.

Does the Minister agree that it might be helpful, both to him and to everyone else, if, in addition to the tables that he has attached to his statement, a table indicating the current pressures in each Department at the end of the first quarter were included? Again, the Committee for Employment and Learning has been advised of current pressures in the Department totalling £5 million.

Mr P Robinson: Officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department for Employment and Learning produced the figure in my table based on their consultation. I will ask my officials to look back at the available information, and if the Committee has come across an issue, I will write to the Member about that.

As far as the wider issue is concerned, Departments will always want to have the funds available to meet all their needs, but the Department of Finance and Personnel will never be able to meet the hopes and aspirations of every Department at all times.

I cannot quite recall the Member’s second point.

Mr Attwood: It was about the pressures and increased demands each quarter.

Mr P Robinson: During the monitoring rounds, Departments could be invited to bring forward bids based on the pressures that they might have.

The fact is that we have not received any bids, because we did not ask for any, which in turn was because we had a fair indication that there would not be an allocation. However, if Departments were experiencing pressures that they could not bear, I am sure that the Ministers responsible would have brought them to our attention, and we would have sought to address them in some other way.

It is, therefore, unhelpful to encourage people to make bids when the necessary resources are not available. However, I would be surprised if any Minister with pressures in his or her Department had not been whispering in my ear before now. It appears that Ministers have been able to deal with the pressures within their existing allocations, and the Executive will listen to any Minister who has not.

Mr Weir: There are significant pressures to increase spending in certain areas, and I am sure that every Member could suggest worthy projects on which twice the value of the Budget could be spent. However, does the Minister believe that a Department’s historical underspend — when its actual spend is compared with its opening or February position — should be considered when that Department’s baseline is being set in the Budget process this autumn?

Mr P Robinson: That is an interesting question — if there are serial offenders. The Department of Finance and Personnel has to consider the demands that are made for funding, and when they outstrip the amount that is available, we must prioritise. When we look at allocations, we have to look at a Department’s track record in how it has spent previous allocations. That is one of the elements of assessing the robustness of any bid.

However, I exercise some caution. I am not advocating that Departments should spend for spending’s sake simply to minimise their underspend. I fear that, if my Department punished others for their past practices, such a situation might arise. Following a Department’s bid, I look at its plans and not only test them against the Department’s past record, but seek assurances that they are capable of being delivered within the allocation period.

Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for his statement. Is he concerned about the large underspends that are recurring in the same Departments every year — and not necessarily the highest-spending Departments?

The Minister said that an underspend of 1% was considered to be acceptable. Do the Executive have plans to impose that limit on all Departments for future financial years?

With regard to the budget-setting process, what plans does the Minister have to move from making incremental changes to the Budget to a system of determining outputs and then calculating the resources that are required to meet those outputs?

Mr P Robinson: The Member’s question is not dissimilar to the previous one in that it relates to Departments that have a history of underspending. It is more difficult to make calculations in some Departments than it is in others. For instance, some Departments can ensure that they have less underspending because their money goes out to other agencies in a fixed way. In such cases, the Department can see the money being transferred and used.

The Finance Department commissioned a review by PKF (UK) LLP. It looked at a number of possible ways of tightening monitoring and of ensuring less under­spending and better delivery. That review is available for Members to see.

What was Dr Farry’s second question?

Dr Farry: I asked about imposing a 1% underspend target across all Departments.

Mr P Robinson: That was not the Member’s second question. His second question was about future budget-setting processes. The Member said that he had two questions and has managed to squeeze in another one.

The Member referred to capping the underspend at 1%. It is not possible to have a single level of underspend as a target for each Department, as some Departments could better that target. I would not want to allow those Departments to slacken. We must consider the maximum degree to which we can tighten up the process for every Department.

Regarding future budgeting, the Executive have decided to agree first the Programme for Government. Once our priorities are decided, we will consider the available resources and commit our spending based on the priorities identified in the Programme for Government. That is the sensible way to proceed. I am sure that there will be priorities for which there will not be sufficient funds, but that will be a matter for the Executive to timetable. The approach that Dr Farry suggests is the right one.

Mr McQuillan: How does our end-year flexibility position compare to that maintained by the NIO and those in other parts of the UK?

Mr P Robinson: I emphasise that I do not want to set targets for Northern Ireland that are based on other budgets. However, as I said earlier, the Northern Ireland Office does not have the best record for end-year flexibility. I hope that the Executive do not follow its example.

The Scottish Executive have considerable end-year flexibility stock, in the region of £1 billion. Presently, Northern Ireland has about £150 million end-year flexibility stock, which the Chancellor has agreed to allocate fully over the next two years. The underspend from this year will be added to that, and we will be in contact with the Chancellor and HM Treasury to ensure that that allocation is received.

When compared to others, Northern Ireland has a satisfactory record. However, it is not satisfactory when compared to our aim, which is to reduce the level of underspend considerably.

Mr Burnside: The Minister referred to the financial package for Northern Ireland. I am pleased that good progress is being made with the Chancellor on current and capital expenditure. When will the Minister announce and quantify in the Chamber the increase in current and capital expenditure? There is no mention of that in his statement.

If, after 30 June, his ministerial colleague authorises the building of a new national stadium, will there be enough money in next year’s Budget to fund the project at any of the prospective sites? The Minister will realise that some of his colleagues, including the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, disagree on where the new stadium should be located.

Mr P Robinson: I congratulate the Member on his dexterity in getting in a question about the national stadium.

The Member has, however, misunderstood the reference in my statement to the Chancellor’s package. My statement refers to the end-year flexibility position on resource and capital. There is an agreement with the Chancellor regarding the availability of our end-year flexibility stock, both in resource and capital funding. That has been outlined and was included in the Chancellor’s statement and in statements released subsequent to the four main parties first meeting the Chancellor at Downing Street.

This year, £75 million will be allocated; next year, £65 million will be allocated to the resource side, and £100 million will be given on the capital side. We are still working with HM Treasury to increase those figures. Ongoing talks are particularly important if a large underspend, such as that which I have outlined, occurs in the financial year. However, there is a number of other elements in the Chancellor’s package, and I hope that the position on those will be clearer in due course.

12.45 pm

As far as the national stadium is concerned — and I address the issue with caution — the Department of Finance and Personnel can only consider a proposal when a business case has been produced. When business cases are produced for whatever number of alternatives there may be, the Department of Finance and Personnel will look closely at them and give a view on whether they are affordable in the first instance — some may be affordable while others may not — and whether they would give value for money. I am not therefore bound to any project or location until I see the business case. To date, I have not seen a business case for any of the suggestions that have been reported by the press.

Lord Morrow: I too thank the Minister for his statement. Others have touched on the subject of my question, and the Minister may feel that he has answered it already, but I will ask the question in a more direct manner than others have done. In the light of the tighter rules on access to EYF, should the automatic entitlement to EYF in certain areas of expenditure be re-examined?

Mr P Robinson: There is a second issue that we have not talked about contained in that question. There is the EYF situation with regard to Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Treasury, but there are also arrangements through which departmental commitments can flow from one year to the next.

I have asked officials to look at all those matters urgently, and I will advise the Executive following the review that is being carried out. I do not want to say much more until the review is complete, but the Executive will have to consider it. If Departments have had EYF in previous years, we will want to review the necessity for that and the case for Departments having that degree of ring-fencing. That will be looked at, and I will be happy to report our findings.

Mr Durkan: The Minister rightly expressed caution about overcommitment with respect to the Budget. I assure him that I share his concern. I remind him that when the Executive originally went down the road of overcommitment it was when we were providing indicative allocations to the Executive programme funds that entirely absorbed any underspending. Will the Minister tell us more about how the caution he wants to apply now will be applied in future?

Furthermore, will he anticipate how pressures might be factored into future monitoring rounds, if that was not allowed this time? Many groups in the community and voluntary sector are hearing about underspending in Government Departments. They also find that Departments and public bodies are reducing their commitment to the groups because of efficiency savings that have to be delivered or because of the review of public administration consequentials, which means that the slippage money that was given to local groups no longer exists.

Many groups are trying to deliver neighbourhood renewal under severe pressure — they do not know what, if any, money they will get. In that context, will the Department for Social Development at least get the funding that it is being forced to give to the UDA? After all, the UDA does not have to engage in the evaluations and appraisals to which all the other groups are subjected.

Mr P Robinson: I am happy to take the lessons about overcommitment that the Member learned during his experience as Minister of Finance. I am aware that there is a slightly different position now as regards Executive programme funds, which to date have not been operating in the way that they did during the previous Executive. However, I recognise that there will always be pressures in the system.

I know that if I was in a community group that was seeking money and I learned that the Department for Social Development was underspending, I would ask why the Department could not give the money to my group. However, those are issues that cannot be solved. Departments will always need to take decisions about where their resources should be allocated, and there will always be circumstances in which Departments will be unable to spend all the resources that they have been allocated. Indeed, we would be in a difficult position if there was no underspending, because the Budget that we inherited from direct rule Ministers requires us to achieve £150 million of underspending if we are to be on an even keel. Therefore, we need some underspending in the system.

The particular issue about the allocations that direct rule Ministers made to the Department for Social Development would be better taken up with the Member’s colleague. As I understand it, sufficient funds are available to enable the Department for Social Development to deal with all those matters that are contained in its present business plan.

Mr Newton: My question is on similar lines to that of the Committee Chairperson and, to some extent, to that of the Member for Foyle. How does the £153 million overcommitment that the Minister mentioned compare with that of previous years? Is it desirable to continue with that sort of situation in future?

Mr P Robinson: This year’s overcommitment is of about £153 million, which I think is the highest level that we have had. We had an overcommitment of the order of £135 million last year, and the level has been going steadily up. It has been easy for Ministers to say that, no matter what level of overcommitment they set, there will always be underspending by the end of the year, so they keep hiking the level up. However, the difficulty with continually doing that is that, the next time we come to the June or September monitoring round, we will be unable to make allocations to deal with in-year pressures. Ministers need to take account of the fact that pressures will always arise within a year and that unforeseen issues will jump out at us. We need resources to deal with those. We cannot deal with them unless there is underspending and money can be freed.

In answer to the question that the Member for East Belfast asked, we are going in the wrong direction by heading towards larger overcommitments. We need to start having a sensible level of overcommitment. The previous Executive had a reasonably sensible level of overcommitment, but that was stretched and stretched by direct rule Ministers since then.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for providing us with the detail that he has given us today. Like other Members, I have visited many schools, including primary schools, the conditions of which can be described as being straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Given that, has the Department of Education explained why its capital investment budget was underspent by almost £31 million?

Mr P Robinson: I am sure that the Minister of Education will be happy to go into detail about underspending in her Department, but a great deal of that will relate to the education and library boards. On the conditions in schools, maintenance and so forth can be tackled by the resource budget, but dealing with the Dickensian situations that the Member described probably falls more adequately to the capital budget. We will deal with that when we get to underspending on the capital programme.

Mr P Ramsey: Given the legislative and statutory requirements to improve safety at Northern Ireland’s big sports grounds — soccer, Gaelic football and rugby — will the Minister of Finance and Personnel support the £22 million bid that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has made to assist with the improvement of sports grounds, such as those of the two senior clubs in my constituency — Derry City Football Club and Institute Football Club — that are in need of such development?

Mr P Robinson: At this stage, I am not involved with the settling of bids. The Executive, at the appropriate time, will want to consider that bid alongside those from the other Departments. As I told the Member for North Down, that will be a matter for the Executive to consider in their spending plans for the next three years, based on their Programme for Government for the next three years. However, I am sure that the Member will know that the Executive, and the rest of the House, will want to consider carefully issues of health and safety.

Mrs Hanna: Will the Minister state whether he has any specific ideas that would support cross-departmental working in areas such as support for carers? That is one of several areas that has resource implications for many Departments — especially the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but also the Department for Social Development, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education, amongst others.

Mr P Robinson: Again, that matter does not relate either to the June monitoring round or to the out-turn for the previous year. Obviously, cross-cutting issues bring onto the radar the role of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If the Office is to be involved in cross-cutting issues, the Member can raise that matter with the Deputy First Minister at Question Time later today.

Every Member could produce a long list of issues that are important to him or her. That being the case, those issues cannot be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. It is important to consider all those pressures and requirements as part of a comprehensive and strategic overview of where our money should be going. That will be done as part of the process of considering the comprehensive spending review, which will occur over the autumn. I hope that the Member will engage in that process and that full consultation will take place.

Executive Committee Business

Budget Bill

Final Stage

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

That the Budget Bill [NIA 3/07] do now pass.

Again, I thank the Committee for Finance and Personnel for agreeing to the accelerated passage of this Bill. Although I appreciate that the Bill is effectively authorising spending plans that are linked to a direct rule Budget, the preceding debates have been constructive, and, again, I thank Members for their contributions.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Rather than risk your ire, I am not going to repeat what has already been said. The Minister set out the proposition. It was entirely pragmatic and sensible to take that approach, and my Committee was happy to support the Minister’s proposal.

Mr Beggs: First, I want to reiterate my previous support for the Budget Bill. It would have been impractical to have tried to change the Budget in the midterm, and, for that reason, I will continue to support the Budget Bill in its Final Stage.

However, I want to highlight some issues contained in the Budget Bill and the Northern Ireland Estimates 2007-08 booklet that Members will have to consider carefully at departmental level and on subsequent occasions.

The Budget allocates some £80 million to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The net cash provision for the previous financial year was £60 million. That amounts to a 30% increase in one year, which is a significant increase. Interestingly, the last provisional figures that I was able to get my hands on showed £42·6 million for 2002-03. Therefore, since the last period of devolution, funding for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has almost doubled.

It is important to remember that many of the functions of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister do not deliver services. It is important that the amount of funding that is granted to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is balanced, because, on many occasions, it does not deliver goods on the ground.

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I noticed one particular resource request from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — “To assist Government in making and implementing well-informed decisions and improving public services” — for £41 million, which is a 30% increase on the previous financial year. The amount requested for the last full year of devolution, 2001-02, was £15 million. That is a 268% increase during the intervening period.

I accept that some specific expenses account for some of that increase, including £9·5 million for the Strategic Investment Board and £6 million for an Executive programme fund initiative that was previously not in full swing. Nevertheless, there are other headings on page 269 of ‘Northern Ireland Estimates 2007-08’ that show that OFMDFM is absorbing significant amounts of money. Under the heading “Support for government and other services”, there is a 60% increase in the request for funding: from £11·8 million in 2001-02 to £18·9 million in 2007-08. There is a massive increase in Government bureaucracy, which does not deliver services on the ground.

It is important that we all have markers when we return to our Committees to start the process of considering future Budgets. We must ensure that money goes to services and their delivery.

As I went through the detailed Estimates, I attempted to ascertain whether any outcomes from the St Andrews Agreement were addressed in the current Budget, but I could not find any. Can the Minister advise us of any costs that might flow from the St Andrews Agreement? I refer in particular to the commitment that has been made for there to be two new North/South bodies; the new all-island consultative forum, which many had previously opposed but which has now been agreed; and the new North/South parliamentary forum. No Estimates for those bodies appear to have been provided, so it would be helpful to know how those additional bodies are to be financed.

Dr Farry: We, like others, are content with this Budget, which has been inherited from direct rule Ministers. Due to the timing of devolution, the Assembly has had little opportunity to influence the Budget’s shape. However, in order to ensure the continuation of public services, it is our duty to ensure that funding is in place. That said, we cannot be complacent and underestimate Northern Ireland’s public-expenditure problems or ignore the efficiency savings that the overall Budget contains.

I point out to Mr Beggs that under devolution in its previous incarnation from 1999, OFMDFM acted as a huge vacuum cleaner, sucking up functions that ordinarily would belong to other Departments.

It is also worth pointing out that there are considerable inefficiencies in Northern Ireland because of the sheer number of Departments that we have. Moreover, the division of functions among Departments is not always logical, and that creates budgeting difficulties. The Minister mentioned the large degree of underspend. The proliferation of Departments creates difficulty in maintaining firm discipline right across the board.

It is important that, in future, we do not simply use this Budget as our template and make only minor variations here and there to suit our changing priorities. We must take a root-and-branch look at what our public spending priorities are. We must ensure that we have a defined set of priorities that are linked to specific outputs, and we must allocate the necessary resources based on those priorities. The Assembly should, as far as possible, work from a clean sheet when allocating our public expenditure.

As things stand, however, these Benches are happy that the Budget Bill pass.

Ms J McCann: I agree with the Committee for Finance and Personnel and its Chairperson, but I wish to make a few comments on the Budget.

The economy of the North of Ireland is characterised by unacceptable and unsustainable levels of poverty. Some 31% of 16- to 60-year-olds lack paid work. Some 22% of the workforce is on low wages. Nearly 25% of households are unable to afford adequate home heating. Almost 100,000 children and 50,000 pensioners live in income poverty, and there are 3,000 premature deaths per annum as a result of disadvantage and poverty.

Those unacceptable and unsustainable levels of poverty expose the extent of discrimination and disadvantage in our society. In the past, we have had no control over our own resources, and that has left us with an economy with patterns that, year after year, have produced alarming evidence of intensifying inequality and disadvantage. We must correct the huge infrastructure deficit that has arisen from the successive failures to invest in essential services such as water, sewerage, transport, hospitals and education.

It is not good enough, year after year, to allocate money that results only in the deepening of patterns of inequality and disadvantage. Only a firm commitment to address the issues of discrimination and disadvantage will allow us the opportunity to overcome that which is morally and economically unsustainable. The examination of how public procurement expenditure can integrate economic and social requirements, and the ring-fencing of projects that directly impact on discrimination and poverty, are examples of ways in which we can begin to reverse the conditions that have created the so-called basket economy. There is a huge budget for procurement, and we must agree measures such as local labour clauses that ensure that procurement meets equality conditions.

We must ensure that the companies that receive those contracts meet base conditions, which include good wages and employment of apprentices, and, thus, contribute to local economic welfare and growth. It is only through our joint commitment to ending discrimination and poverty, and by securing human rights for all our people, that we can do that.

Mr P Robinson: First, I shall address some of the points made by the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs, who referred to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and complained — or asked — about the increases in its spending. OFMDFM is a creation of the Member’s party, and the DUP would have done things differently. Mr Beggs will not draw me into a position where I end up defending this Budget — this is not our Budget. Like everyone else, we are accepting the Budget because we are already into the financial year. We cannot change course, particularly as allocations had been made to Departments before devolution and, as a result, they had made all of the agencies and other bodies aware of the funds that would be made available to them.

It is not our Budget — we accept it, but we shall not defend it. It is, as has been indicated, the inherited direct rule Budget. Mr Beggs asked specifically about additional costs that arise from the St Andrews Agreement. There would be considerable savings for the public purse as a result of the St Andrews Agreement if people gave their support to the police, the courts and the rule of law. A lawful society will cost a lot less than one wherein we have to pay compensation, replace buildings and the like.

I also point out to Mr Beggs that the St Andrews Agreement was not signed up to by any of the parties — it was an agreement between two Governments. There are elements of that agreement that the DUP has publicly opposed, and continues to oppose politically. I suspect that the elements that Mr Beggs referred to are proposals from the two Governments, but I will take no lessons from the UUP on setting up bodies and structures that are costly. The labyrinth of structures that were created as a result of the Belfast Agreement are down to the UUP, and Mr Beggs did not get to his feet in the Chamber to complain about the cost of all of them, so we will look at his record before listening to his remarks.

It is becoming unhealthy, but I often find myself agreeing with the Member for North Down Dr Farry. He mentioned the number of Government Departments — perhaps he will be joining the DUP. The Member must realise that the more Departments there are, the more difficult it is to get a co-ordinated and, as he describes it, disciplined approach. The Assembly must address the number of Government Departments. An institutional review Committee has been set up, and that is one of the issues that it is looking at, I hope energetically, so that we can address it quickly.

I agree with him that the priorities that we set must be linked, and there has to be a direct correlation between our priorities and strategies, the Programme for Govern­ment and the expenditure that we set aside in the comprehensive spending review.

The Sinn Féin Member Ms J McCann spoke about disadvantage and poverty. They were considered by the Programme for Government Committee or the Preparation for Government Committee — I am never sure which, as we morphed from one to the other during the summer months. Those issues represent a challenge to the Executive.

If devolution is to mean anything, it has to make a difference in people’s lives. I am not just thinking of the high flyers in society but of those who are disadvantaged and find it difficult to make ends meet as well. However, we are better able as a society to deal with those people if we have an economy that is robust and has grown and if it is a high-value-added economy. If there is more money in the pockets of the people of Northern Ireland that helps to boost the economy too.

Those are the main issues that were raised during the course of the short debate. I welcome the continued contribution of Members, and when we get down to the busy process of working out the Budget in the autumn, we will all want to see our thumbprints on it. We will work through the Assembly and its Committees, and I hope that we can have an energetic discussion during the course of the consultation, so that when we come back we will have a Budget that people can support. We want a Budget that people will recognise does have a Northern Ireland impact, the nuance of those who are elected by the people to speak on their behalf, and priorities that are linked to the needs that we find as spokespersons for the electorate and citizens of Northern Ireland.

Mr Speaker: No other Members wish to speak to the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Budget Bill [NIA 3/07] do now pass.

Welfare Reform Bill

Final Stage

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move

That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 1/07] do now pass.

I do not wish to go over the provisions of the Bill in any detail, but I should comment briefly on what has been achieved. The Bill introduces a new employment and support allowance to replace the current incapacity benefits. The allowance will help to give individuals more relevant support to enable them to stay in, or return to, work. There was a lengthy debate on how people suffering from a mental-health condition may be affected by some aspects of the new allowance.

I reiterate that it is our aim to help and support people to get back to work. The new system will handle people sensitively and sympathetically, and I fully appreciate that this is about people and their concerns. I want to assure them that they will get all the help and encouragement that they need to fulfil their potential, and we will support those who suffer from mental-health conditions at every possible opportunity.

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The Bill also provides the framework to reform and improve how housing benefit is designed and administrated, including the introduction of a local housing allowance in the private-rented sector.

Concerns have been raised about some of the housing benefit reforms, particularly the power to pay the benefit directly to the tenant rather than to the landlord. I have made it clear that I wish to proceed cautiously on that matter, and I have agreed to work with the Committee for Social Development to consider all the issues before deciding on the way ahead. The important point is that I will consult the Committee before making any decisions on how to proceed.

The Bill also creates greater power to tackle benefit fraud. It includes measures to clarify the law on disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance. Other minor, but important, issues are included in order that various aspects of existing legislation can be clarified, with the aim of making those provisions simpler to administer and easier to understand.

The Bill also provides an easing of the relevant employer conditions, making it easier for a person suffering as a result of having certain dust-related diseases, including mesothelioma, to claim a compensation payment. It is anticipated that the corresponding provisions of the Westminster Act will come into force in July 2007. Subject to Royal Assent, our aim is to commence our provisions as close as possible to that date.

The debates on the Bill have been lively and challenging, and although I have not always agreed with some of the views that have been expressed, they have been worthwhile. I appreciate Members’ concerns about ensuring that the most vulnerable are treated properly as a result of the Bill. I too share those concerns. I am grateful for the support for the Bill from parties across the House.

Some Members expressed reservations about the use of accelerated passage. In truth, I would like to be able to introduce legislation on social benefit, but parity and financial implications mean that other measures become necessary. Had we not been able to avail of accelerated passage, in all probability, the Bill would have taken several months to complete its passage. Indeed, the process would probably have been completed near the end of the year. Therefore, there would have been financial implications for the types of people about whom I have already spoken.

In the earlier debates, I spoke at length about parity, and I trust that all parties recognise the major advantage that that brings. It is difficult to argue that the implementation of parity social security legislation should be delayed for several months. We can avail of accelerated passage, so why deny the people of Northern Ireland the same rights as people in Britain? I am not saying that that procedure is perfect. However, as the Bill proceeded, we were able to debate fully the issues that Members wanted to discuss. As far as I am aware, every Member who wanted to speak was able to do so, and I trust that I answered every question that was asked of me.

As I said before, I do not seek to use the accelerated passage procedure lightly, and I firmly believe that each Bill must be considered on its merits. However, I ask those Members who expressed concern about the use of accelerated passage to consider carefully what I have said.

I am grateful to the Committee for Social Develop­ment and to Assembly Members for the positive way in which they have worked with me to progress this important Bill. I thank Members for their contributions to what have been lively and worthwhile debates, from the acceptance of accelerated passage and through each of the Bill’s Stages to today’s Final Stage.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): As I mentioned at an earlier debate, the intention to break the link between welfare and dependency is to be welcomed. Hopefully, that somewhat ambitious aspiration will become a reality.

The Bill was granted accelerated passage, so the Committee for Social Development was not able to conduct a detailed examination of it. However, I want to assure the House that the Committee will play a major role in considering the practical implications of welfare reform.

Several proposals for statutory rules will emanate from the Welfare Reform Bill, and the Committee for Social Development will consider the merits and policy implications of each one. I would like to thank the Minister for Social Development again for giving an unequivocal undertaking to consult fully with the Committee, at its request, before making any regulations that would change the current method of paying housing benefits to landlords. The Committee does not want to see the people whom the Bill is designed to help become more dependent on welfare.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin’s objections to certain sections of the Welfare Reform Bill have been well aired. While there are parts of the Bill that we can support, Sinn Féin was put in a position where if it had opposed the Welfare Reform Bill on the grounds of accelerated passage, those most in need would have had benefits withheld, which would have been unacceptable. Subsequently, Sinn Féin was told that that would not have been the case for the majority of those receiving benefits, so the Minister for Social Development certainly succeeded in muddying the waters.

The amendments were tabled by Sinn Féin for the right reason: to make the Bill work more effectively for the people affected by its remit. Members who voted against them may consider that they were relevant when they are representing constituents, particularly at tribunals. The amendments were not tabled to score political points but to help those whom Members represent.

The agreement to allow a Bill to receive accelerated passage should not be perceived as rubber-stamping that Bill or as acquiescence to all its clauses. Due consideration should be given to all pieces of legislation, and Sinn Féin will table all amendments that are relevant and necessary. Surely that is one reason for debate here. To castigate Members for proposing amendments to Bills that have been given accelerated passage is to undermine the process of accelerated passage. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Hilditch: My party and I have supported the Welfare Reform Bill at each of the Stages. Last Monday, when several amendments were tabled at the Second Stage, Members had a lengthy and informed debate, with many contributors raising and supporting aspects of clauses of the Bill that affect many of our constituents on a daily basis. The issues that were dealt with included concerns for those who suffer from mental-health problems; those with lung problems; housing allowance issues; and the need for parity, which is essential.

Those matters were dealt with to the satisfaction of the majority of the House and the Committee for Social Development. Having that debate, in spite of the process of accelerated passage, was beneficial. I thank the Minister for Social Development for giving Members the opportunity to raise matters through questions and correspondence and also for coming to the Committee for Social Development to assure Members on shared concerns.

The Committee for Social Development looks forward to the next time that matters of welfare are brought forward, when Members will undertake a much more robust review.

Ms Ritchie: I thank Members for their contributions to the debate, and I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Social Development. I look forward to working with the Committee on the practical implications of the workings of the Welfare Reform Bill. I want to see the good governance that can be achieved when a Minister works along with a Committee to achieve good objectives.

The Committee for Social Development and I want to achieve the implementation of financial measures that will benefit the public. I emphasise that people who suffer from certain mental-health conditions will be treated in the most sensitive and sympathetic manner. I assure the House that all Social Security Agency staff will seek to do that.

Mr Brady referred to parity and accelerated passage. I explained the reasons for parity during the debates on the Bill and during meetings with the Committee for Social Development. I expressed my earnest desire to introduce social security legislation, but we are constrained by financial implications.

I do not want anyone being without benefit or disallowed benefit as a result of the Bill not being granted accelerated passage.

I want to put on record that I have never muddied the waters about the Bill, either during Committee meetings or when the Bill was going through its various Stages in the House. I made it clear that I wanted people to be able to avail of easements to claim compensation payments for asbestos-related diseases and mesothelioma. However, I will explain the issue again.

The Bill provides for an easement of the relevant employer conditions, making it easier for a person suffering from certain dust-related diseases to claim compensation payment. It is anticipated that the corresponding provisions of the Westminster Welfare Reform Act 2007 will come into force next month. Subject to Royal Assent, my aim is to commence our provisions as close as possible to that date — hence the need for accelerated passage.

No Member wants people who have suffered from asbestosis, or their relatives, to suffer financial detriment. As the Minister, I do not want that to happen; the Chairperson and members of the Committee for Social Development do not want that to happen; and I am sure that Members do not want that to happen. I have apprised the House fully of all the measures.

I was pleased with the level of consensus that debates on the Bill enjoyed across the Floor. I look forward to working with the Committee in the coming months as we seek to deliver the opportunities that the Bill can offer.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Welfare Reform Bill [NIA 1/07] do now pass.

Private Members’ Business


Mr 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.

Mrs Hanna: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that all carers, formal and informal, can access services and support to maintain their own health and well-being, to recognise financially the vital role they play and ensure uptake of all benefit entitlements.

It is timely that the Assembly is having this debate just one week after Carers Week — a week when the role of carers was rightly acknowledged throughout Northern Ireland. My personal experience of the week left me feeling that more must be done to raise awareness and provide practical help, and that is why I tabled the motion.

I have represented carers in many areas. I have represented the SDLP on the Civic Forum group, where we appointed carers, and when that body is up and running again, it is hoped that carers will come and talk to us.

Last week, I listened to a lady from Dunmurry being interviewed on Radio Ulster. She had cared for her husband, Danny, for 20 years until his recent death. She has just published a poetry collection, ‘Rose Petals Falling’. Those poems paint very moving pictures, and she summed up for me the unstinting care that is so often taken for granted.

There have been many debates in the Assembly on health, and rightly so. Carers provide so much health and community care, free of charge, in Northern Ireland. Other Departments are also involved with carers, especially the Department for Social Development in regard to benefits, the Department for Employment and Learning, and the Department of Education.

Just a few minutes ago, I asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what support he would give when there were resource implications across several Departments, as, indeed, is the case in so many areas.

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Worryingly, however, the vast majority of carers say that caring requires great commitment and has a negative impact on their health and well-being. Many have had no proper training and receive no support in carrying out their role. Scores have experienced physical injury as a result of their role, and many suffer from exhaustion due to full-time caring. A third of carers, for example, look after a relative for more than 50 hours a week and rarely leave their homes. Carers’ organisations work together to provide better services and support, and they have documented the shortfalls in the system. I shall touch on some of those issues.

I call on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the other Ministers involved, to ensure that those who provide services make certain that formal and informal carers can access all the support that they need in order to maintain their health and well-being. I have cared for relations, but, fortunately for me, on a rota basis, with the rest of my family. Even then, with the best will and love in the world, it puts a strain on relationships.

Carers deserve a good quality of life, and it is vital that they do not become socially excluded. Support for carers’ health can take various forms: practical support, such as help in the home; emotional support, such as befriending, counselling and stress management; or an occasional break.

To make matters worse, most carers have no formal training. I believe that there is a need for a regional approach to carer training to support them in their role. They need the opportunity to pursue their own lives and a break from the demanding round-the-clock work that can often lead to a sense of frustration and which can, at times, push people to uncharacteristic measures and actions when looking after a loved one. That puts a strain on the best of relationships. I understand that there was a discussion on the radio this morning during which all the issues about caring for the carers, and the people who are being cared for, were aired.

Parents and families who care for a relative with a learning disability always have the added worry of who will continue the role when they are gone, as well as the present dilemma that they face when the child finishes full-time education at 18 years of age. There is a gap in services and care, and cross-departmental work is absolutely essential to fill that void.

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

In its manifesto, the SDLP stated the need for access to suitable respite provision. That is a key priority. Respite periods are essential for children and adults with chronic illness and disability, and, at the same time, provide a break for those who help to look after them. That type of support for carers is critical; it provides a breathing space in which to maintain other relationships and to do the things that most of us take for granted. Respite provision needs to be more flexible and more creatively thought through. There is a strong case for legislation that provides a statutory right to entitlement. Perhaps carers’ working needs should be considered under the EU working time directive.

Health services, however, still have a strong duty in that area, particularly in the nursing and personal care input to the respite, particularly for older people and people with a severe mental or physical illness. It must always be remembered that the people being cared for have their own personalities and their own wants and needs and should be treated as individuals, like the rest of us, and with the same rights.

Carers save the state £1·9 billion a year, and it is important that the Government put in place effective and practical financial support for the estimated 69,000 people in Northern Ireland who face new caring responsibilities each year and for the 250,000 people who currently are carers. There must be a simpler way to access benefit entitlements. The Government must improve their information services so that people know their rights and take up the benefits to which they are entitled.

Across the UK, there is an estimated £746 million in unclaimed benefits. In Northern Ireland, approximately 3,700 carers who are over 60 years of age are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled. Research by Carers Northern Ireland has shown that the current benefit system does not allow carers an acceptable standard of living. It does not recognise or value carers for their contribution.

Carers struggle daily to pay their mortgage, or rent, and their bills. They find it difficult to pay for basic necessities, which is totally unacceptable for people who give so much. From this year, legislation gives employees the right to request flexible working hours if they provide unpaid care for adults who are chronically ill, disabled or frail. According to figures produced by Carers Northern Ireland, 83,000 carers are trying to balance paid working with unpaid caring. More needs to be done to ensure that they do not lose out on job prospects. Many carers have to leave the workplace — or never have the opportunity to enter the workplace — because of full-time caring for a relative.

Moneys were announced by the former Minister with responsibility for health, Mr Paul Goggins, and Big Lottery funding is now in place for young people who care for sick parents and siblings. However, there is a continuing need for funding to ensure a consistent approach to addressing the needs of young carers who are missing out on their childhood.

I hope that the debate will initiate positive and concrete action that will make a real difference to the lives of the most deserving, but often overlooked, section of our society.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the Member’s tabling this timely motion. Although the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has not yet had an opportunity to consider carers’ issues in any formal way, its members are fully aware of the vital, and often unrecognised, role played by carers in our society. I am pleased that a member of the Health Committee has tabled the motion, and I am sure other Committee members will want to take part in the debate.

Last week, the Health Committee had an extremely useful informal meeting with a dedicated group of carers. The group, which is entirely made up of volunteer carers and based in the former Down Lisburn Trust area, has been in existence for approximately 17 years. The group specifically highlights and campaigns on issues relating to people with learning disabilities and their carers, and provides a much-needed advocacy service. The group is not restricted to that area and was keen to point out that it works with other groups, right across the Province.

I am fully conscious that the group is just one of many dedicated and committed groups working with, and for, carers throughout Northern Ireland. The group did, however, highlight a number of serious issues that, I am sure, apply equally in other areas. I will mention two of those, specifically.

First, people with a learning disability are living much longer. It is not unusual to find people well over pension age who have a severe learning disability and who are, in turn, cared for by an elderly parent or relative. In addition, an increasing number of elderly learning disabled people have, or are in the early stages of, dementia. The group highlighted the fact that existing facility providers are either unable or reluctant to provide the type of care required. The group is calling for the development of specialist care units throughout Northern Ireland — a call that I support.

The second issue relates to people at the other end of the spectrum — children and young people with a severe learning disability. The group emphasised the fact that parents are often consumed by the constant day-to-day role that will always be required, simply to meet the physical and health needs of the child. The group underlines the need for a greater recognition of the fact that such families — not only the parents but brothers and sisters — often face additional emotional and mental pressures and may require further family support.

I am sorry that I missed the first few minutes of Carmel Hanna’s speech; I do not know whether she used any of the available statistics. Approximately three million working carers in the UK deal with the stresses of what might seem like two jobs — one paid, the other unpaid — and meet the needs of both. Six in every 10 carers provide substantial amounts of care and have given up paid work in order to care for their loved ones.

Carers who work should be encouraged and supported to remain at work for as long as possible, or for as long as they choose. Every year, more than two million people across the UK become carers. Whatever the pressures, it is important for new carers to consider how their new situation is likely to affect their lives. Is it likely to affect a carer’s job, or relationships with a partner, children or other family members? Will a carer’s own health be put at risk through the stress of taking on caring respons­ibilities such as lifting the patient?

Many of the estimated 250,000 people in Northern Ireland who look after those who are sick, frail or disabled are unaware of the help that they are entitled to from the Government and from social services. The sad reality is that people do not necessarily identify themselves as carers, and estimates suggest that 40% to 60% of the available disability benefits go unclaimed.

The subject of carers is too wide-ranging to cover in a five-minute statement or presentation, so I will leave it at that. I look forward to a healthy debate in the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety as it revisits the matter in the coming weeks.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and thank Carmel Hanna for tabling the motion. I share her sentiments in wanting to see action as a result of the debate.

Carers contribute hugely to society. In 2002, the unpaid work of carers was worth £1·9 billion — the same amount that the Assembly spent on health and social care in that year. Carers must be supported so that their own health and well-being are not damaged by looking after some of the most vulnerable people in the community. We must invest in carers now.

In October 2000, my party colleague, Bairbre de Brún, the then Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the previous Executive, commissioned a strategy for carers. She identified that the key aim of the strategy was:

“to identify practical measures that make a real difference to the lives of carers”.

Subsequent consultations with carers and representatives of carers’ organisations resulted in the adoption of five key principles that would underline Government support for carers, and I will take this opportunity to remind Members of those five principles.

First, carers should be seen as real and equal partners in care provision and at every level of public sector planning and service delivery. They should also have equal status with other care providers. Secondly, carers need flexible and responsive support. All carers are individuals and have their own needs. They look after people with a wide range of needs and abilities in what can be complex and emotionally charged relationships. One solution will not fit all; carers must be able to make real choices based on relevant, timely and accessible information.

Thirdly, carers have a right to a life outside their caring responsibilities and should be given the opportunity, if they so wish, to rest and relax and to have a social life outside the home. The fourth principle is that carers should be freely chosen and should be allowed to decide what level of caring support, if any, they can give at any particular time.

Finally, Government should invest in carers as they would in statutory providers of care, and they should make resources available that would have a real impact on carers’ lives. Most of the resources devoted to caring are the carer’s own — their time, energy and emotional commitment — but, in order to continue, carers need help. Any support that a carer receives to enable him or her to continue caring should be seen as a legitimate right.

Those five principles should underpin the decision of any Department that would have an impact on the lives of carers. We have a job to do to encourage people to recognise themselves as carers and enable them to gain access to the benefits mentioned earlier by Mrs Hanna.

We must encourage carers to access the appropriate benefits, which are at nowhere near the level that they should be. We must provide signposting to ensure that carers protect their own health and well-being. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

1.45 pm

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I thank Mrs Hanna for proposing the motion. If one group in our community needs the admiration and thanks of this House, it is carers.

As has been mentioned, caring for sick and elderly relatives takes a toll on the carers. Carers are more than twice as likely to suffer from poor health than those who do not have caring responsibilities. Some 21% of carers are in poor health, compared to 11% of the overall population.

It is perhaps symptomatic of the selflessness involved in caring for another person that more than £660 million of benefits, which could be claimed by carers, remains unclaimed across the United Kingdom. Research has shown that more than half of carers were unaware that they were entitled to an assessment. That assessment is the way to push open the door for greater support.

The value of the support given by carers has been conservatively estimated at £57 billion. In the United Kingdom, some six million people fall into the category of carer. Those figures alone — quite apart from the humanity of the situation — show that not only must we invest in carers but we must ensure that they take up the public investment available to them.

Almost three million carers, about half of all carers, are in the 45 to 65 age group, and the strain of caring puts their health in greater jeopardy. In Northern Ireland, around one in 10 carers suffers from ill health. That figure rises to one in five for those people who provide substantial levels of care for more than 50 hours a week. That ill health not only takes the form of physical strain and debility but frequently mental ill-health, ranging from depression to loss of self-esteem, anxiety and general stress.

Caring not only interrupts an individual’s career, it can destroy it. The price paid by a carer is often too personally distressing to quantify. Much can be done to alleviate, if not remove, the problems faced by carers, and we must do all in our power to make sure that that happens. Isolation, loss of self-esteem, and financial distress must be addressed.

Research shows that 77% of carers have become worse off as a result of becoming carers. Furthermore, 35% of carers struggle to pay bills. Even more worryingly, 22% of carers cut back on food bills in order to make ends meet. As I said, the value of the work that carers do has been estimated at £57 billion. That figure must be considered in our financial calculations in determining how much help and support they need.

One area where the Assembly can make an impact is in that of avoidable cost. The timely provision of information on available support, before an issue becomes a major problem, must be closely examined. That information can dramatically improve the way in which carers manage caring. It can make their tasks easier and better managed.

The state is involved in the crucial issue of facilitating carers to remain in their jobs for longer. That can alleviate the financial pressures on a family and prevent the loss of tax revenue to the state. That tax revenue, in turn, helps to fund some caring support services. However, that calls for flexibility in delivering services and support — perhaps greater flexibility than exists at present.

The timing of support is important. Sufficient support at critical times, such as when a person is discharged from hospital, could make a major difference and could prevent a problem becoming a long-term crisis. Govern­ment must focus on preventing the social exclusion and isolation of carers — they do care. Government must ensure that information is targeted and effective.

The health of the carer must form part of the assessment process as well as the health of the person who is cared for. I suggest that welfare days in GP surgeries would be an effective way to publicise —

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

Mr McCarthy: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I fully support the motion, and I commend Carmel Hanna for bringing it to the Floor of the House.

As someone with 37 years’ experience of caring in my family home, I feel rightly qualified to speak on this important subject. Like most other carers, our family takes the job of looking after our daughter as something that must be done. We get on with it with as little complaint as possible. We hope that our efforts contribute to the best quality of life for our daughter.

I pay tribute to all those who work in social services, general medical practice, education facilities, respite provision and to all those who have provided a first-class service for people with learning difficulties. I also wish to pay tribute to my family and, in particular, my wife for her dedication to our daughter, Judy, over the past 37 years. Only people in similar circumstances know the commitment that must be made to someone with a learning difficulty or to someone in their later years.

The Alliance Party’s manifesto for the last Assembly election in March 2007 highlighted the need for carers to be better resourced and called for the eligibility criteria for financial support to be lowered. My party also called for carers to receive, at least, the equivalent of the minimum wage. Furthermore, we stated that carers should have access to the appropriate support facilities and that they should be entitled to flexible working hours. I am delighted to say that new legislation, effective from the beginning of April this year, gives rights to employees who are also carers. That is a most welcome development.

I salute all those involved in Carers Northern Ireland, Belfast Carers’ Centre and other organisations for their work and commitment to inform and offer support to carers throughout Northern Ireland. Our Government must do all in their power to ensure that people who care for someone in the family are aware of their entitlements. For too long, the Exchequer has saved millions of pounds while ordinary people have struggled to care for family members. For too long, Government have ignored the enormous contribution made by so many people. That must stop. Every carer in the country must be recognised and be given the support that they need.

I understand that a carer’s weekly allowance is £48·65. Although that cash is welcome, it falls far short of a sufficient reward for the work done by carers. It is estimated that £4 million in benefits is unclaimed every year in Northern Ireland. That is a staggering figure; many dedicated people are not even aware of their entitlements. I appeal to local Departments to find new ways of telling carers what is available. That plea is not only to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety but to other Departments.

For too long, carers have been taken for granted. That must stop. It is time for action; sympathy and honeyed words are no longer acceptable. It is time for the Assembly and our Ministers to put their money where their mouths are and ensure that carers of every sort are fully supported, thereby allowing those who are cared for to enjoy a much better quality of life. I support the motion.

Mr Shannon: I support the motion and thank Mrs Hanna for proposing it.

What is a carer? The definition of a carer is so wide-ranging that it is difficult to describe adequately. Broadly speaking, a carer is someone who looks after a person who suffers from ill health or disability. In Northern Ireland, over 185,000 people look after loved ones. That figure gives an idea of the extent of the debate. Today, there is a group of disabled visitors at Stormont. The reason that they were able to visit is that their carers have accompanied them. In Northern Ireland, over 46,000 carers work over 50 hours each week. That does not include the number of children who divide their time between caring for an elderly parent and getting the messages for an elderly friend next door. Those 46,000 people work over and above the hours of nine-to-five workers, yet have much less to show for doing so.

The age range of carers is from 16 years to 83 years. Recently, however, the carers’ charity, Crossroads, said that more children per capita are carers in the Province than in any other part of the UK. The charity said that children as young as 12 years of age are taking on household responsibilities and chores for which, Members can be assured, they are not being paid.

Recently, it was discovered that over £660 million of benefits are not being claimed by carers across the UK. When one considers that massive amount of money, the question that springs to mind is: why? The Assembly must ensure that people who are entitled to those benefits access them, because that income will make their lives that little bit easier.

Lately, I researched the different benefits that are available for carers. As I did so, I was amazed by the intricate way in which they are presented. I am not surprised that many people do not claim the money to which they are entitled: to drag themselves through a quagmire of paperwork and confusing questions is difficult.

As I examined those benefits, it occurred to me that six out of 10 people who have severe learning difficulties are cared for by their parents, a third of whom are over 70 years of age. Not only do those people continue to struggle, they continue to be under pressure financially, mentally and emotionally and are socially excluded because they have little idea of the help that is available to them.

Another Member referred to the £57 billion that the NHS is saved every year by carers who take on respons­ibility for their loved ones. It is time that the NHS put that money back into the system for the people who need it. The fact is that 66% of carers are unable to work because of the immense pressure caused by providing full-time care for a loved one. Make no mistake: it is a full-time job, yet carers do not receive wages. It is for that reason that research that was carried out by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in 2005 found that 50% of people who are in the poverty and social-exclusion bracket are carers. It also found that 92% of carers do not receive the proper benefits.

In my constituency, isolation increases further down the peninsula. That isolation must not be compounded because someone cannot afford to leave the house. In England, Scotland and Wales, forms can be filled out on the Internet to make access to benefits easier. Although, I accept that that does not suit everyone, it is time that a similar facility was introduced in the Province. The Assembly must ensure that, Province-wide, those who provide care are made fully aware of their entitlements.

There are carers’ forums, including one in my area. Unfortunately, few people are aware of them. Those who attend have told me that the two hours that they spend talking to people who understand the pressure and who are available as a support network during hard times are invaluable; they could not manage otherwise. However, those forums are not given the focus and attention that they deserve. That has resulted in dropping numbers and has led to the closure of a carers’ group in neighbouring Bangor. I have no wish to see that invaluable source of relief for carers fail in Ards as well. Such groups allow for discussion and for interesting people to come along and talk about relevant matters, which helps to reduce the pressure that carers are under.

I could say much more on the issue. However, time is against me. I shall finish by informing the House that 80% of carers are close to breaking point; 50% of them suffer from illness that has been caused by stress and workload. Those statistics must not get worse. The Minister must intervene with a strategy that is designed to achieve relief for those vital, yet often ignored, members of the community. I support the motion.

2.00 pm

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I join all Members who have already spoken in welcoming Carmel Hanna’s motion, and I commend her for bringing this very important issue before the Assembly. As has been outlined, the volume of work provided by carers is immeasurable and invaluable and has been taken for granted for too long. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 carers in the North: an invisible workforce.

According to the 2001 census, as many as 8,500 children are providing substantial care for their families. Those under the age of 23 are considered young carers, and the average age of a young carer is 12 years of age. Young carers carry out substantial care in support of their families. They also provide in excess of 50 hours a week of care, helping with domestic responsibilities including the challenge of washing and dressing the person they are caring for. That is emotionally and physically challenging for those who are so young.

The health and well-being of carers are often overlooked. As the debate has borne out, there is a strong sense that all carers need support and that that support is far too scarce.

To relate the thoughts of a carer:

“You come into your road and everyone’s house is lit up, but you’re coming back to a dark house. You put the key in the door and you don’t know what you are going to find when you go inside. There’s so much stress, so many nights without sleep, and then you have to go into work next day and do a full day’s work. It seems to last a lifetime.”

If we were to take a straw poll in the Assembly today, most of us would know at least one full-time carer. However, there are many carers whom we are not aware of, whose daily struggle is hidden and who care for people whose needs are not obvious, such as the sufferers of mental illness.

Many carers still struggle alone and cannot access help, perhaps because they do not know where, or how, to find help, or because they feel awkward or embarrassed about asking. The emotional stress and financial pressure that they are enduring must be recognised and addressed.

We need to discuss the value of carers’ work, which is currently estimated at £1·9 billion each year. The carer’s allowance is a mere £45 a week, the lowest benefit, and many carers have to give up their jobs to stay at home full time to look after a loved one, and food, heating, clothes, holidays and leisure are cut back. The stress and worry over finance place additional burdens on carers and undoubtedly affect their own health.

Helen Ferguson, director of Carers Northern Ireland, stated that:

“Carers are often forced out of work because the social care system cannot give them the support they need. They give so much to society yet due to caring, they experience ill health and poverty. Carers feel short changed by the system.”

Carers need financial, practical and emotional support, and to feel recognised and socially included. The Health Committee recently met the former Down Lisburn carers forum and heard first-hand of the difficulties that carers face. No one at that meeting could fail to be impressed by the level of care and commitment they displayed. They spoke of their need for support and the need for the Assembly to consider measures that would enhance quality of life for them and the people they cared for. They need, among other things, quality day care; a review of invalid care allowance; and advocacy and support for families.

I commend Mrs Hanna’s worthy motion to the Assembly, and I am proud to support it.

Mr Buchanan: The motion is worthy, and I am quite sure that it will command the support of all parties. I commend the SDLP Member for bringing it before the Assembly.

It is clear that the caring role is important and that many people rely upon it: not only those who are being cared for, but the health boards and trusts who depend on family members taking on that role. If family members and friends did not do so, the boards and trusts would be in even greater need of resources and staff.

Carers should therefore have access to support so that they can strike a balance between living their own lives and providing an individual care programme for their loved ones.

Often, individuals have no choice but to step into the role of caring for a loved one. A system that encouraged collaboration between families and professional carers would be of great benefit. Ideally, training and support services would be provided at an early stage; knowledge and experience would be shared; and each case would be assessed individually.

So often, one hears of Departments, businesses and services in desperate need of further finance. The Depart­ment of Health has many factors to consider in allocating funds, as do the Executive as a whole. Members of the Assembly are in a position to put forward the best possible case for carers and ensure that the motion is implemented. As a result, those who most need support will benefit.

Members will understand the enormous demands put on families in times of illness and how much work and dedication are required to keep normal family life running. For many, the burden can be very great. Without practical and emotional assistance, and without the necessary resources, it can be a most distressing experience for families. Were it not for the many who commit so much of their time to looking after a family member or close friend, the Health Department would undoubtedly face much more pressure.

The 2001 Northern Ireland household panel survey found that nine out of 10 carers are caring for a relative, yet only 9% of carers are in receipt of carer’s allowance. Individuals caring for a family member are deemed to be carers, so why are more resources and benefits not made available to them? What are the health and social services boards and health and social care trusts doing to reach family members who act as carers? Those questions must be answered.

According to Carers Northern Ireland, a survey carried out to mark carers’ week and published on 11 June revealed that:

“caring hits hard in the first year, with carers struggling to cope with changes in their personal situation and their finances as they start to give up work and have the extra costs of disability. After that, there is a steady decline in their financial situation over time.

Parents of disabled children under the age of 18 and those caring for adult disabled children were worst hit, suffering greater debt and difficulty in paying bills and having to borrow from friends and family.”

If a family member does the work that an employee of a health and social care trust should do, why not pay that person for doing that work? That would release more employees to help those patients who have no family support network. Benefits available to families must be easily accessed, as families have enough to do without undergoing an onslaught of interviews and paperwork. Carers should enjoy the same rights as all employees, and should be given a clear understanding of the benefits available. If they are entitled to benefits, those should be made available. If the process can be expedited and streamlined to reduce the burden on carers, it is our responsibility to raise awareness of the need for it.

Health boards and trusts should collaborate with carers, regardless of the patient’s condition, and should endeavour to help the family to provide the best possible care to the individual in need. Points of contact should be established in the local health and social care trust, and practical advice should be offered on relevant sources of finance. That would benefit carers. If the trusts got that right, it would encourage carers to continue in their role. Many family carers consider it their duty to assist family members, but, if they are assured of help, it will make their decision easier.

I support the motion, as it raises awareness of the benefit entitlements of carers.

Mr Savage: I thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I thank the proposer for bringing it to the attention of the House.

Speaking in the Assembly some weeks ago, I raised the issue of carers and the key role that they play on a day-to-day basis. The work that they do is invaluable, yet it is often forgotten or taken for granted. Members must provide immediate, imaginative and practical solutions to the problems faced by carers, which cut to the heart of the matter and meet the needs of carers.

That can be achieved only by collaboration and co-operation with all the relevant stakeholders from inside and outside the health and social services sector. That solution must in all ways, and at all times, reflect the needs of our carers. The financial burdens that carers face, and the detrimental effects that caring can have on their health, are simply not acceptable.

I am pleased to support the motion, and I trust that the Minister will do all in his power to ensure that carers have access to services and support to maintain their own health and well-being. We must recognise the vital role that carers play in today’s society and ensure that they take up all the benefit entitlements that are due to them. We are all aware of the important work that carers do, but sometimes their role is taken for granted. If the people who are being cared for were not being cared for in their homes, they would have to be cared for in hospitals, and we know the effect that that would have on our society. It is difficult to overestimate the value of the work that carers carry out, and, no matter what happens, they must be properly looked after.

Mrs M Bradley: I congratulate my colleague Carmel Hanna for proposing the motion.

Carers care, but do we care about the carer? To those who face the daily task of caring in either a formal or informal capacity, it would appear not.

Of the 185,000 carers in Northern Ireland, 8,349 are young carers under the age of 18. At an age when they are probably at their most vulnerable, young carers have to deal with the same problems that official care workers are employed and paid to deal with — although they are not very highly paid, they are, nonetheless, paid. Many young carers experience feelings of isolation and are sometimes subjected to abuse, suffer from depression, and almost always experience the general exhaustion and daily pressures that are part and parcel of being a carer.

Carers, in general, save the Government an estimated £1·9 billion, and they get very little in return. In fact, they receive the princely sum of £48·65 for approximately a 35-hour week. In real terms, that equates to £1·39 per hour. In this day and age, when equality issues are bandied about by all and sundry, informal carers are not even being awarded the minimum wage rate. The official minimum wage for 16- to 17-year-olds is £3·30, so there is a discrepancy of £1·91 an hour. All things being equal, the carer’s allowance benefit pertaining to that particular age group should be about £115·50.

For the most part, carers are not respected for the work that they do, and their dedication and commitment are largely ignored. That can often lead to the deterioration of carers’ health, and their suffering goes largely unreported by carers and undetected by social workers, if they have one. Their typically low income is a major worry for many carers who have no opportunity to boost their meagre income because of the long hours of care that they provide to their relatives, partners or friends.

The facts and figures speak for themselves. Some 48% of carers are in debt, or have been in debt, while 48% are worried about paying essential utility bills, or are already experiencing problems in paying them. Around 70% of carers — regardless of age — find that they no longer have the social life that they once enjoyed. Some 27% have had to reduce the amount that they spend on essential groceries, while 64% have no savings of any description. Many of our young carers have little or no help with their daily tasks, be they homework, household duties or generally running a home. Some are even unable to attend school regularly.

That is only a brief outline of some of the difficulties that carers face. I hope that those issues will be addressed in the strategy, ‘Caring for Carers: Recognising, Valuing and Supporting the Caring Role’, which was launched in January 2006. I apologise in advance to the Minister for my brashness, but can he tell me whether the £500,000 provided for the creation of a regional young carers’ service, which was announced in March of this year, will be annual recurrent funding and not simply funding put in place for 2007-08? Can the Minister also confirm that funding for existing young carers’ services will be kept in place?

2.15 pm

Many agencies do their best to alleviate the stresses and strains suffered by those who are known to be carers, no matter what age they are. However, no one can possibly understand or appreciate what life is like for someone who is responsible for caring for another human being who is living with an illness — no matter what type it is.

That is why the Assembly must act now to create the appropriate centre stage to allow us to deliver, through the correct statutory bodies, a less worrisome existence for carers and, in particular, provide lifeblood for young carers, some of whom are already on their knees in desperation. However, many more carers are afraid to ask for help in case they are viewed as being weak or unfit to carry out their caring duties.

I was a carer for some years, and, at times, I felt helpless, incapable and just plain desperate, even though I could rely on my husband and daughter to share my workload. Many carers are not lucky enough to have a solid support network that they can call upon for help in times of dire need, particularly if they care for people who suffer from both physical and mental illnesses.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for carers. However, respect and admiration will not put food on the table, provide an education or give respite when the carer feels that he or she has nothing more to give.

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

Mr Moutray: Like other Members, I commend Mrs Carmel Hanna for bringing the motion before the House.

In Northern Ireland alone, the support given by carers is worth an estimated £1·9 billion a year, and it has been calculated that about 11% of households contain a carer. Thankfully, some progress has been made in this area. Carers now have a legal right to an assessment of their needs, the purpose of which is to identify what help they require with caring, as well as identifying help that would maintain their own health and balance caring with other aspects of life, such as work and family commitments.

The Carers and Direct Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 requires health trusts to inform carers of their right to a carer’s assessment, and it gives trusts the powers to supply services directly to carers. The Act also permits trusts to make direct payments to carers, who are listed as:

“a) a person with parental responsibility for a disabled child;

(b) a disabled person with parental responsibility for a child; or

(c) a disabled child aged 16 or 17”.

A report on the long-term financial impact of caring, which was launched by Carers Northern Ireland two weeks ago, found that carers face severe financial penalties as soon as they start caring. The survey found that carers had to cut back on such important items as food, heating and clothes and had to give up their jobs and sacrifice their pensions, which left many worried about their financial futures.

Caring hits hard, particularly in the first year, with carers struggling to cope with the changes in their personal situations and finances as they start to give up work and face extra costs associated with disability. Three out of every five people will be carers at some point in their lives.

Another positive step is that, since early April, carers in Northern Ireland have a statutory right to request flexible working hours. Statistics from Carers UK indicate that there is an enormous turnover of carers, with almost 69,000 people in the Province facing a new caring responsibility each year.

Carers miss out on a massive amount of potential income. In 2005, it was estimated that carers in Northern Ireland were missing out on £4 million of unclaimed benefits and not getting the support and information that they needed. Missing out on a year’s carer’s allowance alone, at £46·95 a week, amounts to losing £2,441 a year.

Caring can also mean missing out on pension contributions. Every year, many older carers become entitled to pension credit, but they do not know that it is available. Last year, it was estimated that 3,700 carers over the age of 60 in Northern Ireland missed out on pension credits to which they were entitled.

Too many people simply accept the role of carer as being part and parcel of family life. They do not take the crucial step of recognising themselves as carers and finding out what is available to them.

Members must seek to ensure that carers receive what they deserve and what they are entitled to. I support the motion.

Mr Ross: I congratulate the Member for tabling the motion. She can rely on the DUP’s support.

As my colleague Mr Moutray mentioned, new legislation was introduced on 6 April 2007 that gives employees in Northern Ireland the statutory right to request flexible working hours if they provide unpaid care for frail, chronically ill or disabled adults. Helen Ferguson of Carers Northern Ireland described the legislation as:

“another milestone in our campaign to secure a better deal for carers and a step forward for everyone in promoting a modern, flexible and multiskilled workforce.”

That signifies another step for carers who, since being officially recognised in the 1990 policy document ‘People First’ as needing appropriate support packages, have sought to ensure that carers in Northern Ireland are given the help that they need. Six million people throughout the United Kingdom provide unpaid help and support to relatives, friends or partners who otherwise cannot manage because of their frailty, illness or disability. Many of the 83,000 carers in Northern Ireland, however, remain unknown to statutory agencies. It is important that the Assembly recognises the enormous contribution that carers make to society and that carers receive the support and help required to enable them to live a full life.

One should never underestimate the role of carers, who, more often than not, take on responsibilities, worries and stress as they look after others, often at the expense of their own health and quality of life. Reports suggest that carers often give up their own food, heating, clothes, pensions, education and career development in order to help others. As Members debate the motion, they must recognise that at some stage in their lives, they may need to be cared for, or they may need to care for a parent, child, sibling, grandparent or friend.

One in 10 people in Northern Ireland provides help and support to a family member or friend without seeking payment. When Members consider what support is needed, it is important to remember that carers can come from a range of backgrounds and ages, and they will provide care for a range of needs. There is, therefore, a range of carers’ needs, and very often, individuals will require different mechanisms of support.

The population in Northern Ireland is ageing; new challenges and concerns face us, and more people than ever will require care. As I have said previously in the House, it is estimated that 11% of people aged over 65 will have dementia by 2015. It is imperative that that problem is tackled, and we must ensure that the needs of those who suffer, or care for those who have dementia, are promoted. I recently attended an event in Carrickfergus, where the east Antrim branch of the Alzheimer’s Society was meeting to celebrate an anniversary. That group provides support and help for people who are experiencing the same issues and difficulties as they care for loved ones who suffer from the disease.

It is significant that respite care is not available for carers who are desperate for a break from their responsibilities to their loved ones. There have been newspaper reports about families that have reached breaking point as they wait for up to a year before respite care is available. That is unacceptable and must be addressed urgently.

A United Kingdom survey of 3,000 carers found that they faced severe financial problems as soon as they began to care. Some carers neglect their own health needs because they have become preoccupied with the provision of care for others. As Mrs Hanna said in her opening remarks, it is amazing to learn that almost 3,700 carers over the age of 60 in Northern Ireland are missing out on the pension credit to which they are entitled. It is also estimated that the extra benefit of carers’ addition is going unclaimed by over 2,500 carers. Those statistics are extracted from a recent report that indicates that, UK-wide, carers are missing out on an incredible £746 million in unclaimed benefits.

A major issue for carers in Northern Ireland is their ability to get better access to information on benefits, rights and support services as well as tailored advice on financial decisions. It is important that carers receive support from their employers and that they are given flexibility when possible. Furthermore, it is important that financial support is provided for those who are not in employment. Young carers should have access to education and have a quality of life that allows them to socialise with their peers. The unfortunate reality for many young carers is that they must give up work. They are unable to build up rights to pensions, which means that they may not receive their entitlements when they reach retirement age.

People often become carers out of duty, and they, therefore, do not concern themselves with their rights and entitlements when they begin the caring process. That is why it is important that they are made fully aware of the available help.

The recently published Carers Northern Ireland report reveals that people who care for their elderly, sick or disabled relatives are being let down because public authorities are failing to implement the Human Rights Act 1998. That can be serious, potentially life-threatening and have major consequences.

Adequate resources must be made available to carers, which is not the case at present. Carers can be a vulnerable and excluded group, who experience different life chances from the rest of the population, even when their caring role ends. I support the motion and hope that all Members will do likewise.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members may take their ease for a few moments. Question Time must start at 2.30 pm, after which the debate will continue.

The debate stood suspended.

2.30 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and  the Deputy First Minister

Appointment of Young People

1. Ms Lo asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what proposals it has to increase the number of young people appointed to the public bodies within its remit.         (AQO 164/07)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I thank the Member for her question. Our 10-year strategy for children and young people pledges that we will be proactive in obtaining the views of children on matters that are of significance to them. That strategy, of course, includes public appointment processes and public decision-making processes. That approach accords with the spirit of articles 3 and 12 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which encourages public institutions to make the best interests of children and young people a primary consideration in all actions that affect them.

We are aware that sections in our society are under-represented on the boards of public bodies, and a number of measures have been put into place to address that. Appointments are advertised in the press and on websites; we maintain a mailing list of individuals and organisations that are interested in public appointments; information on forthcoming vacancies is circulated to those on the mailing list, including under-represented groups; we have published a practical guide to public appointments to help people to engage with the process to the best of their abilities; and we maintain a best-practice guide to assist Departments with their appointment processes.

It is desirable that boards should, as far as practicable, reflect the communities that they serve. Therefore we encourage — and welcome — applications from all sections of society. Ultimately, appointments will depend on the range and calibre of the people who are willing to put themselves forward.

Ms Lo: Given that lengthy experience is almost always necessary for appointment to public bodies, thereby precluding young people, would the Deputy First Minister consider abolishing that requirement for some such appointments in order to give young people a chance of qualifying and having their say?

The Deputy First Minister: People need to understand that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister appointed the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments. That person is responsible for regulating and monitoring Departments’ compliance with the commissioner’s code of practice. The current comm­issioner is Mrs Felicity Huston, and she was appointed on 1 August 2005 for a three-year term.

The procedures that are set out in the commissioner’s code of practice are underpinned by the principles of selection based on merit, independent scrutiny in the selection process, equality of opportunity, and a process that is open and transparent. The code of practice requires Departments to comply with their statutory duty under section 75 of the NI Act 1998 when making ministerial appointments to public bodies and to have due regard for the need to promote equality of opportunity.

Existing legislation prohibits the selection of candidates other than on the basis of merit, for example, on religion, gender or race. Decisions about who to appoint must be based solely on skills and abilities and not on factors that could be construed as discriminatory. The overriding principle of the public appointment process is that selection is based on merit in order to ensure that board members are fit for purpose. We are committed to encouraging greater diversity among board members. However, diversity should not be at the expense of the principle of selection on merit. The key point remains that appointments must be made on merit.

Mr Donaldson: Young people in Northern Ireland want a better future, and they do not want that future damaged by the horrors of the past. The national stadium is one of the visionary projects that we want to develop in Northern Ireland. Will the Deputy First Minister assure me — and my constituents — that there will be no shrine associated with any stadium in Northern Ireland commemorating any cause or seeking to bring the past into the future?

The Deputy First Minister: We confirm that there are no proposals to establish a shrine at the Maze/Long Kesh: that is not part of our intention. The master-plan proposals for the regeneration of the site envisage a wide range of uses, including a multi-sports stadium, an international centre for conflict transformation, as well as provision for employment, leisure and housing in addition to key transport and other infrastructure.

The master-plan proposals for the international centre for conflict transformation reflected the unanimous recommendations of a multi-party consultation panel.

The panel recommended that the centre should provide a facility for research and education, and create the opportunity to contribute to the management, resolution and transformation of conflicts internationally.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr John O’Dowd to ask a supplementary question.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. To assist with the quick progress of questions, I advise that the points that I wanted to raise have already been adequately covered by the Deputy First Minister.

Interim Programme for Government

2. Mr Burns asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister when the interim Programme for Government will be published. (AQO 159/07)

The Deputy First Minister: The short answer is that I do not have a response to that question because I was informed beforehand that the Member would not be present. [Laughter.] I am being honest about that. However, my quick-witted civil servants have just presented me with the response.

As Members will be aware, the Budget and the Programme for Government for this year were decided by direct rule Ministers prior to restoration, and their overcommittment of £150 million limits our opportunities to commit to new programmes. Since restoration of the Assembly several weeks ago on 8 May, the Executive have given careful consideration to the priorities that should underpin our Programme for Government. The timing of restoration has meant that we have not had the opportunity to work through a full Programme for Government for this year, but we are working towards the publication of a full draft Programme for Government by the autumn. That will cover the year 2008 and beyond, in line with the comprehensive spending review settlement.

As part of that work, we are in the process of defining our priorities and intend to make an early announcement on our emerging priorities. We must build a better future. The Executive’s aim is to design and take forward a process that is clearly focused on addressing the key challenges that all our communities face.

Mr Burns: Will the Deputy First Minister confirm that housing will be a priority in the next Programme for Government and that the programme will reflect the recommendations of the Semple Report?

The Deputy First Minister: The Executive will have many priorities as we move forward, not least the issue of housing. We are all conscious of how the huge increase in house prices has affected our economy not just here in the North, but in the South as well. There is a powerful argument that we should prioritise housing and recognise the difficulties that many people face — particularly the need for social and affordable housing. That issue will most definitely come under grave consideration by the Executive as we move forward and develop our Programme for Government.

Mr Burnside: Does the Deputy First Minister expect that the new Programme for Government will include a fully costed proposal for the national stadium at whatever site in Northern Ireland is chosen? If so, does he expect the Executive to adhere to collective responsibility — a practice to which he did not adhere as Minister of Education in the previous Executive?

The Deputy First Minister: Obviously, that issue has exercised people over the course of recent times and, as we move forward, we will certainly need to give great consideration to the financial implications. The decision on the siting of the stadium resides with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have responsibility for developing the site and taking the work forward. Undoubtedly, financial considerations will need to be taken into account as we move forward. All those decisions will need to be taken in consultation with all of the Executive, not least the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What engagement will there be with the Assembly in developing the Programme for Government?

The Deputy First Minister: We are conscious of our responsibilities to ensure ongoing engagement between OFMDFM and the Assembly. Since taking office only seven weeks ago, the Executive have worked to develop an approach to the Programme for Govern­ment that focuses on, and facilitates, an effective response to the key challenges that we face.

Work is under way to identify emerging priorities and key spending issues. The Executive fully respect the role of the Assembly, and we will engage with the Assembly and Committees at the earliest opportunity to take forward the Programme for Government. The initial focus of that engagement is likely to be on the emerging strategic priorities. There will also be an opportunity, later in the year, for the Assembly and Committees to consider the detailed actions and spending allocations that arise from those priorities.

Mr Campbell: Is it likely that the emerging priorities will contain proposals to resolve finally the issue of innocent victims and the bodies of the disappeared, given the Deputy First Minister’s role in the organisation that was responsible for the vast majority of those affected?

The Deputy First Minister: Victims are a key priority for the Executive. The First Minister and I have been on record in appealing to anybody with any information whatsoever on any of those who are missing to give up that information so that the terrible trauma that those families have gone through — and they have been wronged — can be resolved.

Mr Speaker: Questions 3 and 4 have been withdrawn.

Child Poverty

5. Mr Ford asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what statistical basis will be used in Northern Ireland to measure progress towards the eradication of child poverty; and to comment upon the relative merits of an income-only measure or a mixed measure to include wider issues of deprivation.           (AQO 177/07)

The Deputy First Minister: Ministers will agree on how to measure progress towards the eradication of child poverty as part of the Executive’s consideration of the Lifetime Opportunities, Government’s anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy. Of the three proposed measures of poverty in the strategy, two are income-based and take account respectively of a person’s income relative to others or relative to a fixed level. The third proposed measure takes account of both income and material deprivation. There are strengths and weaknesses associated with any measure of poverty. On that basis, a comprehensive picture of child poverty and change over time is achieved by including both income-only measures, together with a measure that combines income poverty with broader measures of deprivation. Tackling poverty — and child poverty in particular — must be a priority of the Administration.

Mr Ford: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his response. I welcome, as I know many voluntary organisations will, his commitment to ensuring mixed measures and not solely income-based measures in measuring deprivation and child poverty.

However, he said very little about progress on the eradication of child poverty. Targets aimed at eradicating child poverty by 2020 were set for the whole of the UK in 1999, but by 2005 the first target had been missed badly. What assurance can the Deputy First Minister give that there will be, over the next few years in Northern Ireland, a real, active comprehensive strategy to ensure that there is a better chance of meeting those targets?

The Deputy First Minister: We are determined to address those issues. British direct rule Ministers made their own commitments, but it is important to remember that there is now a new Executive and a new Government: we live here; we know the extent of child poverty in our society and in our communities.

The First Minister and I are determined, as is every Member of the Executive, to address our unacceptably high levels of child poverty. We will set targets, and we will, we hope, in our stewardship of the process reduce the numbers of children living in poverty.

However, given that a date of 2020 has been set to accomplish the reductions that are sought, it is evident how huge a task it is. That suggests that there must be a short-term, medium-term and long-term strategy to ensure that our targets are met.

Mr Gardiner: Will the Deputy First Minister undertake to raise with the Chancellor the issue of how the present system of tax credits favours single-parent families over low-paid two-parent families because of its social impacts in Northern Ireland?

2.45 pm

The Deputy First Minister: Our ongoing discussions with the Chancellor, who will soon be the new Prime Minister, have been wide-ranging. The Minister of Finance and Personnel has raised the issue of tax credits in the course of our discussions. The matter will continue to figure in those discussions, which are undoubtedly a work in progress.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Deputy First Minister act on recommendations made during previous consultations on Lifetime Opportunities and adopt the EU definition of poverty as being less than 60% of median income?

The Deputy First Minister: We will certainly take into consideration the Member’s question and the pertinent point that she has made. The anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy is an absolute priority for us.

Legal Restrictions

6. Mr Storey asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what legal restrictions are placed upon their office.          (AQO 156/07)

The Deputy First Minister: The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is a Department that is in the charge of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly. As such, it is subject to The Departments Order 1999 and the NI Act 1998, and to general statutory, constitutional and administrative law, as appropriate.

Mr Storey: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer. However, does he agree that one of the require­ments that was placed on him on entering his current office was to take a Pledge of Office that obligated him to uphold the rule of law, including support for policing and the courts, as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement?

When he appeared at the Saville Inquiry, he placed loyalty to an oath to the IRA above truth and justice. Now that he is Deputy First Minister, which takes priority — his ministerial Pledge of Office or his oath to the army council?

The Deputy First Minister: I do not think that the words “oath” or “army council” were mentioned at any stage during the Saville tribunal. I have many allegiances: to my family; to my religious beliefs; to Ireland; to the party that I represent; and to this Executive. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What legal obligations are placed on Ministers and junior Ministers by virtue of the ministerial code?

The Deputy First Minister: The ministerial code sets out the standards of behaviour that are expected from Ministers and junior Ministers by virtue, for example, of the Pledge of Office, the ministerial code of conduct and the seven principles of public life. It also contains provisions on Ministers’ duties to the Executive Committee, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

Mr Speaker: Question 7, standing in the name of Mr Willie Clarke, has been withdrawn.

Civic Forum

8. Mr Moutray asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what assessment it has made of the desirability of constituting a new Civic Forum.       (AQO 194/07)

The Deputy First Minister: As Members will recall, the Civic Forum was established in October 2000 as a mechanism to consult civic society on social, economic and cultural issues. Civic society, as we all know, has changed enormously since then, not least as a result of the increased number of people from other parts of the world who now live and work here.

The Assembly’s Committee on the Preparation for Government, on which the five largest parties were represented, discussed the Civic Forum in August 2006. Importantly, there was cross-party support for a review of the mechanisms for civic society to promote its views. It is in that context that we are embarking on a fundamental review of the arrangements. That review will provide an important opportunity for us to consider the most appropriate mechanism and arrangements for engaging with, and obtaining, the views of civic society on social, economic and cultural matters.

We shall shortly be consulting the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the proposed terms of reference, the review process and time frame for that review, which we plan to begin without delay.

Mr Moutray: Given that, from its inception, the Civic Forum suffered from severe absenteeism and that, for its entire existence, its deliberations have never produced a solitary original suggestion that the Executive have taken up, does the Deputy First Minister not agree that the Civic Forum has been an utter waste of time, money and resources, and that its existence can no longer be justified?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The Deputy First Minister: No, I do not agree with the Member. The Civic Forum was useful for giving a voice to people who previously had not had an opportunity to engage with others on important discussions about issues vital to the community. We are now in a different situation. Things have changed over the last number of years, and in the course of our review we will take all the views that have been expressed into consideration, including the Member’s.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Deputy First Minister give an undertaking that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will consult fully with its Committee on all matters relating to the Civic Forum, including those groups that may or could be considered eligible for participation in any new civic forum?

The Deputy First Minister: Yes, without hesitation. OFMDFM will co-operate fully with the Committee on this important matter.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Deputy First Minister reaffirm his total commitment to the re-establishment of the Civic Forum? When answering Mr Moutray’s question on the desirability of the Civic Forum, the Deputy First Minister did not seem to reject it out of hand. The Civic Forum is a constituent element of the Good Friday Agreement to which the Deputy First Minister should be committed, and I ask him to reaffirm his total commitment to the re-establishment of the Civic Forum as soon as possible.

The Deputy First Minister: We have written to Civic Forum members to ascertain their views on reconvening the forum while the review is being carried out, and we will decide whether to recall the forum when we get the responses. Given that this body has been effectively in a state of limbo over recent years, it would be very foolish of the Executive not to review its whole concept and decide in the aftermath of that review how it should proceed. At this stage it is very foolish of the Member who has just spoken to draw the type of conclusion that he drew from my response to the Member’s question.

National Development Plan

9. Dr Farry asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what role it had in the Republic of Ireland’s current National Development Plan. (AQO 186/07)

The Deputy First Minister: The national develop­ment plan was drawn up by the Irish Government prior to restoration, and so the Executive had no role in its formation. In March 2007, the Irish Government confirmed their willingness to agree with the new Executive substantial investment in North/South co-operation through the opening up, on an all-island basis, of development funding for a range of areas as set out in its national development plan, 2007-13. They also confirmed partial funding of £36 million targeted specifically at collaborative research and development.

The Irish Government have also made £400 million available for a major new roads programme to provide dual carriageway standard on the A5 and A8 routes serving the north-west gateway of Letterkenny to Derry and on the eastern seaboard corridor from Belfast to Larne. The First Minister and I look forward to engaging with the new Irish Government on these projects and on other initiatives that can promote economic growth and prosperity for the entire community here and indeed throughout the island of Ireland.

Dr Farry: Looking to the future, I ask the Deputy First Minister what plans our Executive have to draw up a plan similar to the Republic’s national develop­ment plan and how we can ensure, as two separate jurisdictions, that the actions we take on investment, whether it be on roads, rail, schools, hospitals or other health facilities, are of maximum benefit to the people of both jurisdictions?

The Deputy First Minister: The Executive are very concerned to see the outcome of the comprehensive spending review that will dictate the Prog­ramme for Government for us for the years 2008-11.

We will have emerging priorities. The whole issue of infrastructure is of critical importance, and strategic investment is a critical aspect as we move towards putting in place a Programme for Government that will meet the needs of all our people.

Given the Irish Government’s award of a very substantial sum of money for important infrastructure projects, and other projects, in the North, we must be in a position to contribute to those projects.

That will be the Executive’s responsibility primarily, but individual Ministers, not least the Minister for Regional Development, must work in consort with the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Mr Hamilton: Will the Deputy First Minister confirm to the House that any project to which the Republic of Ireland may contribute would have to meet with our own Departments’ various, rigorous priority processes, and that any investment must benefit all parts of Northern Ireland and all communities?

The Deputy First Minister: I agree absolutely. As we move forward, it is vital that every section of our community benefit from whatever important infrastructure developments there will be.

I give an absolute commitment that the Executive will be very conscious of our requirement to meet the needs of all the people that we represent, no matter who or where they are.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the Deputy First Minister to, and compliment him on, his first Question Time.

Does he agree that perhaps the best way in which to make the most of the funding that is available to the North through the national development plan would be to create some all-Ireland funding mechanisms? They could be our own version of European structural funds. The best way in which to ensure that Departments, North and South, are not second-guessing each other, and to prevent people engaging in different bids on either side of the border, is to have clear, united spending mechanisms — under the authority of the North/South Ministerial Council — for that money. I speak particularly about the social-inclusion pillar. It is such an important part of the national development plan, yet it does not appear to be replicated in the North.

The Deputy First Minister: We are conscious of our responsibilities, not least of the need to ensure that we co-operate with the new Irish Government. The First Minister and I are determined to do that.

We are also conscious that we need to work together to achieve economic progress. There is recent clear evidence of Ministers of all descriptions extolling the virtues of our working together, whether that be on the need for a joined-up approach to the electricity link-up, the gas pipeline or, indeed, the entire energy process.

The Member’s question is pertinent, and the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister, and the entire Executive, must consider it further.

Hate Crime

10. Mr McKay asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister if it intends to formulate a strategy to deal with continued occurrences of hate crime, such as sectarian, racist or homophobic attacks.      (AQO 136/07)

The Deputy First Minister: I want to make it clear that the Executive unequivocally condemn all hate crime and will do all in their power to eradicate it, wherever, and however, it arises.

Intolerance, prejudice and bigotry must be confronted, and the Executive are already working to tackle them through the actions set out in ‘A Shared Future: First Triennial Action Plan 2006-2009’ and in the racial equality unit’s first annual implementation action plan.

The forthcoming strategy and action plan on sexual orientation will address homophobia. The PSNI and criminal justice agencies are, of course, the front line in tackling hate crime. While those matters remain reserved, we will continue to work closely with the Police Service and criminal justice agencies to ensure that we have an effective, and joined-up, approach.

3.00 pm


All-island Waste Management Strategy

1. Ms Lo asked the Minister of the Environment to make a statement on the potential for an all-island waste management strategy. (AQO 165/07)

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I have no plans to develop an all-Ireland waste manage­ment strategy.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mrs Foster: A new waste management strategy for Northern Ireland was launched in March 2006. It addresses Northern Ireland’s specific needs and circumstances until 2020 and contributes to the UK’s meeting its European Union obligations.

My Department has developed good working relations with its counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, particularly on market development initiatives and in tackling the problem — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Could we have some order in the House, please? The Minister is speaking.

Mrs Foster: — of illegal cross-border waste.

Ms Lo: Given the cross-border dumping of waste, particularly in the Minister’s constituency, will she initiate proposals, with a timescale, for the introduction of a strategy that recognises the cross-border aspect of waste management?

Mrs Foster: My officials have been working with their counterparts in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to develop such a structured plan to deal with waste from the Republic of Ireland that has been dumped in Northern Ireland. To prevent such illegal waste movement continuing, the plan — or roadmap, as it is known — includes stepping up liaison between enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. The roadmap provides a mechanism to remove waste that originated in the Republic of Ireland.

One of the practical difficulties with the repatriation of waste is that, simply, although we can identify that some waste comes from the Republic of Ireland, it is often mixed up with illegal waste from this country. However, we are trying to work through those issues.

Mrs D Kelly: It is regrettable that the Minister has decided not to consider an all-Ireland waste management strategy. Will she assure the Assembly that she will, without fear or favour, ensure that her Department prosecutes those who are responsible for illegally dumping waste and for burning toxic substances, which is a common activity at this time of year?

Mrs Foster: As the Member will know, my priority is to ensure that the Northern Ireland waste management strategy is implemented to allow Northern Ireland to contribute to the United Kingdom’s overall effort in meeting its European Union obligations. We do that, first and foremost, because we are part of the United Kingdom.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr S Wilson: We need more of that.

Mrs Foster: I am very grateful to the Member for that.

The Northern Ireland waste management strategy is designed to meet our circumstances and targets in that wider context.

The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has limited powers to deal with bonfires. Indeed, no one agency has overall responsibility for the control of bonfires. However, in 2004, EHS led an inter-agency working group on bonfires. That group’s guidelines were produced as an advisory leaflet and distributed across Northern Ireland. The leaflet covers best practice at each stage of bonfire development and management. I am sure that the Member is aware that local authorities have a great deal of responsibility for dealing with bonfires and that they will take those responsibilities seriously in the coming months.

Mr Hamilton: I am sure that the Minister shares my disgust at the illegal dumping in Northern Ireland, between 2002 and 2004, of 250,000 tons of waste that originated in the Republic of Ireland. The estimated cost of that dumping to the local taxpayer was up to £50 million. What steps will her Department take to stop that waste at source and to repatriate that which is already blighting our countryside?

Mrs Foster: I largely answered that question when I responded to the supplementary question from the Member for South Belfast. However, the Member is right to say that up to 250,000 tons of household waste from the Republic of Ireland was illegally deposited on land in Northern Ireland between October 2002 and the end of 2004, which is the latest period for which figures are available. The cost of removing that illegal waste and depositing it elsewhere is estimated at between £37·5 million and £50 million. A total of 57 illegal landfill sites that contain waste from the Republic of Ireland have been identified in Northern Ireland. Although we continue to work with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland on the roadmap to deal with illegal waste, such dumping is an ongoing problem, and it is one that I intend to tackle.

Mr Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Planning Regulations: Renewable Energy

3. Mr Ford asked the Minister of the Environment whether she will make changes to the planning regulations, to encourage the provision of small-scale renewable energy.     (AQO 178/07)

Mrs Foster: I anticipate bringing forward proposals in the autumn for a simplified regulatory regime of permitted development rights that will facilitate small-scale renewable energy development by householders. That followed the public consultation by the Department of the Environment on micro-generation permitted development rights earlier in the year.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister of the Environment for her response, which will be welcomed by many people. If permitted development rights are to be limited, will the Minister also take action on the issue of the fees that apply to building control and planning matters for small-scale alternative energy projects to ensure that those who receive a grant for installing such systems do not end up spending half the grant on administrative costs?

Mrs Foster: I take Mr Ford’s point on board. The Department is looking at that matter, particularly in relation to bodies that have their grants held up until planning permission is followed through. The strategic board deals with large applications, and I will consider ways to develop a process at divisional level for applications that need planning permission in order to avail of grant aid.

Mr Burns: In my constituency of South Antrim, the Planning Service is blocking renewable-energy developments, particularly substantial developments that would bring significant revenue to Northern Ireland. As there are provisions in several planning policy statements, will the Minister provide assurances that developments such as those will be looked upon favourably in the future by the Planning Service?

Mrs Foster: I believe that I am aware of the application to which Mr Burns refers. In my original answer I said that the Department will consult on micro-generation by house­holders. It will also review micro-generation permitted development rights in non-domestic situations. That work has not yet been scheduled; however, it may form part of a wider programme of work to simplify the planning system.

Members may be aware of the White Paper published by the Department for Communities and Local Govern­ment in May 2007 called ‘Planning for a Sustainable Future’. It recommends changes not only to domestic micro-generation permitted development rights but a review of commercial and other non-residential rights. The Department will be keeping a close eye on progress.

Mr Shannon: Will the Minister agree that a review of the permitted development rights would expedite planning applications and help to clear the backlog in the planning system?

Mrs Foster: A public consultation on the review of permitted development rights was carried out in 2003. Since then, the Department has extended permitted development rights for satellite dishes and other antennae, in order to facilitate the roll-out of digital television and the take-up of wireless broadband technology. The Department has also extended permitted development rights for agricultural buildings, to help farmers to comply with the EC nitrates directive.

The Department has introduced new permitted development rights for Crown bodies following the removal of Crown immunity in law from planning controls, and it has also amended the permitted development rights for water and sewerage undertakings in the light of a transfer of responsibility for water and sewerage services to Northern Ireland Water.

The work on the review will continue with a longer-term objective to consult on a new general permitted development Order that will take account of the review that took place in 2003, and of other calls for changes to permitted development rights in the intervening period.

The permitted development rights for electricity service lines allow the installation of service lines of up to 100 metres for individual consumers. The consultation that took place in 2003 proposed that that should be extended to 200 metres. That issue has been raised several times since I became Minster, and Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) has asked the Department to look at the possibility of extending the permitted development rights to 300 or 500 metres. The Department proposes to include consultation on extending the length of the service lines with work on the new general permitted development Order.

That is important. A lot of people have complained to me about having to make two applications to the planning process: one in relation to one’s house, and the other in relation to electricity. I hope that that answer is of some help.

Demolition of Family Home

4. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of the Environment to explain why a family home at 22 Old Cavehill Road, Belfast, was demolished while still the subject of a planning application.         (AQO 190/07)

Mrs Foster: Planning permission was not required for the demolition of the dwelling at 22 Old Cavehill Road because the dwelling was not a listed building, nor was it located in a conservation area or an area of townscape character. If it had been located in such a designated area, planning permission would have been required from the Department for the demolition.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her reply and for her correspondence on the matter, which came after I had posed the question.

The demolition caused widespread outrage in the area. Residents were upset about the demolition of an attractive building that dated from 1878. It was a great shock for people to be confronted with bulldozers at 6.00 am knocking down the building.

Is the Minister concerned about the fact that, while what the developer did was perfectly legal, it caused great distress and the disappearance of a fine building? Further to that, will she look at ways to freeze demolition during the course of a planning application?

Mrs Foster: I acknowledge that there has been increasing public concern about such issues. I have received a number of letters from Members relating to the case in question. The public are increasingly concerned about town cramming and the loss of garden areas, and my Department will give the matter further consideration.

Mr Maginness said that no building should be demolished while it is the subject of a planning application. While I will look at additional controls in relation to that issue, introducing controls to prevent the demolition of a building that is the subject of a pending planning application would not, in itself, be effective because there would be nothing to stop developers, and others, demolishing a building prior to an application coming to the Department. That, in itself, does not deal with the issue, but I am looking at other controls to deal with the issue.

Mr McCausland: The demolition of 22 Old Cavehill Road highlights the problem of fine, old houses being demolished and replaced by large numbers of apartments. Does the Minister accept that there is a need to review and revisit planning policy statement (PPS) 12, which deals with town cramming, and to do so as a matter of urgency? Will she also undertake to visit the North Belfast constituency to see some of the worst examples of overdevelopment?

Mrs Foster: If I accepted an invitation to see town cramming in North Belfast, I think that I would be on a countrywide tour for the next couple of months.

Mr Wells: Good idea.

Mrs Foster: Notwithstanding South Down, and the North Coast — I am getting all sorts of bids, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.]

I am aware of the increasing public concern on the issue of apartment development and its effect on the character of long-established residential areas. The demand for apartment living reflects an ongoing change in society towards a trend for smaller households, and that must be catered for. My Department published PPS 7 and planning guidance under development control advice note 8 to control that type of development. However, given our ageing and limited infrastructure, I will continue to discuss and reflect on the issue with colleagues and departmental officials.

Mr A Maskey: I welcome the Minister’s commitment to have her Department look at those issues as a matter of urgency.

Given the uncertainty about the future of planning and what measures may be transferred to local government, will the Minister accept that there are matters of serious public concern, particularly cases of developers building when they do not have planning permission or even when planning permission has been refused?

In my constituency of South Belfast, there has been a disgraceful lack of enforcement by the Planning Service. Will the Minister give particular attention to the question of enforcement where buildings are constructed, in some cases, against the express wishes of the Planning Service?

3.15 pm

Mrs Foster: I accept that there is a need for the Department to revisit and examine cases where developers have started to build and submitted retrospective planning applications, thereby stopping enforcement proceedings. I reiterate — and the Member will be able to voice his opinion when I discuss the issue with the Committee for the Environment — that I wish to consider options, short of total control, to prevent the demolition of buildings that local communities consider important. Quite clearly, that was the case in this instance. There was a public outcry. I am aware of that, and it is something that I want to investigate.

Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs)

5. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of the Environment whether she is satisfied with the current rate of progress towards the designation of Areas of Special Scientific Interest.           (AQO 155/07

13. Rev Dr Robert Coulter asked the Minister of the Environment what plans she has to expand the list of Areas of Special Scientific Interest in Northern Ireland. (AQO 132/07)

Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 5 and 13 together.

I am very aware that there is a need to improve on the rate of designation of ASSIs and to ensure that they are properly managed and protected to secure their special scientific interest. Officials in the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) have put in place measures that will increase the rate of designation in order to meet statutory obligations.

A priority risk-based list of 200 sites for designation over the next 10 years has been established. To achieve that, a substantial improvement in the designation rate of recent years will be required. In 2006-07, 15 ASSIs were designated; 20 are scheduled for designation this year; and that number will increase to 25 in successive years.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her response. Does the Minister have sufficient resources to make speedier progress on the designation of ASSIs before irreparable damage is caused? Will the Department of the Environment conduct early consultations with all landowners in order to get agreement with all concerned?

Mrs Foster: The Member will know from his interest in the issue that the Department had to designate special areas of conservation (SAC) and special protection areas (SPAs) in order to comply with EU directives. That took up some of the resources that would have otherwise have been put into the designation of ASSIs. It also resulted in the reprioritisation of work away from the designation programme.

On the resources required for the management of ASSIs, an important point that is sometimes forgotten is that once a designation takes place, it is only the beginning of the journey. Approximately 340 manage­ment agreements are in place, covering 5·6% of the total area of ASSIs. Of those, almost 100 have been negotiated under the management of sensitive sites (MOSS) scheme, which is administered by EHS.

It is recognised that the present budget for the MOSS agreement of £500,000 is insufficient to meet all ASSI management requirements. My officials have therefore sought agreement with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to secure the appropriate management of ASSI lands through the application of agrienvironment schemes.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Will the Minister undertake to set a target date by which the 6% of Northern Ireland’s land area set aside under the ASSI scheme will be raised so that it compares to that of Scotland, which is 13%?

Mrs Foster: I am aware that Northern Ireland is behind in ASSI designation. As I have said, the reason is that some resources had to be redirected to deal with European Union directives, otherwise the Department would have been subject to infraction proceedings.

The Member asked about the timescale for designation. As I said earlier, there are 200 sites to be designated. We are hoping to proceed at a rate of 25 redesignations this year and 25 next year — that figure will increase year on year. That is the way in which the Department of the Environment wants to take the matter forward.

Mr Wells: The House will welcome the announce­ment that there will be an increase in the rate of areas of special scientific interest designations. I understand that, in one year, only one ASSI has been designated, that being the Roe Valley in east Londonderry. I am pleased that the Minister has been able to expedite that designation.

In my constituency of South Down, there is a great deal of public concern about the future protection of the Sheeplands area near Ardglass. I know that the Minister is aware of that matter. Will the Minister give the House an indication as to when the Sheeplands ASSI designation will take place?

Mrs Foster: Although the Member said that only one designation was made in one year, 15 ASSI designations were made last year. I recognise that the Sheeplands coast in County Down is an important site because of its coastal habitats and earth science features. I acknowledge that the site needs to be protected as a matter of priority. Efforts have been made in recent weeks to identify and contact all owners and occupiers. That process is now largely complete and the site is on course to be declared an ASSI by the end of this month — June 2007.

The Department, through the Environmental Heritage Service, wants to work with landowners — that is our priority. Many people see ASSI designations as a method of enforcement and regulation. The EHS wants to work with landowners and that is what we have been trying to do at the Sheeplands coast ASSI.

Dr McDonnell: I congratulate the Minister on her first Question Time. She is doing well in getting through it. [Interruption.]

I will always be generous to someone who is doing a good job. However, I will be less generous to those who are faking it. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker, I suggest that one of the Members for East Antrim be thrown out of the Chamber. [Laughter.] However, I will not push that suggestion too far.

The Minister is fully aware of the controversy that has been created by the proposal to increase limestone quarrying at Glenarm. Can she assure the House that the full environmental impact of that proposal will be given due consideration? Furthermore, is the Minister willing to meet the local community and residents’ group, which is objecting strongly to the proposal and which feels that the aforementioned Member for East Antrim is not doing very much for them? [Interruption.]

Mrs Foster: This is a row that could be continued in another place. It is hoped that a submission that makes a recommendation on the application will be with the Planning Service management board within the next two weeks. I assure the Member that I, as the final decision-maker on that proposal, will take all matters into consideration when making a decision. Since I am the person who will make that decision, I have resisted calls to meet the parties involved in the application, and the residents. Therefore, unfortunately, I have to decline the Member’s invitation to meet the local community and residents’ group. However, I assure the Member that I will take all relevant matters into consideration, including environ­mental concerns.

Mr S Wilson: I am glad to see that the Member for South Belfast takes such an interest in East Antrim. If he took more interest in South Belfast, his constituents who are looking for him might be able to find him. I assure the Member that the application for Glenarm has been in for two years and has only recently generated some limited objection.

Will the Minister give an assurance — and would she agree — that ASSIs cannot be used to ensure that areas become some type of environmentalist theme park, and that ordinary business that must continue in many of those areas, such as quarrying, manufacturing, tourist facilities, etc, can continue and can be allowed to flourish alongside the designation?

Mrs Foster: I assure the Member that I will weigh up the environmental and the economic arguments. The Member mentioned theme parks, but ASSIs are important to Northern Ireland for more than their environmental value. I recently attended — and was pleased to be there — the launch of a publication that pointed out the economic benefits of Northern Ireland’s environment. The Member should read that publication; the protection of the countryside, as well as the environment, brings economic benefits. My Department works with landowners, and I can tell the Member that ASSIs are not theme parks; they are working pieces of land that people can use.

Mr Elliott: I note the figures that the Minister mentioned, and I note her views on the management of sensitive sites agreements. Given that the Depart­ment of the Environment has designated — and continues to designate — large numbers of ASSIs in Northern Ireland, does the Minister believe that, in many instances, her Department has been right to discontinue the provision of management of sensitive sites schemes to several landowners who, as a result of ASSI designation, operate under strenuous land management controls? Is that the case, given that many environmental schemes that are sponsored by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are not currently available?

Mrs Foster: I am not sure that everyone would agree that ASSIs are being designated in large numbers. In fact, some people, including many Members, have said that more ASSIs should be designated.

As I have already said, 340 management agreements are in place, almost 100 of which were negotiated under the management of sensitive sites scheme.

I recognise that the budget for MOSS is insufficient to meet all the requirements of ASSI management. That is why it is imperative that my officials work with the landowners. Mr Elliott will welcome that, given his recent involvement in a particular case. My officials are working with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to secure the appropriate management of ASSI lands through the application of the agrienvironmental schemes that Mr Elliott mentioned.

Northern Ireland Climate Scoping Study

6. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of the Environ­ment to provide details on the areas of expertise being examined in the formulation of the Northern Ireland climate scoping study commissioned by her predecessor; and what specific issues of climate change are covered in its remit.       (AQO 144/07)

Mrs Foster: The purpose of the scoping study is to prepare for climate change in Northern Ireland. The study was published on 30 January 2007 and is available on my Department’s website. It was commissioned by my Department and facilitated by the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research.

The impacts of climate change were identified by the Hadley Centre — the United Kingdom authority on the issue — in its climate change scenarios, which were published in 2002. Scenarios for Northern Ireland included: wetter winters; drier summers; and increased frequency of extreme weather events. The report considered the threats posed by and opportunities arising from the impacts of climate changes in natural and built environments, economic infrastructure and social well-being. Overall, the report concluded that Northern Ireland must take action if the excesses of climate change impacts are to be avoided.

Mr Gardiner: The Minister will be aware that new evidence on annual variations suggests that the slowdown effect of the Gulf Stream pump is now reckoned to be at 10% rather than 30%. Will she consider the creation of a climate watch unit in her Department that would adopt climate change assessments as new information becomes available?

Mrs Foster: Research on the predicted slowing of the Gulf Stream, which is the flow of warm water from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, is incorporated into United Kingdom modelling, and, hence, into the Northern Ireland study that I have just mentioned. It is thought, however, that weakening is not a realistic possibility in this century. However, we all know that climate change will not affect us in the next couple of years; it will happen over hundreds of years. The purpose of the studies and reports that have been mentioned is to plan for the future.

3.30 pm

Finance and Personnel

Legal Services Report

1. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether he has any plans to implement the recommendations contained in the report ‘Legal Services in Northern Ireland: Complaints, Regulation, Competition’.            (AQO 192/07)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I am giving careful consideration to the recommendations in the report by the Legal Services Review Group, and I am examining the options for reform with a view to announcing the way forward shortly.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that the approach taken in England, following the Clementi Report, would not be appropriate for Northern Ireland at this stage?

Mr P Robinson: I know that the Member will have read the report led by Professor Sir George Bain, and he will have seen that Professor Bain had a very high regard for the principles in the Clementi report. However, Sir George’s view was that it was an English solution to an English problem, and we want to devise a Northern Ireland solution to our problems. Although many of the report’s principles can be applied — perhaps differently — in Northern Ireland, we will not copy the Clementi Report’s approach.

Mr A Maginness: I welcome the Minister’s view that the Clementi approach is not appropriate for Northern Ireland and that there should be a Northern Ireland solution to Northern Ireland problems. Whatever may be implemented, it is important that there be a strong lay element, particularly in dealing with complaints about legal services that are rendered by the professions. Lay persons should be in a majority on all complaints committees, and those committees should be chaired by lay persons. Furthermore, there should be an oversight commissioner for legal services. That should guarantee a proper external and independent scrutiny of legal services.

Mr P Robinson: I appreciate the Member’s interest in the issue; he was one of those who made a submission — ours were the only two political parties to do so. As I said, I am considering the matter and, therefore, do not wish to reach any judgements at this stage.

However, as a constituency Member, I say that we must look closely at complaints. There is some force behind the review proposed in the Bain Report: a clear majority of those investigating or listening to complaints should be from the lay sector.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister may be aware of the recent controversy surrounding the appointment of the interim chairperson of the Legal Services Commission. Will the Minister inform the House whether that appointment and the future permanent appointment will be subject to the full rigours of the independent Commissioner of Public Appointments? Will the Minister agree with me that all such appointments should go through that rigorous examination?

Mr P Robinson: In any appointments made by my Department under my authority there will be the most thorough application of the proper procedures to ensure that we choose the best candidates for the job. I have every confidence, however, in the person who was given the post and I am sure that the House will want to wish him well in it.

Corporation Tax

2. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he has to progress the issue of a lower rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland.      (AQO 183/07)

9. Mr B Wilson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what consideration he has given to how the short-term loss in revenue arising from a differential rate of corporation tax would be addressed.           (AQO 173/07)

Mr P Robinson: With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer question 2 and question 9 together.

Following my initial meeting with Sir David Varney on 24 May, I shall take forward a formal response to his call for evidence. That will detail why the Executive believe it imperative that Northern Ireland receive a fiscal dispensation to allow it to stimulate economic growth. With regard to any possible short-term loss of revenue, the Executive must then consider the wider implications for economic development policy and its resourcing. Some existing programmes may no longer be necessary — or allowable — in the new environment.

Mr B McCrea: Does the Minister accept that, for many companies in Northern Ireland, corporation tax reductions may be of limited value, given that only lower rates of interest apply to them or that they are manufacturing-only concerns and do not pay tax? Can he confirm that the corporation tax for Northern Ireland is in the region of £300 million per annum, and that the banks pay £100 million of it and would therefore be the major beneficiaries of any reduction in tax? Does the Minister agree that the international context of foreign direct investment has changed significantly since the start of the Celtic tiger economy and that some European states now offer 0% corporation tax? Does he agree that carefully targeted incentives are needed to encourage investment from abroad and from indigenous companies?

Mr P Robinson: The Member’s questions highlight the key issue that is often forgotten when the issue of lowering corporation tax levels is considered. The lowering of corporation tax is not the goal in itself; the goal is to stimulate and grow the economy, and lowering corporation tax is only a means to an end. The Member has outlined the impact that it would have on existing business in Northern Ireland. However, the purpose of lowering the rate of corporation tax is not as a handout for existing business; it is to encourage more business to come to Northern Ireland. Obviously, lowering corporation tax would be an attraction, but there are other ways of encouraging businesses that the Member may consider to be less blunt an instrument than lowering corporation tax.

Mr B Wilson: As the Minister pointed out, a problem is that tax reduction results in a loss of revenue. When the overall Budget is considered, a reduction in corporation tax may not be the most effective way of running the economy. The fact that Northern Ireland has no tax-varying powers has implications for the regional rate, and this must be taken into account when considering the issue of lowering corporation tax. Can the Minister say what might be the impact of the loss of revenue from freezing the industrial rates at 25%?

Mr P Robinson: I do not want to comment on the industrial rate now as a review is being carried out on that topic; in due course I will report on that review. The Member is correct that there are advantages in encouraging businesses to come to Northern Ireland if the rate of corporation tax were lowered but that there are also consequences in doing that. The regime of incentives currently available cannot exist alongside the lowering of corporation tax. As the Member for Lagan Valley Mr McCrea pointed out, around £300 million a year is currently raised from corporation tax. If interpretation of the Azores ruling should mean that that must be ruled out, the money would have to be found by the reduction of other elements of incentives in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Mr O’Loan: In the light of the stated policy positions of political parties on the rate of corporation tax, can the Minister assure the Assembly that he, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are all equally committed to pursuing a rate of 12·5% corporation tax?

Mr P Robinson: I seem to recall that we wanted a 10% rate, but if we got it to 12·5% we would be reasonably content. I have not discerned any difference in the Executive on the emphasis that has been placed on trying to reduce the rate of corporation tax. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister discussed that issue with the First Minister of Scotland, and there was a general view that we should work together at least to reduce the level of corporation tax for the United Kingdom as a whole. That would help, as it would reduce the differential between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I have not discerned that there is any difference between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the approach to those issues.

The Member’s party was present in Downing Street with the three other main parties when they discussed those issues with the Chancellor.

Mr Newton: I agree with the Minister about the potential for corporation tax to help to grow Northern Ireland’s economy. To what extent do the decisions that were made in the Azores and Rioja cases inhibit Northern Ireland from having a differential corporation tax rate from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr P Robinson: The Azores case set out three conditions that would apply to Northern Ireland if it were to have a differential rate of corporation tax. I have always recognised that there are three issues that we must overcome if the Chancellor and the Treasury are to be convinced. First, the financial issue: the Executive can put forward a case that deals with the financial arguments — issues such as brass-plating, and so forth.

Secondly, there are legal arguments, which were referred to by the Member for East Belfast. Contrary to what has been suggested by some, European law does not prohibit there being a differential rate of corporation tax. It is permissible under European law, but would require change to United Kingdom law. There are, however, implications from the Azores ruling as to what such a change would mean, such as having to forgo some current funding, which was referred to earlier.

Thirdly, the prevailing issue that must be overcome is whether there is the political will to introduce such a change. The financial and legal arguments can be answered, but do the United Kingdom Government have the political will to take that step? I hope that Sir David Varney’s review will be able to answer that. If there is no answer with regard to corporation tax, I will want to know how the Government propose to make Northern Ireland competitive vis-à-vis the Irish Republic on industry, commerce and foreign direct investment.

Mr Kennedy: Is it still the view of the Minister and his party that an inadequate financial deal and a lack of significant progress on corporation tax will be a deal-breaker?

Mr P Robinson: I have already stated in the House that, even in its present terms, the Chancellor’s deal can be regarded as satisfactory. I do not consider it to be generous: however, it is satisfactory. The Member would do well to remember that the Assembly will receive funding of around £17 billion for its total managed expenditure from the Exchequer. That is a considerable amount of money.

I am sure that the Member treasures the link with the United Kingdom and, like me, is prepared to enjoy the benefits of being part of it. Northern Ireland enjoys the financial package that it gets from the United Kingdom. Of course, the package could be better and there is more that the Executive could secure from the United Kingdom Treasury. Indeed, they are attempting to do so. I hope that the Varney review will assist in that and that further consultations with the Treasury on the comprehensive spending review and end-year flexibility will also bring improvements.

Decentralisation of Public Service Jobs

3. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline his plans for the decentralisation of public service jobs to areas affected by the transfer of government services to England and Wales.           (AQO 163/07)

Mr P Robinson: I assume that the Member refers to proposals with respect to jobs in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and in the local HM Revenue and Customs offices in Coleraine.

With regard to the changes that affect the DVLA, officials in my Department and in the Department of the Environment are considering action to minimise the impact of the Department for Transport’s decision to realign its services in Northern Ireland with the loss of some 260 Civil Service jobs in Coleraine. In her recent response to a question for written answer from the Member, the Minister of the Environment stated that as part of the efforts to redeploy surplus civil servants in the agency to other Civil Service jobs, work was also under way to explore whether there were any functions in DOE or other Northern Ireland Departments that could be transferred to Coleraine in order to mitigate the effect. In addition, the Department for Transport has agreed to transfer a block of UK-wide work to Coleraine, which will safeguard 93 jobs.

I understand that HM Revenue and Customs has made no final decisions on staffing requirements for any of its offices in Northern Ireland and will not do so until it has completed a review of each location.

3.45 pm

The review of its offices in Coleraine is not planned to start until April 2008, and, once made, decisions could take some years to implement. In the wider context of public sector jobs, the consultation on guiding principles regarding their location in Northern Ireland, which closed on 30 April 2007, is the first step in developing a framework to facilitate future decision-making on the issue. The full analysis and summary of the consultation responses will be completed shortly. Thereafter, I intend to take a paper to the Executive to be considered in July. There are advantages in providing work in areas outside Belfast rather than requiring staff who live in those areas to travel to Belfast to work. I am not unsympathetic to having more public sector jobs located outside the greater Belfast area, but we should not ignore the capital city as a key location.

Mr Dallat: The Minister is quite right; I received a written reply from his colleague Mrs Arlene Foster. I showed it to some of the workers in County Hall, and they said that it was about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe. I understand their reaction. Surely the Minister accepts that in areas such as Coleraine — and the north-west in general — there has been serious social and economic deprivation, and that the Assembly should have a proper policy to ensure that Civil Service jobs are directed to those areas.

Mr P Robinson: If I were not aware of it of my own volition, the Member for East Londonderry would tell me very quickly. He has been a strong supporter of getting more jobs into the north-west and into his own constituency in particular. Of course we recognise his arguments; that is why consultation has taken place, and I have indicated clearly that I am not unsympathetic to his points. I see little advantage in getting people to travel to Belfast to do a job if time can be saved and road congestion stopped by locating jobs further out. We will consider that issue and come back to it.

Mr Armstrong: Would the Minister accept that a significant stretching of the private sector’s strategy is imperative for Northern Ireland and that the development of vibrant business service sectors is dependent on investment in buildings, infrastructure and the develop­ment of clusters?

Mr P Robinson: I am not sure who can give me an interpretation of that. The answer appears to be yes, no or maybe.

Mr Weir: Does the Minister accept that in any decentralisation of public sector jobs, consideration should be given not only to the west of the Province but to constituencies that are outside Belfast, such as North Down? Will the Minister undertake to ensure that there will continue to be a significant Civil Service presence at Rathgael?

Mr P Robinson: Rather than put it up for bids at this stage, I can tell the Member that I visited the Rathgael area with the then mayor, Councillor Alan Leslie. He raised the issue, as did the chief executive of the council. Of course, plans were developed under Workplace 2010, but those may not have been exactly what the Member for North Down had in mind for the future of Rathgael. I have asked my Department to revisit those issues, and I hope that we will be able to improve the situation somewhat.

Chancellor’s Financial Package

4. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to advise how the additional £100 million in the Chancellor’s package had been allocated; and what amount remained to be allocated.         (AQO 182/07)

13. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel how much new money, in addition to what was expected from the block grant, is contained in the Chancellor’s financial package.     (AQO 188/07)

Mr P Robinson: Mr Speaker, by your leave I will take question 4 together with question 13.

Discussions on the content of the financial package are ongoing; thus, at this stage it is not possible to make comparisons with what might have been anticipated in normal circumstances. To cover the costs of not introducing water charges, on 10 May the Executive decided to allocate up to £75 million of the additional £100 million that the Chancellor allocated for this year. That leaves a balance of £25 million still to be allocated by the Executive, with funding for innovation a priority area.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that he is aware of the rumblings of discontent outside the Executive, if not from within it. As he pulls the purse strings of the Departments, some Ministers are anxious that he does not exceed his authority by attempting to pull their ministerial strings as well.

Does he accept that, because he has not succeeded in securing an adequate financial package, he is, therefore, imposing undesirable financial restrictions on all Departments, reducing some to selling off the family silver?

If he is in the mood for accepting the truth, will he accept my word that, contrary to the charge that he levelled at me in the House two weeks ago, I did not plagiarise a speech given by his wife?

Mr P Robinson: The Member must not have been listening to an earlier answer that I gave. The financial package is satisfactory, but further steps could be taken to improve it. He should know that it is satisfactory: it is a whole lot better than the package that his party produced when it went into Government. Indeed, part of the package undoes the damage that his party’s negotiations caused, particularly with the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI).

As far as plagiarism is concerned, I thought that I would be helpful to the House by placing copies of the two speeches, along with an analysis, in the Assembly Library. It appears that that has not got through to the Member. Therefore, I will instruct my staff to put copies of the speeches into each Member’s pigeonhole. With the opportunity to compare the two speeches, Members can make up their own minds. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, order.

Mr McCallister: Although the Minister may consider the financial package to be satisfactory, he and his party have over-egged the pudding. The public have huge expectations of the peace dividend. Does the Minister accept that he will have to reduce those expectations?

Mr P Robinson: All Members are in the business of managing public expectations; the community has high expectations of the Executive. Northern Ireland has suffered a period of direct rule, the nature of which was that no local people were in a position to take major decisions. People expect the Executive to produce a Programme for Government that sets priorities for Northern Ireland in a way that their expectations can be met. It is always the task of Government to attempt to meet public expectations and to assess the priorities in the community.

I repeat: the financial package may be satisfactory, but I do not consider it to be generous. It requires further work.

Mr Ross: In addition to the £35 billion that the UK Government have guaranteed Northern Ireland over the next four years, can the Minister tell Members when final decisions will be taken on the £400 million that the Irish Government have promised for roads programmes?

Mr P Robinson: Consideration of the investment proposals for the next 10 years, including the welcome allocation of £400 million from the Irish Government, will be undertaken over the next few months. As I said earlier, during September and October, the Executive will consider the Programme for Government and their spending plans. The investment strategy will be published for consultation alongside the Programme for Government and the Budget in the autumn, ahead of final decisions in December.

Dr Farry: Can the Minister guarantee that any additional funds from HM Treasury will be linked to a programme of public service reform that might include a greater investment in shared facilities, rather than simply being applied to the existing way in which services are provided?

Mr P Robinson: The only guarantee that I can give is that any further funds that are received will be spent in accordance with the priorities set by the Executive.

2011 Census

5. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make a statement on preparations for the 2011 Census.           (AQO 197/07)

Mr P Robinson: Planning is proceeding on the basis that the next census will take place in 2011. Consultation has already taken place on the topic content. Users are being kept informed of current thinking: for example, an open information morning was held on 20 June. Last month, a census test was conducted to assess possible new questions, as well as census processes and procedures. The test will be evaluated, and it is planned that formal proposals for the 2011 census will be published in 2008.

Those will be followed by a census Order and census regulations in 2010, which will provide the opportunity for legislative scrutiny.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his reply. However, I understand that those conducting the 2001 census assigned a community identity to around 250,000 people in Northern Ireland against their will. Will the Minister ensure that that unwelcome feature will not be repeated in the 2011 census?

Mr P Robinson: There are a number of reasons why it is helpful to have a question based on people’s religion. Historically, the Northern Ireland census has included a question on religion. In order to provide robust information on community background for a variety of monitoring purposes, the 2001 census introduced a question on “religion brought up in”. The introduction of that question was proposed in the 1997 census test, and no objections were raised at that time or during the subsequent legislative process — not even by the Member. As I said, legislation on the 2011 census will be brought before the House, and it will be up to Mr McCarthy and other Members to propose changes at that stage.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What provision will be made in the census for Irish-language speakers?

Mr P Robinson: The contents of the 2011 census will depend on what is passed by the Assembly. The census test included a question on the Irish language, and it is therefore expected that the 2011 census will also include such a question, unless the House decides otherwise.

Mr McCausland: A question on the Irish language was included in the last census, but there was no corresponding question on the Ulster-Scots language. When the questions for the 2011 census are being set next year, will the Minister consider treating the Ulster-Scots language on the same basis as the Irish language?

Mr P Robinson: What emerges from the process will be determined at a much later stage, and will be determined by the Assembly. The census test held in May included a question on Ulster Scots, not just a question on the Irish language. Although we will evaluate the responses to the test, it will be up to the House to determine whether it wishes to include questions on the Irish language and Ulster Scots in the 2011 census.

Staff Absences:  Northern Ireland Civil Service

6. Mr S Wilson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will make a statement on the level of staff absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.             (AQO 129/07)

Mr P Robinson: In 2005-06, the latest full year for which information is available, the headline absence figure for the Northern Ireland Civil Service was an average of 13·4 days lost per staff year. That equates to approximately 1,450 full-time staff being absent from work for an entire year. Put another way, it is broadly comparable to all the staff in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Department of Education and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister being absent from work for an entire year. If that absence rate were extrapolated to the whole of the public sector in Northern Ireland, it would equate to approximately 10,700 full-time staff being absent from work for an entire year.

I regard the sick absence levels as totally unacceptable, and I am making the issue of absence management in the Northern Ireland Civil Service a high priority. The final figures for 2006-07 will be available in September, but I am alarmed that provisional estimates indicate that the overall absence level in 2006-07 has increased on the published figure for 2005-06. We are heading in the wrong direction and need to take urgent and immediate action to redress the situation.

I will bring forward a paper on this matter to the Executive in July to explore with ministerial colleagues what actions must be taken to address the problem. Those actions will include robust and consistent application of absence management policies, the need for strong leadership and early intervention by manage­ment and consideration of what changes are needed to the existing policies to deliver the radical shift required. I want to examine how the practice in private and wider public sectors can best be applied to the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Mr Speaker: Question Time is up for the Minister of Finance and Personnel. Members may take their ease for a few minutes until we resume business.

4.00 pm

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

Private Members’ Business


Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that all carers, formal and informal, can access services and support to maintain their own health and well-being, to recognise financially the vital role they play and ensure uptake of all benefit entitlements. — [Mrs Hanna.]

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to the proposer for tabling this important motion.

By this stage in the debate, Members will have heard all the statistics and all the recommendations. However, one section of the community needs help. Few people will be aware that, in Northern Ireland, over 1,000 people with severe learning disabilities have carers who are over 65 years of age. Furthermore, 500 people with severe learning disabilities have primary carers who are over 75 years of age. Given the general problems, one can only imagine the difficulties with which those carers must deal.

Some time ago, people decided to use the term “learning disability” because they felt that it was more politically correct. However, the term is used to describe people who have severe mental handicaps, which is not an expression to be ashamed of. These are not people who suffer from dyslexia; they are vulnerable from the day that they are born and continue to be so for the rest of their lives.

Carers of such individuals have to accept that those people will never get better because the condition is a lifelong one.

I want to bring two such people to the attention of the House. One is Eileen Bell, who is aged 61 and lives in Lagan Valley. Not only does Eileen have severe learning disabilities, she has Down’s syndrome and was recently diagnosed with dementia. The problem is that when we tried to get Eileen moved after being in for a bit of respite care, nobody would take her. There is no place where she can go. The only place that she has left is with her mother, who is aged 86. Her mother will need to try to cope with someone who needs 24-hour care. That is ridiculous. It is not even as if Eileen’s case has been a surprise. She has been in the system for 61 years, but we do not know where to put her.

Another case that I bring to the Minister’s attention is that of Mr Robert Kane. Robert is 51. Again, he has Down’s syndrome and severe learning difficulties. He was placed in a residential home, but it could not handle him because he was difficult. He will now be sent home. Mrs Kane is aged 83. How is she to cope in such a situation?

How much money do people get for looking after those who need 24-hour attention? They get £48 a week, or 25p an hour. However, in the cases that I have mentioned, that carer’s allowance is taken off a carer’s pension.

Another case that I will mention is that of a lady of 53 who has a 21-year-old child with learning disabilities. Unfortunately for that lady, her husband took a stroke and had to leave work, so she went on to benefits. Again, her carer’s allowance was taken off her. Not only does she have to look after two people, she has less money.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that the examples that he has given represent the tip of the iceberg, given the numbers of such people across the Province? We all know such people — I could replicate similar cases — so the Member has made an important point. I support what he has said.

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to the Member for his intervention. I accept that this is but the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes individual cases act as an exemplar. Really, we are talking about the most vulnerable people in society.

Another issue — I heard this on the radio today, and it stuck with me — is that, because people are living longer, many parents who never expected to outlive their children are now having to deal with such situations.

I commend the motion to the House. I hope that the Minister will take note of what has been said. We can deal with this issue, and I am sure that the House will unite on the motion.

Mr P Ramsey: I welcome Carmel Hanna’s motion, and I acknowledge her contribution over many years to highlighting the anomaly in the carers’ system and her determination to see the issue through.

Caring for friends and relatives is a natural thing to do — human beings have always cared for one another — but every generation of carers faces a different set of challenges. For the present and future generations, specific challenges arise from the fact that we are an ageing society. A greater proportion of people are reaching old age, but we are experiencing lower birth rates. The age at which people became carers, whether of elderly parents or relatives or of sick children, was nearly always the same as that in which they were raising families of their own. However, in today’s world of high house prices, not only do both partners often need to work and to juggle many responsibilities, people are living longer so that those in their 50s and 60s may still be looking after their very elderly parents. In fact, at the present time in Northern Ireland, a quarter of our carers are over 60 years of age, and that proportion is rising.

Plans for future health services include a much reduced bed capacity for chronically ill elderly people because, quite frankly, hospital is not the best place for people unless they are acutely ill.

Naturally, most elderly people do not want to be in hospital if they can be at home. Consequently, more chronically ill elderly people need to be cared for at home. In some cases, because of the demands of caring, paid employment is not an option, and that causes tremendous financial hardship.

While preparing for the debate, I was struck by some of the briefing papers that we received, particularly from Barnardo’s Northern Ireland. There are about 8,500 unpaid carers in Northern Ireland who are under 17 years of age. Those carers have to grow up quickly. They may be unable to attend, or concentrate at, school; be unable to go out with their friends, or because of peer pressure, be unable to tell people that they are caring for someone; feel different to their friends; or feel worried and lonely. The Assembly can only but acknowledge the tremendous work of Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, which gets Big Lottery funding to counsel, guide and mentor some of those young people.

The number of suicides recently in Northern Ireland is alarming. My constituency is no different, with two more young people committing suicide in the past week. I am not suggesting that suicide is directly related to caring. However, the pressures of modern society are taking their toll.

Young carers often experience loneliness, a sense of isolation and a sense that their expectations of life will not be realised due to the burden that is placed on them. Barnardo’s Northern Ireland offers local support on a range of issues, such as health, mental and emotional well-being, education and achievement.

In addition to the stresses already mentioned, smaller families and the fragmentation of society mean that carers are often isolated and vulnerable. Carers, who perform such important work for their loved ones and for our society, should not be neglected, feel isolated or suffer financial hardship. They should be better supported financially and practically, and be properly remunerated for the work that they do.

The SDLP wants the Minister to outline how the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will fully implement the Caring for Carers strategy as soon as possible, so that people can get the help that they deserve and need. I urge Members to support the motion.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I thank Mrs Hanna for bringing such an important issue to the House and apologise to her for missing the first two or three minutes of her speech. I thank Members who have spoken on the subject. It is important that awareness is improved and that politicians maintain a focus on the contribution that carers make. It is clear that Members hold strong views about the importance of supporting carers and about the vital role that they play. I have sympathy with the view that not enough is being done to help carers.

The Ulster Unionist Party made a manifesto commit­ment to increase recognition of the work that carers do, and to ensure that they get better support. I am happy to have been given the opportunity to begin that process today.

Carers are people who give up their time — without receiving payment — to provide help and support to a relative, child or friend who may not be able to manage without that help because of frailty, illness or disability. Caring is an issue that can affect us all at some time in our lives. The 2001 census of population for Northern Ireland estimated that there were 185,000 carers. When Members consider that our population is 1·7 million, 185,000 carers is getting on for close to 20% of the population.

The contribution that carers make to the health and well-being of our population is immeasurable. The Assembly, and I as Minister, must take steps to ensure that the valuable role that carers play in our society be fully recognised. Carers are at the core of the concept of providing support for people so that they may live independently. One of the Department’s key strategies is that of independent living, which allows people to live in their own homes for as long as possible rather than go down the more traditional route of going into institutional care.

4.15 pm

I listened carefully to Mr Basil McCrea’s points, which he made strongly, that there are roles for everyone in the spectrum of care provision. He also said that there is need for a form of care provision in residential or nursing homes. Indeed, that point was made to me by him and people from his constituency, and it was one of the first discussions I had as a Minister. Therefore, I understand what he is saying.

There are dilemmas to be faced in that parents are now clearly not going to outlive children who are suffering from severe learning disabilities or severe disabilities. Such parents have a major concern about what will happen to their children when they are no long available to care for them.

The issue is about supporting the role of carers and their health and quality of life. They need support and they need access to the same opportunities that are enjoyed by the rest of us. Historically, supporting carers has been one of the thrusts of the Department, and there has been an ongoing process — some might say that it has gone on too long — of consultation, reporting and strategy development.

In January 2006, the Caring for Carers strategy was launched. It sets out 19 recommendations under six key themes in an implementation plan. The strategy is about supporting carers to enable them to have a better quality of life, and giving them the sort of support that they require in order to do their job — a job that if they were not doing, society would have to do, at a huge increase in cost to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety budget.

The strategy outlines what has been done, and more importantly, what still needs to be done. As far as I am concerned, the strategy is by no means the definitive end of the story. I asked for an outline of what has happened as regards implementing the 19 recommendations, and I am pleased that most of them have been completed and some remain as work in progress.

The strategy reiterated the importance of identifying carers in order to direct them towards appropriate services. Carers have also raised the issue of access to information —a point that has been made today — because carers’ organisations and voluntary groups played a key role in devising the strategy and the implementation plan. Information about where to access the support that carers need is important. It is also important to put their interests at the heart of decision-making by requiring, for example, health and social care bodies to nominate a specific board member to have responsibility for carers; to appoint a carers co-ordinator; and to establish a local carers’ reference group. I want to be sure that those important safeguards are put in place across Northern Ireland, and my officials are following that up as a priority.

There is also the key document — the ‘Complete A-Z For Carers’. Carers told us that access to relevant information was crucial to them. The guide points carers to where they can access that information. Demand for the guide, since publication, has been overwhelming.

As I have said, there has been a shift away from the more traditional forms of respite care. Therefore, the thrust of the Department is, and has been over the past few years, towards giving support to carers. However, none of us is satisfied that that is doing all that is required.

It is important to make some references in tandem with ‘Caring for Carers: Recognising, Valuing and Supporting the Caring Role’, which was published in 2006. Recurrent funding of £400,000 was allocated to support carers, and that funding is being used by health and social care bodies to develop innovative and responsive support services for carers, including flexible respite provision.

There is also £0·5 million per year for young carers; that was not allocated on a recurrent basis, but I can assure Members that I will be looking for it to be made recurrent as a priority in the spending review. A further £4 million has been allocated for 2007-08, aimed at supporting people by helping them to live independent lives in their own homes. This funding will also be used by trusts to support carers through the provision of services.

Direct payments — cash payments in lieu of service provision — can play an important role in increasing choice and independence for carers. It is important to bear in mind that they often need financial support. The Social Security Agency provides a range of services to ensure that people are advised of their potential entitlement to benefits. However, as Mr McCrea pointed out, knowing that there is a clear defect or a clear deficit in the approach to funding is only one point. It is about looking to see how we change the system, and that must also be a priority for us.

In 2006-07, 1,483 people in Northern Ireland were specifically targeted with the carers’ allowance and offered full benefit assessment. Assessment is one of the important things — assessment by right for the carer. The agency has also commenced a mailshot exercise targeting a further 66,000 people to advise them of the availability of carers’ allowance.

In March 2003, a significant step was taken when the Carers and Direct Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 came into force. For the first time, carers received a statutory right to an assessment of their needs. The 2002 Act also required health trusts to inform carers of the right to an assessment, so the responsibility was very much placed on the trust to be proactive with carers.

That said, we must still do more to raise the profile of assessments and, in so doing, provide a route for carers to access the support that they need. The way that they access this support is through assessment, and the way to assessment is for the trusts to be proactive in demonstrating need, and then take the opportunity to address that need.

My Department, through the Social Services Inspectorate, has carried out an inspection of the social care support services for carers of older people. The findings of this report will be published shortly, but I can disclose that it is likely to make further recom­mendations about the consistency of carer assessments and services being offered to carers across Northern Ireland. I have asked that any recommendations from this inspection be implemented as quickly as possible.

I believe that supporting carers and developing services for them is an ongoing campaign of action, and I am determined to continue to deliver on the commitments made to carers in the caring for carers strategy. I am also determined to review the support measures in place for carers, and with this in mind I will be ensuring that my comprehensive spending review bid does not overlook carers and that their importance and value to families, communities and the Health Service are properly reflected in my priorities.

For the present, the benefits of carer assessments —

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to hear of the Minister’s determination to make sure that carers’ needs are included in the comprehensive spending review. He might like also to consider those carers who are looking after people on the higher rate of disability living allowance. Perhaps we might do something specifically using a two-tier approach, looking at how we might address the issue of carers who are looking after people with greater needs, particularly those with 24-hour cover.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr McCrea; he makes an important and valuable point, which I will look to follow up on.

For the present, the benefits of carer assessments have to be communicated clearly to all health professionals and carers.

Carers must be fully aware of their rights. It is important that all of society, not least our local Admin­istration, must ensure that we regularly support and consult carers on their needs. The debate today has been valuable in achieving that. I do not doubt that, in due course, we will discuss the matter on several occasions, not least because it has repeatedly been brought forward. Simple demographics in our society mean that it is a growing issue and need; therefore, there is a growing requirement to address it.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank all the contributors to the debate for their support.

This is a very sensitive issue, and all Members have treated it as such. When we speak about carers, we must not forget those for whom they care, many of whom are already stressed and do not want to be a burden to their families and their loved ones.

On the way here this morning, I heard on the radio — as, I am sure, did other Members —some very emotional stories from people who were sharing their experiences of caring, and the impact it had on them. Older callers — some in their 80s — although currently enjoying good health, did not want to be a burden to their families in the future. People should be able to look forward to old age with a level of enjoyment and anticipation, and we owe them that.

There is a wide range of carers, and some young callers spoke eloquently about the impact that caring has had on them, with the loss of their childhood, and their inability to have social and recreational outlets. We heard from Carmel Hanna, and others, about the stress and strain that caring places on relationships in the family.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to continuing consultation with the Carers Forum. He made reference to the previous legislation concerning carers. When I worked in the caring profession, I was loath to say that I worked in the services, because, once a carer gets a statement of their needs, there is little in the way of resources to meet those needs.

Members across the Chamber spoke about the financial implications of caring and how, on the one hand, people receive a carer’s allowance, but that is taken from their income support. Some people had to give up their jobs, and that then impacted upon their pensions.

All Members recognise that many carers live in poverty; however, it is not even a poverty that allows them a level of independence. For some, caring is a 24/7 job. As a society, we owe a great debt to those people who provide care so unselfishly.

However, the demographic changes did not happen overnight; they were a long time coming. We have been failed miserably in planning for care that is fit for purpose. The resources have not been made available.

I worked in the Health Service in the 1980s and 1990s, and I remember the Thatcher years, when long-stay hospitals and old residential statutory homes were closed, and caring for people became a business. Caring for people cannot be a business. It requires dedication, and it is not something that many people do for the money. The loss of those respite homes, and statutory homes in particular — three of which were lost in my own constituency of Upper Bann — means that there is a lack of respite-care provision overall. For some, respite is a real lifeline. Some trusts do make available two weeks in care, which is followed by six weeks at home.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on the need for respite care, particularly for young, chronically ill adolescents. Last week, we heard that many young people with mental-health problems are placed in adult wards. The same applies to many young chronically disabled people, who have to go into respite or residential care homes for the elderly because of the inadequate number of places.

4.30 pm

In his speech, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety made a commitment to review the caring strategy, saying that several of the issues have been considered. He also said that care in Northern Ireland is a postcode lottery. Many people hope that a reduction in the number of trusts will make care more consistent, but that is a long way off. There is a job of work to do to ensure that care provision is the same no matter where one lives. Members referred to benefit entitlement take-up — people may not be aware of many benefits — and the importance of timely and effective information.

Society owes a debt to the community and voluntary sectors, which have taken the lead in meeting the needs of carers and in putting them at the top of the political agenda. Care in the community did not have the resources or the ability to work beyond “fire-fighting” or to develop long-term strategic planning.

Members may recall the closure of long-stay hospitals, after which care and resources were to follow into the community; that did not happen. I urge the Minister to reflect that primary care needs an urgent injection of cash. It is as simple as that.

Mr McCarthy: I am delighted to see that we have another member of the Executive in our midst: the Minister for Social Development, Ms Margaret Ritchie, is in the Chamber. Would Mrs Kelly agree that Ms Ritchie could contribute in conjunction with the Health Minister and any other Minister?

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for that point. In her motion Mrs Hanna referred to the fact that carers are not the concern of just one Department; there must be an holistic approach. I know that Ms Ritchie has a long-term commitment to the care of older people and has fought hard in recent battles for the health and social care needs of people in her constituency. That will be at the top of her agenda — although she is well able to speak for herself.

The debate is timely, as carers make up a hidden part of our society. All Members can relate to the issue, because most, if not all, of us have had to provide care for someone that we love. Unless one has done that, it is difficult to appreciate how having to care for someone can consume and restrict one’s life.

Sometimes the desire to help is replaced by anger and resentment. That is demonstrated by recent statistics that show that many older people have been abused by those who ought to care for them most. Part of the underlying reason is sheer frustration and a lack of support mechanisms for our carers.

I welcome the comments of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the contributions of all Members and the unanimous support of the House for the motion. The answers are not easy, but the Executive can take several easy steps to make provision for our carers. I hope that the Minister will urge cross-departmental working to meet the need in our community.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that all carers, formal and informal, can access services and support to maintain their own health and well-being, to recognise financially the vital role they play and ensure uptake of all benefit entitlements.

Private Notice Question

Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker has received notice of a private notice question, in accordance with Standing Order 20, for the Minister for Social Development.

Ms Ní Chuilín: asked the Minister for Social Develop­ment when she will make a decision on continuation funding after 30 June 2007 in relation to the crisis associated with the neighbourhood renewal strategy to allow essential services to be sustained prior to full implementation of the strategy in Derry/Londonderry.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. Since becoming Minister for Social Development, my priority has been to improve people’s quality of life and their life chances through social or affordable housing; benefit up-take to ensure that the elderly and those who are disabled obtain the benefits to which they are entitled; and urban regeneration to drive economic opportunity and neighbourhood renewal.

I was disappointed to hear about the concerns that arose last week in Derry about neighbourhood renewal funding. At no time have I, or my officials, suggested that neighbourhood renewal funding to community groups in Derry would cease. Indeed, I have been looking at approving extension funding for those community groups whose current contracts with the Department for Social Development will expire on 30 June. I can confirm that my Department will extend existing contracts for funding up to 31 March 2008 for all those community groups in Derry that are providing services that link to the new neighbourhood action plans.

It has been unhelpful to have some people put out rumours that heighten concerns. I have been told that if we fund some citywide groups in Derry, that will result in other groups losing their funding. However, that is not the case. As I have made clear in earlier statements, all community groups — citywide or otherwise — currently funded by the Department and providing key services in neighbourhood renewal areas, will be eligible to seek extension funding. The key criteria will be that the community groups address priority needs in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

We must not lose sight of the fact that neighbourhood renewal is about tackling disadvantage in areas in greatest need. That means that the needs of the community and the people must come first. The community sector will, undoubtedly, play a role in delivering some of those services, but my Department will not be in a position to provide financial support to all community groups. All Departments and public bodies will have a role to play in implementing neighbourhood action plans, and it will be for those bodies to decide how, and through whom, they wish to deliver services.

Of course, there are wider issues about sustainability and the funding of the voluntary and community sector, which fall to all Departments and require a co-ordinated approach. I hope to take that matter forward in the Executive.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am pleased to hear some clarification on the situation in Derry city. As someone who represents constituents living in areas of multiple deprivation, I, too, am concerned about the future of the neighbourhood renewal strategy. My Foyle colleague, Martina Anderson, also shares those concerns. Today, along with other communities living in neighbourhood renewal areas, Martina participated in a protest to protect funds for the most deprived areas in Derry city.

Neighbourhood renewal funding, as the Minister has outlined, was designed to respond to long-term funding to address multiple deprivation. However, neighbourhood renewal funds are calculated on the basis of objective need, which has been clearly identified in this case. Areas, albeit at different levels of development, have undergone the arduous process of planning development days and bringing together action plans, which are now sitting with the Minister’s Department ready to be funded.

However, I understand that the Minister for Social Development has instructed a funding review. If that is the case, it is alarming for people who are, at this late stage, waiting for their contracts to be renewed. That uncertainty has added to the overall uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of neighbourhood renewal, which, instead of long-term, has been piecemeal, going from one year, to six months, to 18 months. That is hardly addressing the social deprivation experienced by certain areas over the years.

Clarification was given, but further clarification is needed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Yes, I do.

Will the Minister outline to all neighbourhood renewal groups, particularly those in Derry, her response to the extension of contracts on 30 June 2007? Will she further outline her plans for full funding for neighbour­hood renewal?

Ms Ritchie: I thank Ms Ní Chuilín for her question. As I said, my priorities are to help people, to address their concerns and to help communities. I shall address the specific issue that the Member raised. I thought that I had made it clear — and I confirm it yet again — that my Department will extend funding for existing contracts until 31 March 2008 for all those community groups in Derry that provide services that link to the new neighbourhood action plans.

Regarding Ms Ní Chuilín’s reference to an instruction for a funding review, neighbourhood renewal works across Departments to tackle the root causes of deprivation by ensuring that the needs of the community come first. For me, community and the needs of the people come first. There are no plans to review that policy. The six neighbourhood action plans in the north-west have been agreed by the neighbourhood partnerships. In order to implement those plans, extensive discussions with Departments and agencies are under way.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): I thank the Minister for her statement in response to the issue. She will recall that I raised the issue with her last week in an adjoining room in the Assembly. Can the Minister elaborate on her statement that the funding to neighbour­hood renewal groups will be extended to March 2008?

According to the Mayor of Londonderry, people who are employed under the neighbourhood renewal scheme were to have their employment terminated at the end of this week. Does the Minister’s announcement mean that those people who, until last week, were at risk of unemployment on 30 June 2007 will no longer be at such risk and that that will not be the case until March 2008, by which time — we hope — permanent funding will be in place?

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Campbell for his question. As I said, my Department will extend funding for existing contracts until 31 March 2008 for all community groups in Derry that provide services linked to the new neighbourhood action plans. I confirm that the jobs in those community groups are guaranteed — if that is a suitable word — until 31 March 2008. At that stage, I will reconsider the issue. In fact, I shall be considering the matter in the longer term over the next few months.

I want to be completely assured that neighbourhood renewal is doing the job that it is intended to do: tackling deprivation and disadvantage in the communities that most need help; reducing the gap between levels of deprivation in Derry and in other areas of Northern Ireland that do not have a noticeable degree of deprivation; that it is effecting change and bringing improvement. That is my earnest desire.

Mr Durkan: The Minister is aware that I, like Mr Campbell, have made representations on the issue. Two types of groups are involved in the issue. One comprises the so-called citywide groups, which have not yet been configured into the neighbourhood renewal partnerships. The other consists of those groups that have worked long and hard in preparing and going through the plans and evaluations for neighbourhood renewal. The Minister’s statement makes it clear that citywide groups are now funded until March 2008. However, a longer-term funding arrangement is guaranteed for the other neighbourhood renewal groups.

4.45 pm

The Minister’s clarification is welcome in the short term. Will the Minister address the long-term worry that while the neighbourhood renewal strategy is an important, and, indeed, primary instrument of her Department, it should not be the sole instrument for funding the good work of the community and voluntary sectors? We should rightly take account, as the Minister said, of the role of other Departments, whose funding could well be drying up because of the drop-off in EU funds and the implications of the review of public administration.

One of the key elements of the national development plan in the Irish Republic is its social-inclusion pillar. If we want to tie in to that in the North, we need more than the neighbourhood renewal strategy alone, because its focus in the North would not match that of the social-inclusion pillar in the South. That is what we must do if North/South development is to take place in this area of concern.

Ms Ritchie: In the past few weeks both Mr Durkan and Mr Campbell have raised concerns with me about the problems facing the partnerships established under the neighbourhood renewal strategy in Derry. Mr Durkan should know that I have made it clear that all community groups in Derry, citywide or otherwise, currently funded by my Department and providing key services in areas covered by the neighbourhood renewal strategy, will be eligible to seek extension funding.

I agree with Mr Durkan on the other issues. I accept that there are groups doing good work in deprived areas that do not necessarily fit the template of the neighbourhood renewal strategy. I fully recognise that those groups are working to address social and economic disadvantage. These concerns are not solely a matter for my Department; they are the collective responsibility of all Departments, because the work of such groups is wide-ranging and varied and is concerned with tackling disadvantage. The Executive must consider those matters collectively, and I hope to present a paper on the subject to the Executive after discussion with the Committee for Social Development.

The national development plan in the South of Ireland contains several social-inclusion pillars that address social and regional development issues on an all-island basis. I hope to meet my ministerial colleagues in the South of Ireland soon to discuss various issues that impinge on our Departments, such as neighbourhood renewal, urban regeneration, the need to address social deprivation and disadvantage and building communities in a much wider context.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that the agreed per capita budget of £70 intended to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and ensure that people have a better chance will be guaranteed? Will she also assure Members that none of the areas covered by the neighbour­hood renewal strategy will lose funding? The Minister’s funding review was the cause of massive uncertainty and was akin to a review of the pot of the poor.

Many groups have been plunged into a crisis, and today they have called for a protest. Has the Minister set a target date for solving this problem? It is not good enough to say that one will be found at some time in the future. A target date for the full implementation of the neighbourhood renewal strategy is required through the action plan that was signed off earlier this year.

Ms Ritchie: In case there are any misconceptions about this, I never instructed a review. There have been many rumours over the past few weeks about what I did or did not do in Derry on this. At no stage did I say that a review should take place; nor did I say that any funding should be withdrawn. Those who have been spreading those rumours in Derry should stop now.

I have made the case clearly, and I will repeat it: my Department will extend existing contracts for funding up to 31 March 2008 for all community groups in Derry providing services linked to the new neighbourhood action plans. The rumours that have been put about by some people have heightened concerns, which has been unhelpful. I have also been told that if my Department funds some citywide groups in Derry, other groups will lose their funding.

As I have made clear in earlier statements, all community groups — citywide or otherwise — that are currently funded by the Department for Social Development and that provide key services in neighbour­hood renewal areas will be eligible to seek extension funding. I further emphasise to Ms Anderson that my first and last concerns are for all members of the community in Derry. I want to ensure that neighbourhood renewal addresses their concerns. Neighbourhood renewal is not there simply to allocate jobs; it must effect change and improvement in the wider community. It must reduce deprivation and be seen to address disadvantage in order to improve the health and well-being of the community and provide opportunity for all. As Minister, I will seek to do that.

Mr B McCrea: I hesitate to intrude into a debate on the north-west. However, one of my forebears, Basil McCrea, made a large donation to what was then McCrea Magee Presbyterian College to train Presbyterian ministers. Obviously, the money has run out because the McCrea element of the name has disappeared. However, I have a real interest in tackling social deprivation. In previous debates, I was struck —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question?

Mr B McCrea: Of course I do, but I thought that I should set the scene to show why I am intruding on the debate. Does the Minister agree that tackling social deprivation requires partnership and that people must work together without rancour? Rancour militates against investment and useful work with other parties. If everyone worked together for the benefit of the people of Londonderry, perhaps it would be a happier place.

Ms Ritchie: I fully agree that the only way to achieve success in Government and have a forward-looking process that will reduce deprivation and disadvantage is through partnership and working together. I hope that the Assembly can provide that as an example through the new political dispensation. I hope that all Members have fully subscribed to the principles of partnership and working together.

Mr P Ramsey: I am delighted that the Minister clarified that there was no political interference from her Department in the neighbourhood renewal strategy in Derry. Over the weekend and last week, there have been whispers from people in the community who want to do a bit of mixing. There must be a full appraisal of how those programmes are being addressed. How are social need targets, healthier living, low educational esteem and social inclusion being addressed? How is that managed to ensure best practice? There must be tendering exercises, and service level agreements must be entered into to ensure that the best is achieved from those practices. There is no point —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question for the Minister?

Mr P Ramsey: I was not aware of a protest in my constituency of Foyle, but it is funny that other people know and that various parties have been excluded from those protests. One can imagine where the carry-on is happening and where the whispers have come from.

Ms Ritchie: It is possible that certain Members and others are trying to push a political agenda in order to undermine the Minister for Social Development, the SDLP and the ethos in which everyone believes, especially my Department: the need to tackle dis­advantage and deprivation and to build communities.

I would like to think that we have all engineered ourselves to deliver on that agenda, not to try to obfuscate and undermine it. I absolutely and unequivocally refute the allegation that I have pursued a political agenda. My only concerns are for the requirements of the local population and the tackling of deprivation —

Ms Ní Chuilín: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. None of us is accusing the Minister of pursuing a political agenda. It was a member of the Minister’s party who suggested that.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Ms Ritchie: I fail to recognise where there was a point of order. If I may continue: in recent weeks I have read various articles in various Derry newspapers, and taken note of various questions tabled in the Assembly by certain members of a political party, that can only be based on a political agenda. As I have already said, my only concerns, and those of my Department and its officials, are for the requirements of the local population, the tackling of deprivation, and the lessening of the gap between those —

Mrs D Kelly: I know that the question is very much about Derry, but does the Minister acknowledge that many people — and elected representatives — throughout the North have concerns about how neighbourhood renewal partnerships have been taken over?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Member for her point of information. I will continue, and then come back to that issue.

As I said, my only concerns, and those of my Depart­ment, are for the requirements of the local population, the tackling of deprivation, and the lessening of the gap between those who have and those who have not. The wider needs of the community and the people should be the only issue to concern Members. It is people who count in politics and in communities.

I thank Mrs Kelly for her intervention and Mr Ramsey for his comments. I will investigate those issues, because I wish to ensure that fairness and equality are the bench­marks by which neighbourhood renewal is assessed. Suffice it to say that the concerns of the local population come first — in this instance, that is the population in Derry. That is why I have extended funding until the end of the financial year. I want to do the best for people and to bring social priorities to the fore.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes the questions to the Minister, the interventions, and all the rest.

Adjourned at 4.58 pm.

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