Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Tuesday 26 June 2007

Executive Committee Business
Taxis Bill: Second Stage

Assembly Business
Marshalled List of Amendments

Private Members’ Business
Pay Parity for Further Education Lecturers
Transformation Fund
Pension Provision for former RUC Part-Time Reserve

Recent flooding in East Belfast

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Taxis Bill

Second Stage

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill [NIA 4/07] be agreed.

The Taxis Bill is enabling legislation that provides for the creation of a comprehensive new framework for the regulation of taxis. Its overriding purpose is to make taxi services in Northern Ireland safer and better for customers. The pressing need for the legislation was established following an extensive review of taxi regulation, which was carried out by the Department of the Environment (DOE) in response to concerns about the numbers of illegal taxis in operation.

Northern Ireland has a relatively vibrant and growing taxi sector, which involves at least 800 businesses of varying sizes and creates self-employment for more than 12,000 working taxi drivers. However, most taxi legislation dates back to the early 1980s; in fact, in Belfast, taxis are regulated by by-laws that were devised in the early 1950s. The problem is that if all the legislation were combined, it would not add up to effective taxi regulation for the twenty-first century. Most importantly, the lack of enforcement powers and penalties means that the DOE cannot properly address the needs of a taxi industry that is currently plagued by illegal competition.

Current legislation is also seriously deficient in that taxi businesses cannot be licensed or easily be held accountable if they use unlicensed drivers or vehicles or if they provide poor services. Fare control and taximeter requirements are minimal, and complaints of overcharging are impossible to address when fares are not regulated.

It is not enough to just ensure that there are enough immediate-hire taxis available at peak times and accessible taxis at any time.

Lastly, customers in Belfast are frustrated and very often ignore the fact that, unlike everywhere else in Northern Ireland, most of the available taxis there cannot be hired immediately in the street.

Clearly, we need new legislation that supports the development of a highly professional, customer-focused, economically sustainable taxi services industry. Implementing the proposals of the taxi review through the Taxis Bill will allow my Department to develop new policies designed to address the problems, using measures tailored to meet Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.

The Taxis Bill will make it possible, for example, to promote road safety and the personal safety of taxi users by requiring all taxi operators to be licensed; reintroducing a taxi driving test; making all drivers get relevant training; and improving the identification that drivers must wear and display. It will also enable the availability, range and standard of services to be improved by giving powers to the DOE to operate a single licensing system throughout Northern Ireland that will allow all taxis to pick up passengers without a booking. It will also allow the Department to set compulsory maximum fare rates; require all taxis to have taximeters and display their fares clearly; and require taxi operators to provide more accessible taxis. That is why I am proposing that the Bill be given its Second Stage.

Taxis are a small but integral part of our transport system. They often provide the key link at the start or end of a longer journey. Many people use them regularly to get to and from airports, bus and train stations or just to get home after a night out with friends or family. Taxis also provide vital community support, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. Taxis often provide a lifeline for people who do not have access to a car or to good public transport.

People with disabilities rely heavily on taxis to get around, and, every day during term time, taxis allow the education and library boards to provide excellent home-to-school transport services for over 3,000 children with special needs. Last but not least, taxis make a very important contribution to the economy and have a key role to play in promoting a positive image of Northern Ireland to our increasing numbers of tourists and business visitors.

Clearly, there are times when most of us, for one reason or another, need to rely on the convenience of getting a taxi. When we do so, we want to be sure that we can get one when we need it, that we can travel safely and in comfort, and that the fare that we will be asked to pay will be reasonable, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

I want to acknowledge that there is a great deal in the industry to be positive about. It is important to acknowledge that many people work very hard, often during unsociable hours, to provide safe, attentive, high-quality taxi services to their customers. Many taxi businesses across Northern Ireland invest heavily to provide excellent innovative taxi services, using the latest booking, dispatch and vehicle-tracking technology. Others are keen to develop new niche services in the growing wedding- and party-car sectors.

However, there is a darker and less positive side to the taxi industry — where the personal safety of young people is put at risk when there are too few taxis to get them home quickly and safely late at night; where too many taxis look and feel as if they have seen better days; and where too many taxi drivers have poor customer-care skills. It is also one in which the only way that some people can get a taxi home at night is to agree to pay an extortionate fare. Most worryingly of all, it is one in which, because there is no local system of operator licensing, taxi businesses can get away with providing unsafe, uninsured, unlicensed cars and drivers, with relative impunity.

All that must stop. That is why, starting with the Taxis Bill, I want to inroduce a programme of reform and modernisation to transform the provision of taxi services in Northern Ireland. I want to build on existing best practice and eliminate the worst practices. In particular, I am determined to clamp down on the menace of illegal taxiing, which does so much harm to the image of the industry and stops it from realising its full economic potential. My vision is simply this: I want to see that every taxi on the road is safe, driven by an insured, licensed taxi driver, and operated through a reputable business.

The people of Northern Ireland, our tourists and our visitors deserve nothing less. For that reason, the Taxis Bill will allow me to introduce regulations to improve road safety by requiring new taxi drivers to be tested and all taxi drivers to be trained. Furthermore, the Bill will enable me to deter illegal taxiing and improve service standards by introducing operator licensing, and to protect consumers from overcharging by requiring all taxis to work to new maximum fares and to have taximeters. It will give the police and DOE enforcement officers new powers to tackle illegal taxiing, and it will introduce new offences against taxi regulations, with tough penalties. Those penalties will be directed at taxi businesses that provide a taxi service without a taxi-operator’s licence or that use unlicensed vehicles or drivers.

Mr S Wilson: I note what the Minister has said about new powers and the ability for inspectors to ensure that taxi companies live up to the Bill’s require­ments. It has been alleged that the legislation will lead to a vast bureaucracy of inspectors and paperwork, and so on. How would the Minister respond to that allegation?

Mrs Foster: Compliance costs will be associated with the new regulations. The Department aims to increase its staffing significantly and to establish several new taxi enforcement teams throughout Northern Ireland to deal with the workload. That strategy will ensure that all areas have effective and proportional levels of enforcement.

I accept what Mr Wilson has said about over-regulation, and I hope to touch on that point later in my speech.

The Bill will allow my Department to introduce measures to improve the supply and range of taxi services provided. For example, measures will permit all taxis in Belfast to be hailed if they are available for hire. Furthermore, operators will be required to supply more disabled-accessible taxis, and taxis will be allowed to charge separate fares to passengers who wish to share.

It is important to point out that, although the Taxis Bill is a necessary first step, not all its proposed changes will happen overnight. The Bill’s provisions are, in most cases, enabling. For example, full implementation of the taxi-reform programme, which the Bill makes possible, will require further subordinate legislation.

As individual sets of regulations are introduced, they will be subject to policy scrutiny by the Committee for the Environment and to negative resolution before the Assembly. My Department will want to continue close consultation on those changes with taxi-service providers and users.

I shall look briefly at the Bill’s main provisions. It contains six parts and three schedules. Part 1 introduces a requirement for a taxi operator to apply for, and obtain, a taxi-operator’s licence and imposes duties on licensed operators. It also introduces new requirements and duties for operating a taxi service at separate fares.

Part 2 provides for the regulation of vehicles that are used to provide taxi services. It includes more flexible and extensive powers than those currently available to the Department to set appropriate suitability requirements for vehicles, including their type, size and design. Moreover, it gives the Department powers to set the maximum rates and fares that can be charged for the hire of a taxi, and powers to require all taxis to have a taximeter and a receipt printer.

Part 3 contains provisions to regulate taxi drivers. In particular, it amends the existing legislation by reducing the length of time for which a driver’s licence is valid from five years to three. That measure brings the legislation into line with existing taxi-driver repute checks, which are repeated every three years.

Part 4 contains several general provisions to do with licences. Those relate to the different forms of licence available under the Bill, and deal primarily with fees, applications, suspensions, revocations, curtailments and appeals.

Part 5 makes provision for enforcement. It gives the police and the DOE powers to stop, search and seize vehicles that are believed to be taxiing illegally, and powers to inspect premises, under warrant, for which reasonable grounds exist to suspect that a person is operating an unlicensed taxi service.

Part 6 outlines miscellaneous and general issues that apply to the operation of the Bill, including the sharing of information, making grants and providing training.

The Bill has three schedules. Schedules 2 and 3, respectively, deal with minor and consequential amendments and repeals.

Schedule 1 lists all the separate offences under the Bill and the penalties for each of those. The most serious licensing offences — all of which, on conviction, will attract a maximum fine of £5,000 — include driving a taxi without a taxi-driver’s licence; operating a taxi service without an operator’s licence, or using unlicensed vehicles or drivers; and using a taxi, or permitting a taxi to be used, without a taxi licence.

10.45 am

I am happy to report that when the Department consulted on this legislation as an Order in Council in 2006, taxi businesses and customers broadly welcomed it. They want these changes to be brought in, especially in relation to operator licensing. I know, too, that the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and the Inclusive Mobility Transport Advisory Committee (Imtac) are particularly supportive.

I acknowledge, however, that not everyone is happy with everything that is in the Bill. I appreciate, in particular, that, although they support the vast majority of the measures that it will enable, many Belfast public-hire drivers are against proposals for all taxis to be allowed to pick up in the street. They want the existing two-tier public-hire and private-hire taxi-licensing system to be kept, but people who use taxis in Belfast appear to take a very different view. As I mentioned earlier, there are insufficient taxis in the city to meet demand at peak times, and the public are understandably frustrated that most of the available taxis cannot be hired immediately, simply because of this outdated two-tier system.

Mr S Wilson: One of the criticisms that has been made of the Taxis Bill is that it will lead to redundancies in the taxi industry. This morning, in an interview on Radio Ulster, it was claimed that up to 450 taxi drivers could lose their jobs. Has any assessment been made of the impact that the legislation will have on employment in the taxi industry? If there were to be redundancies, which provision in the Bill would be the source of those?

Mrs Foster: Frankly, I cannot see how the legislation will lead to redundancies, especially as there is an increased demand for taxis in the city of Belfast. In fact, it will free up more taxis to deal with the demand. My Department does not believe that the proposals for a single-tier system will result in the loss of taxi drivers’ jobs in Belfast. Accessible taxis, such as those operated by Belfast public hire, will continue to play an important role in operating immediate-hire services from taxi ranks at popular locations in the city and at places such as Belfast City Airport, railway stations, bus stations and ferry terminals. Accessible taxis will continue to serve as school- and health-transport contract vehicles and will have the opportunity to participate in taxi-sharing and other schemes that are envisaged under the provisions in the Bill. Measures will be put in place to safeguard the business of accessible taxis operating from taxi ranks in order to discourage casual picking up by non-accessible taxis in the vicinity of those locations.

Another source of concern for taxi operators and drivers is enforcement. The matter was raised earlier by my hon Friend the Member for East Antrim. Any regulatory regime is only as good as its enforcement. I agree with the taxi industry and other stakeholders that effective enforcement is vital if standards are to be raised and illegality driven out. The Taxis Bill provides the powers, with details of offences and penalties, that my Department and the police need to deter illegal taxiing. It is now beholden to us to do our part to ensure that we have the right strategies and resources in place to make the new licensing system work.

I appreciate also that many taxi businesses are worried that their costs may rise as a result of the regulatory charges that I propose. The Bill, in itself, will not affect business costs, and I want to reassure any taxi drivers and operators who are concerned about compliance costs that may flow from the reform programme that the Department will carefully assess all the costs and benefits of the changes and consult fully with them about any potential regulatory impacts.

Measures in the Bill are expected to have a positive impact on the equality of opportunity of both taxi-service providers and users. That is particularly so in the case of people with disabilities and older people, who can expect to benefit from the provision of more services, using vehicles suited to their needs.

It is also judged that implementing the Bill will have a positive impact in rural areas, as people living and working there should benefit from the wider provision of high-quality and more accessible taxi services, including, potentially, access to more shared taxi services.

Finally, I want to comment on the commencement of the Taxis Bill.

Clause 39 addresses a deficiency in existing legislation by giving the police and the Department of the Environment’s enforcement officers specific powers to stop private cars that are believed to be taxiing illegally. That clause can come into operation shortly after the Bill becomes law. As initiatives are developed, regulations that flow from other provisions will be implemented over a number of years. Early priorities will include the introduction of taxi-operator licensing, and new training and testing requirements for drivers. Moreover, the standards that taxi vehicles must meet will be revised, new maximum-fare rates will be set and taximeters will be made compulsory.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, I must remind Members that, as this is the Second Stage of the Bill, they should speak only to the principles of the Bill and not to its substance. Moreover, there is no time limit on this debate.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): I thank the Minister for giving the Bill its Second Stage. As Chairman of the Committee for the Environment, I welcome the opportunity to initiate discussion on the Taxis Bill. This comprehensive Bill consists of 58 clauses that will make provisions to regulate taxi operators, taxis and taxi drivers.

I pay tribute to those taxi drivers who provide such a vital service in our community. At present, four different types of taxi licence are in operation: vehicles licensed as private hire; taxis licensed as Belfast public hire; taxis licensed as restricted public hire; and taxibuses. Many people may not know that or know the type of work that each can and cannot do, but the Bill will address that. It will also ensure that taxi operators become regulated, which they are not at present. The Bill is a response to dissatisfaction among consumer organisations, the industry itself and the general public over the provision of taxi services under existing legislation.

It is clear from the Department-commissioned ‘Quantitative Survey of Northern Ireland Taxi Operators 2004’ that taxiing is a major industry. There are currently about 17,000 licensed taxi drivers, 10,500 licensed taxis and 850 taxi operators in Northern Ireland. The industry itself has an approximate turnover of £70 million per annum.

Overcharging is one current problem for the taxi industry. My colleague Alasdair McDonnell has informed me that one of his constituents complained to him that, because he uses an electric wheelchair, he must pay a premium of £8 minimum to get a wheelchair taxi in Belfast. In Lisburn, however, his constituent said that the equivalent fare was £2, or the normal standard rate. For there to be such a large disparity is wrong, and the issue must be addressed at both departmental and Committee level.

There are also concerns about low standards of customer service, a lack of taxis at peak times and, of course, illegal taxiing. The Department anticipates that the Bill will tackle those problems by making the industry more professional, by introducing tougher enforcement powers and by providing better standards for taxi users.

The Taxis Bill will lead to the regulation of taxi operators. As I mentioned earlier, they are not subject to any specific regulation. The Bill will require that anyone who operates any type of taxi must hold a taxi-operator licence. That is a positive step, which should help to combat illegal taxiing. Good repute is an important element for the Department to consider when granting operator licences.

It is also notable that the Bill will impose a maximum fine of £5,000 on any operator who does not use licensed taxis and drivers. The Committee will scrutinise proposals in the Bill as to how that will be done.

The Bill will also address the taxi-licensing structure. The Department will be given flexibility to introduce a one-tier system, to which the Minister referred earlier. The current two-tier system is not working, as is demonstrated by the number of people who can be seen attempting to flag down taxis in Belfast city centre after a night out. The legislation will ensure that all taxis can do both public- and private-hire work, while remaining flexible enough to allow the Department to make other arrangements if particular systems are found to suit particular areas better. The Committee will examine the legislative proposals very closely.

The Bill will address taxi-driver licensing. A taxi driver must still have a taxi-driver’s licence, but power will be available to ensure that some, or all, taxi drivers undergo testing and training. That can only help to improve customer-service standards. However, Committee members are concerned that that could lead to an influx of people applying for licences before the legislation comes into effect. The Committee will be exploring that matter further during its deliberations at Committee Stage.

The Bill provides for extensive enforcement powers. Police and enforcement officers will be permitted to enter and inspect operating centres; to stop and examine licensed taxis; and to seize and remove a vehicle that they suspect is being used without a proper licence. Although the Committee welcomes the introduction of such stringent powers, its members are concerned that the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has such a small staff — 21 people — to call on to enforce those powers. That is another issue that the Committee must explore further.

It is to be welcomed that the Department consulted substantially on the Bill with key stakeholders. Two rounds of consultation were held, in 2005 and 2006, and those drew almost 400 written responses, the majority of which were in favour of the proposals. However, a few areas of concern were raised. Those concerns included the standards for accessible taxis; the requirement for taxi drivers to wear seatbelts; lack of financial support for training; and lack of detail in the Bill. The Committee is soon to place a public notice in the main morning newspapers calling for written submissions from interested organisations and individuals. We will be extremely interested to hear their views on the Bill.

Like Mr Sammy Wilson, I listened to the radio this morning, and I hope that people with genuine concerns about the Bill will avail themselves of the opportunity to present their concerns to the Committee. As Committee Chairman, I assure them that they will be given a genuine hearing.

In Committee, we will be studying the Bill clause by clause. After we have taken into account stake­holders’ views, the Committee will produce a report that outlines its views on the Bill.

In general terms, the Bill seeks to increase regulation of the taxi industry, and, on behalf of the Committee, I support its principles.

Mr Weir: I welcome the proposals. Like other members of the Committee for the Environment, I look forward to getting my teeth into the Bill. Two of the first three Bills that were introduced this session — the Budget Bill and the Welfare Reform Bill — required accelerated passage, but the Committee welcomes the opportunity to look in detail at the Taxis Bill.

As the Minister and the Committee Chairman have indicated, the Bill covers a wide range of issues and contains many clauses. The Committee will want to ensure that the very good objectives that are set out in the Bill will be mirrored in the detail of the legislation.

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

It is appropriate to remind ourselves of the Bill’s aims. The explanatory and financial memorandum states that the legislation came about as a result of the review of taxi regulation that was carried out in 2002. The objective of that review, which is also the underlying objective of the Taxis Bill, was to:

“make recommendations aimed at creating a more effective and equitable regulatory framework that would promote road and personal safety, improve accessibility and facilitate fair competition in the taxi industry.”

It is important to put that on the record at the start, because I am concerned that some Members will seek to misrepresent the Bill. The Minister and others have acknowledged that the legislation is not an attack on the taxi industry. Everyone would acknowledge that the taxi industry provides a valuable service. It provides mobility for people in the countryside who do not have the same access to public transport as some of the rest of us do. It also helps those who are vulnerable because of physical or financial problems and who do not have access to a car or, in many cases, cannot afford a car. It is also the case that the taxi industry provides a vital service for road safety. Many worthy campaigns have been launched, particularly by the DOE, to encourage people not to drink and drive. However, those campaigns can only be effective if an alternative method is available for people to get home after a night out. Taxis provide that alternative and a greater level of road safety by playing an important role in cutting road deaths.

11.00 am

It is recognised that the majority of taxi businesses and taxi drivers operate in a responsible, efficient and effective manner. However, the aim of the Bill is to ensure that all of the industry is operating to the same high standards that are evident in many parts of Northern Ireland, and it is worthy that we are seeking to ensure that the same level of excellence is being provided across the system. Unfortunately, the majority of taxi drivers face major problems because of the actions of a small number of illegal drivers who create problems for other drivers and for consumers.

Consumers want to be assured that certain standards will be met. They want to be sure that drivers and operators are licensed; that taxis will be clean and of an appropriate standard; and that drivers will have been trained to provide good service. It is particularly important to ensure that consumers are protected. The provision in the Bill to allow regulations to be made to set maximum fares will be a useful device to ensure that the small number of taxi drivers who seek to exploit people will face the proper sanctions.

It is important that people feel safe when they get into a taxi. A properly regulated industry is vital in order to provide people with peace of mind — not just for the taxi user but for the parents of young people who use taxis. It will assure them that when their son or daughter goes out for an evening, there is a guarantee of their protection on the way home.

The Committee will be going through the Bill in more detail; therefore, I do not wish to do so at present. It is sufficient to say that the provisions in the Bill relating to the regulation of taxi operators, taxis and licensing arrangements will provide the three legs of the stool that will form the sound base for the industry.

I welcome provisions that will ensure that more taxis will be designed to meet the needs of older people and disabled people. It is important that the Taxis Bill is not considered to be a one-off piece of legislation. As the Minister said, subsequent regulations will put the meat on the bones of some of the issues. There will be much focus on consumer protection and on ensuring that people have adequate opportunities to use taxis. At present, the concern, particularly in certain parts of Belfast, is that customers must wait too long for a taxi because there are too few available.

It is important to have a level playing field in the industry — that would ensure that legal taxi drivers would not be disadvantaged by those who are operating illegally. It is important that there is one system and set of standards across Northern Ireland in order to prevent the situation in which some taxi drivers have an unfair advantage while others are unfairly disadvantaged. In the long run, the Bill’s provisions will lead to an expan­sion of the taxi market, which is a relatively rare outcome in the regulation of any industry. If the taxi industry is regulated properly, it will lead to more people being employed in it.

That is something to be strongly welcomed. As well as providing protection for the consumer — obviously, the number-one aim — the legislation will be of benefit to the taxi industry: it will provide a level of protection to those taxi drivers who provide a first-class service. I look forward to the detailed scrutiny of the Bill, so that Members can ensure that the policy objectives that have been welcomed across the Chamber are matched in the detail of the legislation. I believe that they will. I urge the House to support the Bill’s Second Stage.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister, and I thank my fellow Committee members for their comments. I also look forward to the rest of the debate.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill. The regulation of owners and drivers is long overdue — as the industry will admit — and the general principle of the Bill is welcomed. There has been widespread consultation dating back to 2002; however, some issues need to be clarified, and I welcome the opportunity to do so at the Bill’s Committee Stage.

It is imperative that the Assembly encourage engage­ment with the major stakeholders in the taxi industry — taxi drivers, taxi owners and their representatives — to listen to their views and concerns. They will be the people most affected by the legislation, and it is important that their voices be heard. I am also concerned about the enforcement of the regulations, which must be implemented more thoroughly than at present. More resources must be put into that area or the new regulations will die on their feet. It will be a case of everything changing yet remaining the same if the new rules are implemented but the old problems are not eradicated.

Members must give great consideration to the proposed change, in certain circumstances, from a two-tier to a one-tier system. Wider consultation on that area is required with all interested parties, because it raises many questions that Members alone cannot answer. One must remember that, as well as the benefits that it will bring to road and personal safety and the contribution that it will make to a more efficient and modern taxi service, the Bill touches on the livelihoods of thousands of people. They must be permitted to have a meaningful input, and Members must be prepared to listen.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill, and the next step must be to allow stakeholders to put their case to the Assembly at the earliest opportunity. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Armstrong: I support the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill and its general principles. It is designed to help with regulation of the taxi industry in Northern Ireland and to ensure public confidence in its safety. The taxi industry affects a large number of people across Northern Ireland, and it is represented in urban and rural districts. I was encouraged to learn from the Department that the majority of the taxi industry is supportive of the proposals and wants the legislation to be in place sooner rather than later.

I do not propose to engage in a detailed examination of the Bill — I am sure that others will have that opportunity and will raise their concerns at a later date. Rather, I will comment on two areas that are of concern to me. First, I am keen to ensure that there is a greater taxi-rank provision, especially in rural towns. I am aware that the provision of taxi ranks is a traffic- management matter, which falls under the remit of the Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service, so I am pleased to hear that the Department of the Environment taxi review team has already made strong representation to the Department for Regional Development (DRD) about the provision of taxi ranks, and I encourage DRD to take those concerns on board.

As a representative of a rural constituency — Mid Ulster — I am particularly aware that the subregional transport plan has recognised that planners of rural towns must look critically at the provision of taxi ranks. I encourage them to do so as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, I want to ensure that members of the travelling public are able to identify legitimate taxis. Under the current system, taxi plates are not that visible.

Mr Weir: Mr Armstrong said that the public must be able to identify legitimate taxis — and I am sure that all Members would welcome that. Is he aware of any instances of people getting into cars, believing them to be taxis, when, in fact, they were not?

Mr Armstrong: I missed the Member’s last words, but I am sure that he had good reason for his intervention. [Laughter.]

I want to ensure that members of the public are able to identify legitimate taxis. The current taxi plates are not sufficiently visible, and one must focus below eye level to read them. I would support any moves by the Department to integrate taxi plates into roof signs to ensure that that information is readily identifiable. That would advantage the public in safety and ease of use.

We need a taxi service that is safe and efficient, not only for local people but for prospective tourists.

Mr Ford: Perhaps Members can reach unanimity on this matter. I would like to congratulate the Minister on the Second Stage of the Bill. It is clear that legislation is required. The reputation of good taxi operators is currently suffering from the activities of those who operate on the margins or, in some cases, downright illegally. It is time to deal with that.

The Minister and others have referred to the fact that a review began in November 2002. However, in fact, there was ongoing activity before that. I was a member of the Environment Committee during the Assembly’s first mandate and I remember having received delegations from those who were concerned about this matter, even before suspension in October 2002.

It is, to some extent, regrettable that the legislation was almost ready for an Order in Council to be made last year, yet we are still waiting for legislation to pass. Indeed, the Minister has told us that we must wait for further subordinate legislation in a number of detailed areas. How long can we afford to delay if we are to ensure the proper level of consumer protection, which is undoubtedly deserved?

Mr Weir and Mr Boylan said that they were looking forward to the detailed consideration of the Bill in Committee. I am reminded of the fact that Mr Weir was not a member of the previous Environment Committee. Indeed, neither the Minister nor Mr Boylan were Members of the Assembly when we last discussed taxis. I suspect that, after a few weeks of consideration of the details of taxi matters, Mr Weir and Mr Boylan may be marginally less enthusiastic than they are today. We shall wait and see. I look forward to hearing about the details that they will wish to raise when the Bill reaches Consideration Stage. I look forward to their showing how they have applied themselves to the Committee’s work. They clearly have an interesting example to set for all of us.

The key point must be that the people of Northern Ireland and, as the Minister said, our visitors can depend on safe, roadworthy vehicles that are driven by qualified licensed drivers and operated by registered companies with regulated fares. It will take some time before that comes about, but that must be the ambition towards which we all work.

I have some concerns, which we will doubtless have the opportunity to address as Mr Weir guides us through the Committee Stage. Those concerns include: provisions for people with disabilities, and the speed with which those provisions will be introduced; the requirements for regulation and inspection, and the numbers of staff who will be made available to do that; and the timescale for the provision of taximeters and receipt printers. Those issues must be resolved as we consider the Bill in detail and as we deal with the ensuing subordinate legislation, which will doubtless provide the Committee’s excitement for many weeks and months ahead.

However, the fundamental principles of the Bill are sound. There must be licensing of operators — that is a key provision to ensure that good operators and good drivers are protected from the rogues. We must ensure better training and regulation of drivers; we must ensure action on enforcement; and we must ensure control of fares.

It is clear from the consultation that most people in the industry support every part of the Bill, or, if not every part, the great majority of it. It is clear that, as we work through the enabling subordinate legislation, we will be able to deal with the outstanding matters. The Committee has been threatened with much of that work. Despite that, I welcome the Bill.

11.15 am

Mr I McCrea: I support the Second Stage of the Bill, and I thank the Minister for her introductory comments.

As the Minister stated earlier, the Bill will bring taxi legislation — and the taxi industry — into the twenty-first century. It gives the Department the ability and authority to bring much-needed changes to that industry. Importantly, the introduction of the one-tier system will make for greater availability of taxis, especially in Belfast. The Bill will also ensure that taxi drivers will be better trained: all new drivers will be required to pass taxi-driving tests, thus improving the safety of passengers.

Recently, it was suggested that the Bill will create a new confidence in the taxi industry that will lead to further investment and create jobs, placing the industry firmly in the mainstream economy. That is the intention of the Bill and of the Department.

Earlier in the debate, taxi drivers’ overcharging of disabled people was mentioned. The requirement for all taxis to have a taximeter will ensure that such overcharging will no longer occur. Disability access is important. I ask the Minister to advise the House on how the Bill will improve disabled people’s access to taxis.

As has already been said, everyone’s views will be taken into account when the Bill reaches its Committee Stage. I am unsure whether I will be as enthusiastic a contributor as some other Members at that Stage, given that scrutiny of the Bill will be a long and rigorous process. Nevertheless, I look forward to it.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I declare an interest in proceedings: a member of my family works in the taxi industry.

Tugann Sinn Féin tacaíocht do Bhille na dTacsaithe.

As Cathal Boylan stated, Sinn Féin broadly supports the Taxis Bill. I acknowledge the work that has been carried out by the Minister’s officials, and I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill in the manner in which she did.

The rationale behind the Bill is the creation of efficient and effective regulation of the taxi industry in the interests of drivers, owners and — most importantly — the travelling public. It is widely accepted that the legislation that currently governs the industry is inefficient and ineffective. The industry has been a prime mover in calling for, and co-operating in, the framing of the Bill.

Coming as I do from Derry, I have been in contact with the North-West Taxi Forum, which believes that the Bill, if passed, will go a long way to improving regu­lation of the industry and to creating a level playing field.

Too many of those who are involved in the industry work for the minimum wage or work in excess of 60 hours a week. They accept that there may be an increase in the fare structure but that a proper, professional and efficient service and, indeed, greater public confidence, will compensate for that. Therefore with those broad themes in mind, Sinn Féin supports the Bill at Second Stage.

Some aspects of the Bill require greater explanation and scrutiny, and that can be done at Committee Stage. Some areas of concern have already been mentioned, such as existing taxi-service provision in rural areas, current provision in Belfast city centre, and the introduction of a licence for taxi drivers.

Committee Stage will allow time for greater clarity and definition and will allow those working in the industry to have further input before the Bill is enacted. I welcome the fact that Patsy McGlone has invited stakeholders to give evidence to the Committee for the Environment.

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to its Second Stage, and once more I acknowledge the work of her officials.

Táimid ag dúil leis an Bhille a theacht os comhair an Choiste.

Lord Browne: I support this timely Bill, and I thank my hon Friend the Minister for bringing it to its Second Stage. The Bill should help to revitalise the experience that people have when using a taxi service.

All too often, we hear — especially on the biggest radio show in the country — of the horror stories experienced by some who use taxi services. We hear repeatedly of the frustration of taxi drivers who provide a decent professional service, but who are constantly let down by their few, but if encountered, memorable and less-than-reputable colleagues.

In fact, I probably would not have spoken on the Bill had it not been for a concerned constituent whom I met while canvassing in March who yearned for a level playing field, or at least a decent mechanism to deal appropriately with the small band of drivers who, in his view, give the rest of his profession a bad name.

We have all heard about taxi drivers who agree extremely inflated fixed prices with their passengers. That normally occurs late at night, and often when the passengers are tired and —

Mr S Wilson: Emotional. [Laughter.]

Lord Browne: Yes, emotional. Indeed, they have little or no alternative but to accept such charges. In some cases, people going in the same general directions are often taken together in the same taxi, but all separately pay the same full price. Therefore, I welcome the provision in clause 16 that will allow for a maximum fare to be set. Although I note that, at this stage, the provision simply allows regulations to be introduced, I trust that the Minister will move quickly to introduce such protection for consumers when the Bill is enacted.

Similarly, I note that clause 16(2) provides for the ability to charge passengers who are travelling in the same direction separate fares. It is crucial that the Department introduce stringent guidelines to ensure that value-for-money service is paramount and that passengers’ interests remain a high priority. For example, charging four people travelling in the same direction a fare of £10 each would not provide value for money if a group of four could travel the same distance for £10 between them. The ability to carry separate paying passengers must be accompanied by a comparable reduction in individual charges.

Although I welcome the introduction of taximeters for all taxis, there must be continual enforcement by departmental staff. There would be no point in adopting a metered service if, during the hours of darkness, drivers prey on the vulnerable and those who simply want to get home safely and quickly by charging whatever they like, regardless of what the meter shows — or what it might have shown had it been switched on. I have been told that there are only five enforcement officers, and that figure may be wrong, and that they tend to focus on taxis in and around Belfast. If that is the case, that number is patently not enough to ensure that passengers are receiving the highest possible service across the Province.

The Bill provides for regulation of the taxi industry, not for regulation’s sake, but in order to create a reliable, professional and safe service in which the public can have confidence.

Taxi drivers provide a vital service to tourists and the tourism economy. They act as guides and information centres to those who are unfamiliar with our towns and cities. As far as the PSNI is concerned, taxis quickly ferry people away from hot spots after closing time. Taxis often provide a much-needed social service for the elderly or infirm. Often, taxi drivers go far beyond the call of duty. They collect groceries, and are especially helpful to the elderly. They help passengers to their destinations, and often wait until they return. Despite the headlines surrounding the Bill, it is an important step forward. Honest, hard-working, professional drivers will have nothing to fear from its implementation. I support the Bill.

Mr O’Loan: I fully support the principle of the Bill and welcome its Second Stage.

I want to make two small points about the explanatory and financial memorandum that accompanies the Bill. First, in commenting on the consultation responses, the memorandum says that, taken as a whole, the proposals were welcomed.

Some consultation responses expressed a level of dissent with the Bill’s intention. Therefore, during their consideration of the Bill, it would be helpful to Members if some reference could be made to consultees’ opinions.

Paragraph 13 of the explanatory and financial memorandum states:

“Enacting this enabling legislation will have no financial implications other than in relation to the enforcement and prosecution of offences.”

The Minister referred to that provision in her opening statement. The Bill will create a regulatory regime that will cost money to run. That sentence from the explan­atory and financial memorandum surprises me, so I seek clarification from the Minister. In particular, will she confirm that the Bill will create a self-financing regulatory regime, meaning that the charges that operators pay will cover the regime’s costs?

Mr Shannon: I welcome the Taxis Bill. It is important to have appropriate and effective legislation, and the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill is a step in the right direction to achieving that. In my constituency, there are approximately 100 full-time and part-time taxi drivers, who deliver an effective service to the community.

I wish to make three points on passenger safety. First, it is critical that passengers feel safe in taxis. Therefore it is important that the legislation ensures that rogue taxi drivers cannot let on to be legitimate taxi drivers. In the past few months, we have seen some changes that have improved that situation.

Secondly, it is good that the Taxis Bill requires that all taxi operators, drivers and vehicles be insured. My third point relates to taxi fares, which some Members have mentioned. Contrary to the political programme that we see on TV each week, in which the taxi driver always says at the end, “That’ll be £12·50, please”, we must take fare regulation a wee bit further. Regardless of whether a journey is to the end of a driveway, to east Belfast or down to Newtownards, the fare will not always be £12·50. Therefore we must ensure that a fare structure is in place and that everything is correct.

The Minister stated that, during the far-reaching consultation process, a large number of people was contacted and a fair number of responses was received. Although I welcome the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill, will the Minister state whether the replies that were received from taxi associations showed that they are satisfied that the new legislation is correct, and, rather than inhibiting their businesses, will strengthen and enhance them?

Mrs Foster: I am grateful for Members’ contributions to the debate. It has been a valuable discussion, and it has been useful for me to hear Members’ views. I will respond to some of the issues that have been raised, and I will read Hansard to ensure that I have not missed any points. If I find that I have, I will write to those Members concerned.

The Chairman of the Committee for the Environment, Mr Patsy McGlone, started the debate by referring to several issues, including overcharging. He mentioned his colleague from South Belfast, who is concerned about wheelchair users who are expected to pay a premium when hiring taxis. Regulations will allow the Department to introduce a scheme whereby operators will be required to charge the same fares to all users, so premiums for disabled users will not be permitted. That is an important point to make, because we have heard much anecdotal evidence about overcharging.

Mr McGlone mentioned concerns about the possible rise in applications for taxi-driver licences before the Taxis Bill becomes law. In most years since 2004-05, applications for taxi-driver licences have increased by approximately 20%. I have no doubt that that trend is influenced partly by applicants who want to enter the industry before the rules change.

However, the Taxis Bill contains powers relating to taxi-driver training and testing that could be applied to both new and existing drivers. If appropriate, the Department could require more recent entrants to meet the same requirements as new drivers. The Member and the Committee might wish to discuss that with me and with my officials.

11.30 am

My colleague Peter Weir welcomed the opportunity to examine the issues in detail in Committee — raising some scepticism among Members who have been here for some time about the enjoyability of that. However, he also mentioned the role that taxi services can play in road safety, particularly in the campaign against drinking and driving. That was a good, and timely, point, given that, unfortunately, our road-death figures are creeping up again. As he said, the Bill is about driving up standards and, rather than being one piece of legislation, is part of a continuing reform package and betterment programme.

Mr Boylan, the Deputy Chairperson of the Environ­ment Committee, broadly welcomed the proposals in the Bill on behalf of his party, Sinn Féin. He said that taxi drivers would be most affected by the changes. Although I acknowledge that the Bill will have a significant impact on taxi drivers, I hope that it will be those consumers who use taxis who will notice most what it tries to achieve.

Mr Boylan also said that he hoped that the Committee would have a wider consultation and discussion on the change from a two-tier to a single-tier system of regulation. That change is a fundamental tenet of the Bill. I note that Sinn Féin did not respond to that point during the initial consultation and, to date, has not raised the issue in Committee. However, if the Member feels the need to raise it in Committee, it will be discussed further. However, as I said, the proposed change is fundamental to the Bill, and the Department is keen to proceed with it.

Mr Armstrong from Mid Ulster made two points. He acknowledged that his first on greater taxi-rank provision in rural areas, is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development. I look forward to the publication, in due course, of that Department’s subregional transport plan, which, I understand, will address the issue of taxi ranks in provincial towns.

Secondly, he mentioned the importance of being able to identify licensed taxis quickly. The use of taxi licence plates will continue to identify taxis, and the Bill contains powers that will enable the Department to prescribe the format and display of the plates relating to the class of taxi and the type of service that it can provide. Roof signs will continue to be used on all taxis, and the Department is looking at the possibility of integrating taxi plates into the roof signs to improve identification and to protect the safety of taxi users. That is an important point.

David Ford, on behalf of the Alliance Party, said that legislation was needed. He was concerned about the delay in the introduction of regulations, particularly for consumers and those with disabilities.

I acknowledge that the provisions of the Bill will be commenced at different times. However, many of the provisions require detailed regulation, and the Environ­ment Committee will need time to consider them. The industry and taxi users must also be consulted, and, unfortunately, that takes time. However, it is only right that the legislation go through that process. The introduction of operator licensing, together with enforce­ment powers, will be the Department’s priority as soon as the Bill is passed.

Ian McCrea hoped that one of the spin-offs from this legislation would be renewed confidence in the taxi system. I hope that that will be the case.

He also asked how the Bill would improve the accessibility of taxis to people with disabilities. We hope that the Bill will increase the number of accessible taxis and improve their availability and suitability. We aim to do that by requiring taxi operators to ensure that accessible vehicles account for a certain percentage of their fleet; by allowing only accessible taxis to stand for hire at taxi ranks at designated places such as airports, rail stations and bus stations; and by prescribing revised vehicle standards for accessible taxis.

The Member for Foyle Mr McCartney acknowledged the work that has been carried out by officials in my Department. I, too, put on record my appreciation of the work that the taxi review team has done in intro­ducing such a comprehensive Bill. Mentioning his consultation with the North-West Taxi Forum, Mr McCartney asked about the impact of the legislation on taxi services in rural areas. I believe that the impact will be positive; as he will understand, I am keen to ensure that that is the case. People who live and work in rural areas will benefit from the wider, higher- quality provision. It is important to ensure that more accessible taxi services are provided in rural areas. Although people sometimes get the mistaken idea that taxis are a city phenomenon, people in rural areas also avail themselves of them a great deal.

Lord Browne of Belmont said that the Bill was timely and would tackle those less-than-reputable taxi drivers who take advantage of people who are very tired on nights out and who want to get home. He also mentioned his concern that it was important that the issue of separate fares be properly regulated. I thank him for being the only Member to refer to a provision in the Bill — as a legal person, I always like to hear that. He mentioned clause 16(2). That took me back, Wallace. Separate fares will be regulated at lower than the maximum fare, and it is important that those fares will be monitored under the Bill.

Wallace Browne also mentioned the concern about people being charged inflated fares off the meter. We share that concern. We hope that the penalty for failure to start the meter or for charging more than the regulated fare — it will attract a maximum fine on conviction of £1,000 — will bring such practices to an end.

Declan O’Loan asked for an assurance that the Department had had regard to objections that were received during the consultation period. The Department very much took into account all the consultation responses — indeed, officials went out of their way to visit some of the provincial towns to hear what people on the ground had to say about taxi services — and some proposals were modified to reflect the objections that were received. For example, the need to retain roof signs was brought to our attention, and that is why the requirement for roof signs will continue.

On the issue of costing, Mr O’Loan asked why the explanatory and financial memorandum states that the Bill will not involve any costs. As a piece of enabling legislation, the Bill will not, in and of itself, attract any costs; the costs will be attracted by the regulatory regime. Each piece of subordinate legislation and each set of regulations will go before the Environment Committee and will also be subject to a regulatory impact assessment. It is important to bear that in mind.

Finally, Jim Shannon mentioned the cost of fares and said that he would be concerned — or perhaps unconcerned — that the taxi driver on ‘Hearts and Minds’ could not charge £12·50. We might see a change there, but I do not think that we will be too sorry about that. However, I am confident that the Bill will address the issues that were raised in the consultation responses, and I am happy that we have taken those issues on board.

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate and for the questions that they have raised. I am confident that the Taxis Bill will enable Northern Ireland to develop the necessary taxi policies to tackle illegal taxiing, to improve road safety and to provide better-quality services for all taxi users. My officials and I look forward to working closely with the Committee for the Environment as it scrutinises the Bill. Although some Members have been sceptical about that scrutiny, I have no doubt that it will be valuable. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Taxis Bill [NIA 4/07] be agreed.

assembly business

Marshalled List of Amendments

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we move to private Members’ business, I wish to inform Members that it has been necessary to issue a corrigendum to the Marshalled List of Amendments. Copies of the corrigen­dum have been placed in the Rotunda and in Members’ pigeonholes. The amendment affected is that selected for the motion on the transformation fund. Members should, therefore, have ample time to consider the new information before that debate begins.

private members’ business

Pay Parity for  Further Education Lecturers

Mr Deputy Speaker: This item was postponed at the sitting on Monday 18 June 2007, because we ran out of time. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and has been published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr Butler: I beg to move

That this Assembly supports the campaign of further education lecturers for pay parity with teachers in schools; and calls for an end to further education lecturers’ pay levels being decided by the Government’s public sector pay policy.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Maidir leis an rún seo, tá súil agam go dtacóidh an Tionól le feachtas léachtóirí breisoideachais i ndiaidh na díospóireachta.

This motion concerns our supporting further education lecturers in their campaign for pay parity with school­teachers. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion, and I hope that today’s debate will help to resolve the issue.

Despite many negotiations with unions and employers, this lecturers’ dispute over pay has lasted several years, and it has still not been resolved. Unless the dispute is resolved quickly, industrial action could escalate, and the running of our further education colleges could be disrupted. There have been significant and far-reaching changes in the further education sector. However, if this dispute is not resolved, it will have an impact on lecturers’ morale and on the delivery of a first-class education system.

I recently attended an event at Belfast City Hall to celebrate a century of further education here. In that time, tens of thousands of people have left classrooms and examination halls the length and breadth of this country and have gone on to make important contri­butions to economic growth here. None of that would have been possible without the dedication and profess­ionalism of the teaching staff in local further education colleges.

The further education sector is now recognised by Government as being key to the delivery of a thriving, first-class, buoyant economy. From 1 August 2007, the 16 existing further education colleges will merge to form six new area-based colleges. Those colleges will play an important role in supporting economic and social life here. They will have multimillion-pound budgets and cutting-edge facilities in order to accommodate the skills and training that are necessary to deliver a first-class economy.

Further education colleges are at the heart of lifelong learning. They play a vital role in strengthening economic development, enhancing social cohesion and advancing individual skills and learning.

11.45 am

Further education colleges also provide a second opportunity for education for many citizens. They encourage those who are unemployed, socially excluded or disadvantaged back into the education system.

The continual excellence and achievements by further education colleges cannot be sustained against the backdrop of the ongoing industrial dispute. The continuation of the dispute will damage our important education sector. Good lecturing staff are already leaving the sector, while more highly-experienced teachers may not join it. Staff from the industrial and business sectors, who are well qualified and traditionally go into the further education sector, will be dissuaded to do so in future if it is characterised by poor industrial relations.

In considering the history and record of the further education sector, I hope that all Members will support the demand for pay parity by college lecturers and that the Executive will take action to settle the dispute. Central to the dispute is the fact that the British Treasury and its public-sector pay policy control pay increases for college lecturers. That policy prevents lecturers from being paid on a similar pay scale to teachers. Lecturers are becoming increasingly alienated because of the dispute, and this is happening at the very time that the further education sector faces massive restructuring and needs the goodwill of lecturers.

I am sure that all Members want college lecturers to secure their due entitlements, career structure and financial remuneration. Lecturers want more than sympathy from Ministers and the Assembly. They want a fair and just settlement to the pay dispute.

There is increasing recognition of the important role that further education performs in delivering a broad and balanced education curriculum. The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) does appreciate the lecturers and teachers who deliver that education. However, there must be an effort, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), to come up with a solution to the long-running dispute. We need to move decisively to find a lasting settlement.

It is important to state the background to the dispute and how college lecturers are being unfairly treated in comparison with their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. The Welsh Assembly has already agreed pay parity for further education lecturers and schoolteachers in Wales. Lecturers in England and Scotland are outside the Treasury’s public-sector pay policy. Only lecturers here have their pay arrangements subject to the public-sector pay policy.

The Department for Employment and Learning made a submission in support of pay parity to the public-sector pay committee at Westminster in February 2007, which was supported by Peter Hain, Maria Eagle and David Hanson. However, the committee rejected the submission and suggested that teachers here take a cut in their wages that would bring everyone down to the same level.

An independent inquiry into the pay of lecturers compared with that of teachers in other sectors was carried out in 2000 and produced the Horisk Report. It found that the earnings potential for lecturers was significantly below that of teachers in the schools sector and that teachers had a significantly greater opportunity for promotion, management roles and allowances. The Horisk Report recommended action to address those differentials.

The current situation in which all salary costs are governed by the Treasury’s public-sector pay policy should be ended. The Executive should push for that and for the Department for Employment and Learning, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel, to decide pay scales for the further education lecturers.

The dispute is not about a lack of finances, which the Minister for Employment and Learning has already made clear. The obstacle to a settlement is securing a political decision that justifies pay for further education lecturers here being outside Treasury guidelines.

The needs of the Treasury in London are dictating how this group of workers is treated — indeed, mis­treated. Lecturers are being punished for no reason other than that their reasonable demands are not suited to the needs of the British Treasury. The Assembly and the Executive must assert their independence from policies set by the Treasury in this case. It is another example in which the needs of the people who live here are being filtered through the needs of the British Treasury.

A few weeks ago, there was a demand for lower corporation tax to bring it in line with corporation tax in the South. The Treasury rejected —

Mr Shannon: Will the Member give way?

Mr Butler: Go ahead.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree with me that the salary of lecturers has dropped below the wage of other teachers? Is the Member also aware that some lecturers are actually getting lower wages than the three-year apprentices who attend the classes in which they lecture?

Mr Butler: I thank the Member for that information, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Lecturers should be treated with equality and should be given the highest pay available in the sector — that is at the heart of this debate.

The Assembly and the Executive must resolve this matter to the satisfaction of our college lecturers. Economic dependence and the ability of the Assembly and the Executive to raise their own money and decide their own financial and fiscal policies in the interests of our citizens and not to the dictates of the Treasury in London are at the very heart of this dispute. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr B McCrea: I beg to move the following amend­ment: Leave out all after “schools” and insert

“; notes that Further Education lecturers’ pay is currently restricted by HM Treasury’s public sector pay policy; and urges the Executive, in light of this constraint, to secure urgently a mechanism to achieve pay parity.”

I am happy to support the motion and to propose the amendment. It is important to stress from the outset that all Members fully support the excellent work of further education lecturers, and we support their claims.

It is strange, and no doubt the Minister will elaborate, that there appears to be no difficulty: the employees have accepted a settlement; the employers are happy with that settlement; and the money is available. One wonders what the problem is. Unfortunately, the problem has to do with a technical matter in how the Assembly deals with such issues and other pay processes. I realise that that is not a satisfactory answer for those who feel that their cries for help have gone unheeded.

Members realise that those who work in further education are the forgotten heroes in any debate on education. Members will be aware that I have long been involved in the manufacturing sector, which was trying to deal with issues such as industrial rating and corporation tax. However, we also recognised that an adequate skills base, particularly in the vocational area, is the most important factor needed to enable our society and economy to progress. That is why I was at the centenary celebration where we saw the effects of further education colleges through the years and also why I have been engaged with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges (ANIC) over the past year and a half, trying to develop the links that are needed between industry and those establishments.

However, buildings and links are of no consequence if those who are charged with looking after them are disillusioned and disenchanted, and we have already heard about the numbers of lecturers who are considering careers elsewhere. If those who are responsible for teaching our young people — and those who are not so young — leave the profession, it will have serious consequences for our future well-being and will leave little hope for the rest of us.

I want to mention the amendment. I am aware that some people were concerned that the amendment that we originally suggested might have weakened what the motion intended. I assure Members that that was not our intention. Our intention was to strengthen the motion and to try to find something that could be done. In the spirit of co-operation — I realise that that does not always happen — we have sought agreement with all parties in the Chamber, and that is why we were happy to accommodate Sinn Féin’s sentiments.

We now have an amendment that we believe is satisfactory, and I hope that Members from other parties will support us. It took quite a lot of work to ensure that everybody who agreed got a form of words with which they could also agree. It was not that we did not agree; it was the technicalities involved in getting everyone together.

The Ulster Unionist Party and others, I am quite sure, are totally committed to resolving this matter. One can have fine words and sentiments — we have all had many of those in the past — but this matter must be resolved urgently. One hesitates to say this, but it needs to be resolved now.

However, this Chamber cannot do that. The negotiation must be taken elsewhere. I urge lecturers and others involved in the further education sector to accept that we understand their frustration. When we were going into that debate, I saw the Minister standing for a long time outside Belfast City Hall talking to people to reassure them that we are genuinely sympathetic to their concerns and to their seeking to resolve them.

We are aware, of course, that when people get frustrated, when they feel that their voices are not being listened to, there is a temptation that can lead to some form of industrial action. Although I understand that frustration, I hope that we can get the matter resolved before it escalates. It is not only the lecturers whom we have to consider, but those in their charge, and the education of our people is fundamental to that as well.

I do not intend to labour the point, because there is general agreement, but I do hope that when we come to the winding-up speeches, we will be able to pick up on the points that Members will raise. It would be useful if we could send a message of solidarity to all further education lecturers.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Mr Spratt): I support the amendment, because it is something that everyone on the Committee can support.

This matter has been a priority for the Committee, and we have had a series of meetings to enable us to understand the problem and work towards a resolution. Before the return of devolution, the Chairperson and I, in designate roles, met with the trade union side on 1 May. At that meeting, the union put the case for a swift resolution to the problem forcibly and comprehensively. Indeed, since the return of devolution, the matter has arisen at most Committee meetings.

The Committee, like the parties involved, supports the principle of pay parity. What makes this issue unique, and somewhat bizarre, is that both management and employee sides are in complete agreement. The Committee is aware that the financing of any prospective pay settlement is not a stumbling block to resolution. Rather, the problem is that the Treasury’s public-sector pay committee is blocking the settlement. That is the crux of the problem that we are facing.

The Committee has raised this issue with the Minister, Sir Reg Empey, and his officials on a regular basis and has asked to be kept fully informed of the situation so that it can advise and aid a resolution in any way possible.

The Committee also met with a senior delegation from ANIC on 6 June in a further attempt to gain an in-depth knowledge of the topic.

12.00 noon

We sympathise with the situation in which ANIC finds itself, especially at a time when colleges in Northern Ireland are facing radical overhaul. A resolution to the issue is therefore a matter of urgency, as any continuing dispute would get the process of change off to a very difficult start.

I have great sympathy for further education lecturers. The findings of the Horisk Report outlined the issues clearly. On average, college lecturers earn £3,400 a year less than schoolteachers doing similar work. Around 13,000 schoolteachers have reached point 3 on the upper pay scale for schoolteachers, some £2,600 per annum beyond the top of the lecturers’ pay scale. There is a six-point incremental scale for teachers, compared with a 10-point scale for further education lecturers. There is no justification for such a disparity, and I reiterate my support for parity.

The pay disparity is having a major impact on the morale of further education lecturers, which will not be conducive to an effective and smooth transition from 16 further education colleges to the six super-colleges that are due to open on 1 August 2007. We cannot allow a situation that has resulted in ongoing industrial action to continue to disrupt the further education sector indefinitely, and to disrupt the education of students as a result.

In recent years, there has been a drift away from employment in further education towards employment in schools, universities or industry. Indeed, 14 key staff have left the sector in the last year. We should address the need for high-quality teaching staff rather than watch them drift away from the sector. Conditions should be established to benefit those in the further education sector and to attract young professionals into it. The contribution made by further education lecturers to economic development in Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. That value should be reflected through remuneration and earning potential.

At a time when Northern Ireland is suffering from a shortfall in its skills base, the invaluable role of further education should be promoted, not demoralised. We therefore need to move forward, and the motion is helpful in that regard. I urge all those involved in the dispute to consider innovative ways to address the problem. I support the motion as amended.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún agus don leasú atá leagtha amach ar Riar na hOibre.

I am pleased to support the motion, as amended. Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Members who have brought the motion to the House.

As some Members will know, my former colleague Marietta Farrell — a college lecturer herself — first raised the issue of pay parity in the Transitional Assembly, and I was happy to support her. My colle­agues and I have supported college lecturers on picket lines and have spoken at a rally in Belfast city centre.

Education reform in Northern Ireland will require greater sharing and collaboration between schools and further education colleges in order to deliver the entitle­ment framework. Further education colleges will be at the hub, if not the heart, of that collaboration, as colleges have the expertise and the range of courses and resources to complement what is available in schools. Indeed, schools would often otherwise struggle to provide such a range of subjects for their pupils.

Following the Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of the Costello Report, the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning launched a pilot vocational enhancement programme (VEP). That programme involves all further education colleges working with approximately 190 schools, providing professional and technical courses for more than 14,000 pupils.

That pilot is entering its fourth year, and, to date, the available evidence shows positive outcomes from that collaboration. Further education lecturers teach pupils from the schools involved, but they do so for consider­ably less remuneration. The Bain Report makes it abundantly clear that collaboration between schools and further education colleges will be a key component in arrangements for 14-year-olds to 19-year-olds. That collaboration will involve the movement of staff, a common and coherent education and training strategy for 14-year-olds to 19-year-olds, and teacher education arrangements that include a common set of standards for qualified-teacher status across that age group, with staff develop­ment across schools and FE sectors. That should be done in a co-operative rather than competitive manner.

In order to prepare for future co-operation and collaboration, the discrepancy in salaries between schoolteachers and further-education lecturers should be removed. Although the Bain Report calls for collaboration, co-operation and the sharing of resources, one of the best resources that we have — our FE teachers — is treated differently to teachers in schools.

Lecturers in further education are currently loaned from their institution to local grammar schools to teach A-level subjects that it would not otherwise be financially viable for schools to offer. Those lecturers often come from industrial backgrounds, and in their own institutions teach their subjects to higher national diploma or degree level. They bring their experience and knowledge of their subjects and professional working lives to the classroom. That can only be of benefit to pupils.

Nevertheless, on average — I stress “on average” — they receive £3,000 a year less than the grammar- school teachers in the classrooms next door and the secondary-school teachers whose pupils they teach under the VEP.

If that anomaly is allowed to continue, it will be extremely difficult to achieve the levels of co-operation and collaboration that the Bain Report and education reform demand. It is unjust and unfair, and if that discrepancy is not removed, education reform will be much more difficult to achieve.

Many FE lecturers perform similar work to teachers. They teach the same range of academic and vocational courses that are taught in schools. They teach similar groups of students to teachers in secondary and grammar schools, and they are required to hold higher-level qualifications and to be teacher-trained.

Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party has no problem with supporting the original motion, or the proposed amended motion, in so far as it goes. However, we feel that it does not go far enough. I do not remember being consulted about the wording. Basil McCrea said that he spoke to all parties, but the Alliance Party is not aware of any such discussion.

Mr B McCrea: I meant to say, “attempted to talk”. I have just spoken to Mr Ford outside the Chamber, and I understand that the Alliance Party attempted to talk to both Mr Butler and me but that communications broke down.

The point that I was attempting to make was that there is no disagreement on the general sentiment but that we need to get ourselves in order. We did not know in advance that the Alliance Party had proposed an amend­ment. I offer my apologies for that misunderstanding.

Mr Lunn: No apology is required.

Mr McCarthy: Do not do it again. [Laughter.]

Mr Lunn: Further education lecturers are crucial to our education system, yet they do not get the recognition that they deserve. They are being short-changed by a situation that has been allowed to develop unnecessarily, to the extent that, on average, their salary lags £3,400 behind their schoolteacher counterparts.

Lecturers promote a crucial link between schools, skills and the workplace. To secure the sector’s long-term future, it is absolutely essential that the best talent is attracted to it — lecturers as well as students. The pay differential and the deteriorating industrial relations that encourage lecturers and teachers away from the sector clearly affect that aim.

Lecturers have a right to feel frustrated; they have similar qualifications to, and undertake the same duties as, schoolteachers, and they operate in a sector that is crucial to the future of our economy, as evidenced by the success of the Republic’s institutes of technology.

The Alliance Party wants the Minister and the Executive to rectify the situation and not push it further down the pipeline. Only last week, at a graduation ceremony at Lisburn Institute, I heard the Minister expressing his sympathy for, and some frustration with, the situation. I agree with the comments that he made that day: uniquely, the employers, the unions, his Department and every party in this House are all in agreement about the need for pay parity.

It appears that the Department has the funds to address pay disparity but feels bound by the UK public-sector pay policy. As Mr Butler said, the same obligations did not appear to stop the Welsh Assembly from dealing with the problem in May last year. That legislature went ahead and adjusted lecturers’ pay. Are the powers of the Welsh Assembly any different or any more extensive than those of this Assembly? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

One issue being discussed as part of the wider education debate is the need to make the vocational route just as attractive to pupils as the academic path, and to remove any perception that a particular school or college is of a lesser standard than another. The pay anomaly sends out a wrong message that must be corrected. My party calls on the Executive to address the pay problem, because an unintended incongruity has been created. Our Welsh cousins have shown the way to correct the pay disparity, if the Department for Employ­ment and Learning can come up with the funds.

My party acknowledges the problems caused by making unplanned financial decisions, but, in this case, the funds are in the Department’s budget. I encourage the Minister to take the action that he clearly wants to take and resolve the inequality. The Alliance Party supports the motion as amended, but wishes that it went further and prompted the Minister to deal with the situation, notwithstanding the Treasury’s public-sector pay policy.

Mr Ross: I am in total agreement with the general thrust of the debate, although I would have been unable to support the original text of the motion. I therefore welcome the fact that the Member opposite has amended his motion, in conjunction with the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea. I will be able to support the motion as amended.

Several Members have mentioned that college lecturers currently receive, on average, £3,400 less than schoolteachers for doing essentially the same job. That is particularly frustrating when college lecturers have seen teachers’ salaries rise in recent years while theirs have remained virtually static. There has recently been a drift away from college lecturing in favour of teaching in schools and universities. Indeed, it is proving increasingly difficult to attract people into the further education sector — and why would people go there, if the pay is lower than in similar sectors?

There should be pay parity, and the fact that there is not is detrimental to the attitudes of many lecturers, which clearly impacts on students. Indeed, the chief executive of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges, Mr John D’Arcy, commented that the ongoing industrial action:

“is having a significant impact on students, on service provision and on the longer term financial viability of colleges.”

Poor morale undoubtedly has a negative effect on teaching conditions, which, after all, is the most important factor for students attending further education institutions.

There is a wider need to address the relatively low status of further education lecturers, and a need to recognise their importance as Northern Ireland moves towards a skills-based economy. Indeed, from briefings received at meetings of the Committee for Employment and Learning in recent weeks, it has become abundantly clear that further education colleges and lecturers have a significant role to play in ensuring that jobseekers have the skills required for when they enter the workforce.

Today we are in a rather bizarre situation where employers and staff agree on pay structures and the money is available, yet because of a pay cap imposed by central Government at Westminster, the new pay structure cannot be applied.

I reiterate that I have the greatest sympathy for the plight of further education lecturers. However, there would be massive implications from any move to break away from the pay policy implemented by Westminster. The precedent that that would set would cause chaos, as other public-sector employees such as nurses and doctors would also seek pay reviews, resulting in the situation continuing on and on.

As Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, we must recognise that Her Majesty’s Treasury has the final say on public-sector pay policy. We must, therefore, work within those limits. If we do not, there will be major implications for the Northern Ireland block grant. We must be sensible and recognise that our hands are tied on this issue; because of that, we have some sympathy for the Minister.

12.15 pm

In conclusion, I support the amendment to the motion in calling for the Executive to examine how pay parity can be achieved within the existing constraints, and I hope that the Minister and the Department will be able to find a resolution.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate, and the contributions made to it, and I commend my Sinn Féin colleagues for bringing the motion to the House. In particular, I welcome the following words in the amendment:

“to secure urgently a mechanism to achieve pay parity.”

According to Jim McKeown of the University and College Union (UCU), there are hundreds of FE lecturers teaching vocational courses in schools. Mr McKeown says that a teacher and lecturer may do exactly the same job, but the former will nevertheless earn £3,500 more than the latter.

Taking £3,500 as the differential for one year, that sum amounts to £14,000 over four years, which is a substantial sum of money. That means that for two people doing the same job over the short term of four years, one will earn £14,000 more than the other, which is not acceptable.

In 2000, the Horisk Report, to which my colleague Paul Butler referred, said that the earning potential of lecturers was significantly below that of schoolteachers and that lecturers had fewer opportunities for various allowances and promotions. In 2005, following agree­ment on many of the provisions in the Horisk Report, the employers and unions found that the Government had placed a cap on public-sector pay. In January 2007, the Secretary of State, Peter Hain, appeared to accept and approve pay parity — not for Northern Ireland, but for Wales. By March 2007, the FE colleges were involved in their seventh strike of that year. One can only imagine how low morale would be in those circumstances: seven strikes in less than a year, and still no resolution on pay disparity.

It is important to point out that the VEP means that FE staff will teach approximately 14,000 pupils annually. I have spoken to teachers who work as part of the Limavady Learning Partnership, which is an example of schools working together in a new education climate where collaboration is key. In Limavady, FE teachers teach the same pupils as secondary-school teachers, but get paid £2,500 or £3,000 less than the teaching colleagues whom they work with in that partnership. The UCU argues that FE colleges have huge financial reserves; around £56 million in 2004-05. The UCU says that a mere fraction of that sum would be enough to settle the dispute.

Is there a willingness from governing bodies and the Department for Employment and Learning to settle the dispute? It may be appropriate that I declare an interest as a member of the Committee for Employ­ment and Learning. DEL is reported not to oppose pay parity in principle, and ANIC is in favour of scrapping the pay cap. Taken at face value, those positions are positive, and there should be a genuine effort from all involved to sort out the inequality. We all want the new era for the FE sector to begin in harmony. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Newton: I support the amendment. It must be recognised that the further education lecturers’ pay- parity dispute needs to be settled.

That dispute dates back to 2001, at which stage the trade unions felt that they had an agreement in principle with the employers. However, that perceived agreement was not honoured, and the pay cap was imposed.

The issue is festering, and, in the longer run, it will have a major impact on the morale of all those involved in the education and training of future key employees, who, as has already been said, will make a significant contribution to the well-being of the Northern Ireland economy. We are talking about those who are engaged in the vocational skills areas; the importance of apprentices for the future of Northern Ireland; the technical skills that will underpin the Northern Ireland economy; and the technologists that will deliver, develop and take forward future high-value-added products for the Northern Ireland economy. Where do those people come from? To a large extent, they come from the further education sector, where the lecturers are in dispute over pay parity.

I am sure that all Members, and those in the wider political establishment, have been lobbied by lecturers who live in their constituencies or who work in colleges in their constituencies. Indeed, anyone who has been lobbied has witnessed the high levels of frustration that lecturers are suffering.

It has been said that action has been taken in other parts of the UK — rightly or wrongly — to deliver pay parity. Reference has been made to the situation in Wales, where the importance of the matter and the need to deliver a settlement have been recognised.

I have already referred to the need to underpin our economy with vocational, technical and technological skills. Northern Ireland has no natural resources except its people, and we must recognise that it is vital for them to acquire skills to take part in, and make a future contribution to, the Northern Ireland economy as it grows in intensity and operates in a global economy.

My colleague Mr Ross has already referred to the Minister’s contact with lecturers and their trade unions, and one would have some degree of sympathy for that action. However, I also know the restrictions that all Departments are under to deliver an effective and efficient service to the whole of the Northern Ireland public in the days ahead. That will obviously cover all services, including the further education sector.

The Assembly has recognised the importance of the matter, and the positive role that further education lecturers play in the well-being of Northern Ireland. However, we must recognise the circumstances and constraints that exist in dealing with the matter — and I think that we have done that by generally accepting the amendment. At the same time, we must acknowledge the Assembly’s willingness to see the matter through to a satisfactory conclusion. I support the amendment.

Mr McClarty: All sides of the House acknowledge that further education plays a fundamental role in the creation of a knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland. The issue is not, therefore, merely another pay dispute. In many ways, there is no pay dispute. My hon Friend the Minister for Employment and Learning, the employers and the trade unions all agree that pay parity between further education lecturers and teachers should be established.

The motion goes to the heart of the economic future of Northern Ireland. The further education sector has a key role to play in delivering the skilled workforce that is required if our economy is to flourish in the twenty-first century. We all know the economic challenges that face Northern Ireland. We have all heard economists, employers and trade unions tell us that skills — the very skills that are delivered by the further education sector — are essential if we are to have a growing, modern, knowledge-based economy.

If that is the vision that we as an Assembly share, we need to demonstrate it in concrete, practical ways, one of which could be through working to ensure pay parity for further education lecturers. If we genuinely value the crucial economic role that is played by the sector, we will recognise that lecturers should have pay parity with teachers.

The lack of such parity sends out all the wrong signals about the further education sector and about choosing a career as a further education lecturer. It suggests an outdated view that further education is somehow second best and is of secondary importance to our economy. It is not; it is equally as important as schools and universities.

The Executive must find a way of working towards pay parity for further education lecturers. Of course, as an Assembly, we have responsibility for the entirety of the public finances, and we recognise the many and varied public-expenditure priorities. However, if economic growth and the creation of a knowledge-based economy are priorities for this Assembly and Executive, we must recognise the role of the further education sector and we must secure pay parity for further education lecturers. I support the amendment.

Mr P Ramsey: I thank Paul Butler for tabling this motion and for his comprehensive presentation. Like Robin Newton, I acknowledge the positive and significant contribution made by so many lecturers in Northern Ireland. Quite a number of lecturers are in the Gallery today, and I welcome them.

Teachers in the further education sector are, for the most part, qualified to at least degree level. They hold, or are working towards, teaching qualifications through the University of Ulster. In addition to their academic qualifications, further education lecturers, particularly those in the trade sectors, have high levels of professional experience in their subject areas. I have to declare an interest in this matter, having done, quite a few years ago now, three years of City and Guilds courses at the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education.

I personally know several lecturers, and I know that taking industrial action has not been an easy decision for them. They do not want to cause any delay, frustration or hardship to their students. It is clear, given the circumstances, that their morale and motivation cannot be good at this time.

Further education is vital to the development of students’ and workers’ skills and is a vital gateway for people who want to re-enter the education system through lifelong learning. The further education sector is there­fore essential to the social and economic regeneration of each region. I do not think that anyone can argue with that.

It is crazy that, as Claire McGill said, lecturers earn nearly £3,500 a year less than teachers. It is no wonder that their morale and motivation are so poor. If the sector is vital to the social and economic fabric of Northern Ireland, if the people who work there require similar qualifications to those of post-primary and university teachers, and if they are carrying out similar roles — as we all know they are — why are their efforts being rewarded with lower wages than those of their counterparts?

There is evidence that the recruitment and retention of college lecturers is becoming more difficult. In the long run, that could result in degradation of the quality of teaching and research. That would obviously have a negative impact on educational, social and economic outcomes — the key aims of our education effort.

Imagine if this were the private sector, with one company paying less to its workers than another. What would be the result in the long run? The company that was attempting to pay less for the same skills would ultimately lose quality and its market position. Its product would be inferior, and everyone would know it.

That logic is self-evident in the private sector, and the same logic must apply to the public sector.

12.30 pm

It is essential that the dispute be resolved as quickly as possible — especially before the merger of colleges on 1 August 2007. That, and the unsettled pay dispute, will be a recipe for disaster. The goodwill of lecturers made this a reasonable year for their students; however, good­will may become scarce in August if there is no resolution to the dispute in sight. Demoralised and demotivated lecturers can hardly be expected to do the highly professional job that we have come to expect of them.

We cannot afford to send a signal to lecturers and students that the education provided by further education colleges is of lower quality and is not as valued as that provided by schools and universities. The current high standards must be maintained in the long run. It is only the commitment of further education staff to their students that maintains the high quality of education across Northern Ireland. That goodwill can be stretched only so far, and for so long, before the most committed teachers in further education simply move to another sector.

Quality across our educational system must be maintained at the highest level possible. Most people would find that acceptable. There is no doubt that people who deliver education, whether in schools, colleges or universities, should be properly rewarded for their work. That financial reward should be commensurate with their qualifications, experience and effort.

I urge the Minister and the Assembly to take whatever steps are necessary to resolve the dispute as a matter of urgency.

Some Members: Hear, Hear.

Mr Beggs: I, too, support the motion as amended. I received training in technical colleges at different stages in my life. First, in my post-primary education, I received training in woodwork and metalwork at a local technical college. Later, I achieved an O level in technical drawing. It is hard to believe that, even at that stage, the teachers who were teaching academic courses were on a different pay scale to those lecturers teaching non-academic courses in the same college. I valued both types of training. As my education progressed into the engineering field, I increasingly valued the technical skills of those in engineering and the skills of those involved in crafts.

There is no justification for the differences in remuneration between lecturers and teachers. The emphasis on lifelong learning encourages people to continue their education throughout their lives. Why should those teaching people who have left secondary education be paid less?

The new post-primary curriculum changes may provide an opportunity for the Executive to examine the issue, and I will return to that later. I have experience of briefings on the new learning partnerships that are being extended across Northern Ireland. As other Members have said, that has resulted in further education lecturers going into local schools and delivering courses to pupils. Again, there is a huge inequality, in that those lecturers, even though they are teaching recognised courses, and teaching the same pupils, are paid less than the teachers employed at those schools. That cannot be allowed to continue.

It is widely recognised that we need to increase the private sector in Northern Ireland and that there is often a shortage of skills in craft and technical areas. If we wish to encourage more people into those types of training and courses, we must value those courses and the lecturers who teach them. We must raise, as a society, the significance and the importance of the further education sector and those who teach in it. There should be equal recognition of the training of young people and adults, at whatever their stage in life. One group should not be treated as second class.

From reading the briefings, I have discovered that 66% of teachers receive additional responsibility allowances, but only 25% of lecturers receive those allowances. Why is that the case?

The purpose of some of the negotiations that took place was to try to change that situation and encourage the adoption of a fairer pay policy. It is important that there are no such inequalities.

This is not the Hain Assembly, or a local council complaining to the Northern Ireland Office. We must recognise our authority and our responsibility, and work within our remit and with the cards that we have been dealt. We should not walk away from here having called for action while we pat ourselves on the back, knowing that nothing will happen. The amendment that has been selected improves the original motion, and at least outlines a planned set of actions, which, it is to be hoped, will have a result.

The Assembly’s Research Sevice has been helpful in providing the details of the business case submitted by the Department for Employment and Learning to the public-sector pay committee at Westminster, which stated:

“Pay proposals for each pay round and for each staff group in the FE sector are submitted for approval each year in a collective pay remit for the sector, prepared, on behalf of the Colleges, by the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges.”

Pay proposals must gain clearance from the Depart­ment for Employment and Learning and approval from the Department of Finance and Personnel before they are submitted to the public sector pay committee. That process involves several Departments, and it would be helpful if we knew the extent of the public sector pay committee’s authority and the potential penalties that it can impose if that authority is breached. How did the Welsh manage to obtain a settlement while we did not? Opportunities exist for a way forward, however, and it is to be hoped that those will be provided in the context of the proposed changes to the education system.

Mr Attwood: I welcome the debate, and the SDLP will endorse the motion as amended. I spoke recently to Irish Government officials on a range of North/South matters. Interestingly, they observed that, although the corporation tax reduction was, and will continue to be, a catalyst for economic growth, the Republic of Ireland was being marketed internationally as much for its skills base as for its levels of corporation tax.

The millions — now billions — that have been invested in research and development and skills development through the Irish Republic’s national development plan serve to underline the importance that should be attached to skills development in the North if we are to attract economic opportunity for all. There is much to be learned from the Republic of Ireland’s experience when acknowledging and promoting our FE sector.

The FE lecturers’ pay dispute is an acute issue. Members will know that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is hosting an event to promote Northern Ireland, and that event is bigger than some might realise. It is big enough to justify the presence of four or five Ministers, including the Deputy First Minister, in the next few days. The Minister for Employment and Learning may also attend the event. How will we answer potential economic investors who want to come to Northern Ireland but ask whether Northern Ireland has the skills base to meet their manufacturing needs? Should our response be that we do not have the skills base, and that those in the FE sector who provide those skills are in dispute over their pay and conditions? That is an incongruous position for this part of the world to be in, at a time when we hope to receive an economic boost as a result of the emerging new political order.

I have several questions for the Minister for Employ­ment and Learning to try to move the issue of pay parity forward. First, if the equal treatment of FE lecturers and the advancement of a skills base for economic development — and development overall — in the North are such crucial issues, are the Executive making them a matter of negotiation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Are those matters being discussed, as we heard yesterday from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in and around other issues as part of continuing negotiations on corporation tax?

Are the Executive working with the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Department of Finance and Personnel to take forward negotiations with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Pay parity for FE lecturers is too important not to be part of such negotiations. Given the length of time that has been spent in trying to resolve the issue — something that fell originally to the management of the further education sector in the North — FE lecturers need to hear today that this issue will be part of negotiations with the Chancellor to progress matters generally in the North.

The DUP Member Alastair Ross flagged up another issue. Is there any resistance in DEL or DFP to getting this matter resolved? It was interesting that the DUP Member said that although pay parity was important, it could not be resolved at the price of breaking the pay-policy review system because the implications for the North would be too great. His comment was interesting, and it begs the question: is there resistance in Government, including in DFP, to asking that the issue of pay parity be resolved, because to do so will be at the price of breaking the pay review system? The Minister should report to the Assembly on his latest conversations with the Secretary of State — who might not be the Secretary of State much longer — on this matter.

If Wales and Scotland are not part of the pay review system, is it not the case, legally and politically, that regardless of what action the Exchequer might take, the Executive could impose pay parity?

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I am grateful to those who moved the motion and the amendment, and to those who have participated in the debate.

It is fair to say that it would be rare to find almost unanimity around the Chamber where an industrial dispute is involved. However, I do not need to be persuaded that FE lecturers in Northern Ireland should have pay parity with schoolteachers. I fully support the principle of pay parity for FE lecturers — lecturers and schoolteachers do essentially the same job and should enjoy equal status. It is wrong that one group should be rewarded at a lower level than the other. However, it is inaccurate to say that all FE lecturers in Northern Ireland are paid less than their counterparts in schools. Although the overall remuneration package for schoolteachers tends to be higher than that for FE lecturers at an individual level, the differential can vary widely.

However, the average FE lecturer, unlike a school­teacher, does not have the potential to enhance his or her basic pay through progression on an advanced teaching scale, or through the payment of management allowances for undertaking additional responsibilities. An FE lecturer’s salary scale is also longer, and, therefore, it takes more time to reach the top of the scale.

As a result of their pay differences with schoolteachers and the rejection of their claim for pay parity by the Treasury’s public sector pay committee, FE lecturers, understandably, feel undervalued and aggrieved. Poor relative pay for FE lecturers, when compared with that of schoolteachers, does not affect the importance of their role in supporting Northern Ireland’s economic development, in particular the enhancement of the skill base and the implementation of the post-primary review. Increasingly, FE lecturers are required, on the one hand, to support the skills needs of employers, and, on the other hand, to teach schoolchildren the technical curriculum that is now available under the educational entitlement framework.

Fewer than two weeks ago at Belfast City Hall, there was the unwelcome paradox: a variety of guests from all walks of life, including myself and other Members, were there to celebrate 100 years of success in FE in Northern Ireland while, outside, the people charged with its day-to-day delivery were forming a picket. I made reference to that point in my remarks at the City Hall.

12.45 pm

In any college that I have visited, I have endeavoured to engage with the lecturers’ unions, and, when asked, I met their representatives. I have brought the unions and the employers together in my office, and I am conscious of the need to resolve the matter. Many Members mentioned that need, and I hope that they will forgive me if I do not respond to their individual comments. It is accepted that there is a strong argument for pay parity.

Mr Attwood asked whether I had had discussions with the Secretary of State. The answer is yes. I asked him to contact his colleague, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Timms, on my behalf, which he did. I received his response a few days ago, and I am perusing it. In reply to Mr Attwood, the Secretary of State and I are actively involved in discussions.

I have brought the matter of pay parity to the Executive on several occasions, and I pay tribute to the staff in my Department and in the Department of Finance and Personnel for their consistent work on the subject. They know how important the issue is to Northern Ireland, and, together, we are working hard to resolve it. Hopefully, the two Departments will complete the work on the matter in the next week, and we will then contact the parties involved in the dispute to consider steps that might be taken to move the issue forward.

The Treasury has imposed a national pay policy, and, in a note to Peter Hain, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury pointed out that Finance Ministers from the UK decided at a quadrilateral meeting last year to apply the policy generally. For a variety of reasons, the group of lecturers involved in this dispute fall under that national pay policy.

Reference has been made to the Welsh model. In Wales, the linkage between lecturers’ pay and pay councils pre-dates the formation of the public-sector pay committee. However, nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems. There is pay parity in Wales, but individual lecturers’ earnings vary considerably. We have also considered the situation in those parts of the UK in which there is individual plant, as opposed to collective, bargaining.

Many Members have used the word “anomaly”. There is no question that this situation is an anomaly. That is the reason why I am seized by the necessity to work urgently on the matter, and the reason why my Department has put in a lot of effort in recent days. Normally, we would not be involved at all; it should have been a matter between employers and employees. The Department is involved only because of the national pay policy. Neither is it a matter of money; the money is there to pay the claim.

I am indebted for the advice, help and support that we have received from the Committee for Employment and Learning. I noted, and echo, the remarks made by Mr Spratt on behalf of the Committee, who pointed out that it has taken evidence on the matter. The pay dispute is a bizarre situation that everyone agrees should be settled: employers, unions, the Department, the Committee, and everyone in the Chamber. No Member has said that they are not happy with the proposals to pay the claim. However, the fact remains that we are dealing with a national issue.

Alex Attwood pointed out that people say that we have sanctions. What does that mean? We do not quite know, but we know what it could mean.

Quite clearly, it could have an impact on the Northern Ireland block grant. It could even have implications for the UK on a much wider basis: if a policy were breached here with repercussive effects in other parts of the UK, it could be argued that Northern Ireland was to blame for a UK-wide increase. The Department must steer through all kinds of issues.

I want the House and lecturers to understand that the Department is not playing Scrooge. I have listened carefully to Members’ arguments on the benefits to the economy of the output of those lecturers. That is where policy is moving. At present, it is a fundamental policy, which has gained ground during the years of devolution: the link between further education, higher education and the economy is constantly growing. Those sectors work together much more closely now than they did several years ago. Undoubtedly, further education is considered fundamental to the economy. That point has been extremely well made throughout the Chamber.

Although it is not the main purpose of my visit to the United States, I intend to visit the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. People who work in Newry and Kilkeel Institute of Further and Higher Education and Omagh College of Further Education, for example, are participating in the exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, which aims to sell Northern Ireland to an international audience. I will be on a visit to North Carolina, a state that has a similar history to that of Northern Ireland and where further education has been the driving force of a revival of the economy.

The public sector pay committee was made aware of the anomaly between further education lecturers’ pay and that of schoolteachers. However, it took the view that whatever the merits of pay parity, it should not be obtained by setting aside current limits on public-sector pay increases. Indeed, as Mr Butler and Mrs McGill will know, it went further and said that it could accept the argument for parity but that the way to achieve that was to bring down teachers’ pay. I must say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not believe that that was a genuine, serious suggestion: in fact, it was disingenuous. I regret that that comment was made. Realistically, how could anyone make a stand in favour of it?

Where does the situation go from here? College employers, unions and the Department are agreed that there is little merit in resubmitting the business case to the public-sector pay committee. That decision was made at a meeting that I convened some weeks ago. Although there are recruitment problems, the Department is unable to point to any that are sufficiently significant or widespread to merit a change in the committee’s case.

That brings me to the second part of the amendment, which calls for the inception of a “mechanism to achieve pay parity”. I wish it were that simple. However, devolved Administrations are required to consult with the Treasury on pay issues. The Department of Finance and Personnel has that responsibility. Through its statement of funding policy, the former Lord Chancellor’s Department — now the Department for Constitutional Affairs — has stated that it regards pay policy as a key macroeconomic variable over which the Treasury retains control. Therefore, the Assembly is not master of its own house on that matter. However, it seeks to be as creative as possible.

Although they make up a group of workers not traditionally known for their militancy, lecturers have already, as has been referred to earlier, held seven days of strike action. That is unprecedented. I do not want to see that continue. There is also ongoing industrial action. With the new super-colleges coming into being on 1 August 2007, that is deeply regrettable. However, I understand their frustrations.

The Department wants to support the claim and has the money to pay for it. However, it cannot ignore what the Treasury says. We will continue to do all that we can to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. The Department wants to see movement on pay parity as soon as conditions permit.

On completion of the two Departments’ work, we will inform the employers and unions of the situation, and it is to be hoped that an offer will be put on the table for the pay year 2006-07. That would cover from September of last year. It will be September again in few months, but we are talking about the 2006 claim: the 2007 claim has not even been mentioned.

Members must understand, therefore, that we are almost a year behind and that lecturers have been without that pay award since 1 September 2006. September is approaching again, and a new claim will, of course, be submitted for the following year. I assure Members that the Department for Employment and Learning — in conjunction with the Committee and others in the House — is doing all that it can, as quickly as possible, to resolve the dispute.

The Department understands that there is to be a Cabinet reshuffle at Westminster. We do not know whether a new Chancellor will adopt a different approach to that of the outgoing Chancellor, but considering where the current Chancellor is going, it would not be very wise to put too much money on there being a change of approach.

The Department is fully aware of the further education lecturers’ situation. I appreciate the comments that have been made in the debate, and I apologise for not dealing with every Member’s contribution. However, so many Members made the same valuable points.

I know that the employment and learning sector is at the cutting edge of attempts to revive Northern Ireland’s economy. Alex Attwood made the valid point that the Republic’s success lay in its ability to capitalise on its good professional and technical education. Even the folk in Invest NI, and others who work closely with the Department, are saying the same. We hear the same message everywhere we go, and I am fully seized of its urgency. I will do everything that I can in the days ahead to try to resolve the situation, and I have no doubt that I can continue to rely on the support of Members in that endeavour.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet as soon as the Assembly suspends for lunch. The debate will continue when we resume. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.57 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —

2.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: The sitting is resumed. We shall conclude the debate on pay parity for further education lecturers.

Mr B McCrea: I hope that it is in order to state that the debate has been very interesting but that, during the past hour and a half in the canteen, I have been put straight on a range of matters by people from other places. I am now particularly well informed about a range of matters.

The debate has been most useful. I was glad to hear from the Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Employment and Learning, who stressed the urgency of the matter and pointed out that key staff were already beginning to leave the further education sector. Dominic Bradley raised the issue of the skills strategy for 14- to 19-year-olds, and spoke of how important that will be as we go forward. He also highlighted the crucial role that the further education colleges and their staff will play in implementing that strategy. That is a very important point, which should be borne in mind by all Members.

I noted the comments of Mr Lunn, who said that he supported the motion and the amendment. I wish to make the point that some people had difficulties with the motion — not with its sentiment, but with its practi­calities. I was grateful to Mr Ross, who succinctly outlined the problems that some colleagues from the Department of Finance and Personnel may have in approaching the Treasury. I realise that that will cut little ice with our friends who lecture in further education colleges, but it is a matter that must be confronted because to do otherwise risks our being made an example of by those across the water. That could lead to a possible reduction in our block grant. We must take those points on board. It is excellent that we seem to have cross-party support for the amendment.

Claire McGill complimented Sinn Féin on proposing the motion. I stress that it is important to build a cross-party consensus on this matter. It is not enough to state that one side or the other has done everything. We must work together because that is the right thing to do. Mrs McGill did, however, raise the very important issue that there is a salary differential of £3,500 between teachers and lecturers who do exactly the same job. That puts some figures on the problem. At lunchtime, I learned that a gentleman with eight years’ experience as a lecturer is earning less than his daughter, who has two years’ experience of teaching. That demonstrates the basic inequality of the position with which we are faced — it is just not fair. We must fix that position.

I listened with some interest to the hon Member Robin Newton, who talked about apprentices, technology, and the agreement in principle that was reached between employers and the trade unions. I accept that Mr Newton has much experience, particularly in the plastics sector. He is knowledgeable about these matters, and his contribution was very useful. He highlighted a funda­mental point that we must address when he stated that Northern Ireland has limited natural resources — we have no oil, gas, gold or suchlike. The only resource that we have is the people of Northern Ireland. It is important for us to build on the skills of those people if we are to compete in a modern world.

Pat Ramsey mentioned that many people who are lecturing are qualified to degree level, although they may still be working towards their teaching qualifications. That point must be borne in mind. Many of those lecturers work to the highest possible professional standards and are doing a really fantastic job, for which they deserve to be properly remunerated.

One point that has been raised is that we do not seem to have got the message across on the difficulties with recruitment. That point led on from something that Mr Ramsey said.

The reason for that is largely due to the dedication of teachers in further education colleges. That dedication has been taken advantage of, and they have been used and abused because they stick at the job for a long time. If this situation were taking place in the private sector, people might well have gone elsewhere.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time has elapsed.

Mr B McCrea: I beg your pardon. I thought that I had 10 minutes.

Mr Deputy Speaker: No. Five minutes are allowed for the winding-up speech on the amendment.

I call Mr Paul Butler for the winding-up speech on the motion.

Mr Butler: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Much has been said on this topic, and it should not take me 10 minutes to make the winding-up speech.

Although the motion, as worded, has not been accepted, it is important that today’s debate has produced consensus, and that is why Sinn Féin has accepted the amendment.

The further education sector is the most integrated sector in education and has the most balanced workforce. That has been reflected in the Chamber today, and all parties have made positive contributions on the need for pay parity with schoolteachers. I welcome that; and I welcome the comments from the Minister, Reg Empey, on the issue. He is trying to resolve the situation.

Although Members have spoken at length about further education lecturers, we have not said much about the students in the colleges or how the issue will impact on them. Further education colleges are shutting down for the summer. However, in August, when the colleges are due to merge, lecturers will be engaged in the mergers. The sector is not characterised by militancy nor is it prone to industrial action, yet, as some Members mentioned, lecturers are reluctant to participate in that work. They have been greatly frustrated. Other aspects of that frustration are evident from the fact that lecturers are not co-operating with staff in the colleges and are not filling in reports.

It would be good to have the pay issue resolved, so that all of the other issues could also be resolved and colleges could get back to work. I am sure that every Member wants to see that.

As I have already said, tens of thousands of further education students have left examination halls and colleges to contribute to the economy here or in other countries. Some are now industrialists and are leading lights in the economy here. We want that process to continue.

Reference was made to how the South of Ireland has used its further education sector to further its economy. We want that to happen here.

I welcome the fact that Members from all the parties — and there were quite a few — support the spirit of the motion. Sinn Féin would have preferred the wording of the motion to have called for an end to further education lecturers’ pay levels being decided by the Government’s public-sector pay policy. That is the issue: lecturers here want to know why those in England, Scotland and Wales can get pay rises while they have been singled out.

Another issue is the comparison with the pay of schoolteachers, who last September were awarded a 2·5% rise and are due another one shortly. The gap between the pay of further education lecturers and schoolteachers is widening.

I hope that Members will be sending out a clear message today. When the Assembly was restored on 8 May, lecturers wanted to see this issue being debated in the Assembly. Issues such as this can now be debated here — Peter Hain and other direct rule Ministers no longer fly in to make decisions and then fly out again. Members can help to settle this dispute.

Once more, I welcome the fact that Reg Empey is doing his best to resolve this dispute.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly supports the campaign of further education lecturers for pay parity with teachers in schools; notes that Further Education lecturers’ pay is currently restricted by HM Treasury’s public sector pay policy; and urges the Executive, in light of this constraint, to secure urgently a mechanism to achieve pay parity.

Transformation Fund

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow 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.

One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move

That this Assembly urges the Executive to consider making available a transformation fund, similar to that in England, Scotland and Wales, to support the professional development of the childcare and early education workforce in Northern Ireland.

I want to place on record my gratitude to the Business Committee for allowing the motion to be debated today. I bring this motion to the House out of concern for this important matter, which will ultimately shape our future workforce in Northern Ireland.

It should concern every Member that there is no — and I emphasise the word “no” — training and development strategy for people working with young children. However, just recently, £250 million was allocated for that type of training in England and Wales. Why should this part of the United Kingdom be different? Surely we value future generations just as much as do others.

I want to draw to the Assembly’s attention the remarks of the Children’s Minister, Beverley Hughes, on 13 February 2006. She was setting out the next steps in delivering a world-class children’s workforce, including the development of an integrated qualification framework, and she said:

“We need to set our sights high and aim to develop a truly word-class workforce if we are to improve outcomes for all our children and young people, and reduce inequalities between the most disadvantaged and the rest.”

A transformation fund has the potential to improve the outcomes for children in later childhood and in their adult lives. It is also the case that the children’s workforce has a central role to play in improving the skills of our overall workforce.

Part of the aim is to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of graduate-level early-years professionals in Northern Ireland. It is also essential to invest in the skills development of the early-years workforce below graduate level. Increased training should be available to those working with disabled children and children with special educational needs.

The findings of the recent pre-primary research study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) reinforced the importance of the education of early childhood teachers. The study found that children fare significantly better in language-skills development with teachers who have achieved a higher level of education.

Currently in Northern Ireland, staff who work in community or voluntary preschools have to pay for their own ongoing training and professional development, and there is a significant disparity between their pay levels and those in the statutory sector. It is essential that we equip the childcare and early-education workforce in Northern Ireland to match those developments. It will then contribute to an overall strategy for children’s services that can deliver positive and better outcomes for children and families, and reduce inequalities for children, young people, families and communities.

In addition to the expansion of graduate qualifications in the childcare sector, emphasis must also be placed on improving practical-based qualifications among the general childcare workforce. In Northern Ireland, only 9% of childminders hold a recognised childcare qualification, while just 27% have completed intro­ductory training. An integrated qualifications framework would do much to enhance career development, job satisfaction and self-esteem in the profession.

Investment in our children’s future will reap financial and educational benefits for them throughout their lives.

2.45 pm

There are approximately 1,185 childcare staff in Northern Ireland. The average salary of a full-time playgroup leader is £16,623 per annum, while the average salary of a full-time playgroup assistant is £11,967 per annum. Those figures compare with annual salaries of approximately £42,000 for a nursery school principal and £33,000 for a nursery school teacher. Although those employed in playgroups may not have undertaken the same level of study as those employed in nursery schools, it is still a huge difference for what is often the same work. To recruit and retain high-calibre staff, it is important that that disparity be addressed, ensuring that all staff feel valued.

In England, a transformation fund of some £250 million, which was launched in April 2006 and will run until August 2008, supports two major areas. Of that £250 million, £51·8 million has been set aside to cover the costs of course development and financial support for the new early-years professional status (EYPS) qualification, which is being led and managed by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC).

The rest of the transformation fund — about £200 million — has been allocated to local authorities to support the professional development of the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) early-years childcare sector. That development will concentrate on five delivery strands: quality premiums; recruitment incentives; home-grown graduate incentives; full level 3, 4 and 5 training; and support for additional-needs training.

The fund supports the transformation of quality in early-years education by establishing training routes towards a new graduate-level status for early-years professionals; by providing financial support that allows early-years staff to undertake training towards EYPS; and by supporting progress towards the Government’s objective of ensuring that, by 2015, all full day-care settings employ a graduate with EYPS to lead work with children and parents.

The transformation fund is working towards the Government’s objective by providing a recruitment incentive, a quality premium, and a home-grown graduate incentive for eligible full day-care providers in the PVI sectors. The fund also provides greater parity between the maintained and PVI sectors by boosting the qual­ifications of early-years staff in the PVI sectors to create a high-quality and diverse workforce.

The transformation fund is investing in training and development to increase the qualifications of staff employed in the PVI sectors, particularly by enhancing the number of staff with level 3 qualifications and by training more staff to work with children with additional needs.

Similar initiatives have been introduced in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In ‘Building a Better Scotland — Spending Proposals 2005-2008: Enterprise, Opportunity, Fairness’, which was published on 29 September 2004, Scottish Ministers set a target to increase the number of qualified early-years workers from 66% in 2003 to 85% by 2009. Resources will be directed at investing in infrastructure for the delivery of workforce training and development. That will include funding for IT or the setting-up of training rooms or facilities; money to fund staff to replace those staff who are attending training courses; and matched funding for European structural funds applications for the delivery of accredited qualifications.

Mr Campbell: The Member mentioned the Scottish Executive’s strategy, which is called ‘Building a Better Scotland’. Will he recommend that the Minister follow suit and launch a strategy called ‘Building a Better Ulster’?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Lord Morrow: I thank my colleague for making that point. I have absolutely no problem with his suggestion. I see that the Minister is smiling: no doubt she agrees with Mr Campbell.

In Wales, the Flying Start initiative is targeted at infants and children up to three years of age in the most deprived communities.

Key measurable outcomes for children are language development, social and emotional development, physical health and early identification of high needs. In order to target positive outcomes, the main elements of the programme are prescriptive and draw on a menu of options that have been demonstrated to be effective. At the centre of the programme is quality part-time childcare for all two-year-old children in the target areas. Trained professionals deliver that childcare, which focuses on child development and on learning through play. Providers include the maintained sectors, private and voluntary nurseries, playgroups and childminders.

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

Mr Butler: I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“, and to consider this matter in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and in light of the other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.”

Go raibh maith agat. Although Sinn Féin agrees with the broad thrust of the motion for a transformation fund to be made available, it must be set in the context of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) and budgetary constraints.

We all want our children to have the best possible start in life. I want improved outcomes for all our children. In order to achieve that, as has already been said, we need a workforce that is committed to the children that it teaches and helps to develop, especially in the early years of their lives. We need a workforce that inspires trust and respect from parents and carers as well as from the children with which it works.

The transformation fund is a good concept that has worked in Britain, where it has been used to bring about quality early-years provision, which, in turn, has meant better outcomes for children and their families through investment in a better qualified early-years workforce. It is clear from the aims and objectives of that fund that a qualified workforce has a central role to play in achieving better outcomes for children and in making as great a difference to their life chances as possible.

The transformation fund in Britain is designed to bring about a better-qualified workforce that can be retained — an important element to be considered — and better developed, and that offers better career progression.

In the North, we know that the quality of experience during a child’s early years has a significant impact on his or her outcomes in later childhood and adult life. If it were to be established here, I would support the aims of the transformation fund in its attempts to invest in the skills and development of an early-years workforce. In particular, increased training for those who work with children who have disabilities or special educational needs would be a most welcome step.

The transformation fund aims to stimulate the supply of early-years professionals through the development, delivery and accreditation of appropriate training routes for those who work in the early-years sector. It provides financial support for staff in the early-years workforce and invests in training and development to increase the skills and qualifications of staff employed in the private, voluntary and independent sectors. However, the Executive would have to consider the comprehensive spending review and other budgetary constraints before making available a transformation fund.

Research here has shown that the rate of child poverty, which is relevant to the motion, is equal to, if not higher than, that in the rest of the Britain. Between one third and one quarter of all children here will grow up in poverty. There is evidence to suggest that the poverty rate here exceeds that of elsewhere in these islands. Research has also shown that we have a lower level of childcare provision here than that in Britain. Good quality early-years provision can combat the disadvantage that children who live in poverty face. High-quality preschool provision has been shown to benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In England, the Government have set the ability to access affordable childcare provision as a target, and that is an important element of their transformation fund. That target was seen as a central plank of the Government’s campaign to tackle child poverty.

In the South of Ireland, €218 million has been allocated to childcare programmes since 2000. Among other things, that money has been used to provide capital grants assistance to not-for-profit and private childcare providers and to community-based groups in areas of social disadvantage. It is said that investment in a transformation fund would cost in the region of only £5 million a year. That point is relevant to our amendment.

In Britain, the Government also introduced the Childcare Bill to try to improve the provision of childcare. That is a relevant point that should be considered. The resulting Childcare Act 2006 that applies in England highlights the importance of a needs-based approach to childcare policy and provides that an adequate number of childcare places should be available for working parents. In conjunction with that Act, the British Government also produced a 10-year strategy for childcare in England and an action plan for the implementation of that strategy. A parallel strategy and action plan are needed here to improve the provision of childcare facilities.

Government policy on childcare provision should be seen in the context of a transformation fund, which could also help to establish a strategic approach to the development of early-years provision here. Such a fund would mean that money would be spent in the most cost-effective way and would bring about a first-class early-years-education sector to give our children the best possible chance in starting out in life. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr B McCrea: I am on record, as is the Ulster Unionist Party, as being extremely supportive of a strategy for nought- to seven-year-olds. We have a conundrum of numeracy and literacy difficulties in areas of high social deprivation, while an excess of teachers are coming out of our teacher-training schools. We could deal with that conundrum by employing that excess of teachers in a more timely and appropriate matter and in a way that uses their skills and professionalism. That would present an opportunity not only to make significant reductions in our primary-school class sizes, but to increase the provision of dedicated pre-primary school facilities for children up to seven years old.

The budgetary constraints to which the previous contributor referred are a genuine issue, but it is beginning to sound as though we are hearing the same old story on every issue that we discuss. We accept that we cannot spend beyond our means, and I know that the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel will consider these matters, but if we really want to bring about a step change in Northern Ireland by doing something dramatic, innovative and creative, there is nothing on which we could better spend our money than trying to address the inequities that arise when our children do not get a proper education.

I hear the plaudits that have been given to Scotland and I commend the work that has been done there, but we should also refer to other parts of the world where people have taken a different approach. In particular, we should consider how things are done in Finland, where all public-sector day-care centres are staffed by people of graduate level, as well as of other levels. Not only do 60% of Finnish children attend such day-care centres by the age of three, but more than 25% attend them by the age of one. I do not necessarily advocate that that is the right way to go for Northern Ireland, but it is important to consider the investment that that society has placed in the education of its young children. It comes as no surprise that Finland is ranked number one by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for numeracy, literacy and the general standard of its education. On certain issues, we should consider that.

I should also mention in passing that Finland takes a holistic approach. People are not required to put their children into a day-care centre; people can — and 25% of parents do — choose not to put their children into such centres. Parents can educate their children at home and the Government pay them money for doing so.

When a woman has her first child, she is given 75% of her salary to stay at home to look after the child for a year.

3.00 pm

All those issues cannot be solved via a debate. However, they are an indicator of the huge steps that must be taken if underperformance in the education system is to be tackled seriously. I am in favour of increased professionalism. All education reports state that if people in the childcare workforce are well educated and professionally trained, their work will be better.

Some people simply have an aptitude for working with children, and it is important that they are not thrown on to the scrap heap. Childcare should be about fun, play and allowing children to learn in the right way. That would produce many benefits: better social interaction; improved literacy skills; and the ability to be a proper citizen. There is a danger that when Members say that more graduates are required, people who are already involved in childcare might think that they are no longer needed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The issues of childcare and early education should be examined in a holistic way. They should be part of an integrated education system that is a properly financed public-sector provision, with a professionally trained workforce.

I hope that the Minister of Education takes those points on board. I pledge the Ulster Unionist Party’s full support for the motion.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an rún seo agus a rá go bhfuil mo pháirtí sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún agus don leasú. I am pleased to contribute to the debate. The SDLP supports the motion and the amendment.

The new curriculum for early-years education — the foundation stage — includes the preschool year as well as the first two years of primary school. The preschool year is a firm part of our children’s education, and is not, as some people assume, a luxury bolt-on.

A Nobel laureate in economic sciences, Dr James J Heckman, states that investment in social policies that intervene in the early years have very high rates of return, while social policies that intervene at a later stage in the life cycle have low economic returns. A large body of scientific evidence shows a persistent pattern of early intervention resulting in strong effects. Significantly, those substantial long-term benefits are not necessarily limited to intellectual gains but are most clearly seen by measures of social performance and lifetime achievement. In other words, people who participate in enriched early-childhood programmes are more likely to complete school and much less likely to require welfare benefits, to become teenage parents or to participate in criminal activities; rather, they become productive adults.

Research suggests that, in comparison with no experience, all forms of preschool experience have a positive impact on attainment in national assessment tests that are taken at the age of seven. In addition, preschool attendance has been found to improve school commitment and to reduce the risks of disaffection and delinquency during the latter stages of schooling. However, the quality of provision appears to be a crucial determinant of the effects on educational attainment. High-quality provision involves small group size, high adult to child ratios, a balanced curriculum and highly trained staff.

In Northern Ireland, we have high adult to child ratios, the foundation-stage curriculum and a wonderfully enthusiastic and well-trained preschool workforce. The training needs and career structure of that workforce must be streamlined in a way that gives it full professional recognition and a commensurate level of remuneration. For too long, the preschool workforce has been the Cinderella of the education system. That perception is changing as people start to appreciate the immense value of preschool education. It is now time to take practical steps to make the necessary changes.

In order to maximise the benefits of preschool education for our children, the most highly qualified workforce possible is needed. The better qualified the workforce, the more benefit our children will derive from their expertise — benefit that will last throughout their lives. There is no good reason why staff in community and voluntary preschool settings should not have the opportunity to develop professionally to degree standard. Staff are entitled to a professional career structure that provides access to a continual professional development based on remuneration at a professional level, and coequal with that of other sectors.

The preschool-education expansion programme provided the resources aimed at giving every child in Northern Ireland a free preschool place in the immediate preschool year. However, there has been no parallel programme of staff development and proper remuneration for those who deliver the programme.

For a comparatively modest investment, a staff-development programme and the remuneration issue could be addressed in a strategic and incremental manner, through a transformation fund similar to that introduced in England.

The role of the preschool year in education is of the utmost importance and can exert an influence on the education of children well into their school life and beyond. We need to ensure that everything possible is done so that our children get the best start in life, and derive maximum benefit from the preschool year. We can help transform the qualifications of those who teach our children at that age.

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

Mr Lunn: In this matter, Northern Ireland should follow the excellent example of England, Scotland and Wales. The Alliance Party has no problem welcoming the motion, although it notes the use of the word “consider”, which puts a slight caveat on it.

As mentioned, roughly £200 million is allocated to training people to work with young people and children in England and Wales. As Mr Butler said, that works out at roughly £5 million for Northern Ireland, which is the figure given by NIPPA – the Early Years Organisation. The Department for Employment and Learning’s document ‘Success through Skills: The Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland’ sets a clear rationale for that type of investment. There is no doubt that it would be wrong to leave Northern Ireland trailing in that regard.

Investment in staff and training is an essential part of any successful society, and of any successful economy. That applies just as much to those who work with our youngest people as it does to anyone else, and just as it did in the context of previous debates on pay for further education lecturers and on literacy and numeracy, referred to by Mr Basil McCrea.

To put it simply, it is time that we got our priorities right. The motion needs not just approval today, but delivery soon. It is legitimate to ask the proposer of the motion, a member of an Executive party, to outline how the required £5 million can be raised or reallocated from elsewhere. The Alliance Party notes the cautious tone of the amendment. On any scale of priorities, that expenditure would rank as essential investment in young people. If enormous sums of money were not spent propping up a segregated education system, £5 million would be relatively easy to find. The Alliance Party is happy, nevertheless, to support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Shannon:

“It micht be that tha benefits o’ investin in weancare an afore schuill larning cud be a muckle better investmunt in larning than bein din at aa’ later stage, gien that aa’ lerge pert o’ baith kent an no kent skills show themsels afore weans stert schuill.”

This wus takin’ frae aa’ paper oan tha benefits o’ early weancare in comparisin tae coast facter an is plain tae see that tae stert aa’ wean aff oan tha richt fut is maist diffinently mony weel spent.

“It may be that the benefits of investing in childcare and pre-school learning could be greater than investment in education at later ages, given that a very significant part of cognitive and non-cognitive skills development occurs before children start school.”

That quotation is taken from a paper that assesses the benefits of early childcare in comparison to the cost factor. It is quite clear that starting a child off on the right foot is worth the additional cost.

It has been shown that preschool — be that nursery school, day care, mum and toddler groups, reception classes or playschool — is instrumental in the early growth and the social development of a child. That is especially the case for children from lone-parent backgrounds, who account for one in four children in the Province.

Children from a more difficult background, in whatever form that takes, benefit the greatest from preschool education and the attention that they can be given there. The more positive attention that children receive, the quicker they will begin to achieve their potential. Single parents, who must work to provide for their children, while retaining the household burden of chores and with problems on their own, simply do not have the desired time to spend with their child engaging in exercises such as reading, colouring or other activities.

It has also been shown that children learn more in their formative years than they do in the rest of their lives. Therefore it is imperative that children be provided with the best possible start in life. Preschool education is not about getting an early start and learning specifics, even though that may be the case in some instances. It is more a forum in which a child can grow in self-confidence, obtain social skills and learn to interact with adults and other children in a relaxed and informal arena.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr Shannon: I do not have much time left. The Member has had his chance, so, if he does not mind, I will not give way.

It is clear that early-years development has an instrumental effect on a child’s confidence, and learning those early social skills can make the huge gap that exists between preschool and primary school that little bit easier to bridge.

However, that is not the only role that preschool fulfils. Those children who are slightly behind other children in a class, possibly due to their birthdays falling later in the school year, can receive individual attention. Preschool provides the perfect forum for helping those children in a friendly and social atmosphere.

Some 57,000 of our children have speech difficulties. If trained professionals were in position at an early stage in order to provide the necessary attention to detail, we would immediately witness the benefits.

A child would receive the added attention that he or she needed, without detrimentally affecting the development of the rest of the class, were someone with the necessary training to recognise that child’s speech difficulties. That individual could then inject into class and playtime certain activities that would encourage the use of word formation and structures, all the while advancing, encouraging and entertaining the rest of the class.

The sad fact is that teachers of primary 1 classes have neither the time nor the resources to concentrate on one child who is having difficulty with forming words. The longer that the problem persists, the more it becomes ingrained in that child. An early-years professional in place would say that the best way in which to combat a child’s speech difficulty is through the use of phonetic nursery rhymes or similar exercises.

Training definitely has a major role to play in early-years development, and to encourage that training can only be beneficial, not only to individual children but to entire classes and generations.

The UK mainland is beginning to see the benefits of the transformation fund, which enables and encourages greater training and learning for early-years workers. Northern Ireland should be in there, trying to get the resources to meet its specialist needs. We should also have a transformation fund.

I was speaking to a teacher who is in charge of primary 1 and primary 2 classes in a small rural school. She told me that the difference in children who went to different nurseries that adopted different approaches was noticeable when they entered primary 1. She also said that those children who did not regularly attend preschool often took most of primary 1 to settle in and catch up socially with other children.

We have an opportunity to support the motion and implement a better system for our children.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The amendment that my party colleague moved does not distort the original motion but sets it in the context of the comprehensive spending review. However, it is important to make it clear than Sinn Féin supports the sentiment of the motion.

A child’s foundation years are vital. Early childhood development is the foundation of lifelong learning and helps to provide a fair start in life for all children.

It is important that children be given the best possible support by those who are involved in their development. In order to do that, we must ensure that those who carry out that important role are given every opportunity to enhance their skills. The transformation programme appears to be working to that aspiration.

As a parent, I am only too aware of the stress of being a working mother, and I am lucky that I have always been able to depend on my family for assistance. However, not everyone can avail themselves of family support. Therefore we need to ensure that there is adequate provision of affordable, quality childcare services. Unfortunately, that is not the case at present.

3.15 pm

There is a shortfall of registered childminders in the North. At a time when more and more parents work full time, and more and more families depend on childcare, we must invest in those services, as future economic prosperity depends on families having access to affordable, quality childcare.

Members have said that other areas are taking steps. In the South of Ireland, there are childminder development grants of up to €630 towards set-up costs for new childminder services and the development of existing services. In England, Sure Start funds grants towards helping childminders to get started, and the Welsh Assembly has made start-up grants available. We lag behind in the support and provision available for children and the early-education workforce.

The Department of Education is now working on a new early-childhood education and care strategy. That aims to create a cohesive way of supporting the integration of service delivery, and a representative group has been formed to ensure that the advice of stakeholders is sought in developing the strategy.

One area that has been identified for further exploration is the work of the workforce strategy group, which is due to meet in the next few days. It will clarify the roles and responsibilities of workers in the sector and how those might evolve in the light of policy developments to ensure that the workforce continues to meet the needs of children in future.

The development of the childcare and early-education workforce would be enhanced by the establishment of a transformation fund that would set out clearly what is available and provide incentives for improvement.

I support the amendment.

Mr G Robinson: I have pleasure in supporting the motion and the call for the introduction of a transform­ation fund. Investing in enhancing the skills of those who work with preschool children will have long-term benefits. We must break down the barriers between childcare and education, so that hard-pressed parents and their children do not miss out on activities, opportunities and practical help. A loving home, freedom from poverty, good health and high-quality education enable children to reach their full potential.

We want to help all children to do well and to reduce the difference between what the poorest children and others achieve. Good early learning can have a major impact on a child’s achievement at the age of five, and out-of-school activities can contribute to a more personalised curriculum for pupils, as well as help parents to manage the demands of a working day.

Sure Start and extended schools can help parents to fit learning and development opportunities for their children into flexible childcare arrangements. When children and families face particular problems, they can, for example, receive help, advice, parenting support or assistance in finding a job. Sure Start has pioneered the joining-up of services, especially health and employment services, around the needs of children and families.

Across the United Kingdom, over 5,000 schools already work to deliver extended out-of-school oppor­tunities and easier access to personal support for children, parents and their communities. We must ensure that there is a choice of affordable childcare and ready access to other opportunities and services.

It is the Westminster Government’s intention that, by 2010, 15 hours of free early education and childcare that can be used flexibly will be provided for three- and four-year-olds. A local Sure Start centre will provide easy access to childcare and services for children from birth to five years old. In the most disadvantaged areas, it will provide such services on site and reach out to make sure that they are used by those most in need. Schools will offer easy access to childcare; out-of-school activities; parenting support; community access to school facilities; and quick referral to specialist health and social care services when necessary. We must ensure that Northern Ireland is able to match the services provided across the water.

The quality of staff is the most important factor in securing high-quality childcare and early education for children and in building parental confidence. A trans­formation fund will support training and development and the appointment of more highly qualified staff, mainly in the PVI sectors, where qualification levels are lower than those in the maintained sector.

The provision of a highly skilled childcare and early-years workforce that is among the best in the world should be our objective. I support the proposed introduction of a transformation fund, and I support the motion.

Mr K Robinson: The quality of the learning experiences of young children bears a direct correlation to the qualifications, expertise and professional development of the teachers and others working with them. The £250 million that has been allocated nationally through the transformation fund for the training and development of people working with young children on the mainland is to be welcomed, but even on a pro rata basis, with Northern Ireland having some 2·8% of the UK population, that should indicate an investment in Northern Ireland of about £7 million.

The Department for Employment and Learning paper ‘Success Through Skills’ sets out a rationale for putting an overarching framework in place for the development of the skills of the workforce in general. The paper highlights the need to focus on raising the skills of the current workforce; enhancing the knowledge base of those entering the workforce; and addressing the employability skills of those not in employment.

Some 12% of people who work with young children have level 2 qualifications; that is not an adequate level of attainment for such an important job. It is therefore important that provision be made to enable this section of the workforce to progress to at least level 3 — which is what most of us would understand as an A-level equivalent. The practicalities of achieving this would, of necessity, involve using modules of continuous professional development and accredited prior learning. Those people are already in place. We should now skill them to a better level for the important job that we have given them.

The accreditation of prior learning and prior experience is ideally suited to the situation. It can also be effectively delivered in further and higher education colleges, which are both flexible and local. Most are able to deliver this kind of initial assessment and build upon the additional skills, suitably accredited, which the individual worker needs. Further education colleges could also help to deliver workplace modules, which would be the most cost-effective way of improving the skills of the workforce.

In England and Wales, the transformation fund has provided some £250 million for the period from April 2006 until August 2008. The fund supports the trans­formation of childcare settings by establishing, and providing financial support for, training routes towards a new graduate-level status for early-years professionals. This is an important part of the Government’s overall childcare strategy, which is designed to enable single mothers and young mothers in two-parent relationships to join the workforce. The Government’s aim is to ensure that all full-day childcare settings employ a graduate with early-years professional status by 2015. The fund does this by providing a recruitment incentive for staff and a quality premium for all eligible full-day care providers. The objective is to increase the numbers with level 3 qualifications. It also involves training more staff to work with disabled children and children with special educational needs.

NIPPA, whose work in this area I want to commend in the warmest possible terms, has calculated that an expenditure of some £5 million a year would enable Northern Ireland to achieve parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. This parity is important, and we do not want to fall behind. This plan would allow for 100 individuals each year to go on the graduate programme and for 10 individuals to progress to postgraduate level. In addition, it would allow 75 workers to obtain level 3 qualifications.

With a graduate-recruitment incentive and admin­istrative costs included, this represents a very good value-for-money deal. It would create a properly graded employment structure in this important area and show a commitment to the value and importance that the Executive place on early-years education. All in all, it is a good deal, and I commend it to the Minister and to the House.

Mrs M Bradley: I support the motion and the amendment.

Now that power has been devolved to the Assembly, it is imperative that we take responsibility for investing in the training, registration and professional development of the early-years workforce.

A transformation fund for Northern Ireland will emphasise the importance of recruitment, appropriate working conditions and overcoming low levels of pay. Such support will provide fitting incentives for those who have a vocational commitment to the care, well-being and development of the youngest children in society. We have a responsibility to cultivate an ethos of investing in our children and young people. We must also introduce a system of early intervention in order to help to rectify the unacceptable levels of deprivation and underachievement that exist.

Generations of low levels of literacy and numeracy in the adult and young adult population can be remedied through the development of an excellent system of early-years care and education that is comparable to the best in Europe. In order to do that, we must recognise the skills and devotion of the childcare and early-years workforce. That includes not only those who are working in the sector, but those who would enter the sector if they could be guaranteed a secure career-development structure, be provided with working conditions that match their skills and hard work, and receive appropriate remuneration.

Northern Ireland has a childcare and early-years workforce that wants, and deserves, that recognition. The current workforce must receive recognition of its invaluable knowledge and experience through appropriate working conditions and the opportunity for continuous professional development. The future workforce must be provided with the incentive to become a graduate, and postgraduate, profession.

There is a wealth of good practice in the childcare and early-years sector. The appropriate application of funding to the sector will add value to existing excellence and will help to replicate that good practice elsewhere. Appropriate investment through a transformation fund for Northern Ireland can facilitate all those vital elements. However, the funding must be underpinned by the development and implementation of a high-quality system of support for and investment in the childcare and early-years professionals.

I support the motion and the amendment. Our children deserve the best possible start that we can give them.

Mr P Ramsey: I am grateful to Lord Morrow for bringing such a hugely important issue to the House.

Many parents and children in Northern Ireland are under high levels of economic and social pressure. Parents across the North are faced with huge mortgage repayments. Many people struggle to survive on low incomes, and there are many lone parents. In many households, both parents work long hours to make ends meet. In far too many households, unfortunately, there is no wage earner.

It is not surprising that a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, published in 2007, into child well-being in the world’s richest nations showed that Britain has the worst record across a range of dimensions, including educational well-being. That statistic comes after 10 years of a Labour Government and is despite many of the positive social reforms that that Government have introduced. Many of the social factors included in the UNICEF report that impacted negatively on the UK’s scores are probably different in this part of Ireland than in Britain, because of the different community and family structures here.

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

However, there is no doubt that there are very high levels of child poverty and other pressures affecting people here that are different to Britain. There are structural and resource problems in our education system. Recent reports by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Westminster Public Accounts Committee have highlighted the low literacy and numeracy levels of many schoolchildren. Indeed, that issue was debated in the Chamber only a few weeks ago, when it was agreed that much work was needed to change the structure of the education system and that more resources should be invested in it in order to substantially improve the levels of literacy and numeracy and other skills for school-leavers.

Members are often indebted to the Assembly’s Research Service for the papers that it provides on many debates. Outside bodies also advise Members on various issues. Some Members have mentioned the Sure Start programmes that operate across Northern Ireland. They are undoubtedly models of best practice. However, Northern Ireland is falling way behind England, where there are around 800 Sure Start centres of excellence.

Ruth Kelly described children’s centres as being at the heart of the Government’s determination to wipe out child poverty. In Northern Ireland, four centres of excellence for Sure Start programmes have been promised. Ruth Kelly also stated that, by 2010, there will be 3,500 Sure Start centres of excellence in England. If that figure is equated to Northern Ireland, how many centres of excellence will we be entitled to by then?

3.30 pm

I shall take advantage of the Minister’s being in the Chamber to ask her a question: where are the four proposed centres of excellence? I know that the bidding process for one centre of excellence had started. Has a decision been made on that? If so, could the decision be announced?

A major Northern Ireland survey of more than 2,000 single mothers found that they had huge difficulties in obtaining suitable childcare, which was the biggest hurdle in the way of getting a job. The transformation fund should be implemented as part of a wider set of social and economic policies to help people to balance their working and family lives, allowing children to enjoy a healthy childhood, during which they are nurtured by their parents, families and society.

To reinforce the argument, I shall return to an earlier point made about NIPPA. Currently, all staff who are working in the voluntary, community and preschool sectors in Northern Ireland must pay for their own training and professional development, and for any ongoing training. In addition, they face a significant disparity in pay, compared with the statutory sector.

If the Assembly’s vision is for our early childhood services to become world-class, it is essential that the childcare and early-years education workforce in Northern Ireland be equipped to match developments elsewhere. That will enable the workforce to contribute to an overall strategy for children’s services through the delivery of positive and better outcomes for children and families, and through reducing inequalities for young people, children, families and communities.

The motion is important, and I hope that the Depart­ment of Education, in particular, will be more proactive. If best practice operates in England, why has it taken so long for the appropriate levels of funding to be delivered in Northern Ireland? I appeal to the Minister to take action, particularly in respect of the Sure Start programme, which is one of the best programmes in the areas of preschool provision and parental skills. The centres of excellence in England that I mentioned take a holistic approach and offer speech and language therapy, and other therapies. It is important that there is the same level of access across the board, whether a child lives in Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast or Derry.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is bunsraith seirbhíse ardchailíochta é fórsa oibre ardchailíochta. I fully recognise that a suitably qualified workforce is essential to ensure that quality services are provided in early childcare and education. A high-quality workforce is the foundation of a high-quality service.

Research shows that children who experience high-quality preschool provision have better cognitive, social and emotional development by the time they start primary school — and maintain an advantage until at least seven years of age — than children who do not experience preschool education and childcare. Conversely, poor-quality childcare may offer no developmental benefit for children and may disadvantage them.

In the North of Ireland, early-years policy transferred to the Department of Education in November 2006. Before that, responsibility for early-years policy lay with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, with the Department of Education responsible for the preschool expansion programme. The transfer of lead responsibility for early-years policy to the Department of Education signals an intention to provide an integrated approach to policy and service delivery, which many Members have mentioned. Improved joined-up delivery of early-years services should provide better outcomes for children and parents and better value for the public purse.

My Department has already begun to formulate a new early-childhood education and care strategy for children from birth, up to and including the foundation years of primary school — children up to six years old. The strategy will bring together Sure Start programmes, preschool education and home-childcare agendas in a cohesive way in order to support the integration of service delivery, taking into account all relevant factors and the effects that those changes will have on the lives of children and families.

I agree with George Robinson, who mentioned the value of extended schools. That is a very good programme and should be continued.

The Irish-medium sector is developing a three-to-19 strategy. A review of that strategy is ongoing, and the Department of Education will examine the outcomes. There is also a review of special needs. Both those strategies will feed into our preschool strategy.

It is generally accepted that the first few years of a child’s life are critical to his or her future development and well-being. During those early months and years, a high percentage of children’s learning takes place: attitudes are formed; first relationships are made; concepts are developed; and the foundation for all later skills and learning is laid. Last week, I met representatives of the Forum of Nursery Teachers, who stressed the importance of high-quality preschool provision. There is much evidence to suggest that ability gaps open early, long before formal schooling begins, and that the highest returns come from early interventions that set the stage and create the abilities that are needed for success in later life.

Children learn more effectively through play, active investigation, enquiry, first-hand experience and talk. Therefore, our provision must facilitate those matters and involve parents, carers and staff working closely together to support children’s learning. Our nursery schools are one example of a quality service that supports children.

Policy-makers have recognised that equitable access to quality early-childhood education and care can strengthen the foundation for lifelong learning for all children and support the broad educational and social needs of families. Government facilitate access to childcare through the provision of the childcare element of the working tax credit, which can meet up to 80% of childcare costs for eligible families.

The objectives of the early-needs strategies are: to set out a clear vision for early-years policy; to be consistent with early-years strategies in Ireland and Britain, together with international frameworks; to establish evidence-based policies that draw on research and good practice elsewhere; to identify suitable structures for service delivery; to examine interrelationships between early years and wider childcare and education reform; and to examine appropriate funding mechanisms and to identify outcomes, based on quality service delivery and taking equality issues into account.

In recognition that the early-years strategy would contribute to wider aims and objectives and to a number of cost-cutting strategies, work on the development of the strategy is being overseen by an interdepartmental group that consists of colleagues from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department for Employment and Learning, and the Department for Social Development.

The transfer of the early-years policy to the Depart­ment of Education represents an opportunity to deliver early education and care from an integrated platform. The Department of Education recognises the valuable contribution that early-childhood education, care and development makes to young people. That is why the Department, in conjunction with the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Department for Social Development are developing a nought-to-six strategy. We will also examine cohesive delivery arrangements, which will form an integral part of that strategy.

The Department of Education has formed stakeholder groups to ensure a participative and partnership approach to policy development. Work on the strategy has been broken down into four key deliverables, one of which is the workforce thematic groups, which are charged with clarifying the future roles and responsibilities of workers in the sector and how they might evolve; for example, by fulfilling training needs in the light of policy developments in order to ensure that the workforce in the early-years sector continues to meet the needs of children in future.

The group draws its membership from a broad range of stakeholders in order to capture input on the delivery, policy and practice of early years; it includes represent­atives from the sector skills councils, who will seek to secure the necessary supply of training to close any skills gaps in the sector.

Statutory nursery schools and units attached to statutory primary schools are, in effect, grant-aided schools and are staffed by qualified teachers and classroom assistants. In the voluntary private sector, centres must meet minimum quality standards if they are to continue to receive funding. Minimum standards are intended to reassure parents and others about the quality of provision that is being made for their children, to ensure that the educational experiences are appropriate for children in the year before they begin compulsory schooling and to establish a sound foundation on which to build quality preschool education in the North of Ireland.

In all voluntary private centres that are in receipt of funded places — that is, those that are participating in the pre-school education expansion programme (PSEEP) — at least half the staff must hold a relevant qualification in education or childcare. That is defined as an NVQ level 3 or equivalent qualification, which at least one member of staff in each centre must have, and an NVQ level 2 or equivalent qualification, which all other qualified staff must hold. Voluntary and private preschool centres are expected, as part of the process of improving the quality of their provision, to work towards ensuring that all staff have relevant qualifications.

During the development of the early-years strategy, my Department will continuously seek ways to learn from good practice elsewhere, including local, national and international examples, to inform our thinking. I understand that although transformation funds have been established in England and Scotland to create a more professional early-years workforce in the PVI sectors, similar plans are at an early stage in Wales and the South of Ireland. It is important that we do not restrict ourselves to models in England, Scotland and Wales, and that we look to our neighbours in the South, and, potentially, other countries in Europe. I welcome the comments that were made about Finland earlier in the debate.

Members referred to a possible title for an early-years strategy. Obviously, a title using the word “Ulster” sounds good, and I am sure that the people of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal will be delighted at the suggestion of integration. So, “Cúige Uladh” — the ancient province of Ulster — sounds very good to me.

In the South of Ireland, the White Paper on early childhood education, ‘Ready to Learn’, sets out a comprehensive strategy for the development of early-childhood education for all children up to six years. As part of the strategy, the Department of Education and Science has been engaging with stakeholders to develop a quality framework, which will include qualifications for the early-childhood sector. Officials are aiming to complete that framework by late 2007.

In Scotland, between 1999 and 2006, the Scottish Executive invested £24·8 million through the workforce development fund to drive forward their programme of work to develop the early-years in-childcare workforce. A further £12 million will be provided, £6 million in each of 2006-07 and 2007-08.

In Wales, although the Flying Start initiative has made some progress — £4·1 million in 2006-07 — in investing in initial planning and workforce development in early-years and play workforces in the most deprived communities, the continued use of that initiative will be on a discretionary basis. The Welsh Assembly is working closely with the Care Council for Wales to consider the development needs of the childcare workforce.

In England, the Children’s Workforce strategy is supported by £250 million of funding from April 2006 to August 2008, with the aim of creating a more professional early-years workforce in the PVI sectors. It is too early to provide a final cost for the introduction of a similar transformation fund in the North of Ireland until the workforce thematic group’s research has been completed. However, that work cannot be looked at in isolation; it must be considered in conjunction with the other thematic groups.

It is anticipated that my Department will be in a position to publicly consult on a draft strategy by February 2008. Although it is too early to pre-empt the strategy’s recommendations and to determine spending priorities that are currently being considered as part of the comprehensive spending review, it will be a priority of mine to ensure that the strategy reflects a co-ordinated Government response to early-years policy.

I look forward to working with my ministerial colleagues, and my colleagues in the Assembly, in taking forward this important, pivotal strategy that will impact on addressing economic and social disadvantage and on promoting social inclusion.

At a later date, I will respond to Members’ questions on children’s centres. I have many questions on that issue myself. Tá mé ag dúil le bheith ag obair le mo chomrádaithe aireachta le haghaidh a thabhairt ar na dúshláin atá romhainn agus leis an straitéis fhíorthábhachtach seo a chur chun cinn. Rachaidh an straitéis i bhfeidhm ar an mhíbhuntáiste eacnamaíoch agus shóisialach agus cuideoidh sí leis an chuimsitheacht shóisialach a chur chun tosaigh. Go raibh maith agat.

3.45 pm

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. We have had a good debate on a trans­formation fund and the provision of early-years education, and I welcome that. There has been broad agreement that a strategy for early-years provision is essential to the delivery of first-class early-years provision for all children.

We can learn a lot from the example of the transform­ation fund in Britain and what it has achieved. However, although Members have spoken in support of the idea, we must be cautious and look at it in the context of the comprehensive spending review and the budgetary constraints. One thing is clear about the concept of the transformation fund: it stimulates some joined-up thinking in delivering and improving early-years provision. I welcome the Minister’s statement that there is some joined-up thinking between the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Some of the other Departments, such as the Department for Social Development, should also be involved.

Reference has been made to NIPPA, which represents the playgroup and preschool sector. I think that it was Pat Ramsey who made an important point about the staff in that sector. Given that they are part of the community and voluntary sector, they have to pay for their training and further education needs. That must be looked at.

Childminding provision has not really been touched on today. The childminding association that represents childminders in the North of Ireland has made a number of key points about the provision of childminding services. People have a growing reluctance to embark on childminding as a career or to go through the registration process. That could put children at risk. There also seems to be a high drop-out rate in that sector. Registered childminders are by far the most popular and affordable form of full-time childcare, but there has been a 19% drop in the supply of places that are available with registered childminders and a significant increase in the number of unregistered childminders. I hope that the Minister and the Assembly will take that concern on board.

The aims of any transformation fund should be, first, to provide a first-class early-years service for children, and, secondly, to provide parents with an opportunity to get back into the workforce. A recent survey of 2,000 unemployed mothers found that obtaining suitable childcare was by far the biggest barrier to their getting back into work. There was clear evidence that the level of childcare here is lower than that in England and that there is a significant shortfall in childcare places here, again compared with England. Three quarters of mothers surveyed said that they would like a job, and two thirds said that the lack of adequate childcare provision deterred them from seeking work. A quarter said that childcare problems were a constraint on the hours that they could work. Therefore those figures have raised several issues that need to be addressed. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Morrow: I accept the amendment, as it does not detract from the motion in any way. I want to make that clear.

I was interested in the contributions to the debate. I thank the Members who took the time to come to the House to listen to the debate and, more importantly, those who contributed to it.

I was struck by a number of things that were said. First, Basil McCrea said something that was quite striking and significant. He said that we needed a step change in Northern Ireland, and that the best way to achieve that was to start with the young. How right that is. You do not start with people late in their lives; you start with those who are in their early years. I am sure that the Minister of Education was listening, and I will comment on some of the points that she made.

I was particularly interested in what Mr Dominic Bradley said. I think that he used the phrase “this should not be a hinge-on.” I thought that that was significant and true. Sometimes, the perception is, and has been, that the early years of education are not the important years — instead, early-years education is something that is provided when some money is left over. I am sure that the Minister was listening to that point, and I hope that she is not just going to commit her leftovers to the early-years programme. That is a significant point.

Mr Trevor Lunn, who is not in the Chamber at present, mentioned £5 million. There is no doubt that that figure has been mentioned and that the amount is significant. However, it seems insignificant when it is being invested in the future workforce of a nation — it is a very small amount of money for the Executive to be considering as an investment in future generations. I am sure that the Minister has not missed the point.

Mr Jim Shannon referred to that fact that teachers quickly identify the difference between children who attend preschool and those who do not. Primary-school teachers have said that there is a significant and noticeable difference. Again, I think that the Minister will take notice of that observation.

I was encouraged by the Minister’s saying that she will bring out a draft strategy by February 2008. She rightly referred to England, Scotland and Wales and what they were doing about the issue, and she said that it is one of her key priorities. The Assembly can take comfort from that. At least the Minister now recognises that early-years education has to be tackled and is not something that should simply be a leftover. It should form an integral part of her programme, and I look forward to seeing her draft report.

I encourage the Minister to keep on that particular road because that will be crucial. No decision that the Assembly may make in the future will be more significant than this one.

I hope that the Executive hear what the Assembly is saying collectively about this matter — and I hope that the Minister reports our views back to the Executive. This matter is not something that should be “considered”, and it is not something that the Executive “should do” if money is left over. It is something that must be programmed for. It should be integrated into all future spending plans that the Executive will be putting to the Assembly.

The Assembly is united on this issue, and Members will be watching with particular interest to see how the Executive respond to today’s debate. I trust that it will be the Minister’s priority, when she goes back to the Executive, to bring to the attention of her Executive colleagues the fact that the House is united on the motion and the amendment. The Assembly is saying that this is a key priority and should be an important part of any strategy that the Executive might want to bring before the House.

My time is up, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: You have 10 minutes.

Lord Morrow: I am sorry; I did not realise that I had 10 minutes. [Laughter.]

Mr Paisley Jnr: Keep talking.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Keep her lit.

Mr Paisley Jnr: He has nothing else to do.

A Member: Go back to page one.

Lord Morrow: Well, I had jumped past three pages, right enough.

We want to see a fair and equitable society in Northern Ireland; everybody should aspire to that. No political party with any sense of modesty could disagree with that aim. How do we bring about that aspiration? We start with the young — the nought-to-six years or nought-to-seven years age group. We must shape that generation, so that it can shape the future of this country.

I hope that, as a result of today’s deliberations, the Minister of Education will not simply make a carefully prepared statement to the House and walk out again as if today’s debate never happened. I do not accuse the Minister of that; I could accuse her of many things, but not of that.

Mr D Bradley: Does the Member agree that the degree of unity that has been demonstrated in the House today in support of the motion and the amendment should not be interpreted as an excuse to kick the issue into touch and leave it on the sidelines? Does he also agree that the ball must be picked up and moved forward immediately?

Lord Morrow: Mr Bradley has made a fair point. This side of the House looks at the issue from the opposite view — the Minister should not kick the ball from one place to another. To be fair to the Minister, she is not going to do that. I may have learnt little in life, but I have learnt that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member should address his remarks through the Chair.

Lord Morrow: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker; how could I forget? [Laughter.]

Mr Bradley made a succinct point, and I noticed that the Minister was paying particular attention as he did so.

Mr Pat Ramsey mentioned child poverty, a phrase that sometimes falls glibly from people’s lips. I do not include Mr Ramsey in that, because he was the only Member to raise the matter. It sometimes seems that child poverty does not exist and is just a phrase that fits well into a sentence. The sad fact is that child poverty does exist, and, to date, attempts to address it have not been tackled in a cohesive manner. Society should be downright ashamed of that.

Child poverty presents a challenge to the Assembly, its Ministers and the Executive. I am glad that the Assembly has stood up to the challenge today and has united behind the motion and the amendment to say that the issue should be tackled.

Mr Deputy Speaker, it is time for me to quit. I whole­heartedly commend the motion and the amendment to the House and ask for its unanimous support.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Lord Morrow, I am remarkably impressed that you said in nine minutes what you had adequately covered in five.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly urges the Executive to consider making available a transformation fund, similar to that in England, Scotland and Wales, to support the professional development of the childcare and early education workforce in Northern Ireland; and to consider this matter in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and in light of the other budgetary pressures facing the Executive.

Pension Provision for Former  RUC Part-Time Reserve

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The Member who moves 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. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The Member who moves the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

4.00 pm

Mr McNarry: I beg to move

That this Assembly supports the right of members of the former Royal Ulster Constabulary Part-Time Reserve to proper pension provision, as agreed, without division, by the Assembly on 20 November 2001; and calls upon the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make representations to the Secretary of State to have the matter satisfactorily addressed.

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I thank Mr Buchanan for tabling the amendment, and I gladly incorporate it into the motion. Much has been said about putting the past behind us, and that is a goal that is worth pursuing. To many of my unionist tradition, the past symbolises ugliness. Part of that ugliness is represented by some of those who sit diagonally opposite me in the Chamber. Yet the fact that that party is here — complying and working in a democratically elected British institution of government — demonstrates the drawing power of the opportunity to make it a lasting reality that that ugliness is truly a monster of the past. Together, we all have a role to play in surpassing our own dreams of fulfilment and in putting the past behind us. In getting to that point, progress has also been made by embracing and introducing many rights issues.

However, at the heart of my motion is a right that has been denied without justification, good cause or sound reason. An issue has been forgotten because the Government hoped that it would fade away. Therefore I ask the House to put a wrong to right. I ask for support to call on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to go to the Secretary of State — whoever that may be — to have the matter satisfactorily resolved.

On 20 November 2001, the Northern Ireland Assembly resolved:

“That this Assembly supports the right of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve (Part-Time) to proper pension provision.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 13, p146, col 2.]

Policing was a reserved matter when my party colleague Derek Hussey ably put that case, and it still is. Some may argue that the issue of RUC pensions should wait until policing is devolved. However, after waiting more than five years, why should the issue be postponed and prolonged? Who is to say that policing will be devolved in the lifetime of this Assembly? The case for supporting the part-time RUC Reserve was made emphatically in 2001. The House did not divide then, and I trust that that will be the result of today’s debate. Nothing has changed since 2001 when Derek Hussey addressed the Assembly of that time. However, the Government have shifted, and some responsibility lies with elected politicians, in that our inaction has allowed the plight of former members of the part-time RUC Reserve to drift. Sadly, some of those people have since passed away.

We now have a restored Assembly, and Ministers in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) are joined in a friendly working relationship. That brings an opportunity not only to pay tribute to the part-time RUC Reserve but to help bring closure to a right that was so lamentably denied by Government that the denial in itself has almost overtaken the issue. Therefore in order to put right that wrong, the matter of pension provision, as agreed in 2001, should be extended to today. I ask OFMDFM, ably represented by the junior Minister Mr Paisley, that special attention be paid to the request that it ask the Secretary of State to consider a service-recognition gratuity payment, and I include that alternative in line with the amendment. That element of direct rule, which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have not succeeded in evicting, appears to think that a gratuity payment could be deeply divisive.

Incredibly, Paul Goggins, from the Northern Ireland Office, said that to do anything — and I mean anything — in recognition of the service of the part-time RUC Reserve would be somewhat offensive to former regular and full-time RUC Reserve officers. He feels that the award of a long-service medal would be sufficient recognition, and would want to conclude the matter in such typically dismissive direct rule fashion.

I hope that the House will give the Government its answer, and that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will bear in mind the amendment: a one-off form of financial provision that both recognises and rewards.

There is no begging, cap-in-hand or handout mentality in the proposal. I hope that I can reflect the dignity and integrity that is to be found in the patience and fortitude of the reservists as they strive to make their case, which was first brought to the Assembly more than five years ago. Perhaps, their title — a job description that signifies their part-time status — is working against them.

Scandalously, the warped conclusions of the Northern Ireland Office appear to have demoted and downgraded the status of part-time reservists, never mind recognise their value and service to the country. Although still awaiting the outcome to their legal case, the equally deserving part-time soldiers expect to reach a pension settlement. Part-time RUC reservists cannot even get their foot on the settlement ladder.

Mr Goggins said that a pension or gratuity could not be considered because of administrative difficulties. That is ministerial spin for, “They are entitled to a medal, but when it comes to money, we do not have a list of who served, and we cannot be bothered to compile such a list.” It seems that it was all right to send part-time reservists out on duty but there was no need to keep a record of who actually went. There we have it — entitlement to a pension or gratuity is being dismissed and kicked into touch on account of administrative difficulties, divisiveness and cost.

I wonder how much the direct rulers want to be reminded about costs? I wonder how much they want to be reminded about throwing money around, slush funds, jollies in Hillsborough and the accusations levelled at them for keeping this place operating — and still they went on to accuse Members of taking money under false pretences. How about the cost of a bottle of wine? Do Members remember the cost of a bottle of wine that the Establishment managed to find the money for? How much money has been spent to keep organised terror groups sweet? How much more money will be spent to buy off people with a less than glorious past?

The RUC Reserve has a glorious past. Therefore, is it not an outrage that the Northern Ireland Office dismisses the request for financial provision for the part-time RUC Reserve on the basis that it is not clear what level of payment would be regarded as appropriate recognition?

Notwithstanding that, the NIO’s reasons are that with other more pressing priorities, the cost would be difficult to justify — those are Government words, not mine. How do they know the costs if they admit that they do not know the number of people involved? Anyway, they have already decided that any financial provision would be divisive and offensive to others. Is that arrogance not scandalously reprehensible to the House and highly insensitive to the part-time RUC reservists? Today, Members can begin to put that right. Let us take the first step by attaining the willingness of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take this case forward and upward, and urge and encourage them to draw satisfactory closure on a chapter that is unworthy of Government but worthy of giving due and fair recognition to the part-time RUC Reserve.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will end by saying that it is my first opportunity to welcome the junior Minister and address him as such in the House. I await his response with anxious anticipation. I am sure that it will be suitably delivered.

Mr Buchanan: I beg to move the following amendment: After “2001;” insert

“or, alternatively, a one-off appropriate gratuity payment”.

The amendment seeks to add to the motion and not, in any way, to act against the sentiments of the Member who proposed it; indeed, I congratulate Mr McNarry for bringing the important matter before the House. The amendment is simply to ensure that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister use its influence to lobby for adequate recognition for those who served as members of the part-time RUC Reserve. That recognition need not necessarily take the form of pension provision, but could take the form of a one-off payment that would ensure that the service and dedication of those officers is recognised by the Government.

The service that was given by members of the part-time Reserve of the Royal Ulster Constabulary must be recognised by the Government. Those people not only gave their time to serve the community, but were prepared to put their lives on the line to provide that service. They simply cannot be ignored or treated like part-time workers in any other job. Being a member of the RUC was not like any other job. When part-time members put on the uniform to defend and uphold law and order in the land, they placed their lives, and those of their families, in extreme and ongoing danger from a bloodthirsty terrorist organisation.

Those part-time RUC Reserve officers carried out the same duties to the same high standards as their full-time colleagues. In many cases, they worked the same number of hours each week as the full-time officers, under extremely difficult circumstances. Although they may have been employed on a part-time contract, many of those officers worked 60 or 70 hours each week — perhaps more — at the height of the Troubles. They must, therefore, be treated the same as any other officer who gave that level of service.

A part-time RUC Reserve constable was paid an hourly rate that was equivalent to that of a full-time constable who was aged 21 years or over when joining the RUC. The rate of pay did not increase, regardless of the length of service rendered, unlike that of colleagues in the regular force. Neither did part-time officers receive any overtime payments if they exceeded eight hours’ duty or worked on public holidays. For many years, the Government used the part-time RUC Reserve to provide policing on the cheap.

At present, a part-time officer merely receives a long-service medal and a certificate of service. Although that is commendable, it is inadequate recognition of the courage, devotion and commitment that was displayed by those officers as they put their lives on the line to protect and to uphold law and order in the Province. Surely it is not unreasonable that the Government provide a fair and equitable financial package for such a sterling record of service.

As I mentioned earlier, being a member of the part-time RUC Reserve was not like being employed in any other part-time job. The same standards cannot, therefore, be transferred on to it. That is why the unique situation that those people find themselves in must be recognised by the Government, and a suitable level of recognition given to them. They have been treated with contempt when it comes to their entitlement to a recognition award. They have been turned into a political sacrifice. It is time that all stumbling blocks were removed and the matter satisfactorily resolved.

Of course, lack of funding is blamed as the hindrance to making a decision on such payments. As the proposer of the motion mentioned, when it comes to making payments to republican or loyalist organisations, or to fund inquiries, any amount of money can be found. However, when it comes to giving proper recognition to those who have put their lives on the line to withstand the enemies of law and order, it seems that money cannot be found.

I know that many Members wish to contribute to the debate. I will, therefore, conclude my remarks.

However, I hope that all sides of the House will support the amendment and the motion, just as they supported a similar motion that was debated in the House in 2001. I hope that everyone will vote to recognise those who gave so much to Northern Ireland.

4.15 pm

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In an Assembly debate on this issue in November 2001, it was stated that the House must send out the message that RUC Reserve pensioners deserved proper recognition and pension rights. However, what about proper recognition and pension rights for those ordinary pensioners who have contributed so much to society and their own communities? They have paid into the system all their working lives, yet in retirement find it almost impossible to make ends meet because of the low state pension paid to them. If they do receive an occupational pension — something that they have paid into for many years — it is taken into account when they claim pension credit, and it is deducted from their pension-credit entitlement.

The Chief Constable of the PSNI stated that service alone — which appears to be the sole criterion for the gratuity payment — is not defensible. He also said that rewarding contribution would be divisive, as it would be outside the reward-and-recognition schemes that are available to PSNI employees, including the part-time Reserve.

In December 2004, a letter was sent to the police division of the NIO calling for RUC part-time reservists to be granted their due reward after years of pay-and-pension rights neglect by central Government. The letter concluded that society had benefited from security provided by committed part-time officers and that the Government should repay the debt and provide them with financial security. Why, therefore, do the Government not repay the debt to those pensioners who have contributed to the system and provide all of them with the financial security that they not only deserve but to which they are fully entitled?

There have been many recent debates in the Chamber on such matters as care for the elderly and fuel poverty. There was also a recent debate on the huge contribution that carers make daily in looking after the most vulnerable in society. Surely those who give up so much of their lives are entitled to a proper income for the services that they provide. Exception cannot be made for a few; if it is, all pension provision will be called into question. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Attwood: As we did on the previous occasion on which this matter was debated, the SDLP accepts the broad thrust of the proposals, particularly the proposal for a one-off gratuity payment. I think that that is also the position of the Policing Board, although I will stand corrected on that.

There are two reasons why the SDLP sympathises with the broad thrust of the motion. First, we have sympathy for the general principle — to which, I think, Mr Brady was alluding — that part-time workers who engage in equal work of equal value should be entitled to pay and conditions on a par with their full-time colleagues. Part-time reservists are not the only people who on occasions over the past 20 or 30 years — or currently — have been in part-time employment and who have worked 40, 50 or 60 hours a week. The SDLP endorses — and the Chamber should endorse — the general principle that arises there: workers who are defined as part-time, but who in many instances are much more than part-time, should be entitled to pay and conditions of equal value to their full-time colleagues. It is an important principle. If that is what the Sinn Féin Member was alluding to, I welcome it, but it is a principle that the whole Chamber should endorse.

The SDLP accepts the broad thrust of the amendment, because the part-time Reserve suffered disproportion­ately to any other section of the old RUC during the conflict. The unfortunate and tragic statistics of the past 40 years show us that the number of part-time officers who were injured or killed far exceeds any other section of the security forces.

The reason for that is simple. They were recruited locally; they lived locally; they were targeted locally; and they were killed locally. There is something particular about the part-time Reserve that the Chamber should acknowledge by supporting the broad thrust of the proposal. Whereas everyone is entitled to be treated equally — whatever their employment status, part-time or otherwise — the reality of life in the North must be acknowledged. The part-time Reserve suffered horribly and disproportionately among those involved in the security forces during the years of conflict.

None of that takes away from the fact that the SDLP has grave reservations about the conduct of individuals and elements in the old RUC. As Members know, there is particular evidence about the conduct of individuals and elements in the part-time RUC Reserve at various times during our tragic history. Nothing that I say in respect of the broad thrust of the motion should deny or diminish the fact that many people — and not just in the nationalist community — encountered standards and conduct on the part of individuals and groups in the part-time Reserve that were highly questionable and are still of grave concern.

As with many other matters, this needs to be addressed and to be referred to the study group under the chairman­ship of Denis Bradley and Lord Eames, who need to get their heads around all these issues quickly. I want to put down a marker for them — and for the British Government and anyone else inclined to proceed in the North on a basis that is other than ethical. Yesterday’s decision by the Public Prosecution Service on the Stevens Report; the comments of Maurice Hayes; the comments of the Secretary of State in recent weeks; and the unfortunate comments of the outgoing Oversight Commissioner about dealing with the past — all suggest to many victims and survivors, and certainly to the SDLP, that many people, including some in high places, are attempting to create circumstances in which the truth of the past is denied and there is a lack of accountability. Whether those involved are in paramilitary organisations, Government or political parties, the SDLP sends out a warning that it will not stand for it.

Dr Farry: The Alliance Party, like other parties, will be supporting the motion and the amendment.

At the outset, I pay tribute to the contribution made to this society by the part-time Reserve. It made a major contribution in holding the line between democracy and the rule of law on the one hand and anarchy and terrorism on the other. That Northern Ireland avoided the latter by the narrowest of margins is due in no small part to the contribution of the men and women who contributed to our security through participation in the part-time Reserve.

It is important to clarify that the part-time Reserve was not an outgrowth of the unionist section of the community dealing with a threat that emanated solely from another section of the community, namely republicanism. Rather, they were servants of the entire community: Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists, and those unaligned with either tradition, like me and some of my colleagues. They served the entire community against threats from a variety of sources, including the IRA and loyalists. It is important that the Assembly should recognise that.

Mr Attwood has already mentioned the difficulties that were faced by members of the part-time Reserve. In addition, it should be recognised that, due to the nature of the work that the part-time Reserve was engaged in, its members tended to be involved disproportionately in security functions, rather than the traditional policing functions that are seen in normal societies.

That tended to disproportionately expose Reserve officers to the real and present threat on the front line from various terrorist organisations.

The subject of the motion also relates to part-time workers. Although the RUC part-time Reserve were nominally part-time workers, in practice they provided a full-time service — indeed, beyond a full-time service compared to what most of us recognise as a normal working week. They were effectively full-time officers who were employed on the cheap, as they did not have the same rights and protections as other officers. In many circumstances, part-time Reserve officers did the same job as full-time officers, but without the same degree of protection.

As such, there is a wider issue in relation to the rights of part-time workers. Indeed, I am sympathetic to the comments made by the two Members who spoke before me about the need to ensure that proper protection is available for those in part-time employment, particularly those who are effectively doing full-time jobs. However, it is important to focus on the RUC part-time Reserve and on the contribution that its members have made, taking note of the particular context in which they operated and the threats that they suffered.

That said, the Assembly must be conscious that the motion calls on another body, the Northern Ireland Office, to take action on a matter that is not within the Assembly’s control. The Assembly does not have control over the policing and criminal justice security budgets — that lies elsewhere. Despite the many competing pressures on those budgets, I would like us, as elected representatives, to be clear that, if we had those powers, we would commit to addressing the issue with the necessary resources.

It is important that the Assembly does not under­estimate the sheer pressure involved in managing the financial aspects of policing and criminal justice. Members must recognise that, when those powers are devolved to the Assembly, there will be competing pressures. However, I am certainly prepared to make clear that, if the Assembly had those powers, we, as elected representatives, should be prepared to make that commitment.

Mr Attwood raised the issue of dealing with the past. It is crucial that we move forward with a collective mechanism that can address everyone’s demand for justice, truth and acknowledgement. Such a mechanism must also be able to provide some form of closure to what has happened in Northern Ireland in the past. That cannot happen selectively, which is a problem that has arisen in the past. The resources are not available to allow all cases to be handled with the same level of intensity as previous inquiries have done.

I look forward to the consultative group, which will be chaired by Lord Eames and Mr Denis Bradley, coming up with a collective, holistic approach that can reinforce the concept of a shared future.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Allan Bresland, who will be making his maiden speech in the House. As Members know, the convention is that a maiden speech should not be interrupted.

Mr Bresland: I welcome the motion and congratulate the Member who proposed it for debate. Obviously, the power to give recognition to the service of those who served as members of the part-time RUC Reserve lies at Westminster. However, I support the call for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to use its influence to resolve the issue.

The service given by the part-time Reserve was equal to that given by members of the full-time Reserve and by regular RUC officers in Northern Ireland. From the creation of the RUC Reserve in 1970, its part-time members were trained to the same level, and carried out the same duties, as other officers. They faced not only the same dangers as other officers while on duty, but the part-time nature of their work meant that they faced a greater threat of attack while engaged in other employment.

The fact that one in every six of the police officers who were killed as a result of terrorism in Northern Ireland was a member of the part-time Reserve illustrates that those officers were not casual workers, but police officers who were on the front line in the fight against terrorism and who served an entire community. For that service, part-time Reserve officers received a medal and a certificate. To send someone away after they have literally put their life on the line for many years is a real insult to the dedication and service that those men and women showed to the community that they served.

Members of the part-time reserve were simply regular officers who worked part-time hours, and it is vital that that be recognised.

4.30 pm

I support the amendment tabled by my colleague Mr Buchanan, which ensures that pension provision is not the only way in which service can be recognised. Although I support the idea of pension provision for former officers, I recognise that attempts to secure that provision have been problematic. If it is not possible to provide those officers with the pension provision that they deserve, they should receive an appropriate one-off payment.

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister could send out a strong signal to those who served in the part-time reserve by stating that they will lobby to ensure that those officers get the recognition that they deserve. The motion mentions that the issue was debated on 20 November 2001, and it is significant that that motion was passed unanimously. I hope that there will be no need for the House to divide on this occasion.

I support the amended motion, and I hope that all Members will do likewise.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. When a motion is tabled, I not only look at the content, but I try to assess why it was proposed. I do not believe that this motion was brought to the House for the reason that is outlined on the Order Paper.

This debate has been going on between unionist parties and the British Government, and between the Policing Board and the British Government, for several years. It is worth noting that the debate on 20 November 2001 lasted a total of 27 minutes — that is how much effort was put into persuading Members on that occasion.

This motion was tabled for no other reason than to cause upset in the Chamber. It is part of the UUP’s campaign to be in opposition in the Executive. It is, perhaps, an attempt to embarrass the DUP or to embroil Sinn Féin in some sort of row that the UUP will ride in on the back of.

To date, what progress has been made on a pension scheme for part-time RUC reservists? Mr Hussey, a former MLA, brought the issue to the House in 2001, and I note from one of the press articles of the time that he was an RUC part-time reservist, but he did not declare that in the debate. When Mr Hussey was campaigning on this issue as late as 2006, the Police Federation told him that he was wasting his time. It had lobbied the Government, and the Government had turned their backs on the matter. The Police Federation was so alienated from Mr Hussey’s campaign that it would not even meet him to collect a petition that he had organised.

I would have imagined that the representative body of the former RUC and of the PSNI would have been to the forefront of any campaign to secure a pension and would have met him. However, according to the press articles, that does not seem to have been the case.

Let us consider the reality of pension contributions for the part-time RUC reserve. Some Members have told the House that many reservists worked up to 40, 60, or even 90, hours a week. How do they know that? The British Government do not have the rotas or the time sheets for the part-time RUC reservists who served. I would like to know where that survey was done and how much credibility it has in telling us that working 90 hours a week was common practice for part-time RUC reservists.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr O’Dowd: No, I will not. I had to listen to that Member enough yesterday. [Laughter.]

Under the terms of the part-time RUC reservists’ contracts, they only had to work a minimum of two hours a month. Let us look at the issue from the perspective of parity and equality. Perhaps there was an RUC reservist who worked for 90 hours a week, and another one who worked for two hours a week. Despite the fact that there are no time sheets and no lists of who served, the Assembly will give them both pensions. If I was the RUC reservist who had worked for 90 hours a week, I would be mightily peeved that the person who had worked for two hours a week would get the same pension as me. However, the mathematicians on the other side of the Chamber believe that they can work it all out.

As for the terrorist threat from which those reservists apparently protected us all without fear or favour, the experience of the Alliance Party and the DUP — as well as, it would appear, the SDLP — is clearly different from that of my party. After yesterday’s announcement, I do not know how anyone can have the brass neck to enter this Chamber and tell us that the RUC as a whole was protecting us from terrorism. I wonder whether the families on the Ormeau Road who lost loved ones at the bookmakers are watching this debate. I wonder whether Pat Finucane’s family and the family of Brian Adam Lambert, a young Protestant who was shot to death in Lisburn, are watching this debate.

The Assembly has today chosen to debate an issue over which it has no control. It does not even know the number of hours that people worked so that it could pay them a pension, yet here we are debating the issue. To use the words not of a Republican propagandist, but of a Lord of the British state, John Stevens:

“I have uncovered enough evidence to lead me to believe that the murders of Patrick Finucane and Brian Adam Lambert could have been prevented. I also believe that the RUC investigation of Patrick Finucane’s murder should have resulted in the early arrest and detection of his killers. I conclude there was collusion in both murders and the circumstances surrounding them.”

If RUC reservists — whether they worked two hours a week or 40 hours a week — were involved in that collusion, should they be given a pension as well?

All the parties in the Chamber tell us that they are concerned about the victims, but here we are, discussing this issue. Certainly, pain and harm were caused to RUC reservists during the conflict, but to see many of the people looking into this today —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I have your time sheet and your time is up.

Mr G Robinson: I am honoured to be able to speak in this debate as I have long recognised and supported the deserving case that the RUC part-time reservists have for a pension or gratuity. In a political climate in which the word “equality” is often used, the motion before us must be viewed through that same principle. There must be equality of recognition on the part of the Secretary of State that the job that the RUC part-time reservists did during the dark days of the Troubles deserves to be recognised in the same way as that of any other individual who put on the RUC uniform and played their part in protecting their community at grave personal risk. Too often, the reservists paid the ultimate price, just as their full-time colleagues did.

There are families today without a husband, father or brother purely because that family member put on an RUC uniform. Sadly, the Secretary of State and his predecessors seem to believe that a member of the part-time RUC Reserve is of lesser standing than a full-time member of the RUC in terms of pension and gratuity rights. That is not only unjustifiable on the grounds of equality, but wholly despicable.

Were part-time members of the RUC Reserve not murdered, maimed and left with psychological damage equal to that of their full-time colleagues? Does the aftermath of injury and psychological trauma not still play a part in their everyday lives? We must also remember that the price of that service in the RUC Reserve was paid not only by the reservists, but by their families as well. In the statistics for death and injury for members of the RUC, there are no subdivisions into categories of full-time, full-time Reserve or part-time Reserve; neither should there be such a subdivision for pensions or gratuity payments. In the awarding of the George Cross — only the second collective awarding of that honour after Malta in 1942 — there were no subdivisions either; all officers were equal.

Officers of the part-time RUC Reserve often did a full day’s work — and gave up days off such as holidays and weekends — and then came home to put on the uniform so that they could go out and do their duty shift. The people who did that deserve proper recognition for the invaluable role that they played in what might be called their ordinary day’s work, in which they — both men and women — were covered by employment and pension regulations. Why did those employment and pension rights suddenly disappear when they put on their RUC Reserve uniform and did that extraordinary work? I can only describe that situation as contemptible, particularly as the outgoing Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will no doubt have a healthy financial future courtesy of the taxpayer and, it seems, a retirement that is publicly acclaimed on a global scale. In financial terms, what is the difference between a retiring Prime Minister — who will no doubt avail right away of his pension rights — and the many individuals who took on a high-risk role to protect their community?

The answer is that the Prime Minister will have the respect of, and profile in, Government in London. There is no doubting the inequality that exists between part-time RUC Reserve members and outgoing Prime Ministers when it comes to pension rights and respect. The profile and plight of the part-time RUC Reserve’s former members is totally ignored by those with the power to act in London — including the outgoing Prime Minister. He, too, must be held responsible for ignoring the equality agenda, which he so fully promoted in other instances, when it came to the pension rights of the part-time RUC Reserve. His Government ignored the many pleas on behalf of RUC reservists, yet wasted millions on inquiries to appease those who murdered, maimed and psychologically traumatised members of the RUC Reserve and their families.

On 20 November 2001, the Assembly supported a call for equal pension rights for the part-time RUC Reserve. I welcome Mr Attwood’s commitment that he and his party sympathise with the motion and will not oppose it. I hope that all parties in the Assembly will demonstrate that same support for the motion and the amendment, as the issue has been on the political agenda for too long. A speedy resolution will be made easier and more likely if the motion and amendment receive Members’ unanimous support. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Armstrong: Before participating in the debate, I wish to declare an interest. I was a proud member of the part-time RUC Reserve for 14 years, from 1974 to 1989, in a republican area of east Tyrone, which I policed impartially. I am not here to plead for myself but to speak on behalf of many former colleagues who do not have a voice in the Chamber.

In response to the Sinn Féin Member for Upper Bann, I contend that the debate is intended to pay tribute to the part-time RUC Reserve and to request that its former members receive a pension that is based on the hours that they served, as any other official in a Government job would receive.

The campaign has been going on for some time. It was the Ulster Unionist Party that raised the issue of pensions for part-time RUC reservists in the Assembly in November 2001. The resolution received cross-party support. The direct rule Administration, to their eternal shame, chose to ignore that campaign, so here we start again.

The motion is very important, as it seeks a small measure of justice and recognition for the brave men and women of the RUC Reserve. The part-time RUC Reserve was formed on 1 September 1970 as the Troubles began to boil. Like their fellows in the regular RUC, the part-time reservists took their place in line to protect society from descending into anarchy. They wore the same uniform, performed the same duties and ran the same risks as the regular RUC did, and they did so 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Tragically, all too often they paid the same price as their colleagues. The terrorists who stalked this land made no distinction. The first member to be murdered was Reserve Constable Raymond Frederick Denham, who died on 12 January 1972. As Members know, he was not to be the last: a total of 53 part-time RUC Reserve officers were killed, either when on or off duty, and a further nine were murdered following their retirement or resignation from the RUC.

The rate of pay early in the Troubles, when danger was at its height, was pitiful. Provisions for widows and dependants were scandalous. The men and women of the part-time RUC Reserve answered the call out of their sense of duty and loyalty. They certainly were not in it for the money.

The motion is about natural justice. When the Patten Report was implemented, a severance package was produced for members of the regular RUC. The disband­ment of the Royal Irish Regiment’s home battalions last year was accompanied by a severance package, which was less generous, but welcome nonetheless.

Regardless of the hours that part-time RUC Reserve constables worked, the rate of pay awarded did not exceed the basic pay for a constable of 21 years of age. Part-time RUC Reserve constables, by the nature of the place in which they lived and policed, were both courageous and professional while policing Northern Ireland during the period that is known as the Troubles.

Many people lost pension and benefit entitlements from previous employers through transferring to the full-time Reserve. The date that they transferred was taken as their starting date, rather than the date that they joined the Reserve. The police authorities and the Government used the Reserve to provide policing on the cheap.

4.45 pm

No one who values law and order would begrudge the men and women of the RUC and the Royal Irish Regiment their due. However, it would be nothing short of a disgrace, and a betrayal of the services of many brave men and women, if the part-time Reserve of the RUC were denied similar financial recognition for their service and sacrifice.

We have recently witnessed groups such as the UDA demanding — and being granted — funding in order to go away. What kind of a country are we building, if money can be found to pay off those who helped create the Troubles — I am not looking at anybody — yet there is no money available for the RUC Reserve officers who put their lives on the line to protect the community?

Society owes the part-time RUC a debt that cannot be paid in monetary terms. However, its members are entitled to some compensation — natural justice demands it. I support the motion.

Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. It touches on a wide range of important issues and will challenge the consistency of many Members in the Chamber.

For the record, I reassert the SDLP’s overarching principle, relevant to the motion. All part-time employees of the public or private sectors should have an entitle­ment to equal conditions, without exception. The SDLP, being a party that is not exclusively interested in looking after its own, will support the motion as amended.

Dr Farry: Will the Member recognise that the RUC served the entire community? When she referred to the SDLP looking after the interests of those who are not of “its own” — referring to the unionists, — is she saying that the RUC was essentially a unionist force?

Mrs D Kelly: I do not believe that I made that remark.

Mr O’Dowd, in his earlier comments, quite rightly condemned yesterday’s decision by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) not to pursue those guilty of the murder of Pat Finucane. However, the SDLP is not here to take lectures from Sinn Féin. After all, who gave the British Government the incentive to cover up the past? It was no one but Sinn Féin in its discussions with the British Government a year and a half ago, when Mr Murphy rushed to Westminster and welcomed the legislation relating to on-the-runs (OTRs). Furthermore, Sinn Féin welcomed the amnesty for former members of the security forces that meant that victims’ rights would be denied, that no one would serve a day in prison — despite what was in the Good Friday Agreement — and that they would never have to face their victims or have to give any answer to society for their role in the past.

The RUC Reserve suffered greatly, as did many people in our community — across the community. When I say “our community”, I am not defining it as nationalist, unionist or dissenter — I am talking about all the people of the North of Ireland. [Interruption.] I will not take lectures from the Alliance Party either

The SDLP has taken an ethical approach to this debate. It does not support, and will not support, any attempt to cover up the past.

Mr Newton: I want to point out that the SDLP has spoken to the motion in a measured way, which contrasts strongly with the rant of the Sinn Féin Member for Upper Bann. In his closing remarks, he stated that there was no doubt that pain and harm had been caused to the RUC Reserve. In fact, there was murder, and there was torture. In many ways, the fact that people were members of the RUC Reserve was used, in the border areas, as a reason for carrying on a campaign of genocide.

That came from a policy that was propagandised, promoted and protected by Sinn Féin as it sought to drive the British presence out of Northern Ireland. There are those within the ranks of Sinn Féin who must take responsibility for the promotion of such a campaign.

Mr Storey: I have raised this a number of times in the House and the Members opposite failed to answer the question. Does the Member agree that they went further in the IRA statement of 2005, because it actually said that the IRA campaign was entirely legitimate? A 60-year old farmer in my constituency, Mr Johnny Moore, was blown to pieces by the IRA when he came home from doing his time as a member of the RUC Reserve. According to republican ideology in 2005, his murder and the murders of many of our constituents were entirely legitimate.

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for the clarity of that intervention. The hours that a man served, or a woman served — let us remember that a high number of the RUC Reserve were women as well — has been mentioned. Many of these people were actually going out and doing a day’s work, and coming home and donning the uniform to carry out other duties that were indeed to protect the entire community: not a section of the community.

They were milkmen; they were postmen; they were factory workers; they were the ordinary people of this land who were giving generously of their time. They deserve a pension for what they have given, and we should do all that we can to resolve this issue.

Mr Shannon: Contrary to the Sinn Féin opinion in relation to this matter — that you cannot make flesh of one and meat of the other, as one comment ran earlier — in mainland UK, part-time emergency personnel have already had their pensions upgraded and modernised. Would the Member agree that with that in mind, this motion can ensure that an honest and equal pension can and should be paid?

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for that information.

Mrs I Robinson: If we use the analogy that Sinn Féin is using, would the Member agree with me that some MLAs within Sinn Féin should get a full pension and others should not? They do not all do a full-time job, as some are interested in farming and other issues and therefore do not always work a full complement of hours.

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for that.

When considering this motion, we should reflect that the work of the part-time RUC Reserve had more than its share of high risks and unenviable tasks. If the likelihood of pension provisions is poor, then what contingency plans are in place? What else can we offer the men and women who worked so diligently at this tough career? Certainly, the DUP is supportive of a satisfactory one-off payment in recognition of their contribution.

These men and women still did the job that was asked of them, and they did so to protect our communities. We should not now turn our backs on them. They are a credit to history and to the present, and they are part of our future. They set a very high benchmark for the level of service provided by the police. The Secretary of State must now show leadership on this issue — and stop stalling and wasting time — by accumulating a pension suitable for the end of their careers.

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate to acknowledge on behalf of the Executive the matters that have been put before the House today. I congratulate the Member for Strangford Mr McNarry for achieving this debate, for getting it in the Order Paper and for keeping up the tradition of supporting the rights of part-time workers.

This is of course a reserved matter, and with the best will in the world, it will remain a reserved matter. It is ultimately a matter for the Secretary of State, but I believe that there has been recognition of this deserving case, and that a deserving case has been made.

One Member stated that only 27 minutes was spent on this matter the previous time that the House debated it. I am glad that today more time has been spent on this deserving case and that we have had a much fuller debate.

However, the significant difference between 2001 and 2007 is that today the Executive are represented in this debate to note the matter and to acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed. The Executive will pass the matter to the Secretary of State — whoever that may be — over the next 72 hours. They will drive home the point that this Government cares about all their people and that they want to see the rights of people encouraged and supported and want to put right the wrongs of the past.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve was formed on a part-time basis under section 9 of the Police Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 to provide temporary support for the regular RUC and to reduce, in particular, the number of overtime hours that were required. The Reserve was also formed to provide relief for the regular officers who had been working excessive hours and who were being severely stretched due to the terror campaign.

The part-time Reserve was seen as broadly similar to the service that was provided by unpaid special constables in the rest of GB. Part-time Reserve officers were recognised as casual workers. They were not contracted to work set hours, and they did not have to report for duty if requested. Many part-time Reserve officers were in employment elsewhere, for example, in the Civil Service, or as schoolteachers or farmers. Given that a person can be a member of only one occupational pension scheme, they would not have been eligible to join any occupational part-time Reserve pension scheme, had one existed at that time. That is why the request for a special ex gratia payment has been made.

Members of a pension scheme must contribute towards the cost of providing the benefits of that scheme. On considering the provision of a police pension scheme, Government actuaries calculated that the rate of contribution required to be made by part-time Reserve officers, along with the administration costs associated with the processing of such a scheme, could exceed the benefit to the individual. In some cases, the pension benefits paid to the individual would be less than a contribution. Given the irregular working hours of part-time Reserve officers, such a scheme would have been difficult to administer, as over 9,000 officers would have been considered eligible for it. It is important to recognise that such difficulties are not insurmountable. That is the point that the Assembly has made today.

However, in 2001, in line with provisions for other part-time workers in the United Kingdom, a stakeholder pension scheme was introduced, to which part-time Reserve officers had access and could contribute. The scheme was set up with favourable rates for police officers and managed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland pensions branch. Not all officers have taken up that service, but it exists for them.

When the debate commenced, Mr McNarry referred to the ugliness of the past. I hope that we are looking at a brighter future, and that the issues of the past can be considered much more effectively.

I congratulate my colleague Allan Bresland for making his maiden speech. Other Members made a clarion call for the removal of the stumbling block that has been in place. Mr Brady said that proper pension rights for all who have paid into occupational pension schemes should be identified. No matter the justification, and no matter what side of the House it comes from, recognising the rights of part-time workers is progress.

Mr Attwood made the very important observation, which was not lost on anyone, that those who worked part-time in the Police Service suffered disproportion­ately. That point should be driven home.

I respond with caution to Dr Farry’s point that had we the power, we could pay for the pensions. I am reminded of the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s comments that we cannot make those sorts of commit­ments on the hoof. Therefore I am delighted that this matter remains reserved. It is up to the Secretary of State to cough up; it is not for us to make those commitments before they are prioritised in our Budget round.

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Nonetheless, in identifying the needs of part-time workers, the point he made was correct. I leave the issues with the House and say on behalf of the Executive that the matter is noted. We acknowledge the concerns raised and will pass them to the Secretary of State as soon as Hansard is printed.

Mr Spratt: As a former chairman of the Police Federation I fully support the motion and the amendment. The motion is an important contribution to recognising the professionalism and sacrifice of the members of the part-time RUC Reserve.

The first part-time Reserve members joined in 1970. Since then, thousands have served in the force, and many continue to serve. The key difficulty is that the part-time reservists are deemed to be working as casual labour rather than as part-timers with fixed hours of contract. So far, the Police Federation and other bodies have been unable to persuade the Northern Ireland Office that, notwithstanding that criteria, a part-time pension, or a gratuity, is justified and long overdue. I agree with Mr McNarry, who said that it is a wrong that needs to be put right, despite the feeble excuses from the Northern Ireland Office.

I have attended many meetings where the part-time Reserve pension was raised with the Northern Ireland Office and at senior Government level. I do not know where Mr O’Dowd gets his information from, but, despite what he says, this matter has been raised consistently with the Government over the years, and it is wrong for him to say otherwise.

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr Spratt: No, I will not give way. I confirm that the past chairman of the Police Federation, Irwin Montgomery, raised the issue in 2003 in a conference speech. In 2004, the matter was raised again with the Police Advisory Board, which was chaired by the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ian Pearson. I am delighted that the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister will raise this with the future Secretary of State, whoever that may be, in the next few days and that the matter is going to be discussed again.

Despite the discussion between the Police Federation and the Northern Ireland Office, and the support of the Assembly on 20 November 2001, along with support from the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Govern­ment have consistently done nothing but make excuses for not being able to make the pension or gratuity available. My colleague Tom Buchanan was correct to say that on many occasions the part-time Reserve worked the very long hours that were necessary when the regular force needed support to enable it to carry out normal policing functions.

Despite what Mr O’Dowd said, the part-time Reserve filled out overtime sheets, and the hours should be on record.

Mr O’Dowd: The hours should be available, but they are not.

Mr Spratt: The hours are certainly available. I welcome the responsible attitude of the SDLP on this and agree with much of what Mr Attwood said earlier about part-time working. The Police Federation is currently taking a case involving a female part-time Reserve officer for the award of an annual leave entitlement for excessive hours that she has worked. If that case is successful, it may be helpful to the case for a pension or gratuity. As has already been mentioned, there are many part-time workers, and it may also be helpful to them.

I congratulate the Member for tabling the motion. We, on this side of the House, fully support the motion as amended.

Mr Kennedy: Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make the winding-up speech on this important debate. I thank the Members who have — mostly — made significant contributions to the debate, and I congratulate the sponsor of the motion and the mover of the amendment. I welcome and congratulate the junior Minister Ian Paisley on his first performance at the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Executive.

In many ways, the motion represents unfinished business from the decades of strife that still cast a long shadow over the present. Not least among the unfinished business of the Troubles is the provision of proper and adequate pension rights for the former part-time Reserve of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross.

There appear to be some misunderstandings about the part-time nature of what was known as the part-time RUC Reserve. Some people regard the part-time Reserve as part-time employees of a part-time force. Reserve officers were full-time workers who were employed under renewable contracts, and the Chief Constable of the day regarded that section of the force as an essential and effective part of core policing. Indeed, successive RUC Chief Constables also stated regularly that they would have had great difficulty in meeting policing needs without the services of the part-time Reserve.

The full-time element of the Reserve was made up of full-time workers, and the part-time Reserve was a part of that. Members of the part-time RUC Reserve were not, therefore, part-time workers of a part-time force, as one would normally understand it. They were part-time workers of a full-time force.

Part-time RUC Reserve members were liable for National Insurance contributions under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992. However, nowhere in RUC regulations was there a mention of pensions for part-time members.

It is clear that under the terms of the relevant pension legislation, part-time Reserve members were in non-pensionable employment. Neither was there any pension provision for full-time members of the RUC Reserve. However, unlike the part-time RUC Reserve, those full-time members received a bounty, which was paid every three years. Presumably, that bounty could have been invested in a private pension plan. The part-time RUC Reserve, which did a vital job, received none of that consideration.

The majority of part-time RUC Reserve members gave many years of service to the entire Northern Ireland community, and that should have provided them with a reasonable annuity and, in normal circumstances, a lump sum at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer. It is, therefore, an insult to all part-time workers — let alone police reservists — that no proper pension provision was made for the part-time RUC Reserve.

For the sake of natural justice, I ask the Assembly to agree that the part-time RUC Reserve has been over­looked for many years in respect of either a bounty payment or a pension. That injustice should not continue, and, in the spirit of laying those years to rest, the Assembly must ask — demand, in fact — Her Majesty’s Government to review the situation and put it to right.

The Unionist Party happily welcomes and accepts Mr Buchanan’s amendment. Mickey Brady’s contribution appeared to confuse the position of the former part-time Reserves with that of ordinary pensioners, but there is a clear distinction. Those who were employed in the service of the Government should be rewarded with a pension or some form of recognition.

I welcome the contribution made by Alex Attwood, who accepted the broad thrust of the motion and the amendment and saw it as a principle of natural justice — which it is. I also pay tribute to the fact that he recognised the particular sacrifice of the part-time Reserve officers, who suffered horribly. I welcome the support given by Dr Farry on behalf of the Alliance Party and congratulate Allan Bresland on making his maiden speech on such an important issue.

I come now to the ill-judged remarks of John O’Dowd. I thought that he misjudged the issue — which he clearly did not understand — and the tone of the House. Although he is a Sinn Féin representative, he got his information completely wrong. Derek Hussey was never a member of the RUC part-time Reserve, as alleged by John O’Dowd, which confirms how seriously he has misread the issue; instead, he offered his own jaundiced, prejudiced views. He sought to introduce other matters that were not —

Mr Weir: As was mentioned yesterday, perhaps Mr O’Dowd’s remarks show the implications of getting rid of one’s intelligence wing.

Mr Kennedy: I will leave Members to draw their own conclusions. However, I understand the point that Mr Weir has made. John O’Dowd should be ashamed of the contribution that he made in the House today.

George Robinson highlighted the great personal risks that were undertaken by former part-time members of the RUC Reserve and reminded the House that the Reserve was awarded the George Cross in recognition of its courage. My colleagues Mr Billy Armstrong and Mr Spratt, who served with distinction in the RUC, also deserve special mention. Mr Armstrong reminded us of the cost in lives. That is why John O’Dowd should hang his head in shame. Fifty-three serving part-time Reserve officers were murdered; another nine officers who had retired from the service were singled out for cruel murder by the organisation that Mr O’Dowd represents politically.

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Member take a point of information?

Mr Kennedy: I will not take a point of information. I enjoyed Mrs Kelly’s contribution — who is no longer in the Chamber — when she engaged in a bit of political argy-bargy with the Shinners. I was happy enough with that.

I commend Robin Newton for recognising the part-time Reserve’s outstanding service. The junior Minister Mr Ian Paisley Jnr reminded Members that policing is a reserved matter and that it is likely to remain so. However, at least he said that the former part-time Reserve is a deserving case and that the difficulties, in his words, “are not insurmountable”. I plead with Mr Paisley Jnr to ensure that strong representations are made on behalf of the Executive and the Assembly as soon as possible to whoever will be the new incumbent at Stormont Castle.

I thank Members for their contributions and look forward to full and unanimous support for the motion.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly supports the right of members of the former Royal Ulster Constabulary Part-Time Reserve to proper pension provision, as agreed, without division, by the Assembly on 20 November 2001; or, alternatively, a one-off appropriate gratuity payment; and calls upon the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make representations to the Secretary of State to have the matter satisfactorily addressed.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]

5.15 pm


Recent Flooding in East Belfast

Sir Reg Empey: My purpose in calling for this Adjournment debate is to highlight the recent flooding in East Belfast. However, issues have been raised that apply on a wider basis and not only to my constituency.

Members will be well aware that East Belfast was particularly badly affected by last week’s floods, in which several homes and businesses were destroyed. Fellow citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom are suffering a similar fate today with substantial damage to their properties.

One concern that I wish to highlight is not specifically about blocked drains here and there, but about the non-devolved issue of insurance. Members know that a significant number of people who were affected by the floods — many of whom are Housing Executive tenants — did not have home contents insurance. I do not know whether that is the case in England today, but there is something radically wrong when people’s properties and personal effects are destroyed and no form of compensation is available.

This Assembly provided urgent financial compensation for those who suffered losses last week, but that money was intended to help people to get back into functioning homes. Many people in East Belfast and, indeed, in other affected areas will be out of their homes for six months. Given that situation, the local authorities should examine how they can encourage more people to insure their belongings.

Sadly, it appears that as time passes, incidences of freak weather conditions are on the increase. It is not that long ago that high winds caused considerable damage to properties in Northern Ireland, and now we have flooding. There is an issue to be addressed, and I appreciate the fact that the junior Minister has come along to listen to the debate, even though insurance is not a devolved matter. I assume that he has sacrificed a trip to Washington, DC in order to contribute to the discussion.

If, in the future, we are to fall victim to emergency situations such as those we have experienced in recent weeks, will the junior Minister direct the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to engage with the insurance industry? It cannot be in that industry’s interest that so many potential customers do not avail of home contents insurance.

Eight weeks ago, the Housing Executive wrote to tenants to point out that many of them did not have insurance and advised them of the benefits of having it. Although it may seem simple to say that people should be insured, many families live right on the edge, and the extra money that it costs to insure is sometimes beyond them. Sadly, a number of them are making provisions for water charges, which will add to their burden. That is a bit of a joke when one considers what people have suffered in recent days.

An approach should be made, perhaps nationally, to the insurance industry to see what steps can be taken to negotiate large-scale schemes that people can join to protect themselves and the contents of their homes. That can be made affordable, with easy payment methods, where people are not penalised for not having enough money in the first place. Discounts and benefits are often available for those who pay bills by standing orders or direct debits; many of us in the House take advantage of that. However, the opposite applies to somebody who does not have that facility; they have to pay more, and that applies not only to insurance but services such as electricity and gas. That is a movement in the wrong direction.

The public authorities could use their influence to spur forward debate on the issue. Although insurance is a non-devolved matter, I ask the junior Minister Mr Paisley to give consideration to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister writing to the insurance sector’s representative body. It would be useful to draw to its attention what has occurred here, and, unfortunately, across the water after yesterday’s flooding, to see whether that body could take an initiative. Furthermore, the Assembly would be seen to be in support of people who lost belongings in the flooding. In all probability, many of the products, appliances and furniture that were destroyed in that flooding have not been paid for. The belongings may have been paid for on hire purchase and, without insurance, those people will have to continue to pay for them, even though the contents have been destroyed and must be replaced.

A number of people received special social security loans, and I have no doubt that the money provided by the Assembly was also helpful. However, there is something missing when so many people can be affected. If people could afford insurance but did not take it, it could be argued that that is their own fault. However, the Assembly has an overarching responsibility to do what it can to ensure that people have as much protection as possible. As weather conditions become more erratic, the flooding of recent days could, sadly, occur again. Last night, people who were interviewed on television reports of flooding in England said that they had flood defensive schemes and had been told by the authorities that they would not flood again. Some of those people were flooded twice within a week. No useful purpose is served by having so many people going through life without insurance cover for those circumstances.

There is a possibility that some people may take legal action against the Department for Regional Development on the grounds that they could allege that the Department did not perform its functions properly. However, the average person who cannot afford insurance will not be able to take on a Department in the courts. The emphasis must be put on trying to avoid crises; therefore, I appeal to the junior Minister to make a suggestion to the insurance industry. Perhaps he might also consider contacting the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry — currently Alistair Darling, although that may change in the next couple of days — and perhaps ask the Department of Trade and Industry to intercede with the insurance industry nationally. The junior Minister could talk to colleagues in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere, so that public authorities could apply the maximum amount of pressure on the industry to try to solve the problem.

In recent times there has been a long debate in this country about pensions, and there is clearly a huge problem. I believe that there is also a huge problem with insurance, and the unfortunate circumstances that were particularly concentrated in my constituency last week exemplify that.

There are many unfortunate people who, apart from losing things that were of sentimental value, have lost practical items. Many of those things that will have been thrown into a skip had not yet been paid for. People will be left with that liability, and must now buy new furniture at their own expense. Some will be driven to taking social security loans or into the hands of unscrupulous moneylenders. That is deeply unsettling and moves those people in the opposite direction to that which Members would wish.

I ask the junior Minister to consider my suggestions as to how the Assembly might influence the insurance industry at a national level and encourage authorities at a local level to ascertain what can be done to negotiate the best possible deals for people in these circumstances. They must not be penalised because they cannot pay premiums by direct debit, and schemes must be made affordable so that people can benefit from the comfort and security of having some basic insurance and the knowledge that they will not face further destitution. In the long run, those people might be driven on to state benefits, so it is in the interests of the state to attempt to minimise their exposure to damage. Therefore, everybody wins.

I commend these suggestions to the Assembly, and I hope that the junior Minister will inform Members in due course of whether it has been possible to make progress.

Lord Browne: I thank the hon Member for East Belfast for raising this subject. As a representative of East Belfast myself, I welcome the opportunity to place on record my deep sense of gratitude for the swift and decisive actions taken by the many statutory and voluntary agencies that were involved during the unusual flooding and the subsequent clean-up, not only in East Belfast but in the many other pockets of devastation around the Province.

Perhaps more importantly, this debate should be a precursor to an evaluation of the effectiveness of emergency planning for, and responses to, such events. The flooding disaster affected many homes in East Belfast and the rest of the Province, and proved to be the first real test for the Executive, who were not found wanting. The people who suffered in the disaster benefited from having local Ministers who were able to take crucial and timely decisions.

The disastrous effects of the flooding cannot be underestimated. The rain and, worse, sewage soaked into floors and seeped into walls, destroying houses, which must be entirely gutted of furnishings. Whole rows of houses need to be decontaminated because of the raw sewage that flowed through them. That will take time, and many householders will be out of their homes for six months or more. More specifically, the rainfall on Tuesday 12 June was, to say the least, extraordinary.

I accept, in part, the Minister’s public assertion that no system could have coped with such a downpour. I want to thank him for his quick response to my questions and those of my friend and colleague Robin Newton. It was important to clear up any confusion about the cleansing of gutters and drainage systems, the effect that uncleared drains would have had on the floods, and the last time that those in the most affected areas were cleansed.

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Having discussed those matters with a hydrologist at the weekend, I am convinced that biannual cleansing is adequate. I noted in the Minister’s responses to the questions that I raised that the drains in the overwhelming majority of the areas that were worst affected by the floods were, indeed, cleansed within the last six months. However, I want to explore a little further the Minister’s statement that no system could have coped with such a downpour.

It is my understanding that the drainage system in Northern Ireland is built to cope with 50 mm, or two inches, of rainfall each hour. Undoubtedly, the rainfall during two hours on 12 June far exceeded that figure. Although it would never be justifiable to commence works on the sort of enormous storm drains that could cope with a once-in-1,000-years torrential downpour — like the drain in Los Angeles that features in the famous drag race in ‘Grease’ — it must be accepted that the more land that is cemented over, the stronger the efforts must be to provide adequate drainage.

It is clear that Northern Ireland does not have the infrastructure to deal adequately with the heavy rainfall that has caused floods in many parts of the Province, such as Londonderry, the lower Ormeau Road and parts of the Clonduff estate in East Belfast. It was not the first time that residents there had been subjected to flooding — indeed, they told me that the recent floods were the fourth occurrence of flooding in 17 years.

It seems that rivers and tributaries are causing problems in East Belfast. Many of the pockets where the most severe flooding took place, such as at Ladas Drive, the Castlereagh Road, the Cregagh Road, in and around the residential homes at Orangefield and Clarawood, Towell House nursing home at Knock and other properties at Hawthornden Road — which shows how widespread the floods were — were affected when the Loop River, the Connswater River and their tributaries broke their banks, causing an unstoppable deluge that residents were powerless to prevent.

I want to thank those who got involved and did their level best to help the people who were affected by the flooding. In the first instance, the Fire and Rescue Service clearly demonstrated its ability to adapt to the conditions with the use of boats and rafts, as well as its state-of-the-art mobile satellite control centre, which, as I was shown, helped greatly and certainly was needed. By using that satellite system, the Fire and Rescue Service was able to prioritise the help where it was needed.

As a Belfast city councillor, I believe that the council was exemplary. It quickly established a flood helpline and a crisis centre that later evolved into an important information centre at Avoniel. That centre proved vital in keeping residents informed of developments and how they could get aid. I want to thank the Housing Executive, the Department for Regional Development and the many repair units, especially the Red Sky Group — all of which played an integral role in securing homes. Where nothing could be done, temporary emergency accommodation was quickly found.

Now that the water has subsided and residents have started to pick up the pieces, I want to put on record my gratitude to my hon Friend the Finance Minister — and, indeed, to the whole Executive — for providing the one-off payment of £1,000 in grant aid to those affected by the flooding.

In the longer term, however, other schemes will be needed. Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, should consider the possibility of including an additional element in social housing rent for compulsory home insurance schemes, as Sir Reg Empey suggested. At the very least, the Minister should consider the viability of an opt-out scheme that will give tenants the ability to consider insuring their homes. At present, the possibility of tenants insuring their homes is not on their radar.

People in my constituency of East Belfast and many other parts of the Province have been affected consid­erably and incalculably by the freak flooding that occurred two weeks ago. For those with insurance, it was a disaster that can probably be dealt with. For those without, it is a cruel, even unmanageable, burden that will only increase the plight and despair in which they find themselves. Each and every time a disaster strikes, lessons will be learned, and I believe that those lessons will be learned now.

Mrs Long: I thank Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, for bringing this issue before the House. It is particularly poignant that our debate is taking place when regions in England and Wales are experiencing heavy flooding. Three lives have been lost there due to flooding, and I extend the sympathy of the House to the families affected. The loss of life drives home the seriousness of the issue and shows how critical it is that the Assembly addresses the management of flooding.

As other Members have said, last week’s events had a devastating impact on householders, businesses and schools. There was a massive effort and mobilisation in communities, the voluntary sector and statutory agencies to try to minimise the impact of the floods, but, even two weeks on, it is clear that some people are still living in severe and dire circumstances. For many of them, those circumstances are unlikely to change in the near future.

I am sympathetic to Sir Reg’s comments about the difficulties that the people who are uninsured have experienced. It is particularly sad that those who can least afford to buy insurance are those who can least afford to be without it. Measures should be put in place to ensure that people give insuring their homes a higher priority. The implementation of an opt-out system for insurance, as suggested by Lord Browne, would be a helpful starting point.

I pay tribute to those from the emergency services — the Fire and Rescue Service and the PSNI — who worked tirelessly throughout the flooding, in appalling conditions, to clear blockages and to get the flood water away from homes. They also tried to start the repair process for some of the people who were worst affected. Credit is also due to staff from the Housing Executive and other agencies, including Northern Ireland Water and Roads Service, who worked into the evenings and tried to make progress.

As a Belfast city councillor, I echo Lord Browne’s comments on the role of Castlereagh Borough Council and Belfast City Council in trying to manage such a significant crisis. Much preparation work had been done in the intervening months since the last flood, and the councils considered the issue of widespread flooding and how plans to deal with such a disaster could be made. Had the councils not done so, we may have been less well prepared and the effects might have been much worse. Credit is therefore due to those who not only had the endurance to deal with the situation as it evolved but the foresight to prepare for it.

A number of Ministers visited the sites of the flooding and people who had been affected, and that was appreciated. Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, visited some of the affected residents and listened to their concerns, and I know that that was welcome. Conor Murphy and Peter Robinson also visited some of the affected areas, and that was appreciated.

The quick response from the devolved Administration was in contrast to the delay and debate that has often accompanied such events in the past, and I am sure that Members welcomed that response.

There are other matters that I must address. I pay tribute to the volunteers who were involved in the aid effort, including the Red Cross and, particularly, the Salvation Army. They did a great job in taking care of people — not just those who were directly affected, but those who took part in the emergency response. Credit is due to the members of those groups for giving up their time so generously.

I wish to highlight issues that are the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). That office holds particular responsibility for promoting sustainability, although other Departments ultimately implement those policies. In view of the response of OFMDFM, it is appropriate to raise sustain­ability issues. One of those issues is the recurrence of flooding. I would not suggest for one minute that our sewerage system could have coped with the flooding, but we must carefully examine each incident and determine whether the lack of a quality sewerage system in any way exacerbated the distress and the damage that was caused.

Thorough investigation into maintenance schedules — a matter that Members have already referred to — and the quality of the system is required because the network is old. Such investigations are particularly important because many areas have been subjected to repeated flooding in recent years, often in less extreme weather conditions, which suggests that underlying problems need to be addressed.

Repeated flooding is also reflected in insurance premiums; when people renew their insurance, they find that their premiums have risen. That prices people further out of the insurance market.

The number of occasions on which extreme weather events occur is also of note. The Met Office model that is used to determine the return periods of storms must be re-examined in the light of climate change. It is clear that a one-in-280-years return-period storm is a fairly extreme event. We all recognise that, and, having witnessed it, have no need to measure it. However, there are occasions when measuring a storm by return-period can be misleading. I worked in drainage and sewerage matters for a long time and I know that, within a three- or six-month monitoring period, a one-in-20-years return-period storm could occur on more than one occasion.

We must therefore bear in mind climate changes and ensure that, when we are designing systems and developing strategies, they are suited to the weather conditions that we shall experience not only today, but in the future. Evidently, that picture is changing.

I accept that no sewerage or drainage system could have carried the flows that our systems have been expected to take in recent weeks. However, although designing for those peak flows is neither economical nor — owing to the problems that they would create in dry weather — practical, we nevertheless must consider how we will plan drainage and sewerage in future.

We must take sustainability into account when planning the urban environment. East Belfast has seen unprecedented development in recent years. Sites have been filled in and development has proceeded more intensively inside the urban footprint. The proportion of roofs and paved areas, as opposed to open spaces, is continually increasing. That increases the speed of water run-off, and thus increases the risk of flash floods. Our current planning system has not responded well to that factor.

We must consider: sustainable urban drainage systems; the creation of artificial soak-aways; the use of attenuation tanks and perforated pipes; storm-water separation; and recycling of rainwater. All of those measures can slow the progress of water to the drainage system and, by spreading the peak flow over a longer time period, they can reduce the peak flow, thus maximising the benefit that can be derived from the existing system for the minimum cost.

In other parts of the world, such measures have been effective. We must, however, also respect the environ­ment. We continue to build on river flood plains, and we are then aghast when those flood plains flood. If we do not carefully manage river flood plains and open spaces, what we have experienced in the last few weeks will recur.

Our management of floodwater and attenuation is similar to the building of ever-bigger roads to cope with increasing traffic. Everyone recognises that that is not a sustainable solution. Alternatively, flexibility in working times would ensure that all the traffic is not on the road at the same times.

Similarly, floodwater can be managed carefully so that it can either be retained and released slowly or deflected in different directions to try to improve the situation. Those issues must be considered from the earliest point in the design process and throughout the cycle of the system.

5.45 pm

Floodwater in the urban environment must be managed in a way that minimises damage and disruption. In the last couple of weeks, I have read a number of articles on this matter. There is an acceptance that flooding will occur in urban areas, so the issue is how that flooding can be contained to cause the least mayhem and damage to people’s properties. The solution could range from creating channels in the road system to carry away floodwater to the introduction of much more complicated measures.

None of those measures is cheap. Any approach will require investment and, therefore, engagement with developers, planners, the Department for Regional Development, the Department of the Environment and local communities, if we are to deal with the problem effectively.

It is very clear that a sustainable, practical and cost-effective solution must be found. The problem must be comprehensively addressed because we do not want the victims of the recent floods to suffer any further misery and destruction. We also want to prevent any loss of life, which is a real risk in areas where urban flooding occurs.

I realise that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and the junior Minister who is in the Chamber today, will not necessarily be able to respond to all of the issues today — I am aware that OFMDFM is the driver for sustainability rather than the delivery mechanism. However, I hope that it can drive that agenda hard throughout the other Departments, because I suspect that unless we respond creatively to this problem, we will be discussing it more frequently in the Chamber.

Ms Purvis: I thank the Member for East Belfast for raising the issue. I do not seek to apportion blame today; that does not help those who have needed help most. Rather, I pay tribute to the agency staff and volunteers who were involved in dealing with the aftermath of the recent floods.

We must learn lessons from the recent events and take steps to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are never again left to endure those terrible conditions. Ultimately, what was most distressing about the floods was what people endured in the days and weeks afterwards.

As I said, the most vulnerable were the worst affected by the floods — the elderly, the disabled, single parents, those with mental health difficulties and families who are barely surviving on benefits. As Mrs Long mentioned, some people continue to be badly affected and are struggling from day to day and from week to week.

Benefit levels here are not exactly generous, and when a person’s choices are limited or restricted by the extent of their resources, contents insurance sadly falls way down the list of priorities. Many of those affected did not even have the money for the bus fare to Avoniel Leisure Centre to avail of the services there. Some had no cooking facilities and no money for food. I pay tribute to some of the local Churches in the area that provided emergency funds, hot food, blankets and bedding.

Many people really needed cash to get them through the worst, and, thankfully, the Assembly helped by providing payments. However, we must do more, and lessons have to be learned from previous experiences. The debate about compensation is not new; compensation has been the subject of a long-running dispute through­out the conflict. Sadly, those affected by the floods have also experienced the same problems as those whose houses were damaged by bombs during the conflict. Some were able to claim compensation through the Compensation Agency, but many were not. Again, it was the most vulnerable who suffered, because they had either no contents insurance or inadequate contents insurance cover. Cash payments helped where possible, and were sometimes claimed back when insurance was paid. Sadly, however, some people were left with no cover, no cash and no help, so there are more lessons to be learned.

Through the Social Security Agency, the Department for Social Development offered community care grants for those who qualified for them and crisis loans or budgeting loans. However, when people are in a desperate situation and are faced with devastation, the last thing that they need is a loan that will add to their financial problems and take more money out of their benefits every week. That solution was absolutely ridiculous. Who wants to take a loan when they need money just to make ends meet?

I mentioned the offer of community care grants, but only certain people qualified for that benefit, which covers only basic necessities. The Department for Social Development and the Minister should look at this issue. The Social Security Agency and the Housing Executive should consider providing insurance cover for those most at risk. What will be the total cost to the Housing Executive and the Social Security Agency of repairs and replacing goods? Would it not make more sense to insure against the risk?

Reducing the cost of insurance, which was suggested by Sir Reg Empey, will not make much difference to people whose bills are increasing and who are facing water tax — regardless of promises made during the election campaign. Provision of insurance to those most at risk will make a difference and take care of those people in the likely event that this will happen again.

Mr Newton: Like other Members, I thank the Member for East Belfast Sir Reg Empey for tabling this necessary Adjournment debate. This matter is of the utmost importance to people in the east of the city, but it also has ramifications for constituencies throughout Northern Ireland.

The recent flooding in East Belfast has caused much despair and difficulty for many residents. However, the emergency services and the volunteers should be praised. Had it not been for their rapid response and the way in which they dealt with a huge volume of calls from residents in distress, the situation would have been much worse.

I thank my right hon Friend and colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, for providing a financial package, through the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, to the people of East Belfast and other constituencies throughout Northern Ireland to help ease the burden of returning their homes to their former standard.

It is appropriate, as other Members have said, to thank the members of the Executive for their willingness to act in harmony to tackle this matter. Had we been operating under a direct rule Minister and not had a devolved Assembly, I doubt that such a rapid response would have been forthcoming.

Flooding is a serious problem in the east of the city. Lord Browne mentioned one area in which properties have been flooded four times in 17 years. That issue must be addressed. The public has a perception that the sewerage system is out of date and is unable to cope with large quantities of rainfall. The Assembly will have to address that, however we do it. The increase in number of newbuild homes will place even greater strain on the already overworked system.

Although we have been told that the rainfall in East Belfast was 2 ft above the highest recorded level for 23 years and that no drainage system could have coped with that volume of water, those who suffered flooding will not accept that as a reason in the future.

As the east of the city continues to develop into the most attractive area to live in in Belfast — or even in Northern Ireland — the Assembly must meet residents’ expectations of safety and quality of life.

Unless the matter is addressed in the near future, life will become completely intolerable for those who, as Lord Browne mentioned, regularly face such problems.

Another issue that must be considered is the cleansing of rivers and tributaries. When I wrote to the Minister for Regional Development to ask how often the Loop River and its tributaries in East Belfast are cleaned, I was informed by him that an annual cleaning and inspection is carried out. Furthermore, I asked him when certain areas in East Belfast last had their drains cleaned, and I was informed that that type of operation takes place twice a year in urban areas. However, numerous residents informed me that they had not seen a drain-cleansing team in their area for several years. That is not to say that the drains were not cleaned, as the residents might simply have missed the workmen.

One resident, however, pointed out an issue that, although small in itself, might have a multiplier effect. He commented that, because the gratings of the drains that need cleaning are located in a car park that serves a high-rise block of flats, the guy driving the cleansing vehicle has absolutely no way of finding out whose car or cars are parked over the drain gratings. Therefore, the guy simply drives away thinking that he has done his duty. That means that the drains might not be cleaned for at least a year, or even longer.

I know something of people’s personal toll and the impact of the flooding on them. It made me feel extremely humble to be in homes where the whole ground floor of the dwelling had, more or less, been washed away and destroyed, not only by water but by raw sewage.

While out and about in the constituency, I met different people. One husband and wife and their two children, as they stood in their living room, had nowhere else to go. They ended up spending the night — or nights — in the Park Avenue Hotel. In their case, the insurance company representatives would take five days to arrive on the premises to assess the damage, because they had to come over from England.

I also met an 84-year-old woman who is normally confined to her house because she suffers from severe illnesses. She had been sitting in her living room — that is what she does — as the flood waters came in around her. Had it not been for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the lady would have continued to sit there while the floods rose around her. I pay tribute to the PSNI officers from the Willowfield station who, as far as I am concerned, rescued that woman from what might have been a life-threatening condition.

On two separate occasions, I was told by residents in the Orangefield area, that abuts the river near Belfast City Council’s Orangefield Park, that they had been standing in their house, knee-deep in water, when, all of a sudden, the water drained away. One resident commented that people could have been swept off their feet by the pressure of the water going away. The strong perception is something of a major nature — perhaps some blockage — allowed that water to drain away. I suspect that we will never know what happened, but there is a strong perception that, in those circumstances, the flooding might well have been avoided.

In the high-rise flats on Clara Way, not only were the residents on the ground floors flooded out, a guy on the eighth floor was also affected because of the back-up of water coming into his apartment. Again, those people were flooded not just by water but by raw sewage.

I thank the members of the emergency services who helped to rescue those people, and to thank once again the volunteers who helped people in their time of need.

Two of my Belfast City Council colleagues have already mentioned the reaction of the council, whose emergency response units sprang into action extremely quickly. The council also opened Avoniel leisure centre to the public. I also pay tribute to the Salvation Army, which set up an emergency response centre on the Cregagh Road, giving people a place go in a time of need.

My reason for speaking in this adjournment debate is to highlight that people in East Belfast need to have confidence that the sewerage and drainage system will be updated, and that its maintenance will be transparent to prevent a similar problem arising in future. I call on the relevant Ministers to address, with the Executive and Committees, the issue of sewerage and drainage, and to bring the system into the twenty-first century. If all the warnings about global warming are true, the weather conditions that we have recently experienced may become more frequent.

6.00 pm

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): I am in the rather anomalous position of replying to a Minister who has had some input into the Executive’s activities on the subject under debate. Nonetheless, if he forgives me, I will struggle through and try to teach my granny how to suck eggs.

The Executive intend to respond to all debates in the House even where, as the Member for East Belfast Sir Reg Empey rightly identified, the matters are of a reserved nature. The Executive care about the people of Northern Ireland and want to demonstrate that by playing a role in the proper governance of all matters that affect our people.

On behalf of the Executive, I offer my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in the recent floods in the rest of the United Kingdom. That, to a large degree, puts into perspective what has happened in Northern Ireland.

I shall set out what actually happened. On the morning of Tuesday 12 June 2007, there were severe thunder­storms across Northern Ireland, causing flooding in domestic and commercial properties and on roads. The worst affected areas were Belfast, Castlereagh and Omagh. Bangor, Comber, Crossgar and Saintfield were among those areas that were affected by a second wave of flooding on Friday 15 June 2007.

On 12 June, rainfall totals between 12.30 pm and 4.00 pm in south and east Belfast were between 40 mm and 50 mm in a two- to three-hour period. Based on historic records, such a downpour would not be expected more than once every 100 to 200 years. Heavy rain also began to fall on Thursday 14 June, continuing until Friday afternoon. County Down and parts of Belfast were again the worst affected.

All the Members who have spoken in the debate have spoken of the heartache that has affected many people in our community. Members have also rightly identified that, while the headlines have now disappeared as newspapers and journalists move on to other stories, people are still affected by those issues. Indeed, many people will be out of their homes for six months or more.

The Administration’s response was both effective and rapid. Members have rightly compared the reaction of our Administration to that of others in the rest of the United Kingdom. The sheer intensity of the rainfall overwhelmed the infrastructure, but Ministers are determined to learn any lessons that can be gleaned from the experience. The Executive have decided to set up a single telephone number for those affected by future weather-related and other emergencies. The number will be supported by a call-centre facility.

The Executive have asked for a thorough review of all emergency-planning processes that have been inherited from direct rule Ministers, not only those relating to emergency flooding, to strengthen our existing procedures and to highlight any areas for improvement. Mrs Long and Dawn Purvis highlighted that as a matter that they would like to be addressed, and a commitment to that has already been made.

The swift response by the Executive and district councils was key in the rapid delivery of help to those affected. That help included the early release of up to £5 million for practical assistance to those facing severe hardship. Ministers were told that, by 21 June, approximately £2 million of that money had already been spent, both on direct payments to householders and on the general clean-up.

There was a detailed discussion at last week’s Executive meeting, during which tributes were paid to the workers of the agencies and organisations involved in the aftermath of the floods. There was particular praise for the local councils, which, at very short notice, administered the £1,000 emergency payment to the householders who were most severely affected. To date, approximately 750 payments of the emergency fund have been made.

Thanks to Sir Reg Empey, the issue of insurance has been the driving force during this debate. I add a caveat to my remarks by identifying that those who had insurance, and those who did not have insurance, were affected in the same way. The insurance companies, as the Member for East Belfast Mr Newton pointed out, have not been able to pay out as quickly as the emergency fund payments were made. The Executive rose to that challenge, and demonstrated leadership on the issue.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has estimated that over 70% of its tenants do not have contents insurance. It is not clear how many private-sector tenants and homeowners are in similar circumstances. Information is provided twice a year to tenants on the importance of protecting their homes and their valuables, and, although tenants are free to arrange their own insurance, a pay-as-you-go home-contents insurance scheme is available through the Northern Ireland Tenants Action Project. The Executive encourage tenants to use that scheme.

The Minister for Social Development has indicated to the Executive that she intends to meet the entire range of stakeholders to ascertain what scope there may be for future action on the issue of insurance. Members will welcome that approach. I am sure that she will present a report, detailing her progress, to both the Executive and the House.

Businesses are required by law to have employers’ liability insurance and motor insurance. The majority of insurance policies also cover public liability, product liability and product. Through Invest Northern Ireland, the Health and Safety Executive advice has been provided to companies on how to improve their insurance profiles. Therefore, the Executive are mindful of the matter.

To avoid any confusion in the House on the differences in insurance, compensation, and the ex gratia emergency payment, I shall outline the three different schemes. Insurance deals with specific items that are damaged and is covered by insurance policies. Compensation requires liability to be established before it can be paid. However, the ex gratia emergency payment, which the Executive made, is an extraordinary payment, and was made on welfare grounds for householders. The liability for damage was not an issue and did not have to be established.

There were some comments in the press, which were not mentioned in this debate, about the possibility of applying for a European Solidarity Fund. That is a matter for the Secretary of State. However, the European Solidarity Fund is available only in the event of a major national disaster having taken place in a member state of the European Union. To be eligible for assistance under that scheme, the estimated cost of the direct damage must be over €3 billion, or 0·6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the state in question. Members can give a mighty sigh of relief that, although the scale of the problem that we faced was terrible on an individual basis, it was not, thank God, as devastating as a national disaster.

To make the UK eligible for the European Solidarity Fund, it is estimated that a 0·6% threshold of GDP means that the costs of direct damage from a major national disaster need to exceed £6·5 billion. Furthermore, that scheme provides for major infrastructure damages, and not necessarily for personal damages.

I shall draw the attention of my colleagues on the Executive to the debate. I thank the Members for contributing to the debate — each in a unique way.

Mrs Naomi Long quite rightly identified issues regarding sustainability in which OFMDFM plays a leading role, and she brought her knowledge of drainage schemes to the attention of the House. I am sure Members will ensure that those issues are addressed in the review that the Executive is driving forward.

Dawn Purvis the Member for East Belfast identified and laid down a challenge to the Executive to ensure that lessons are learned. The challenge has been made, and we must pick it up and run with it. I am sure the Executive will respond to that challenge.

Robin Newton made some very constructive criticism about drainage clearances in parts of his own constituency, and I am sure that the relief when that drainage system was unblocked was clear for all to see. He is right to identify the fact that if there was a blockage; it should not have been there in the first place.

Lord Browne identified the appalling vista of sewage that affected many homes in Northern Ireland. He rightly identified the personal heartache that it caused to many individuals. He also said that he had discussions with a hydrologist — not something that we can all boast, but at least we now know how he spends his weekends. I note his point on the serious matter of insurance opt-out, and I will draw it to the attention of the relevant Ministers in the Executive.

Finally, I will turn to the important points made by my colleague Sir Reg Empey. He asked OFMDFM to write to the insurance sector concerning a UK-wide initiative. OFMDFM should be made aware of that point, and I will inform him of progress in that regard. Indeed, some of the matters that he raised in his contribution can be raised within the margins of the review, and I have no doubt that he will do so.

Adjourned at 6.12 pm.

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