Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 2 July 2007
Oral Answers to Questions
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: I wish to inform Members that the Budget Bill has received Royal Assent. The Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2007 became law on 29 June 2007.
Welfare Reform Bill
Mr Speaker: I wish to inform Members that the Welfare Reform Bill has received Royal Assent. The Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007 became law on 29 June 2007.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion to change the membership of the Business Committee. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore there will be no debate.
That Mr Patsy McGlone replace Dr Alasdair McDonnell as a member of the Business Committee. — [Dr A McDonnell.]
NHS Dental Treatment
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Gallagher: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses concern about the lack of availability of NHS dental treatment and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to act immediately to ensure that NHS treatment is available to all those who are entitled to it, in conjunction with a dental health strategy.
The motion’s purpose is to highlight the present shortage of dentists carrying out NHS work and to draw attention to the urgent need for the implementation of a better dental-health strategy for everyone in Northern Ireland, especially for children and older people, as well as economically disadvantaged people and people with disabilities.
The failure of previous Governments to agree terms with dentists to carry out NHS work has meant that dentists here, in increasing numbers, are taking on more private patients. In turn, that has led to the present situation in which people, when they seek dental treatment, find it very difficult to make appointments for NHS services. Some have to travel significant distances to access NHS treatment.
A report on the Southern Health and Social Services Board area showed that, in October 2006, only 43% of dentists were providing NHS treatment; by May 2007, a few months later, the number had dropped to 21%. Although those figures are particular to one area, the picture is similar across the west. Many constituents in Fermanagh and South Tyrone have expressed their concerns about the growing problem and the difficulties that they face when trying to access out-of-hours services for emergency treatment.
General dental practitioners, who are independent contractors, provide the majority of services. There is no obligation on them to treat patients under the Health Service, and the current contractual arrangements do not permit health and social services boards to require dentists to provide NHS dental services.
Finding a solution to this situation must be a priority. Ensuring that patients have access to dental care is the first step, after which the problems with dental contracts must be resolved. Funding for hospital-based services that deliver specialist treatment must be secured, and the number of training places for dental hygienists and dental nurses must be increased.
The primary dental-care strategy for Northern Ireland proposes fundamental changes to the way in which dentistry is provided, including the introduction of local commissioning and new contracts for high-street dentists. That offers an opportunity to make radical changes and to transform poor oral health.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member agree that there are only two routes open to the Minister to ensure widespread dental care: either dentists being compelled to carry out some NHS work or offering dentists incentives to do so? The incentive route would allow dentists to hold the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ransom for the price contracts that they demand.
Mr Gallagher: I want to make it clear that I am not an advocate of compulsion. I notice that the Minister is in the Chamber; I await his comments on that area.
The poor state of oral health among the people of Northern Ireland is well documented. It is much worse than anywhere else on these islands. By the time children here reach 12 years of age, they have more than double the level of tooth decay that their counterparts in England have. The greatest single reason for children having to go under general anaesthetic is to have teeth extracted.
The Department must make tackling our poor record on dental health a key issue. The lack of availability of NHS dental treatment inevitably increases the risk of poor oral health, with the attendant negative impact on general health. Most at risk are vulnerable people in the community, those who experience social deprivation, elderly people, and, as I said earlier, young children.
The lack of availability of NHS dental treatment also has a severe impact on people in rural areas, who have to travel greater distances to be treated. Very often, they do not have access to public transport.
Approximately 53% of the population is registered with a dentist. Registration, however, lapses if individuals do not attend their dentists within a 15-month period.
An awareness campaign is needed to inform the public about that issue, since many people, when they require urgent treatment, discover that they are no longer registered. The availability of NHS dentists, and equality of access for all sections of the population, need to be addressed urgently. That will require the Department and the health and social services boards to take immediate steps to employ additional dentists to provide treatment for NHS patients.
The underfunding of dentistry has been carried over from previous Governments, and it has fallen behind other areas of the Health Service. Since 1997, UK-wide general spending on the Health Service has increased by 64%. However, spending on general dental services has increased only by 22%. As a result, the salaries of dentists who have concentrated on NHS work have markedly reduced. Since costs for premises and equipment are the dentists’ responsibility, it is not surprising that more and more of them face falling incomes and put a greater emphasis on the treatment of private patients.
The new strategy must ensure that dental-health promotion, information and advice for patients are key elements of new contracts, because dentists have a significant role to play. That work is time-consuming, and it should be part of a wider care package in dentists’ contracts. Two out of three dentists in Northern Ireland believe that they are unable to spend sufficient time with their patients. Patient surveys indicate that patients want more time with their dentists to discuss preventive measures. Patients want their dentists to spend more time advising them about good dental health.
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is at Committee Stage; it provides an opportunity to begin to address some of those issues. The proposed policy change that allows dental services to be commissioned locally by health and social services boards is a first step in tackling the difficulty of access to Health Service dental care.
I ask the Department, in conjunction with the health and social services boards, to take steps for the immediate employment of NHS dentists. Local commissioning will allow resources to be targeted at areas of greatest need. Priority must be given to the safeguarding and development of community dental services in order to protect that role in providing care to the most vulnerable patients, such as older people and those with special needs.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome any opportunity to speak on health issues. However, I am at a loss to understand why the motion has been tabled. As Mr Gallagher said, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety is already dealing with the issue of NHS dental treatment. The Committee Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill gives Committee members the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill line by line, and to add to it or take away from it.
However, I have to concede that, although there have been improvements in oral health over the past few years, children and adults in Northern Ireland continue to have higher levels of dental disease than their counterparts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. All Members accept that fact. Figures from the 2003 child dental-health survey show that 60% of Northern Ireland’s five-year-olds already have tooth decay. Some 50% of that decay presents in the most deprived 10% of the population, and 75% is in the most deprived 20% of the population. That equates to approximately 8,000 children in the Province having teeth extracted annually under general anaesthetic. Alarmingly, a high percentage of children attending for dental general anaesthetic are under five years of age.
There is also a problem with taxpayers funding the training of dentists who, shortly after qualifying, concentrate on private work outside the National Health Service. We must urgently ensure that sufficient NHS dentists are available throughout Northern Ireland. Much good work is being done at community level, and I want to refer to one example. The area community dental service and health-visiting teams throughout the Southern Health and Social Services Board area work in collaboration to improve the health of all and reduce inequalities in healthcare. They are particularly concerned with improving tiny tots’ teeth — I think that that is rather sweet. I should not have said that — sugar is bad for teeth. With additional Investing for Health funding, they have been able to extend the programme by providing free toothbrushes and toothpaste for children in the most deprived areas. All children who attend health-visiting assessments receive oral health advice from a health visitor.
Toothbrushes, fluoride toothpaste and leaflets on oral health are also provided. Feeding cups are distributed by health visitors to encourage children from six months of age to use a feeding cup, and inappropriate feeding practices are discouraged. If health visitors identify families in need, resources are provided for other family members; therefore, inequalities in healthcare are also being addressed. Health visitors have been trained to run the programme, and resources are distributed by the area community dental service.
The provision and distribution of feeding cups by health visitors during children’s assessment visits reinforce the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) recommendations that children should be introduced to drinking from a cup at six months of age and that bottle-feeding should be discouraged from age one. Inappropriate and prolonged use of a bottle can result in long-term health problems. Examples are poor feeding technique; food refusal; speech problems; and tooth decay. Health visitors also raise parents’ awareness of the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks, which can cause tooth decay early in childhood.
There is substantial evidence to show that the provision of toothbrushes, and toothpaste containing 1,000 parts per million of fluoride, produces a significant improvement in the levels of decay in young children’s teeth. Health visitors encourage parents to assist with twice-daily tooth brushing until children can do it effectively themselves, usually by the age of seven.
Early childhood is a vital time for good nutrition and healthy tooth development, which can reduce the risk of health problems in later life. The tiny tots’ teeth initiative shows that increased collaboration and partnership working is a starting block towards the achievement of the shared goal of better health and well-being for all. Working together can make a difference and encourage parents and carers to adopt healthy lifestyles for themselves and their families.
This is important work and an indication of what can be achieved through collaboration. However, it is essential that we ensure that sufficient dentists are available for patients throughout Northern Ireland.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am glad of the opportunity to speak to the motion, and I share Tommy Gallagher’s concern about the lack of NHS dental treatment.
I am contacted by constituents who regularly experience such difficulties. They cannot find a dentist who can take them on as NHS patients in an area close to them. As a result, they are forced to go to clinics in other areas and pay the additional travelling costs. Given that those who live in the most deprived areas live with high levels of social deprivation, they are more likely to have poor oral health. Children who live in the top 20% of most deprived wards are twice as likely to have dental decay as those who live in the top 20% of most affluent wards. Those in the former category pay more to access treatment, which is a disincentive for getting the required treatment.
The oral health of the North has consistently been worse than that in the South of Ireland or in England. The average five-year-old child in Belfast has approximately 2·5 teeth affected by tooth decay, and a similar child in London has about 1·5 teeth affected. A similar child in Dublin has only one affected tooth; there is a great disparity there.
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill contains proposals to allow the Department to commission dental services and to employ dentists directly. I hope that that will go some way towards achieving better results.
The Department must target resources at the areas of greatest need and encourage dentists to register and provide care for patients with greatest need. That must be a priority. I support the motion.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I am sure that every Member agrees with the sentiment of the motion; however, I have difficulty with it. In the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, there is a substantial section on dental care and contracts for dentists. Members discussed the Bill, and it was sent to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for scrutiny. The Committee has taken evidence from dentists and others.
Discussing on the Floor of the House a Bill that is with the Committee makes us nothing more than a talking shop. Instead, we should follow the procedures that have been laid down in Standing Orders for the handling of a Bill, and for all of the work of the House. The Bill should be discussed in Committee and any amendments should be brought before the House.
Although we agree with its sentiment, it amazes me that the motion could be brought before the House when the Bill is with the Committee. We must regulate our business better.
I will not, therefore, speak to the motion. I agree with its sentiment; however, we should follow the procedures that are right and proper.
Mr McCarthy: The want of dental facilities in Northern Ireland is nothing short of a scandal. In fact, it is a shame on those who are supposed to deliver a basic health service to the people of Northern Ireland.
Dentistry and the prevention of tooth decay are a vital part of our Health Service and should be available on the NHS to everyone from the cradle to the grave; however, that is not the case. Dentistry — like every other facility in the Health Service — is grossly underfunded, and that must be put right without delay. I sincerely hope that the Minister of Finance and Personnel does not classify the need for sufficient funding for a decent Health Service as a crowd-pleaser. Visiting the dentist when necessary is a basic human right. The prevention of tooth decay should be an important part of that health facility. The money paid by Government to dentists for basic work falls far short of the actual work and materials used. Therefore, dentists perform work privately and, thus, many constituents cannot get an appointment.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCarthy: No, I will not give way. I have only five minutes.
The result is that newly qualified dentists leave Northern Ireland for more lucrative posts elsewhere. The fundamental problem of funding resources and support for primary-care dentistry must be a priority for the Assembly. The number one priority must be the health of our people, and sufficient funding must be forthcoming.
We hear much talk of a new multi-sports stadium costing millions of pounds, but no one seems to agree that we really need such a facility. It is certain that no one can agree on where it should be sited.
Furthermore, a new Irish language Act will cost us millions of pounds. I am sure that those are noble causes, but we cannot afford such luxuries if ordinary folk cannot even get a dentist. Surely common sense would tell us to get our priorities right. Luxuries can come later. If the motion is passed, I will expect the Health Minister to get the necessary funding through the Executive to allow all dentists to provide a first-class service to everyone in Northern Ireland.
Dr Coulter’s comments amazed me. All private Members’ motions that come to the Floor of the Assembly have been approved by the Business Committee. The UUP has two Members who sit on that Committee, as do most other parties. They must believe that today’s motion is important. I expect the parties that make up the Executive to listen to the voice and the will of the Assembly through their elected Members who sit on the Business Committee.
I am glad to see that the Health Minister is present — he has attended every debate on health matters and has perhaps been one of the busiest Ministers.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McCarthy: I expect Mr McGimspey to attend tomorrow’s debate on the shortage of respite care. I sympathise with the Minister to some extent because, since 8 May 2007, his Department has been asked to find resources for several important health issues: free personal care for older people; equality in prescription charges; dentistry facilities for everyone in Northern Ireland; and increased provision of respite care for all who need it.
With the support of the Health Minister’s Executive colleagues, dentistry facilities for everyone can be provided. That is exactly the type of thing that the Assembly was set up to do. Shortly, it will be proved whether the Minister and his Executive colleagues can deliver on what elected Members have stated as priorities. The entire Business Committee deemed the provision of dentistry facilities for everyone to be a sufficiently important subject to debate, and I support the motion.
Mr Buchanan: I welcome the motion. However, I am at a loss, as was the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, as to why the motion is before the House today, given that that Committee is still considering the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
Notwithstanding that, the access to and availability of NHS dentists in Northern Ireland has been an ongoing problem for far too long, resulting in ever more people missing out on vital oral healthcare. As a consequence of the increasing numbers of dentists who are moving to private clinics, fewer dentists now work for the NHS. The cost of oral healthcare that private clinics provide further isolates many in the community, who are forced to join waiting lists or travel great distances to visit their dentists. Healthcare, oral or otherwise, is the right of everyone, and Northern Ireland lags behind the mainland in the number of people who are registered with dentists.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the health boards must examine what is being done to ensure that newly qualified dentists enter and remain in the NHS, and how to improve the system so that dentists are not lured into private practice. The cost and restrictions that face dentists serve only to frustrate the current systems, and certain limitations mean that many dentists feel forced to go into private practice. Therefore, the Department must consider how to improve the lot of the NHS dentists who struggle to keep costs down while providing a high standard of service to their patients.
The Assembly should not tolerate the major knock-on effects of ignoring dental hygiene. More children suffer from tooth decay in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK. It is a deeply rooted problem. [Laughter.]
Mrs Foster: He delivered that line with a straight face.
Mr Buchanan: Yes, I did.
Members must support any programme to educate children about oral health and to encourage them to visit the dentist. Tooth decay, particularly in children, is a result of an unhealthy diet. That problem is made worse when the teeth are not regularly checked. If the encouragement of children to attend regular check-ups at locally based NHS dentists can be made to coincide with education on healthcare, that should reduce the numbers suffering from tooth decay. Preventive measures can be embedded in the mindsets of children before major dental work is required.
Ideally, there should be no differentiation between the services that are provided by the NHS and by private clinics. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case.
More pressure will be added to the already pressurised NHS dental service because more of the ageing population are retaining their own teeth.
The NHS needs the resources to meet demand to a high standard, and that should be made clear in the overall dental-health strategy. The Department must examine the frameworks that are currently in place to eradicate any future escalation of that problem. What is being done in those areas that most suffer from dental problems and where people cannot readily access a local NHS dentist?
According to the British Dental Association (BDA), the uptake of dental services is low in clearly identified areas of Northern Ireland. Those areas must be targeted with literature and resources that detail what people can expect from their local NHS dentist.
The Health Minister cannot afford to stall on this matter. There is a great need to alleviate this fundamental problem, which can be easily rectified with the right strategy in place, and easy access to an NHS dentist.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister must be happy that there is a five-minute time limit on each contributor to the debate because Kieran McCarthy was getting through the health budget rightly, and spending it on a number of measures.
Others, including the Chairperson of the Health Committee, have mentioned that the Committee has begun to examine dental-care provision and have said that the current system must be changed through the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I have no doubt that the comments of Members and the response of the Minister will be taken on board by the Committee when it considers the Committee Stage of the Bill, as Bob Coulter said. I look forward to the debate that we will have on the Bill in the House in the coming months, and to making progress on the issue of lack of provision of NHS dentists and dental care.
Reports and strategies that have been commissioned over the years have shown that the North has the worst oral health in Britain and throughout the island of Ireland. The primary care strategy of September 2006 outlined that the reasons for that related to lifestyles and deprivation — as mentioned by Mr Buchanan. It has been widely accepted that people who live in areas that are affected by multiple deprivation suffer the worst levels of oral health.
The location of dental practices has been largely due to market forces, rather than attempts to meet the needs of people who live in a particular area. Equity and equality should be at the heart of our attempts to improve oral health care for all. Dental practices should be located beside shops and community and health centres. Dental practices must provide a flexible and mobile service for people who live in rural constituencies, and particularly for those with special needs. Those services must be beside — and brought to — people in order to improve oral healthcare. I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board.
Schools, particularly preschools and primary schools, are currently promoting healthy-eating schemes for our young people. Children are becoming more aware that sugary foods and drinks harm their teeth and gums. However, despite that, the primary care strategy of 2006 outlined that:
“approximately 10% of 5 year-olds possess half of all the decayed teeth for this age group”.
That problem is strongly related to deprivation. The link between poverty and health inequality cannot be ignored.
Moreover, the oral healthcare needs of the homeless, Travellers, ethnic minorities and others must be improved, in conjunction with dental services for the elderly. Services for people living in isolated rural communities and for people with learning difficulties must also be improved. Those are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded groups in our society.
Investing for Health dental targets, following the review of the oral health strategy, were surpassed. The current targets that are included in the Department’s priorities for action outlined that, by March 2008, boards and trusts must reduce tooth-decay levels in five-year-olds in the top five most deprived wards in each of the trust areas. I would appreciate it if the Minister could tell Members how those efforts are going, if he has any such information.
The Assembly must identify the links between poverty, deprivation and ill health, including poor oral healthcare. Better oral health will have an impact on self-esteem and self-confidence; it will create greater awareness of health promotion, and lead to a greater uptake in the number of people who register with their local dentist. Suggested changes to the way in which dental services are organised are cited in the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
More local dentists, provision for dentists through the NHS, better registration and a greater uptake of services are all welcome. I look forward to debating this subject in the autumn, and I also look forward to discussing it with the Committee.
I thank Tommy Gallagher and Carmel Hanna for tabling the motion. I note Members’ comments about debating dental treatment in the Committee. The House should not be stopped from debating a motion just because it is being discussed in a Committee. I support the motion.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion, ever mindful of the fact that it is already doing the rounds of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. There are few things that can stop a man in his tracks, and a sore tooth is one such thing.
The sad fact is that Northern Ireland has the worst oral hygiene and tooth decay in the UK. Recent statistics from the British Dental Association show that the average number of bad teeth in a 12-year-old child in England is one, in Wales it is one and a half, in Scotland it is one and three quarters, and here in the Province it is two and a half. Why is that? Some of the problems may stem from sugary drinks and sweets.
Northern Ireland — indeed, the UK as a whole — has a serious lack of dedicated NHS dentists. Some 2,000 left the NHS last April alone. Previously, NHS dentists were paid on the amount of work done, rather than paid in general, as happens with doctors. There was a “drill-and-fill” mentality, which sometimes resulted in fillings that were not strictly necessary, and no time was spent on preventive care. As a result, we have a generation that was not taught good oral hygiene and is suffering the result. We are passing the fear of dentists, and an unhealthy attitude, on to our children. We have the highest number of people with no natural teeth left than any other part of the UK or the Republic of Ireland. Many would say that it is small wonder.
A constituent of mine went to Belfast City Hospital recently one Sunday and found the waiting room chock-full of people in agony with dental problems, unable to see their dentists — if they were registered with one in the first place. They were praying that the hospital dentists would be able to stop the pain. As often happens, the dentists are reluctant to work on the teeth of the patient of another dentist, preferring to prescribe something for the pain and referring the patient to his dentist, which puts the patient back to square one. That is what happened to a 31-year-old lady with a tooth broken at the root. She suffered in agony for nearly a week before giving in and going to hospital. Her dentist had been struck off for misconduct, and other surgeries were reluctant to take on a young woman with a husband, and five children under the age of nine on the NHS. They preferred to tell her about a prepay plan that would have cost her a fortune, so she suffered the pain, praying that it would let up, until she could take it no longer.
Mrs Foster: I am glad that the Member is now talking about female tooth decay. I was worried that he was implying earlier that there was only male tooth decay. Does the Member agree that one of the difficulties, especially in rural areas, is that not only are dental practitioners going to the private sector, they are also moving to other jurisdictions such as, for those living in border areas, the Republic of Ireland? The Member who moved the motion will probably agree with that.
Mr Shannon: I agree with the Member wholeheartedly. Dentists are taking their practices elsewhere, and that is part of the problem.
Some Members can remember when dental nurses came to schools and gave each child a tablet. It turned the mouth blue, which showed whether a child had bad teeth, and that was the whole idea.
It has been found that middle-class professional families are more likely to have 20% less decay than those from working-class families, and that also underlines the issue.
A dentist in Ards came to me for help with getting planning approval for her surgery. She has promised to undertake NHS treatment. However, the difficulty we faced in trying to get the surgery through the planning process almost — I was almost going to say that it almost drove me to drink, but that would be wrong — drove me up the walls.
Mr S Wilson: Sweets.
Mrs Foster: Fizzy drinks.
Mr Shannon: It would make you eat more chocolate.
Maintaining good oral health must be encouraged in schools and carried through to dental surgeries, where dentists have time to demonstrate good oral hygiene. It is important to be able to see a dentist without paying absurd amounts of money and to get emergency appointments when in agony. It is also important to be able to have teeth professionally cleaned once a year in order to stop decay and for parents to access advice on how to teach their children good oral hygiene. All those issues are important, and that is why I shall support the motion.
Of the 75% increase in spending on the NHS, only 9% went to dentistry. The dental system must be brought up to date. There is a fear that, by 2011, the current shortage of NHS dentists will have doubled. Something must be done now to ensure that that statistic is never realised in the Province.
Mr S Wilson: This debate is important, although it has been alleged that it is premature as the Bill is in Committee Stage. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile for Committee members and the Minister to hear some views from the Floor of the House on how the issue might be best addressed in the Bill.
We have listened to the usual round of Members suggesting that more money should be spent on employing more dentists, that more surgeries are needed, that surgeries should be located closer to populated areas, and that surgeries should perform a wider range of work. However, the most important thing, from the Assembly’s point of view, is to focus on the fact that available resources are finite. From that standpoint, we can try to advise the Minister on how those resources might be best spent.
I am not an expert but, having looked at some of the statistics, I am struck by the fact that, in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland does not have a big shortage in the number of dentists per head of population. The problem is therefore not a case of people being unable to find a dentist simply because not enough dentists are employed. That is an important point to make, because at least three Members who have spoken so far in the debate have urged the Minister to employ more dentists.
If the Minister decides to use the resources available to him to employ more dentists, it might not actually address the issue that really needs to be tackled. If other parts of the United Kingdom, with similar population distribution, similar levels of deprivation, and a similar geographical spread etc, can provide a better service with the same number of dentists, that is clearly not the direction in which we ought to be pointing the Minister.
Another striking aspect of the debate is that many Members have said that the problem stems from the fact that dentists are migrating from National Health Service work to private work. I assume that that happens because dentists have a degree of independence, and they use that independence to follow the market and to make the most money. If that is the source of the problem, there are only two options.
One option is to employ more dedicated National Health Service dentists, as Mr Gallagher seemed to suggest. Enough Members are of a certain age to remember when a dual system was in operation. I am not so sure that that is the way to go. Because of the way in which pay would be structured under a two-tier system, and the fact that dentists can make more money through private work, it would be inevitable that the best dentists would not be attracted to dedicated National Health Service work. If they were directly employed, the best dentists would go into private practice, with the remainder going to the National Health Service. I do not think that we want a two-tier system.
The other option would be to accept that dentists can operate independently. We can either direct them to do a certain percentage of NHS work — an option that appears to have been rejected by the proposer of the motion — or we can find a way to give dentists an incentive to do NHS work. Furthermore, an incentive to do a wider range of work avoids Jim Shannon’s contention that dentists simply get paid for the number of teeth that they drill and the number of fillings that they stick in — although I think that my dentist may have worked on that basis in the past.
We must be careful. If it is decided that a contract should be negotiated that pays dentists for any work that they do, that pays them to do preventive work, and, perhaps, even allows them to send out dental nurses to give advice to patients, we must ensure that — in light of what happened in England when GPs negotiated their new contracts — the contract does not give dentists a bye ball that allows them to make piles of money from the system without actually delivering a better service.
If that is the route that we decide to go down — and I notice that another Member, whether inadvertently or not, used that term also — and we decide to allow dentists to pick and choose between private practice and NHS work, we must ensure that the new contract is sufficiently foolproof to guarantee as wide a range of services as possible without hitting the public purse.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I thank the proposer of the motion. I am grateful for the opportunity to address the issues. I believe in a Health Service that is high quality and easily accessible. I know that access to Health Service dentists is a problem for people in many parts of Northern Ireland. My Department is addressing that problem.
Northern Ireland has the worst oral health in the UK. When compared to their counterparts in the rest of the UK, our 12-year-olds have almost three times the level of dental decay. That level of decay is related to lifestyle and to deprivation. On average, we spend more money each week on cigarettes, confectionery and sugared soft drinks than any other part of the UK. For the information of Members, those three things are extremely bad for teeth and oral hygiene. We also eat less fruit and vegetables and brush our teeth less frequently. People in disadvantaged areas are doubly affected. Health inequalities affect all areas of the population’s health, including dentistry and oral health.
There are two ways to address the matter. First, I will consider the experience of the Republic of Ireland. At one time, children’s dental health in the Republic of Ireland was considerably worse than that in Northern Ireland. Now, the Republic of Ireland boasts one of the lowest rates of dental decay in Europe. Five-year-olds in Dublin have less than half the dental decay of five-year-olds in Belfast. A recent cross-border study showed that 16-year-olds living in the Republic of Ireland have significantly better dental health than their counterparts in Northern Ireland.
The same study showed that oral health inequalities in the Republic of Ireland have virtually disappeared. How did the Republic of Ireland achieve those improvements? Water fluoridation was used to address the problem. In the 1960s, fluoride was added to the water in the Republic of Ireland. Improved dental health is the result.
Mr Campbell: The Minister is entering quite a contentious area: forcible fluoridation. He referred to children and young people and the considerably worse ratios in Northern Ireland. Will he tell the House whether, over the past years, the poor dental records of younger people in Northern Ireland have been statically bad or have they been improving from an even worse position, for example, 10 years ago?
Mr McGimpsey: I would have addressed that point if I had had the opportunity to finish speaking. I said that fluoridation is one instrument that has been used. Another instrument is available to us. In the south-east of England, fluoridation is virtually superfluous because of better support from dental services and a better understanding of prevention through improved oral health and oral hygiene. We have to choose one option or the other.
Mr Campbell stated that fluoridation is a contentious issue. However, providing that the support were to exist for it, the south-east of England example could offer an alternative method for addressing the problem of poor oral health.
The delivery of dental services is the responsibility of each health and personal social services board. Dental services in Northern Ireland are delivered in two ways. The general dental service, which provides the bulk of Health Service dentistry in the Province, is delivered by high street dental practices. Dentists are paid fees for each registered patient and for each item of treatment given. Non-exempt patients pay 80% of the fees, up to a maximum amount. Dentists have a financial incentive to provide treatment, as greater volume equals greater income.
The second way is through the community dental service, which is a trust-based salaried service, dealing with individuals who are unable to use the high street dentists, such as children with learning disabilities. That service also provides oral health promotion and school screening.
Private practice is also available to patients willing to pay. General dental practitioners in the Health Service have a contractual obligation to provide out-of-hours treatment and ensure that any patient who is registered with them has access to urgent treatment. Currently, dentists are paid for each item of service and claim for those items through the Central Services Agency (CSA). There are problems with those arrangements, however; dentists have no financial incentive to improve the quality of their services or provide wider oral health promotion advice and education, as they do not get paid for that.
Since the early 1990s many dentists have reduced their commitment to the Health Service and have developed better-paid private practice work. That has resulted in a shortage of dentists providing treatment under the Health Service. Although many dentists continue to provide Health Service treatment for children and exempt adults, a growing number will only see fee-paying adults under private contract, which creates access problems.
Sue Ramsey, Jim Shannon and other Members mentioned a lack of dentists. There are significantly more dentists per head of the population in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. The issue is not the number of dentists; it is about putting a proper contract in place for their services, and that it what I intend to do.
Ms S Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his comments. My point was not about the number of dentists, but about the people who cannot get dental services, especially in rural constituencies — it is about bringing the service to them.
Mr McGimpsey: I agree that access is the key; however, as Sammy Wilson said, the problem lies in getting more dentists into the system rather than merely producing more dentists; the number of dentists that we already have should be adequate. Although access to Health Service dentistry in Northern Ireland is better than it is in England, I acknowledge that the situation here is deteriorating. Seven hundred and eight thousand people are now in receipt of Health Service dental treatment in Northern Ireland — almost 32,000 fewer than in the figures published five years ago.
High street dentists in Northern Ireland are independent contractors. Currently, they can choose to provide general dental services or private dentistry, or a mixture of both. Dentists are not obliged to accept a patient for Health Service treatment, and they can deregister patients if they so choose. Under current contractual arrangements, health and personal social services boards cannot compel dentists to provide Health Service dentistry. The boards cannot ensure that independent local practitioners provide enough Health Service dentistry to meet all needs, nor can they prevent gap areas in which Health Service dentistry is unavailable. The Member who moved the motion, Tommy Gallagher, represents a constituency that is a gap area. The health and social services boards will try to fill that gap by employing salaried dentists.
My Department’s primary dental-care strategy, which was published last November, sets out a 10-year plan for Health Service primary dental-care services. The strategy was developed around the local commissioning of services. Under the proposed arrangements, commissioners will be responsible for securing primary care dental services. Those services will be obtained from general dental practitioners, the community dental service, salaried staff, or a mixture of all three.
It is important to note that the commissioners will be able to contract for the delivery of dental services, which will give the health and social services boards more flexibility than they have in meeting the needs of their areas, and will help the commissioners to ensure that dental services are available to everyone in their locality.
It will also access problems where general dental services are not available by giving the boards the control to establish contracts with a variety of providers.
The reforms in the strategy include local commissioning of services; access to appropriate Health Service dental care for those who need it; greater emphasis on disease prevention; guaranteed out-of-hours services; and a revised payment system that rewards dentists.
Negotiations have already started between my Department and the general dental practice committee of the BDA to secure a bespoke contract for Northern Ireland, thus enabling the recommendations of the primary dental care strategy to be implemented.
Mr McCarthy: Is there a time frame for implementing the strategy?
Mr McGimpsey: The strategy was published in November 2006 and is governed by the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is a work in progress.
During a debate on free personal care, which I believe was proposed by Mrs Hanna, I explained to the House that, taking into account the stages involved, the strategy’s implementation would be completed by 2010 at the earliest. An amendment was proposed for implementation to be completed by 2008. However, it is just not physically possible to do so in that time frame. As I said to the House on that day, if the strategy could be implemented faster, I would ensure that it was implemented faster. However, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill governs the roll out of such matters.
The new commissioning powers to be given to the health boards will improve access to Health Service dentistry, allow a greater focus on prevention and enable the development of a regional contract with local flexibilities.
A question was asked concerning what could be done to address the drift of dentists from the NHS to private practice. Following representations from the BDA, an additional recurring investment of £2 million from 2007-08 was agreed. That will slow the drift from Health Service dentistry. The additional £2 million will assist dentists who continue to provide care for Health Service patients with the costs of running their practices. This investment forms part of the proposed new contract arrangements.
Mr Donaldson: Is the Minister aware that there have been some cases in which dentists have told their patients that they can no longer remain in their practices because they are moving to private practices, and, in some of those cases, the dentists have refused to pass on those patients’ dental records to colleagues who could provide NHS care? Will the Department issue a direction to dentists in Northern Ireland stating that, at the very least, dental records should transfer with patients?
Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Donaldson for that point. I am aware that dentists can deregister patients. I understood that records did follow patients, but I will make enquiries about the matter. It is a very important point.
Health and social services boards are seeking to commission salaried dentists in areas where there are problems with access to dental services. Mr Gallagher’s constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone is one such area. The Northern Health and Social Services Board supplied a business case to the Department and secured funds to employ a salaried dentist. The Western Health and Social Services Board identified the need to recruit dentists to address access problems in its area. The other two boards have also been asked how they intend to address shortfalls in Health Service dentistry in their areas.
I assure Members that all possible steps will be taken to ensure that dental treatment is available under the Health Service to those who are entitled to it and who wish to avail of it.
Mrs Hanna: I am pleased to make the winding-up speech on the motion, which was brought to the House by my colleague Tommy Gallagher and myself.
The motion highlights a very important health issue. Indeed, it will strengthen our resolve to ensure that the legislation does the business. Northern Ireland has the worst level of oral health when compared with the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Years of underinvestment have left Northern Ireland with an unacceptable National Health dental service. Like the National Health Service, dental treatment must be free at the point of need and provide a competent service to everyone who needs it. As has been mentioned by other Members, the solution does not lie with merely increasing the number of dentists but with increasing the number of dentists who work in the National Health Service and ensuring that patients have adequate access to dentists.
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is introducing changes to the way in which dental services are organised in an attempt to address the difficulties that people face in getting access to Health Service dental care. It is also introducing changes in the targeting of resources in areas of greatest needs. Provisions contained in the Bill will also enable a health and social services board to enter into a contract, under which primary dental services are provided. Furthermore, the Bill contains provisions to govern the terms and content of the new general dental services. I welcome that as an enabling amendment, and I want to talk it up. I want to ensure that it widens access to those who need it. Who would have thought that National Health dental services would be at an all-time low? Given a fair wind, the legislation will enable progress but it is also an act of faith that must be monitored to ensure that it does the job for which it is intended.
I am disappointed that some Members do not feel that this is worth further debate. As Kieran McCarthy said, the Business Committee decided that it was a priority, and it has been in the system for some time. Iris Robinson referred to fluoride in toothpaste making a difference. In the Republic of Ireland, fluoride is put in the water supply, and teeth have strengthened. That has not been debated here, but perhaps fluoride could be put in milk so that people could choose whether to take it or not. I have no doubt that there will be a debate in the future.
I am disappointed that my colleague Robert Coulter does not consider NHS dental treatment worth further debate. Michelle O’Neill and Sue Ramsey made some good points on the impact that a lack of access to NHS dental treatment has, particularly to disadvantaged people. The fact that such people cannot get dental treatment compounds their disadvantage. Jim Shannon graphically illustrated what it is like to have bad toothache and be unable to get a dentist. Toothache has been compared to some of the worst pain. Some people have said that it is worse than the pain of childbirth, but I do not know about that.
Sammy Wilson commented on the choice of dentists. I have made the point that it is not the number of dentists that is relevant, but the number who work in the National Health Service. I agree that we cannot afford to develop a two-tier system. That trend has started in health generally, but it must be stopped and reversed.
Poor oral health has a negative impact on people’s general well-being. It is acknowledged that the most vulnerable in society have the poorest dental health, often because of their diet. Young children are particularly vulnerable, especially those who are not registered with a National Health Service dentist. Those children do not learn how to look after their teeth, and that leads to major health problems in later life. It has been well documented that decay in someone’s mouth can spread to other parts of the body. The elderly population is rising, and, because a larger number of them are keeping their teeth than in the past, they also need access to dental health.
The 2006 primary dental-care strategy for Northern Ireland proposes fundamental changes to the provision of dentistry. Its primary aims are to reduce dental health inequalities, to improve the oral health of all of the Northern Ireland population with a high-quality service and to ensure a rewarding career for dental professionals, the lack of which is part of the problem.
Patients are entitled to, and must have, access to a quality dental service. For emergency treatment, it is important that there is easy access to dentists; the dental hospital cannot do it all. Patients who are required to pay for dental treatment, especially those whose income is just above the threshold for benefits, are often the hardest hit. The dental-charging system must be simplified so that patients know what they are paying for. All Members know of people who have required expensive treatments, such as root canal work, but could not afford it.
Why are dentists dissatisfied and disillusioned with the National Health Service? Dentists wish to deliver high-quality treatment and care, and the focus for the future, as in other parts of the review of public administration, must be to ensure that entire practices have the right skills and good infrastructure in place. Dentists must be encouraged, motivated and supported to work in the National Health Service, and the ethos of “drill and fill”, which demotivates those dentists who wish to stay in the NHS, must be left behind.
As has already been said, there cannot be a two-tier system; wider access must be maintained. In addition to a better working environment, more dental hygienists and nurses are required as part of an integrated approach by all dental-health professionals.
The BDA has brought many issues relating to the running of dental practices to my attention and to that of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. In particular, it highlighted the rising cost to dentists of meeting legislative, regulatory and good practice requirements.
One must consider the bigger picture when attempting to improve the dental health of the people of Northern Ireland. Dental-health promotion and preventive treatments are key to the improvement of general oral health, and there must be a long-term focus on such work.
Proposals on the new contractual arrangements for dentists have been outlined. Any such new measures must be piloted before they are generally implemented. In England and Wales, there are still grave problems. Members must monitor that situation and ensure that any potential legislation does what it sets out to achieve, which is why I wished to debate this matter. It has been suggested that the new contractual arrangements are too driven by results and targets and not by oral health and patient access to NHS dentists or orthodontists. The failure to increase patient registrations has also been recognised.
To reiterate the focus of the motion, it is important that those who require dental-health treatment have access to it. The Assembly must also recognise the problems that face dentistry and identify how to attract people back to the National Health Service. Members have discussed why dentists are attracted to private practice — it is more lucrative — but we could be more creative. When dentists come out of training, which has cost the public purse so much, perhaps they could be contracted to the National Health Service for a certain length of time. That would also give them an opportunity to repay their student loans. Other areas of the Health Service and allied professions could also consider that idea.
For services delivered through contract, there are many issues to be considered. However, it is important that this matter was debated today, and I welcome the fact that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been in the Chamber for this and every other debate on health issues and that he has taken the arguments on board. Members will closely watch the progress of legislation and, more importantly, the outcomes to ensure that it does the business.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses concern about the lack of availability of NHS dental treatment and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to act immediately to ensure that NHS treatment is available to all those who are entitled to it, in conjunction with a dental health strategy.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Cree: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure continued progress in addressing accident rates in the construction industry through the Buildsafe Northern Ireland initiative.
Many Members will have read reports that construction sites across Northern Ireland faced a sweep of inspections earlier this month. The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) stated that it was conducting inspections as part of a drive to improve the safety record. That inspection blitz was also part of a Europe-wide campaign to reduce the number of serious and fatal accidents.
The safety drive was necessary because construction workers in Northern Ireland are three times more likely to be killed in a site accident than workers in the rest of the United Kingdom. The fatal-accident rate for the construction industry is also worse here than in the Republic of Ireland, according to the HSENI. That is an alarming statement and presents a major challenge to us in moving the economy forward.
The cost to the Northern Ireland economy due to work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses is estimated at 1·3% of the country’s gross value added (GVA) or, in monetary terms, £300 million a year. In human terms, it means over 20 deaths each year, a further 60 deaths due to the legacy of past asbestos exposure, 800 major injuries and 35,000 employees absent from work at any one time due to work-related illnesses. That is 5% of the total workforce.
Let us compare the Northern Ireland fatal and non-fatal injury rates per 100,000 employees for 2005-06 with those of our near neighbours. In Great Britain, there were 281 non-fatal accidents, and 0·6 fatal accidents, per 100,000 employees. In the Republic of Ireland, the figures were 350 non-fatal accidents and 3·2 fatal accidents. In Northern Ireland, there were 273 non-fatal accidents and 1·3 fatal accidents per 100,000 employees. Among the major causes of injury and illnesses are poor manual handling; work-related distress; falls from heights; unsafe vehicle movements; exposure to asbestos fibres; and, not unexpectedly, slips and trips.
The agriculture, quarrying and construction sectors accounted for 76% of all work-related fatalities in the five-year period from 2001-02 to 2005-06. The Health Service and the education sector have contributed significantly to the 35,000 employees — 5% of the total workforce — absent due to illness caused, or made worse, by work.
Last year, two thirds of fatal accidents in Northern Ireland were the result of falls. The Buildsafe-NI initiative was introduced in 2004 for public sector contracts only. It is a partnership between the Construction Employers Federation, public sector clients, the unions and the HSENI. The initiative has a target to reduce the 2002 accident level in the industry by 50% by 2008. I was concerned to learn that participants in the Buildsafe-NI steering group have doubts that the original objective of the initiative may be achieved within the timescale.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has said in this House, with regard to accidents and fatalities, that employment in the construction industry in Northern Ireland is one of the most dangerous occupations. I agree with him, and it is crucial that the matter be addressed urgently. I also agree that legislation alone cannot resolve the problem. We must educate and enforce at the same time.
Positive partnership between employers and other stakeholders must be promoted to improve radically the industry’s safety record. We do not want to trivialise health-and-safety challenges or engage in non-productive, class-war rhetoric against employers. The purpose of the motion is to emphasise the need for significant improvement in the industry’s health-and-safety record and to draw attention to the positive moves that the industry has already taken. Employers must work in partnership with unions and the Health and Safety Executive, which is more likely to promote a health-and-safety culture rather than just enforce an aggressive regulation.
I was interested in a recent paper from the Quarry Products Association, in which it advocated fiscal incentives as a reward for good performance. It highlighted the aggregates levy credit scheme, which has successfully promoted best practice in the industry. Perhaps a similar scheme could be developed to encourage good safety performance. The Health and Safety Executive does a good job with the resources that it has. The public procurement element of Buildsafe-NI must be extended to local government, housing associations and other bodies. The health-and-safety culture that I referred to must start at boardroom level. More must be done for young people who enter the workforce. I hope that Members of the House will support the motion.
Mr Hamilton: I commend the Members who moved the motion. Safety in the building industry is of increasing importance given the growing centrality of construction to economic growth in Northern Ireland.
The recently published ‘Northern Ireland Business Monitor 2006/2007’ indicates favourable trends for the construction industry in turnover, profitability and optimism for the future. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s ‘Northern Ireland Economic Bulletin 2007’ shows a massive growth in employment in the sector, with an increase of over 75% during the last decade. The most up-to-date quarterly employment survey shows a further increase of 500 construction jobs. Members must always be mindful that although the rate of accidents and fatalities is unacceptable and must be improved, the increase in the number of people who are employed in the construction industry is a significant factor in that.
In April 2007, an Ulster Bank study concluded that construction is now the driving force behind our economy. Through the investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the work that is being carried out by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), public-sector capital expenditure here continues to grow. We hope that it will continue to grow at an unprecedented level.
I am sure that I speak for many in the House when I say that a major capital expenditure project that Members do not want the Government to be engaged in is new premises for the Assembly, a proposal for which has been reported in today’s news.
One only has to walk outside the Chamber and see the Belfast skyline to see the construction boom that the city and the wider country is experiencing. I do not refer to the cherry picker that seems to have taken up permanent residence outside the Building. The Belfast skyline and those of other parts of Northern Ireland are changing. That shows centrality of construction to the growing economy. If Northern Ireland is to be transformed into the vibrant, high-tech, high-value-added economy that Members want, that must be built upon high-quality infrastructure, such as new roads, factories and office blocks. Construction is at the heart of the new economy.
It goes without saying that an industry that expects to grow in the future must be a safe industry. It is nothing short of scandalous that a construction worker in Northern Ireland is three times more likely to be killed at work than in any other part of the United Kingdom. The 44 deaths and more than 500 severe injuries that occurred during the decade prior to 2003 are tantamount to carnage in the construction industry. For those reasons, I wholeheartedly support the Buildsafe NI initiative — not least, because it appears to have had a positive impact. Since its introduction, the number of accidents on public-sector projects, on which it has been concentrated, has fallen even though expenditure on such projects has risen dramatically.
The number of accidents in which workers have sustained major injuries has dropped from a high of 27 in 2003-04 to 17 to date this year. Sadly, however, deaths in public-sector construction projects sadly remain, with two in each of the past two years.
The Buildsafe initiative is one of those rare examples of where Government action and regulation can have — and has had — a positive outcome. The imposition of a premium upon health-and-safety standards in public procurement policy has sent a clear message to construction companies about their responsibilities to their employees. However, I agree with Mr Cree who said that compliance is needed, rather than the introduction of further new laws.
For many years, construction workers have felt as if they are treated like second-class citizens when matters concerning their safety are being considered. Day in and day out, they are involved in building a better economy for Northern Ireland, and in so far as Government can provide it, they deserve proper protection. I am in no doubt that the Minister will continue to give the initiative his full support.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I commend Mr Cree and Mr McFarland for tabling it. It is especially welcome given the fact that construction workers are six times more likely to be killed at work than any other employee.
Despite the reduction in the number of construction employees suffering death or serious injury over the past decade or so, the overall rates are still too high. In 2005, seven workers lost their lives in the North of Ireland, and in 2006, six people died from injuries sustained when working on construction sites. In the 10 years prior to that, 44 construction workers were killed and over 500 were seriously injured. Those incidents also have a detrimental effect on families, friends and work associates. The figures are too high, and they must be reduced immediately.
As well as the high accident rates, construction workers are more likely to suffer from ill health as a result of their work in the industry and due to their exposure to hazardous substances and harsh working conditions. That must be borne in mind when Members are discussing the motion.
It is important that the motion is being debated at a time when the construction industry is experiencing a major growth. As Simon Hamilton said, the amount of construction going on and the many cranes that are visible in our cities show the growth in that sector, and, consequently, the number of employees in that industry is also increasing. At this time of growth, we must ensure that the health and well-being of everyone involved is safeguarded. We must bring to an end the deaths and injuries sustained on building sites by making them a safer environment for all employees to work, and employers must be responsible for ensuring the health and safety of their employees.
We must also remember that construction hazards are not restricted to those working on sites: children and other members of the public have been killed or injured because construction activities have not been adequately controlled.
The Buildsafe initiative is an excellent idea because it brings together the public sector, the construction industry, trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive. The initiative’s commendable target is, by 2008, to reduce the number of major accidents to construction workers by 50% of the 2002 level. However, the Buildsafe initiative does not have much legal status or legislative basis; therefore, sanctions are not imposed on employers who fail to meet its key aims. That must be reviewed.
Unfortunately, our most up-to-date official industrial accident statistics cover only the period until 2004, so we are unable to assess the success of the Buildsafe initiative to date. However, in recent years, the number of fatalities on building sites is on a par with the years prior to the introduction of the Buildsafe initiative. More, therefore, needs to be done. Considering that the initiative’s target date is 2008, it is imperative that we reassess the initiative next year and evaluate its success, and, at the same time, consider any possible recommendations that might make the initiative more effective and, ultimately, further reduce accidents in the construction industry.
Key to reducing accidents in the construction industry is providing appropriate training for any individual before they enter a construction site. We must ensure that apprenticeships are not only effective in providing individuals with the skills of the trade through recognised bodies such as City and Guilds, but in providing rigorous health and safety training. The implementation of those measures, in conjunction with the appropriate inductions for young starts on building sites, would immensely decrease the number of accidents on construction sites, especially considering that young workers are more likely to have an accident or injure themselves due to inexperience.
We must ensure that all that can be done is done with regard to employee safety on construction sites. The construction industry must implement the Buildsafe initiative, and more legislation must be introduced to ensure workers’ protection at all times. I will be supporting the motion, and I urge the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to raise the profile of the Buildsafe initiative. I hope that lives can be saved as a result. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr O’Loan: I agree with other Members that this is a hugely important issue. There is an unacceptable and unnecessary level of death and injury in the construction industry. I have examined statistics from the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland, and it appears that there is no sign that the situation will improve over the five-year target period. As far as 2006 is concerned, the figures for all types of accident appear to be up. The statistics for major accidents have increased, and although the figures for fatal accidents are a bit uncertain, on my reading of the situation, they are not convincingly down. I will listen with considerable interest to the Minister to see how he reads the situation.
The Buildsafe-NI initiative is welcome in as far as it goes, but its scope is limited. It only affects firms that are bidding for public-sector contracts. The information at my disposal tells me that the major problem exists in the private sector, and, in particular, in small firms.
My main point relates to the Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland (QPANI), which is an organisation whose firms overlap the construction industry. I commend its chairman, Mr Seamus McKeague of Creagh Concrete Products Ltd, and its regional director, Gordon Best, for adopting a highly proactive approach to health and safety. QPANI is a substantial body, with 265 member companies. It spans the quarrying, ready-mix concrete, concrete products and asphalt-plants sectors. QPANI’s regional director writes in ‘The Quarry Products Industry Journal 2007’:
“Health and safety was again the main priority across all the sectors that QPANI represents.”
I commend QPANI for saying that among the economic and many other issues that it must deal with it considers health and safety to be its main priority.
QPANI works closely with the HSENI and runs repeated safety-awareness days for its members. One such event featured 75 participants from 35 companies. It runs a safety conference and holds an awards ceremony, both of which have a large involvement. It runs county-based hard-target clubs, which bring businesses together to learn from one another, and it sets challenging targets in accident reduction.
It seems to me that the process is working, from which a good lesson can be learned. In a survey of its members, the regional director reports substantial improvements from 2004 to 2005. Those gains were made in a range of indictors, from frequency and severity of accidents to days lost to accidents.
I herald the fact that QPANI has taken a superb bottom-up approach, which makes good use of expert assistance. It looks as if it could be a model for the entire industry.
The attitude of owners and managers is right, and that is an absolutely vital ingredient in order for there to be progress. The quarrying industry is progressing towards what it calls its hard target of 50% reduction, and, from there, it intends to pursue a zero-accident goal. That is an excellent example of good practice, which is worth bringing to the attention of everyone concerned.
I make two other important points. First, resourcing for the HSENI is not adequate. As a consequence, the HSENI is largely reactive, not proactive. In particular, the HSENI is not reaching small businesses that are often not members of any bodies and are therefore difficult to target.
Secondly, QPANI is keen to see financial incentives being attached to accident prevention, to which Mr Cree has referred. Those incentives would be similar to the aggregates levy credit scheme (ALCS), by which credit is given for environmental protections. In this case, credit could be awarded for having good health-and-safety systems in place. Although there would be up-front costs, the public purse would be saved money, because, as other Members have said, accidents cost large sums.
Credits of £20 million could, arguably, save £100 million. I know that QPANI is to meet with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and I will also raise the matter in the Committee for Finance and Personnel.
I welcome the motion. This debate will give an impetus to there being real progress.
Mr G Robinson: Accident rates in the construction industry must be kept on their present downward trend in order to ensure that those who work in what is an extremely hazardous job are kept as safe as is possible. If that occurs, despite the dangers of the working environment, that will result in fewer injuries and in fewer sites being closed in order for health-and-safety investigations to take place.
More importantly, it will result in fewer workers and their families suffering hospital stays, recovery time, reduced income and, in the worst cases, loss of a family member. Progress in reducing accident numbers is always welcome, but there is no room for complacency. It is vital that the Buildsafe-NI initiative continues to minimise risk to workers. It has already helped to stop injury to highly skilled workers whose skills are in great demand. It has kept them economically active and independent of state benefits, and their skills are vital to the Northern Ireland economy. At all costs, we must protect them. The Buildsafe-NI initiative helps to achieve that.
I am pleased to support this worthwhile motion.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt anseo agus ansiúd go pearsanta ar an ábhar seo. On a previous occasion in the House, I described how I received the news that my father had been killed at work — buried alive in a 15-feet deep, unshored, trench. To think of the devastation that that caused to my mother and the rest of us — my youngest brother was only 11 years of age at the time — is still very difficult.
When I speak on this subject therefore, I am not interested in statistics, percentages or measures, but in the important human question of the safety of people at work — human beings at work, not workers.
It was difficult when news reports said simply that a worker had been killed at work. It reminds me of the song sung by The Dubliners: ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’. In the song, a man is lost in a concrete stair, but the employer’s only retort is: “I’m a navvy short”. Get me another navvy.
This stuff has to come from the heart. We are dealing with vulnerable people who are, as another Member rightly said, the bedrock of our economy, and will be for some time to come. We must consider how families are looked after in the wake of such an event. When my father died, it seemed — as I have already described — as if no one was interested. The company was good enough, and the employers were sorry that it had happened. The authorities were good enough, and our friends visited and all that. However, in 1970, my mother was compensated to the tune of £7,000 — a very poor price for a man of my father’s status in the community. He was much more than a worker on a construction site.
Gradually, people get over these things. However, as a result of my father’s death, I am very concerned about how building sites are conducted. When I last spoke about this, I made a point about corporate guilt; a similar point could be made about corporate debt. As a corporation, a company can be held responsible for a death; however, no one person has ever served a day in jail for negligence, because that guilt is spread among the directors of the company. They pay compensation, which they can well afford. Their insurance premium may rise a bit, but that is all.
The Assembly should advocate an all-Ireland Buildsafe initiative. At present, construction workers from all over Ireland are employed all over Ireland. They come from the North to work in the South and from the South to work in the North. A firm, all-Ireland, Buildsafe policy should be established so that workers are looked after properly.
As I said, nobody has ever spent a day in jail or ever really been punished for negligence towards workers. It is heartening to see that construction companies are now spending much more money on safety. It is good that local scaffolding firms now have proper scaffolding and shoring, and so on, but we must be tough on this issue, down to the last detail.
I do not like the concept of corporate guilt. The person who is immediately responsible for the negligence that causes a death or serious injury should be brought to court and be made to carry the can. He gets paid to do his job, so he should pay the price.
There is talk of post-traumatic stress syndrome at the moment; can Members imagine how traumatic it is for fellow workers —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr Brolly: Mr Speaker, could you let me finish this point? Thank you.
When workers go to the hut for 10.00 am teatime, they chat about their families, and so on. They work in a situation in which the expectancy of death or serious injury is not high. Imagine what it is like for those workers not to talk of the family of a man who has been killed on site.
Mr Gardiner: I support the motion proposed by my hon Friend the Member for North Down.
For some time, I have been concerned about the level of death and injury in the construction industry. The Buildsafe-NI initiative is one way to develop a culture of safety on our building and construction sites, which will avoid the unnecessary level of human suffering and tragedy that has prevailed up to now.
In the Transitional Assembly, I tabled a motion that specifically referred to death and injury in the construction industry. I mentioned the need for a comprehensive corporate manslaughter Bill to be introduced in Northern Ireland, once justice powers had been devolved to the Assembly. Such a Bill is the necessary legislative underpinning of any dramatic improvement in the levels of safety in the construction industry.
My interest in the subject was kindled in 2005 when one of my constituents, a young man from the Lurgan area who was just starting out in life, tragically lost his life on a construction site on the M1 motorway. That needless death, and all the human suffering that came with it, was a watershed for me. From that day on, I was determined not to rest until I had effective corporate manslaughter legislation in place in the Province.
After my demands in 2005 for corporate manslaughter legislation, in January 2006, I also called for the introduction of a new offence of secondary liability for corporate manslaughter, where it could be shown that a company’s failings were provably caused by the culpable negligence of one or more individuals in the firm. Only individual responsibility for the death of a worker because of the company’s negligence will make management take this matter seriously and give worker safety sufficient priority.
Many building firms are big corporations, and they have broad backs. They may simply have to pay financial penalties, but that is not enough to change attitudes in the construction industry. For people to take seriously the death of workers on site, they will have to feel that they will actually and individually face a manslaughter charge, if they are proven to be negligent. Juries should be asked to consider whether management failure had caused or contributed to the death. On the basis of that finding, the Public Prosecution Service should determine whether individuals in a company should also be prosecuted for manslaughter.
The average number of work-related deaths in Northern Ireland stands at 20 a year. We must keep that figure in mind when dealing with this matter. Once justice powers are devolved, the Assembly will have a duty of care to our people. In relation to the construction industry especially, that duty must be anchored in corporate manslaughter legislation with teeth. While I wholeheartedly support this motion we must move on corporate manslaughter as soon as possible.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): Thank you, Mr Speaker, and apologies to other Members that I have not been in the Chamber for the whole debate — I was at an interview. I have nevertheless been following the debate.
As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I want to congratulate Leslie Cree and Alan McFarland for moving this motion. The Committee recently received a very competent, compelling and cogent presentation from the Health and Safety Executive, and the Buildsafe-NI initiative was touched upon then. I appreciate the fact that Members feel the need to underline the importance of that very good work.
Members have mentioned the real economic costs that arise from accidents and fatalities at work and in the construction industry in particular. Members have also talked about the human cost. Francie Brolly in particular articulated that cost in a very poignant and sensitive way. That adds, I hope, to the sense of urgency and determination about making sure that we continue to press for progress. I do not intend to rehearse the statistics comparing the rate of injuries and deaths here with those in other places, but they clearly show that there is a serious problem.
When I was Minister of Finance and Personnel in a previous period of devolution, the Department had responsibility for sponsoring the construction industry. At that time we established the construction industry forum and took early steps to set up the Government construction clients group. Both projects were aimed at trying to make sure that there was higher priority for safety issues. The Construction Employers Federation members, who work in the industry, were very alert to safety— this was not just coming from the Government or the politicians, but from the industry itself. The developments we have seen since, and the development of Buildsafe-NI in particular, prove that. Of course, Buildsafe-NI is about work contracted by the public sector. The logic behind it is nevertheless to create a standard that will radiate out to all building work. The Committee welcomes the opportunity to confirm support for the continued good work of Buildsafe.
We must do all we can to educate young people entering the workforce and support the Health and Safety Executive’s plans to launch Safe Start Northern Ireland, which aims to do just that.
When the Committee was looking at early indication bids for the comprehensive spending review (CSR) recently, it learnt that HSENI’s Safe Start Northern Ireland bid is being regarded as a discretionary, lower-priority bid by the Department — it seems to be in the bottom five of the Departments CSR bids. If we want to put safety rather than savings first, that must be given higher priority.
Now, speaking in a personal capacity rather than as Chairperson of the Committee, I would like to see safety issues given a much higher priority right across the Government. When the Departments were created several years ago, the logic behind having “public safety” put into the name of a Department was to make sure that it would act as a safety auditor, examining the safety performance of all Departments. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has not been doing that job.
There is a valid role still to be applied, because safety issues must be addressed, whether they concern school buses, health and safety in the workplace, road safety or farm safety. Those issues are the responsibilities of different Departments. However, there should be one authority to set stronger standards and to ensure the development of a stronger safety culture.
I agree with the Members who mentioned the all-Ireland dimension to this issue. The issue could also be addressed at a British-Irish level in order to ensure a much higher standard of safety throughout these islands. The Government’s motto should be “safety first”, not “savings first”.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to start where my colleague Francie Brolly finished, because he made some valid points. Families who lose loved ones in accidents in the construction, manufacturing or food-processing industries not only suffer that loss, but they often do not know what their rights are. They do not know how to move forward, because they are suddenly thrown into an unexpected and tragic situation.
The Health and Safety Executive has an awesome responsibility. However, we must define who should look after the next of kin. A properly funded service should be set up to inform family members how the investigation into the accident is developing, to assist them in establishing their legal rights and direct to them to, or provide, counselling services.
Without going into too much detail, I know of one family that lost a loved one in a factory accident. The family only found out that there would be no prosecution six months after the decision was taken. They had to phone and ask what was happening with their loved one’s case, which added to the trauma of the experience.
As I have said, the HSENI has an awesome responsibility. First, it must ensure that health and safety procedures are in place across all factories and construction sites. Secondly, it must investigate in the terrible event of a death at work, ensuring that the investigation is carried out thoroughly and properly and that no stone is left unturned.
I will communicate privately with the Minister about one case that has recently come to my attention where there have been failings. Health and safety inspectors do a traumatic job; investigating the details of any death is traumatic. However, inspectors not only investigate a death but try to ensure that that sort of incident never happens again.
If employers are found to be liable for an accident, they must be brought to book. That raises the need to introduce corporate manslaughter legislation. Sinn Féin supports the call for such legislation, which has been the subject of previous debates in the House. I hope that the Minister will inform us of a timescale for, or at least his views on, corporate manslaughter legislation.
I want to touch on another matter that concerns workers in the construction industry and other sectors. There is now a large migrant worker population, and the Assembly must ensure that all information is available in the languages of those workers. Too often, migrant workers do the lowest paid, most dangerous and dirtiest jobs, and they are therefore at the highest risk. There is an onus on us, as politicians, and on the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that all publications are available in the languages of those people.
Mr Neeson: I welcome the debate, although the Minister addressed the issue at Question Time only two weeks ago. All Members must acknowledge the growth in the construction industry in recent years. We must also recognise that the industry is employing a growing number of migrant workers who may not be aware of the law or who may be used to different working practices.
I welcome the Construction Industry Forum initiative, but I believe that it is important that we should also involve the trades unions and public sector bodies that have an interest in the industry.
There have been many accidents on construction sites over the years, but today there is a greater awareness throughout Northern Ireland of the need for health and safety on building sites. I very much appreciate the work of the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees the safety of workers on such sites, and I also appreciate the good work that is done by buildings services departments at local government level. However, the workforce on site is not the only group of people who are affected by this issue. I believe strongly that sites must be made secure, given the many accidents over the years in which children, sadly, have sometimes been killed after straying on to building sites.
The building boom is now bringing a different type of construction to Northern Ireland. Under the proposed plans for the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, the whole skyscape of the city will change in the coming years. With taller buildings, much more intricate problems will arise so training in health and safety will be vital for employer and employee alike.
Finally, I wish to make the point that the promotion of health and safety in the workplace is in everybody’s interests.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I thank Mr Cree and Mr McFarland for proposing the motion, which calls on the Executive to ensure continued progress in addressing accident rates in the construction industry through the Buildsafe-NI initiative. This has been a short but useful and constructive debate, and I thank all Members who have made their views known during it.
As the Minister responsible for health and safety at work, let me confirm my commitment and that of the Health and Safety Executive to reducing the number of needless incidents on building sites that result in death and injury. I am pleased to hear the comments, which Members from all sides of the House have made, about the excellent work that the Health and Safety Executive carries out.
As Members will know, Buildsafe-NI was set up four years ago to reduce the unacceptable number of deaths and major injuries that occur in the construction industry. To give some background to the initiative, let me explain that it brings together a range of key stakeholders including Government — in the shape of the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, both of which are major clients of the construction industry — as well as contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, construction professionals such as architects and engineers, the Construction Employers Federation, the trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive.
Although its focus is on health and safety, Buildsafe is not just a departmental initiative; rather, it has broader cross-departmental ownership and is run under the auspices of the Construction Industry Forum, which, as Mr Durkan mentioned, is sponsored by the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Buildsafe aims to get things done and make change happen. The representative working bodies that make up the Buildsafe working group each have an action plan through which they make their contribution to the initiative’s overall aim of reducing the number of major injury accidents among construction workers to 50% of the 2002 level by 2008.
Several Members raised the issue of statistics. In 2002-03, 60 major injuries were reported. It is unfortunate — although unsurprising — that that figure climbed to 98 in 2004, before falling to 88 in 2006-07. I say that the increase is unsurprising because, as several Members pointed out, the number of people who are employed in construction rose by almost 30% during the same period. To that can be added the greater statutory reporting of accidents, and that is due to an increase in HSENI inspections.
Although those figures are a stark reminder of the high-risk nature of construction work, they should not be allowed to mask the progress that has been made. For instance, in public-sector contracts — the sector in which Buildsafe-NI has had the greatest uptake — accidents have decreased by 40%, with fatal accidents also showing a downward trend.
Buildsafe-NI exploits the power of public-sector procurement to demand higher health and safety standards on publicly funded construction projects. That has led to the situation in which all contractors seeking to tender for public sector construction projects must provide evidence of fulfilling several conditions. First, they must show that their health-and-safety management systems have achieved third-party accreditation, and secondly, they must show that their site workers, and those of their subcontractors, have completed appropriate health and safety training. The numbers of construction workers who are being trained in practical site safety — some for the first time — is truly remarkable. Of the 80,000 or so who are currently employed in construction, over 90% have been trained and hold a construction skills register card, which is effectively their passport to working in the industry.
Efforts are being made to spread the public-sector procurement model, which has been deployed successfully under Buildsafe-NI, to large private-sector developers. Early indications are that many such developers are minded to move in that direction. Although we should be encouraged by that, we cannot be complacent. Buildsafe-NI does not have all the answers, and it does not reach the many small and micro-building businesses that we know exist. It is vital to ensure that everyone involved in construction fully understands their roles and responsibilities for workplace health and safety if improvement is to be made across the board.
Several Members referred to compliance, education and enforcement. In his opening remarks, Mr Cree talked about the need for enforcement and education. In previous contributions, I have indicated that it is critical to have both of those working in tandem and to use education to create a culture of increasing awareness. Mr O’Loan picked up on that point when he referred to the excellent work of QPANI and about the right attitude being instilled in that sector. Mr Hamilton also mentioned the work of QPANI — I know that he is not in his place, but he asked me to convey his apologies for not being present to hear the winding-up speeches.
People should not have any illusions about the fact that existing legislation requires employers and those who work in the construction industry to fulfil certain conditions. It is a matter of ensuring that the education process works alongside the industry and that everything is done to ensure that everyone involved in the industry takes the right attitude. We can have all the inspections that we like — and we need to carry out more inspections — but non-compliance should not be left to inspection alone: the industry must assume responsibility in that area.
Members will want to know that the Government intend to introduce further measures. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007, which come into operation on 9 July, will go a long way to ensure that everyone who is involved in construction understand their roles and responsibilities. The regulations will replace outdated and over-bureaucratic legislation that was introduced in the 1990s, and they will reduce bureaucracy and paperwork; simplify the regulations and improve clarity; encourage more co-ordination and co-operation; and be more flexible in their application. They offer an opportunity for a step change in health-and-safety performance. The new regulatory package will be used to re-emphasise the broader business benefits of a well-managed and co-ordinated approach to the management of health and safety in construction.
An approved code of practice supports the regulations. In addition, the industry has developed clear and simple guidance for small and medium-sized enterprises and clients. The guidance will be crucial in helping smaller clients to address misconceptions and alleviate concerns.
The Buildsafe-NI initiative has developed other ways to improve standards in the industry. These include the development of a communications plan to raise awareness of the main risks and the measures that can be taken to address them; the formation of six regional groups to communicate information and share best practice; and the provision of a mobile training unit to deliver specific training to individual sites.
In the public sector, the Department of Finance and Personnel recently held a seminar for housing associations and district councils in an effort to spread the benefits of the procurement aspects of the Buildsafe-NI initiative. A number of Members, including Mr Cree in his opening remarks, mentioned involving housing associations and local authorities. Currently, those bodies are encouraged, but not obliged, to adopt the system. More needs to be done to ensure that all district councils abide by the Buildsafe-NI initiative’s tendering rules. There are enough Members who are also members of local councils to ensure that that message is heard. There has been a good response from housing associations, which is encouraging.
The House will know that the initial phase of the Buildsafe-NI initiative is due to end in April 2008. Work is under way to evaluate and review progress and to develop plans that build on successes and address the weaknesses that are identified. Options for improving standards with smaller clients, subcontractors and the self-employed are already being discussed.
In talking about statistics and the available initiatives, we must not lose sight, as Mr Brolly stated, of the human dimension of accidents in the construction industry. We are talking about people who work to support their families, and are injured, sometimes fatally, at their places of work. In his powerful and important contribution, Mr Brolly brought home the human dimension of the issue and the human cost that he and his family have suffered. It was important for that message to be brought to the House, as it ensured that the importance of the issue was re-emphasised, particularly to the Department and me.
To those Members who mentioned the scale of the problem, none of us is complacent or thinks that enough has been done so far. The number of fatal accidents in the construction industry in Northern Ireland has remained fairly constant over the past six years. However, the number of incidents across public-sector contracts and private-sector contracts has risen. It is important to point out that, in the past five years, the Health and Safety Executive’s level of enforcement has increased by over 100%.
Members also raised the issue of resources for the Health and Safety Executive. The Health and Safety Executive gives priority to construction — a specific construction compliance team was recently established with 10 field staff, representing over 25% of its entire inspector and compliance officer cadre. The Health and Safety Executive has also freed up more of that team’s time for preventive work by allocating all major construction incident investigations to a specialised team.
The issue of migrant workers, which Mr O’Dowd raised, has become increasingly important in light of the level of immigrant workers arriving in Northern Ireland. The Health and Safety Executive has published a universal safety booklet that relays key health and safety messages to construction workers without the need for words. That has been widely distributed by the Construction Employers Federation and voluntary organisations that work with migrant workers.
Inspectors can also access interpretation services via their mobile phones when they encounter migrant workers on building sites. With that backup, during on-site inspections, they can ensure that migrant workers are adequately supervised and trained. Translators are now available to enable Polish and Latvian workers to undertake the safety training that allows them to be included on the construction skills register. That is an important issue and I hope that what I have said reassures Members that it is being tackled.
A number of Members mentioned the all-Ireland dimension of this matter. The Health and Safety Executive has already set up a working group with its counterparts in the Irish Republic. That group shares the expertise of those bodies, which are working on a number of initiatives together.
I cannot stress too strongly that Buildsafe-NI represents but one part of a much wider approach to improving health and safety standards in the construction industry. It is widely recognised that a key aspect of improving health and safety standards rests with ensuring that the directors of businesses take ownership of the matter, and personally take the lead in health-and-safety issues for their companies.
Mr Gardiner, Mr Brolly and a number of other Members raised the issue of corporate manslaughter. That issue is, as I pointed out in a previous contribution to the House, a matter for another place — it is not a devolved matter. It is a very important issue, and consideration is currently being given to it in Parliament. However, Members should be concentrating on what we can do as a devolved Assembly. I hope that this debate will ensure, as Mr Cree said, that attention is brought to that matter, and that it will reinforce to employers, and everyone involved in the industry, the need to actively and proactively do their bit as far as the health and safety of employees is concerned.
Although the focus of the motion is on accidents, a bigger issue, which is often ignored or overlooked, is the illness and health problems suffered by those who work in the construction industry. That issue was touched on, to some extent, by a number of Members. I can assure Members that that is also an issue that my Department will take seriously.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. I am sorry that I have not had more time to respond to all of the points that have been raised. I look forward to hearing from Members if there are individual cases that they wish to draw to my attention. They can be assured that I, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department view this matter with the utmost seriousness.
Mr McFarland: This has been a useful debate. My colleague Leslie Cree set out the safety problems that are faced by employees of the construction industry in Northern Ireland. Statistics show that six people were killed in the construction industry last year. As the Minister said, some 88 people suffered major injuries during that period. Furthermore, approximately 211 people were off work for more than three days due to injuries in the last year. Therefore, this is a serious issue.
The three major causes of deaths and injuries over a number of years have been falls, people being crushed as trenches have collapsed, and — strangely — electrocutions as building machinery has touched overhead wires.
Simon Hamilton highlighted increased construction in Belfast, which is much welcomed, and the need to protect workers — a group that he said had been left behind in the past and treated as a low priority. Paul Maskey pointed out that there are more people involved in the construction industry. He also highlighted the issue of children and others having accidents on poorly supervised construction sites. Furthermore, he referred to the increased risks that are faced by young and inexperienced workers.
Declan O’Loan referred to the need to expand the Buildsafe-NI initiative into the private sector of the building industry and into smaller firms. He mentioned the good work in the area of safety introduced by the Quarry Products Association and its suggestion that an incentive scheme be introduced to encourage people to improve safety.
George Robinson gave strong support to the Buildsafe-NI initiative. Francie Brolly gave a moving account of the effect that his father’s death — from a construction accident — had on his family. That brought a stark reality to the debate. He mentioned the issue of corporate manslaughter. He also raised with the Minister a matter that my colleague Sam Gardiner had raised during Question Time on 18 June 2007 and during the Transitional Assembly — the issue of whether a firm that does not look after its workers can be taken to court.
Mr Brolly also raised the issue of cross-border Buildsafe and the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on workers who were present when their co-workers were killed or injured.
My colleague Sam Gardiner spoke movingly about a young man in his constituency who had been killed on a building site, and he outlined the campaign for corporate manslaughter legislation that he has waged over several years.
Mark Durkan reiterated the human cost of construction accidents. He reminded the House of his role in developing the construction industry forum. He also spoke of Buildsafe and the proposed Safe Start initiative, and called for a higher priority and proper financial support for safety issues.
John O’Dowd spoke of the need for further clarity on workers’ rights and greater support for the families of those killed or injured so that the trauma of their experience is not exacerbated. He highlighted the need for a lesson to be learned after accidents so that they do not happen again, and for sanctions against errant employers. He also spoke of the need for translation for migrant workers, and the Minister has very kindly just covered that in his speech.
Sean Neeson also talked of support for migrant workers, and he pointed out that building sites must be secure so that children do not have access. I am encouraged by the Minister’s contribution that he was committed to the safety of workers on construction sites. I am pleased to see that new regulations are to be introduced in July, and I also welcome his information on increased training and other co-ordination measures.
In conclusion, we have heard that Northern Ireland lags behind other parts of the United Kingdom in keeping its construction workers safe. It could be argued that because we have a construction boom here — one only has to look at the number of cranes on the Belfast skyline to see that — a greater number of employees are involved and thus the risk may be greater. It could be argued that the increase in number of migrant workers, whose first language is not English and who therefore may not fully understand instructions given to them, might be raising the risk level. However, none of these should be a factor if employers are fully training their on-site workers and if those in charge have carried out a comprehensive risk assessment.
Good work has been done since the introduction of Buildsafe in 2004. I urge the Minister to discuss with employers, unions and the Health and Safety Executive how Buildsafe-type measures can be rolled out across the construction industry, and in particular into the private sector. It is in the interests of all involved to avoid loss of life or injury to workers; trauma to the families; and the loss to companies in fines, in downtime of workers on the site, and in PR embarrassment if they are found guilty of not protecting and caring for their workers properly.
Improvements have been made to safety in the construction industry, but more needs to be done. I support the motion and urge the House to do likewise.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure continued progress in addressing accident rates in the construction industry through the Buildsafe Northern Ireland initiative.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question Time will start at 2.30 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 2.14 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Free Personal Care for Older People
1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to set out the timescale for the introduction of free personal care for older people in Northern Ireland. (AQO 248/07)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I have asked my officials to review, by the end of October, the work carried out by a group from the previous Executive that examined the potential impact of free personal care. When that review is complete, I will consider to its findings and prepare a proposal for my Executive colleagues. If the Executive are content with the proposal, and if it has the support of the Assembly, it is estimated that the earliest possible date for the introduction of free personal care for all client groups in Northern Ireland will be April 2010.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the clear will expressed by the Assembly in a debate a few weeks ago to introduce free personal care in 2008, can he give any hope that that timescale can be advanced?
Mr McGimpsey: I have covered the timescale issue on more than one occasion. I am bound by process, as much as by anything else, in progressing the legislation. Organising finances will be a major part of introducing free personal care. Guidance for officials at the end of the process will also have to be produced. Given that, April 2010 is a realistic date.
Mr Shannon: The Minister will be aware of the difficulties in introducing free personal care in Scotland. With that in mind, has he had any consultation with his colleagues in the Scottish Executive on how some of those difficulties could be avoided? That would improve the situation for us.
Mr McGimpsey: Mr Shannon makes a good point. Experiences in Scotland and Wales will form an important part of the review.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I welcome the Minister’s comment that he will examine the issue of free personal care. He said that the earliest possible date for the introduction of free personal care in Northern Ireland will be April 2010. Given that that date is some three years away, what steps can the Minister take in the interim to help address the problem?
Mr McGimpsey: As I said during the debate in the House on the issue, there are certain measures that can be considered in the interim. One important step would be to make provision for disregarding the value of the family home as part of a resident’s financial assessment. Another step that has been taken in other parts of the United Kingdom is to increase the capital thresholds at which a resident becomes liable to pay the full cost of personal care. My Department will look at that issue in the interim.
Increasing the personal expenses allowance to allow residents a higher level of income to spend on personal items will also be considered. The allowance is aimed at those people at the lowest end of the scale of income who rely entirely on their old-age pension. Most of their old-age pension is taken up with paying for their costs. On average, those at the lowest end of the income scale are left with £5 a week for personal expenses. That is hopelessly inadequate. We will look at how we can increase that amount of that allowance.
Hospital Car-Parking Fees
2. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety how much money was raised in car-parking fees at each hospital in Northern Ireland that charges for this service, in each of the last two years. (AQO 233/07)
Mr McGimpsey: The following amounts were raised to the nearest £1,000 in 2005-06 and 2006-07 respectively: Belfast City Hospital, £627,000 and £726,000; Ulster Hospital, £508,000 and £538,000; and Mater Hospital, £108,000 and £117,000. The amount raised at Altnagelvin Area Hospital was £85,000 in 2006-07, when charges for car parking were introduced there.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that it is often elderly people, the infirm, those suffering from acute conditions, or their families, who are most frequently within hospital precincts, what steps will he take to ensure that charges are kept to a minimum? Furthermore, what steps will he take to maximum relief for people in those categories?
Mr McGimpsey: As regards frequent visitors and those who are ill, concessions are already offered to patients who attend hospital regularly.
The Member raises an important point. Car parking at hospitals was debated in an Adjournment debate on car-parking facilities at Daisy Hill Hospital. During that debate, I gave an undertaking that the Southern Health and Social Care Trust would start a review into car parking at that hospital, and, as I said, a review on car parking throughout the hospitals estate is already under way.
There is a balance to be struck between penalising people who use hospital car-parking facilities as park-and-ride schemes — a problem faced by the Ulster Hospital and Belfast City Hospital — but not punitively overcharging people who must visit hospital. The review is ongoing and should be completed by the end of the year; it will enable me to be better informed in taking the next step in tackling the issue.
Mr A Maginness: I am interested in the figures that the Minister gave. Does the surplus money raised from car parking charges go to private companies or to the relevant hospital? If the money goes to private companies, what are the Minister’s plans to guarantee that any future profits raised from car parking will go to the Health Service?
Mr McGimpsey: Mr Maginness makes a crucial point: we must ensure that moneys raised from car parking go straight into the Health Service or to the relevant hospital. The manner in which car parks are provided, and the cost and income involved, are relevant. However, surplus moneys should, as a matter of principle, be automatically returned to the relevant hospital. That is what I seek to achieve, and the review into car parking provision will help in that regard. My understanding is that the revenues that I quoted to the House are returned to the relevant hospitals.
Mr Kennedy: I congratulate the Minister on his first Question Time as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
The Minister will recall his very welcome announcement to the Assembly on 19 June this year that he would initiate a review of car parking in the aftermath of the Adjournment debate on car parking problems at Daisy Hill Hospital. Does the Minister agree that it is of concern that some people are still using hospital car parks as park-and-ride facilities? Will the Minister ensure that the review considers all relevant issues to ensure adequate car parking spaces at hospitals for staff and patients alike?
Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Kennedy for his supplementary question. He has raised another key point for the review. It is a matter of striking the balance between charges that simply cover costs and, at the same time, providing a determinate penalty to combat fly parking. The crux of the issue is to provide car parking for staff, outpatients and visitors while penalising anyone who uses hospital car parks for convenience.
That issue is part of the review, and I am looking forward to the outcome. Park-and-ride schemes are one option to be considered. I am examining the situation at Daisy Hill Hospital, as Mr Kennedy is aware, because of the difficulties there.
Respite Services for those with Learning Difficulties
3. Mrs I Robinson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what action he is taking to improve respite services for those with learning disabilities. (AQO 272/07)
Mr McGimpsey: Families and carers provide the backbone of support for people with learning disabilities. A wide range of respite care provision is available throughout Northern Ireland, including residential and family settings. However, a recent survey has shown a shortfall in provision. That is not acceptable, and I am considering how those vital services can be extended and improved when setting my Budget priorities.
Mrs I Robinson: Given the high number of children with special needs and learning disabilities, what does the Minister intend to do in relation to respite provision in the Strangford and north Down areas in particular?
Mr McGimpsey: I cannot answer the Member’s question about provision in Strangford and north Down specifically. However, there is a shortage in provision. There are 1,105 residential respite places available solely for people with a learning disability.
Out of that, there are some spaces for long-term care and some for respite care. The Department is also examining initiatives that can extend the nature of respite care, because it does not always have to be in a residential setting. Some of the initiatives that are being examined are: increased capacity for non-residential respite schemes; the development of partnership arrangements for children with the independent sector; residential placements for children; sharing and caring placements; supported living schemes and alternatives to traditional respite care; the development of host family and specialist child-minding; and core worker respite. I cannot be specific as to how that will impact on Mrs Robinson’s constituency. However, I will write to her and provide details.
Mrs O’Neill: Does the Minister agree that it is unsuitable for children with disabilities to be placed in residential accommodation for older people?
Mr McGimpsey:I agree in principle. Residential accommodation for older people would not be termed suitable for children with disabilities. However, there has been a history that the Department is determined to get away from in relation to such placements. In the past, children were placed in unsuitable respite accommodation. The Department is endeavouring to move away from that, and strict protocols are now in place.
Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister to the Chamber for his first Question Time during this mandate of the Assembly. He has been in the Chamber quite a lot. Does the Minister agree that the reduction in the number of trusts will allow for a more co-ordinated approach in the effort to address the problem of unsuitable respite accommodation? Will the Minister seek a regular update from the trusts to ensure that progress is being made in that area?
Mr McGimpsey: The answer to both those questions is yes. Regular updates are crucial. As I said in my answer to Mrs Robinson, current respite provision is inadequate and unsatisfactory. There is a shortfall in provision, and we must deal with it. The number of trusts has now been reduced from 18 to five, which seems to have been a sensible step to have taken. That will help to co-ordinate and, to an extent, allow for some local flexibility. It will also ensure that no postcode lottery is involved in respite provision and that we can achieve uniformity of provision.
Sexual Abuse of Children
4. Mr Simpson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what meetings his Department has had in 2007 in relation to sexual abuse of children by members of the clerical profession, with (a) the Police Service of Northern Ireland; (b) the Roman Catholic Church; and (c) other bodies. (AQO 234/07)
Mr McGimpsey: Mr Speaker, since this is a three-part question, I ask for your indulgence when providing an answer.
To date, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has not had any meetings in 2007 in relation to the sexual abuse of children by members of the clerical profession with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI); the Roman Catholic Church; and other bodies. Previously, DHSSPS officials have met senior representatives of the Roman Catholic Church on 20 December 2005; 6 February 2006; 8 February 2006; 9 February 2006; and 8 March 2006. They have met representatives of the PSNI on 23 November 2005; 20 December 2005; 17 January 2006; and 6 February 2006; and they also met colleagues in the Republic of Ireland on 8 November 2005 and 16 March 2006.
Departmental officials have also corresponded with the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Church of Ireland and the Free Presbyterian Church to ascertain what child protection policies and guidance each has in place, with a view to bringing representatives together to confirm and agree best practice in that area. The policies and legislation currently in place to safeguard children apply equally to members of the clergy as they do to other members of the wider community. There is a legal requirement that all allegations of child abuse be reported to the appropriate authorities — namely, the PSNI and social services — for investigation. It is important to emphasise that the safety of children remains one of my main priorities. Whatever action I consider to be appropriate to maintain their safety will be taken.
Mr Simpson: In a letter to ‘The Irish News’, dated 18 June 2007, Fr Patrick McCafferty, himself a victim of abuse, echoed my long-standing call for a full independent inquiry into the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse, claiming that only full disclosure will bring healing.
Does the Minister agree with that assessment, and will he join me in making that call?
Mr McGimpsey: I am happy to agree with Mr Simpson. As I said, I will take whatever steps are necessary and appropriate to maintain the safety of children. Full disclosure is important. My Department has at its disposal the ‘Disqualification from Working with Children List’, which dates from 2005, and prevents the employment of people who pose a risk to children.
That measure will be further strengthened in the autumn by the introduction of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which will establish a new vetting and barring scheme to put people on the disqualification list, widen the vetting range and deepen the vetting process. That will marry well with similar processes in England and Wales and produce uniformity. Scotland operates a different, although parallel, system; the Irish Republic, sadly, is some way behind. My Department is also examining the establishment of a regional safeguarding board next year, which will oversee the entire process.
It is my understanding that the Churches refer cases straight to the police. I am comfortable with that approach as long as the relevant vetting and barring processes are universally implemented. Nobody is above the law in this or in any other case.
Mr O’Loan: I note the breadth of the Minister’s answer. Does he agree that the original question is highly selective in its reference to one particular Church; that the issue of sexual abuse is of crucial importance and must be addressed by all groups that involve young people; and that it is too important an issue with which to play politics?
Mr McGimpsey: I mentioned the other Churches in my answer, because this matter is a challenge for all of society, from which no one is exempt. The measures introduced by my Department are backed up by legislation, and it is important that we all work together on a common agenda. I am sure that we will.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. What meetings have he or his departmental officials had with their counterparts in the Twenty-six Counties to encourage the establishment of an all-Ireland child protection register?
Mr McGimpsey: I have had no meetings to date with my counterpart in the Irish Republic, who, because of the election, has only recently taken up her post. I had hoped to have a meeting with her this week, but the arrangements for the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council have been deferred until the autumn. However, a meeting with the Minister for Health and Children in the Irish Republic is firmly on my agenda. I will support any measure that benefits the health of people in Northern Ireland, and I am ready to co-operate with the Irish Minister for Health and Children where such benefits can be realised.
5. Mr Neeson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what consultation has taken place with general practitioners concerning the review of the introduction of free prescriptions for all in Northern Ireland. (AQO 252/07)
Mr McGimpsey: Since I announced a cost-and-benefit review on 15 May, officials have been working on the arrangements to carry that forward. The review will be a complex piece of work, and I am determined to get it right. Preparations are at an advanced stage, and a range of interested parties will soon be invited to take part in the review. So far, no formal approaches have been made to any interested parties. It is my intention that general practitioners, as key stakeholders in primary care services in Northern Ireland, will be represented in the review.
That will help to inform the consideration of issues such as the potentially increased workload of GPs as a result of deciding to adopt a policy of free prescriptions for all.
Mr Neeson: I appreciate that the Minister and his Department are carrying out a cost-benefit analysis. Will he ensure Members that there will be full consultation with all GPs in Northern Ireland, and will he monitor the impact and benefits that free prescriptions are having in Wales?
Mr McGimpsey: Yes. Looking at expected costs, unforeseen costs and experiences in other jurisdictions will be part and parcel of the review. For example, the Member will be aware that, over six years, Wales moved to the position of providing free prescriptions. Scotland has been providing free prescriptions for people suffering from serious or chronic conditions, but is now, under the coalition Government of Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, moving to introduce free prescriptions for all. Those experiences will help to inform our considerations. Full consultation with primary-care providers will also play a key part.
Mr K Robinson: I welcome the Minister’s announcement, on 15 May 2007, of the cost-benefit analysis. I encourage the Minister and his officials to look at the various models throughout the UK and not just the Welsh model. Undoubtedly, there are a number of valuable lessons to be learned from the English and Scottish models also.
Mr McGimpsey: I will take Mr Robinson’s point on board. I will consider examples of best practice and I will seek to have the widest consultation possible. The Department wants to get this right and not end up with a process that is underestimated and underfunded and would, therefore, lead to difficulties. The Department wants to be accurate in every step it takes.
Accessibility of Hospital Services
6. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to outline issues relating to the accessibility of hospital services in the south-west of Northern Ireland. (AQO 283/07)
Mr McGimpsey: I am committed to providing access to safe, high quality hospital services to all the people in Northern Ireland. Hospital services for those in the south-west are currently provided by the Erne Hospital and the Tyrone County Hospital. With a major investment of £450 million, we will provide two new hospitals: a new acute hospital to the north of Enniskillen, which is due to open in 2011, and a new local hospital in Omagh, which is due to open in 2012. Those new hospitals, together with enhanced primary and community care services, will provide the people in the south-west with health services designed to meet their needs.
Mr Elliott: I welcome the Minister to his first Question Time, although he is no stranger to the Floor of the House.
I thank the Minister for his commitment to accessible health services in the south-west, and for his commitment to the provision of two new hospitals in that area at a cost of around £450 million. Of course, the Department for Regional Development is also involved in the accessibility issue. Will the Minister outline what arrangements have taken place, or are planned, between himself, the Minister for Regional Development and the Department for Regional Development to ensure that there is proper accessibility provision for the south-west hospitals?
Mr McGimpsey: I agree wholly that improving roads in the south-west will help to make hospital services more accessible. I see that the Minister for Regional Development has just entered the Chamber. His officials and mine have been in discussions about priority schemes along the A32 that the Ambulance Service and Roads Service have identified as developments that would significantly improve the roads infrastructure.
I am committed to providing safe accessible services for the people of the south-west. Part of that commitment must involve improving the roads infrastructure, and the outline business case for the hospitals included a £5 million upgrade of the A32. However, it is very much work in progress and the beginning of a process. Anyone who has driven along that stretch of road knows that it has been lacking in investment for many years.
Mr Gallagher: The visit by the Minister, soon after he assumed office, to the south-west was welcome, and I am sure that he will agree that it is a sprawling rural community and that access is a crucial issue. Will the Minister ask his Department to reconsider the matter of an air ambulance that could serve the entire west of Ireland? Furthermore, will he raise the matter of an air ambulance based at St Angelo airport, given the increase in air activity and the development of servicing for aircraft and helicopters there, at his meeting with his counterpart from the Republic of Ireland?
Mr McGimpsey: When I visited the south-west, we discussed the possibility of an air ambulance based at St Angelo airport. I was not aware until that visit that an infrastructure is in place there that can service helicopters. However, I must consider the Ambulance Service as a whole, particularly in the south-west. I gave a commitment that I would consider the provision of ambulances for the Omagh area, as there are concerns about accessibility, which have been, in part, addressed by the improvements that have been made to the Ambulance Service. In principle, I am happy with a helicopter-based service but not if it is at the expense of a land-based service. That is the key calculation; however, a helicopter service does have tremendous uses for remote areas. Dr Coulter frequently makes the point that such a service would be useful for Antrim, but I must consider how it relates to the land-based service.
Mr Buchanan: Will the Minister agree that people in the south-west, especially in my constituency of West Tyrone — recently reported as the most socially deprived part of Northern Ireland — do not receive equality of safe services, given that only 48% of emergency calls in that area met the rapid response ambulance target of eight minutes? What plans does he propose to put in place to address that unjustified deficiency, both in the short term and for the long-term safety of my constituents?
Mr McGimpsey: The Ambulance Service has not met its targets, and not only in Mr Buchanan’s constituency. Those targets are being reviewed again. Measures have been put in place in the south-west in order to upgrade the service. For example, an additional 24/7 accident and emergency ambulance has been operational since August 2006, for which 11 additional staff were recruited and trained. A new accident and emergency ambulance has been in operation since January 2007 to replace the spare vehicle. An intermediate-care crew has been place since July 2006. Two paramedic rapid response units are operational from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. Clinical support officers have been in place since March 2006, and a new ambulance deployment point at Fintona fire station has been available from March 2007. Two intermediate-care vehicles were commissioned for the Omagh area and have been in operation since early February 2007. All of that, in itself, will not do the job, but it shows that the Ambulance Service has responded to the points made by Mr Buchanan and others about ambulance provision. That was one of the points that I made when I announced the new, enhanced local hospital in Omagh. Ambulance provision was one of the other investments to go with that hospital.
Counselling and Advisory Services for Young People
7. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make a statement on the availability of counselling and other advisory services to young people suffering from depression. (AQO 245/07)
Mr McGimpsey: Depression is a common disorder of varying severity. A range of counselling services in a range of settings are available for young people who suffer from depression, from self-help and peer-support initiatives to specialist mental-health inpatient services. Those are provided by both the voluntary and statutory sectors. Depending on the severity, treatment can be anything from informal befriending to more formal and intensive psychotherapy. The Department of Education funds, through the children and young people’s funding package, the independent schools counselling service, which will be fully operational in all post-primary schools from September 2007.
Current resources will provide for a half-day counsellor time each week for schools that want it. Young people may self-refer to that service as well as being referred by the school or their parents.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response. With the rising suicide rate, will the Minister assure us that the funding —
Mr Deputy Speaker: It should be question 1 for the Minister for Regional Development. The Member is just lucky that she got two questions, one after the other.
Ms Lo: Sorry about that.
Availability of Student Reductions
1. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Regional Development to make a statement on the reductions available to students travelling home for the weekend on Northern Ireland Railways or Ulsterbus services. (AQO 246/07)
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, after that false start. Translink advises me that its student discount card provides access to reduced fares on its bus and rail services, including cross-border services. Those discounts are available throughout the week, including weekends.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response. Given the high cost of travelling — up to £20 for a return trip from university to home — will the Minister consider lowering students’ weekend fares to lessen their financial burden?
Mr Murphy: I appreciate and thank the Member for her question, and I fully appreciate the financial burden on students. There are no special travel concessions for students who return home at weekends, but they have full access to the range of student discounts that Translink provides. Some of those are a special student single and return fare on many Ulsterbus routes; a discount of up to 15% on standard adult fares of £2 or more; a discount of up to 33% on Northern Ireland Railways adult single fares; and Northern Ireland Railways student day-return tickets that are available at twice the single student fare.
Mr Wells: Does the Minister agree that it is important to promote the use of public transport among young people? Many young people are taken to school by their parents and go on to employment through which they have a company car — this might be their only opportunity to enjoy the benefits of public transport. Would the Minister consider the immediate promotion of reduced fares for young people and, as the hon Member for South Belfast Ms Lo suggested, further reduce weekend discounts, when much public transport —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Is the Member nearing the end of his question?
Mr Wells: This is for the ‘Down Recorder’. It is important that the Minister further reduces fares at weekends, when most of the buses and trains are empty anyway.
Mr Murphy: The primary aim of the concessionary fares scheme is to seek to address social exclusion, which is unlikely to be an issue for most students. Extending the scheme to include them is not a priority, especially in light of Translink’s commercial concessions.
Traditionally, in late summer each year, the Department for Regional Development receives requests for concessionary fares to be extended to include young people who have finished compulsory education but are remaining at school. The Department has made a bid for resources to provide half-price fares to young people aged 16 to 17. Any extension to that scheme will depend on securing the necessary resources and the successful completion of an equality impact assessment and consultation process.
Mr Attwood: I and, I suspect, my colleagues find that answer disappointing. Student debt has increased, and, in the future, students from lower-income backgrounds may not be able to apply to university. Given those circumstances, and before the beginning of the next academic year, which is only months away, the Minister should direct the relevant authorities to bring forward proposals to enable students to benefit from greater travel-cost reductions.
Mr Murphy: Thank you, go raibh maith agat. I am happy to listen to any arguments for extending those schemes. I suggest that the cost of travel is not a major element in student debt. Considering that the SDLP formerly held the portfolio for further and higher education, it was interesting that I did not hear the same concerns about student debt when there was an opportunity for it to do something about it.
Nonetheless, if the Member has any reasonable suggestions to make about how that might help alleviate student debt overall, I will be certainly happy to consider them in conjunction with the Minister for Employment and Learning.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn.
Effects of Development on Surface Drainage
3. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister for Regional Development if he has carried out, or plans to carry out, an impact assessment study of the effects of development on surface drainage. (AQO 265/07)
Mr Murphy: The potential impact of development on surface drainage is a material planning consideration, and it is considered both in the preparation of development plans and in the determination of planning applications by the Department of the Environment (DOE). In the preparation of a development plan, DOE Planning Service consults on drainage issues with Northern Ireland Water and other bodies with responsibility in that area. Informed by planning developments, Northern Ireland Water is taking forward a programme of just over 100 drainage-area studies across the larger areas of population in the North. The drainage-area studies will determine the improvements required to the sewerage network in order to reduce the risk of flooding and to meet environmental objectives within a 30-year horizon.
As well as undertaking public consultation on road developments, my Department’s Roads Service carries out an environmental assessment of proposed schemes, including managing any impact on the water environment. Some developments impact upon natural watercourses and flood plains. Northern Ireland Water consults the Rivers Agency about the discharge of surface water drainage into designated and undesignated watercourses. Under normal procedures developers or Northern Ireland Water apply to the Rivers Agency for volume and discharge consent.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mrs Carmel Hanna.
Mrs Hanna: Will the Minister state whether in areas such as South Belfast —
Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I had a supplementary question.
Mr Deputy Speaker: My apologies: I call Mr Robinson for a supplementary question.
Mr K Robinson: Your apology is accepted, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. No doubt he will agree that the recent flash-flooding incidents have caused widespread distress across Northern Ireland. Has any of those events been due, in any degree, to an increase in densities in housing developments and the subsequent increase in areas under tarmac?
Mr Murphy: As I said in my response, the Planning Service considers the increase in development and the impact that it will have, not just on Northern Ireland Water and the structures that it maintains but on the Rivers Agency and any other agency with responsibility. Those factors are taken into account. However, it is generally accepted that the drainage systems could not have coped with the flash flooding. We have seen similar incidents recently in Sheffield and other parts of England. There has probably been more investment in the infrastructure there than there has been here, but it was still unable to cope with the rain that fell over such a short space of time.
When a development is considered for planning approval, the Planning Service, with strong input from Northern Ireland Water and the other agencies, looks at the impact that it is likely to have on drainage and the potential for flooding.
Mrs Hanna: Following on from that, will the Minister state if, in areas such as South Belfast, where there is a considerable amount of construction work going on, conditions are put on developers and if they are policed to ensure that they do not overburden the system? Are those issues being properly addressed in the areas of South Belfast — Ardmore, upper Lisburn Road, Four Winds — that have already experienced flooding? I am aware that that may require a follow-up written answer.
Mr Murphy: On the areas that the Member mentioned specifically, I shall ask my officials to reply in writing.
Developers and the designs and standards that they have to meet is a planning matter. As I said in my initial answer, a determination on, and approval for, planning depends on a very rigorous examination of the drainage and sewerage provision and how it links into the overall drainage systems. The Rivers Agency and other relevant agencies are consulted, and all of their standards have to be met.
Undoubtedly, there are areas where flooding has occurred because of reasons other than housing development — in my constituency, for example. Matters that relate to new developments are, certainly, part of the planning process. The Department of the Environment assesses that and makes an approval based on the application. Standards are set in conjunction with Northern Ireland Water, the Rivers Agency and other interested agencies. I will provide the Member with specific details of the issues that she raised.
Mr Brolly: Given growing evidence of the link between urban overdevelopment and flooding, when will the Minister progress the recommendations in the Programme for Government Committee’s report on the review of public administration and rural planning?
Mr Murphy: The Programme for Government Committee dealt with a broad range of rural development issues, as well as the impact on the water, sewerage and drainage infrastructure. The Member will be aware that there is an ongoing court case on the matter. The Department has been somewhat limited in the developments that it can bring about because part of the outcome of the court case, if it were successful, is that the Department will no longer have responsibility for rural planning. Nevertheless, I have sent a paper to the Executive this week for consideration. The Department will endeavour to make as much progress as possible, pending the outcome of the court case. I intend to meet stakeholders to try to develop ideas to bring forward a more sustainable and balanced rural planning policy.
Ballykelly Village: Traffic Census
4. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister for Regional Development when a traffic census was last completed for Ballykelly village, and at what stage he would consider a bypass for the village. (AQO 281/07)
Mr Murphy: With regard to first part of the question, I can advise the Member that Roads Service collects traffic volume data by means of 273 automatic census points that are strategically located across the roads network. The information is recorded either throughout the 365 days of the year or during one week in each quarter; an annual average is then calculated. The results are published in Roads Service’s annual traffic and travel information report, which presents traffic volumes in a variety of formats for each site. The nearest automatic traffic census point to Ballykelly is located on the A2 at Greysteel. In 2006, the annual average, two-way, daily traffic flow at that point was 14,590 vehicles.
With regard to the second part of the question, I can advise the Member that a bypass at Ballykelly is not currently included in Roads Service’s works programme. However, the scheme formed part of the additional £400 million package of proposed strategic road-improvement schemes and was published for public consultation in 2006. Work on the assessment of the expanded strategic road-improvement programme is at an advanced stage. However, it has not been finalised. At present, therefore, I am not in a position to inform the House of the details of its content or timing.
Mr G Robinson: I appreciate that the traffic census figures that have been provided were taken in Greysteel, which is not far from Ballykelly. Does the Minister agree that a bypass at Ballykelly, which is situated at a main arterial route between Ballymena and Londonderry, is essential to alleviate the bottleneck that occurs every day in the village, and it must be considered if funding becomes available?
Mr Murphy: As I said in my original answer, census figures have been taken. The issue of a bypass at Ballykelly has been put forward for consultation under the advanced strategic road-improvement programme. It will, therefore, be considered. When the consultation process has finished, and the Executive have decided on their priorities, I hope that I will be able to give the Member a more favourable response. Unfortunately, however, I cannot comment at present.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Can the Minister give the House an update on improvements to the A6 Randalstown to Derry road?
Mr Murphy: At present, 36% of the A6 route is dual carriageway. That will increase to 47% when the road from Randalstown to Castledawson is dualled. The 30-km section of road from Derry to south of Dungiven will also be dualled. The Secretary of State announced that £250 million scheme in December 2005. An important announcement of the appointment of two major firms of consultants to progress the scheme is imminent. It is anticipated that the construction phase will commence towards the latter part of the planning period, which is 2015. When work is complete, 75% of the route will be dual carriageway. On the remaining section, several two-plus-one lanes have been constructed to allow guaranteed overtaking opportunities along the route between Castledawson and Dungiven.
Enniskillen: Traffic Gridlock
5. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his plans to resolve traffic gridlock in Enniskillen, in particular for through-traffic travelling to the north-west. (AQO 269/07)
Mr Murphy: The Department’s Roads Service is aware of traffic-congestion problems in and around Enniskillen but not of any specific additional delays for through-traffic travelling to the north-west.
I understand that current traffic-congestion delays in Enniskillen are primarily a consequence of developer-led works at Gaol Square that aim to cater for the extra traffic that the opening of the new Asda store later this year will generate. Roads Service staff are working with the developers to reduce the congestion that is arising from those works. The additional closure of the Quay Pass approach to Erneside Shopping Centre in order to facilitate flooding-relief works at the entrance to the shopping centre has exacerbated the situation.
The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr McHugh will be aware that Roads Service is also progressing major work schemes in the Enniskillen area at Henry Street and Cherrymount Link. The Henry Street scheme, which is expected to go on site early next year, will reduce traffic delays from the south-west to the north-west of the town. The Cherrymount Link scheme will reduce delays for traffic travelling from the south-east to the north-west.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. However, none of the works that he mentioned, or his associated comments, has anything to do with the gridlock that has occurred at both sides of the town for a number of years, and neither would completion of those works resolve that gridlock.
Enniskillen is the only county town in the Six Counties that does not have a bypass, yet the previous question for oral answer asked the Minister whether he would consider a bypass for a village. Considering that Enniskillen is the gateway to the north-west, and that traffic to and from Dublin, Galway and Sligo — [Interruption.]
Some Members: Speech.
Mr McHugh: I will ask my question. Does the Minister agree that there is an absolute and urgent need for Enniskillen to be marked down in the long term — or even in the short term — for a bypass rather than for the simple, soft jobs that will not resolve the problem?
Mr Murphy: I travelled through Enniskillen on a bus on Friday, and I did not experience the problems that the Member has mentioned. Perhaps it was a good day in Enniskillen. The A4 Enniskillen southern bypass is one of the schemes included in ‘Expanding the Strategic Road Improvement Programme 2015’, which went out to public consultation in July 2006. Roads Service is considering responses to that consultation exercise, and I am sure that the Member’s firm views will be noted.
Mr Elliott: I note that the Minister went to Enniskillen by bus and not by train — I wonder why. He mentioned the possible provision of a southern bypass. Will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made to provide a through-road on the new Tesco development site at Derrychara? Rather than have all traffic access the site from the Derrychara Road, it would be preferable to have some access from the A4.
Mr Murphy: I do not have the same knowledge of Enniskillen as the Member does, but I will inform him of some of the schemes that are going ahead. If they do not help to address his concerns, I will seek assistance from someone in Roads Service and send him a written response.
The statutory procedures for the Henry Street scheme have recently been completed. Contract procurement will take place over the next few months, and it is intended that construction will commence in early 2008. It is expected that the statutory procedures associated with the Cherrymount Link scheme will commence in the late summer or early autumn of this year. The developer-led works at Gaol Square will involve the replacement of a roundabout, while the signalised junctions are scheduled to be finished at the end of this month. Works to address the flooding problem at Quay Pass were also developer-led, and they finished recently — ahead of schedule. If none of those projects helps to answer Mr Elliott’s concerns, I will ensure that he receives a written response.
Mr Campbell: What is the Minister doing to alleviate the traffic congestion that is being added to by the abject and abysmal failure of the numerous new pay-and-display machines in car parks in Northern Ireland? The machines have cost £270,000 in the past 12 months, and their failure to work has led many motorists to circle towns in order to try to find legal car parking.
Mr Murphy: Traffic congestion is not a new problem, as I am sure the Member will remember from his days as Minister for Regional Development. Nonetheless, the Department has been working with National Car Parks Ltd (NCP) to provide car parking space, as well as metering and traffic-control measures, in major towns.
There is always room for improvement.
Mr Campbell: Those measures are not working.
Mr Murphy: We will certainly consider suggestions from the Member, and if any of them are reasonable, the Department will be happy to take them on board.
The current scheme has not been under way for long. However, many other towns are also experiencing congestion problems. I must add that not all those problems are to do with parking, as I am sure the Members is aware of from his days as Minister for Regional Development.
Road Improvement Scheme: Lower Chichester Street, Belfast
6. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the road improvement scheme at lower Chichester Street, Belfast, setting out (a) the full costs; (b) the start date; (c) the expected date of completion; and (d) the actual date of completion. (AQO 229/07)
Mr Murphy: The lower Chichester Street project is a street and road improvement scheme that the Department for Social Development (DSD) funds and my Department’s Roads Service manages. The scheme aims to improve the street’s attractiveness, introduce bus movement and enhance pedestrian and cycle routes to the river front. The high-quality building materials that are being used will complement the historical and new buildings along the street, which include the Royal Courts of Justice. The full cost of the scheme will be £1·5 million. Work on the project started on 24 November 2006, with its completion date expected in mid August 2007.
Mr A Maginness: Does the Minister not agree that, to start work on 24 November 2006 and to be finished some time in August of this year, is an extraordinarily lengthy period of time in which to complete roadworks? The street is between 100 yds and 200 yds long. I appreciate the high-quality materials that are being put into the streetscape, but, nonetheless, the scheme is taking an excessively long period to complete.
I refer the Minister to a song with which he is familiar.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question?
Mr A Maginness: In ‘The Mountains of Mourne’:
“there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.”
Perhaps the contractors on the lower Chichester Street road-improvement scheme do not have to dig in the street for gold, because they are getting £1·5 million for nine months’ work.
Mr Kennedy: Ask your friends that helped to put down the road. [Laughter.]
Mr Murphy: I thank “Percy French” for his question. The Member should bear in mind that the Department for Social Development is funding the project, so if he thinks he is not getting value for money, perhaps he should take up the matter elsewhere. [Laughter.]
The Member will know from his time as Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development that difficulties in urban areas can arise when a contractor drills down into a road. No one is ever sure what utilities lie there. In this case, in the early stages of the dig, the contractor discovered a number of unmarked buried utility services, which belonged to NIE and BT. Those utilities had not been identified at design stage. In order to complete the construction work, those services had to be diverted. Only the utility companies or their approved term contactors could do that work, and that led to a considerable delay in the progress on site.
The phasing of the work was vital to the scheme’s overall completion date, and once the contractor had been delayed in the initial phase, that had a knock-on effect for the remaining phases. Little scope was available in which to make up any time, due to the restricted nature of the site and the need to keep it open to pedestrians and vehicles.
The Roads Service and the project team are considering the optimum traffic-management arrangement for the junction of lower Chichester Street and Oxford Street, and that may result in the installation of traffic signals at the Oxford Street junction.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Part of my question has already been answered. However, who requested the improvement scheme and what are the supervisory arrangements? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Murphy: The Department for Social Development is the scheme’s main sponsor. DSD is funding the majority of the works. It is contributing £1·36 million, and the Court Service and the NIO are contributing £70,000 each. The Roads Service prepared the contract, which was awarded to FP McCann (Developments) Ltd. White Young Green was appointed as senior project manager and McAdam Design Partnership as engineers for the contract, with responsibility for the site supervisory role.
The Roads Service, the contactor, the senior project manager, the engineer and the Court Service hold fortnightly meetings to discuss progress, programming, and so on. There are monthly progress meetings of the project board, the Roads Service, DSD, the senior project manager and the engineer.
Development of Belfast International Airport
7. Mr Burnside asked the Minister for Regional Development to make a statement on the development of Belfast International Airport. (AQO 260/07)
Mr Murphy: I welcome the master plan that the owners of Belfast International Airport published. That plan sets out proposals for the development of the airport until 2030. The airport is a key economic gateway for the North, and I commend its owners for their commitment to further investment in and improvement of the airport.
Mr Burnside: At the first meeting with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer on the financial package for Northern Ireland, I suggested that the international airport at Aldergrove be designated an enterprise centre for innovation. The Chancellor committed himself to following up that proposal. After that, I had discussions with the chief executive of Belfast International Airport, and the subject has since gone nowhere.
Will the Minister give a commitment that he will speak to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and that he will also discuss that subject with HM Treasury? Belfast International Airport is a perfect location to site a centre of excellence for innovation, which should be in receipt of moneys from the innovation fund.
Mr Murphy: The Member may not be the first to be disappointed by the former Chancellor, who is now the Prime Minister. The innovation fund and associated projects are matters for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, given that the airport is privately owned and that the Department has no responsibility for its operation, if the Department for Regional Development can make any input, it will do so. I am happy to discuss the matter with my Executive colleagues. We are still striving to secure from the British Treasury the most advantageous package that we can. The Executive as a whole will want to consider the location of a centre of excellence for innovation.
Mr Ford: I am sure that the Minister agrees that the development of surface transportation infrastructure is a key issue in the development of business at the airport. Will he give a commitment that he will examine in detail any private-sector proposals for the reopening of the Knockmore railway line? I hope that he will not be doctrinaire by insisting on public investment for that project.
Mr Murphy: Given that the Knockmore railway line is the subject of today’s adjournment debate, the Member knows that in a short time there will be an opportunity to discuss it in greater detail. Lack of usage has been the problem with that railway line. The Member knows that it is generally agreed that in excess of 100 million passengers a year using an airport is the volume of passengers needed to sustain a railway link to an airport. The volume of passengers using the airport at Aldergrove is nowhere near that.
Members will have an opportunity to discuss the issue further in the Adjournment debate, and I will develop my Department’s thinking then.
Dr W McCrea: Is the Minister aware of the enormous economic benefits that will accrue to South Antrim if Belfast International Airport further develops its 900-acre holding?
Will he give an assurance that, if that welcome development proceeds, his Department will carry out the necessary infrastructural improvements? I speak especially of the provision of a railway link to the airport and of dualling the road from Templepatrick to the entrance of the airport.
Mr Murphy: I repeat the answer that I gave to Mr Ford. The volume of passengers that uses Belfast International Airport falls far short of that required to sustain a railway line. The economic case for that link is not strong enough. That is not to say that the issue cannot be revisited in future.
With respect to the road network, I presume that the Member is referring to the Templepatrick bypass. I will note the detail of his comments, and we will attempt to respond to him. A series of strategic roads is planned under ISNI II. They are designed to enhance key economic drivers in the area, including seaports and airports. Part of that plan is to develop the strategic transportation network. I am unsure which of those link roads is relevant to Aldergrove airport, but I will respond in greater detail to the Member’s question.
Rail Stops: New IKEA Store
8. Mr Cree asked the Minister for Regional Development what plans he has to provide additional rail stops at Holywood Exchange and George Best Belfast City Airport, following completion of the new IKEA store. (AQO 207/07)
Mr Murphy: There are no immediate plans to provide additional rail halts at Holywood Exchange and the George Best Belfast City Airport following the completion of the new IKEA store.
Planning permission for the IKEA site was granted on the condition that public transport facilities based on bus services linking Holywood Exchange to the centre of Belfast would be enhanced. The airport is served by a dedicated service to Belfast city centre every 20 minutes. However, the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan includes a longer-term proposal for a new railway station at Tillysburn. If that goes ahead, it would serve the Holywood Exchange and the George Best Belfast City Airport.
Co-ownership Housing Associations
1. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister for Social Development to indicate what plans she has to expand the operations of co-ownership housing associations in Northern Ireland. (AQO 266/07)
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): The co-ownership scheme, which is operated by the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Housing Association, is the only scheme of its type in Northern Ireland. Sir John Semple, in his report on the review into affordable housing, stated that there is scope for the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Housing Association to expand its business. That recommendation will be addressed as I take forward action on all of Sir John’s recommendations. Coincidentally, the first meeting of the interdepartmental affordability review implementation group will take place this Thursday.
Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer and for ensuring that the group will meet fairly quickly.
Will the Minister undertake to develop a range of equity options for first-time buyers that are more flexible than the current 50:50 arrangements and that might allow first-time buyers to take equity options as low as 20% of the purchase price?
Ms Ritchie: I will consider that matter as part of the implementation of the affordability review, and I will raise it at the first meeting of the implementation group.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The NIHE has indicated that it will release land worth approximately £250 million for sale. How much of that land will be used by the Department to provide affordable social housing?
Ms Ritchie: That is another issue that I will consider in the affordability review. We must ensure that we have as much as land as possible and that we are given the money to build houses, which is the most important priority. Only last week in Washington, I took the opportunity to discuss with various groups other possible options for the acquisition of funds. The bottom line is that I inherited a woefully inadequate budget. I fully realise that I need more money. If I am given the money, I will build the houses. If I can get land released, I will do that, too.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Has consideration been given to raising the upper price limits for eligibility under the co-ownership scheme?
Ms Ritchie: An in-year review will be conducted this September. Under the co-ownership scheme, price limits for properties are currently set at £225,000 in 12 district council areas, and at £180,000 in the remaining 14 district council areas. Given the rise in house prices, the price limits will be reviewed at the end of August or in September. If necessary, the limits will be increased, subject to approval from the Department of Finance and Personnel, and any increase would be effective from 1 October 2007.
Even though the average house price is close to the £225,000 limit, there is still a steady flow of applicants for the scheme. Sir John Semple’s final report on the review into affordable housing has recommended that consideration be given to abolishing the price limits and replacing them with eligibility criteria. I will ensure that the implementation group fully considers that issue and the other issues that have been raised today.
Pension Credit Advisers
2. Mr Weir asked the Minister for Social Development to outline what plans she has to review the number of pension credit advisers employed through the Social Security Agency. (AQO 203/07)
Ms Ritchie: My Department has recently reviewed the number of pension advisers required to deliver its outreach service for older people, and it has decided that 20 pension advisers will be employed throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr Weir: I must express concern that the number of those advisers is decreasing from 35 to 20. That will have a detrimental impact on pensioners. Given that 35 people are currently employed in that service and that there will be only 20 posts, what criteria will be used to select the 20 successful applicants for the post of pension adviser?
Ms Ritchie: I fully appreciate what the Member for North Down Mr Weir has said. I will give him some background details. I want to ensure that those 20 pension advisers will cover every part of Northern Ireland. I hope that in the selection of those criteria, the areas that have the greatest levels of deprivation and disadvantage will be taken into account. However, it is important that every area is taken into account. The review used historical information from the established outreach service along with forecasted demand arising from the agency’s changes and service delivery. It concluded that 20 advisers geographically dispersed throughout Northern Ireland could provide a fit-for-purpose outreach service for older people. I insisted that all areas of Northern Ireland be properly and adequately covered. It is anticipated that the new arrangements will be in place by September 2007.
The agency intends to write to all MLAs to inform them of the new arrangements and locations once they have been finalised. However, I confirm that all areas of Northern Ireland, including North Down, will have a dedicated adviser. I hope that all issues, including deprivation and disadvantage, can be addressed and that the criteria that are used for the selection of those people will conform to the best possible employment guidelines.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister think that the forthcoming pensions Bill will be of benefit to all, or just some, pensioners?
Ms Ritchie: Obviously, that is a matter that I will have to consider further. However, my primary aim in all this is to ensure that everyone who is entitled to benefits — particularly, as is the case here, the elderly, the infirm, or those who suffer from one or more disabilities — is able to access the benefit to which they are entitled. I hope that any future legislation will reflect the needs of the people in Northern Ireland and will be capable of tackling disadvantage and deprivation.
New Social Housing
3. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Social Development to indicate whether proposals existed to enable the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to build new social housing. (AQO 238/07)
Ms Ritchie: The Northern Ireland Housing Executive now manages the social housing development programme and provides grants to housing associations to develop newbuild social housing. Housing associations deliver the newbuild programme. That approach is based on value-for-money considerations. Housing associations, unlike the Housing Executive, can attract private finance without it scoring as public expenditure.
Therefore housing associations can deliver more social housing for a given amount of public funding. Since the introduction of private finance, housing associations have raised some £340 million in private funding, which means that they have provided the equivalent of about 5,000 new homes at no cost to the Exchequer. The Housing Executive maintains its role as a provider of last resort, but currently there are no proposals to enable it to exercise a direct-provision role. I fully understand where the Member is coming from, and I pay tribute to the Housing Executive and the housing associations for their current and previous roles.
Mr Ford: I appreciate that the Housing Executive’s new management and co-ordination role is in its early stages. However, will the Minister assure me that if she does not have any proposals to return new-build responsibilities to the Housing Executive, she is absolutely certain that the housing associations can provide the between 2,500 and 3,000 social houses that are needed in Northern Ireland every year?
Ms Ritchie: I agree with Mr Ford that I have been given an inadequate budget for this year; I inherited it from the direct rule Administration. As part of the affordability review implementation group, I want to ensure that we are provided with enough land release and sufficient resources to ensure that a large number of social houses can be built for the people of Northern Ireland.
Members are in no doubt that the housing crisis in Northern Ireland is characterised by a large number of people on waiting lists throughout Housing Executive district office areas and the inability of young people to get on the first rung on the property ladder. The latter is part of the affordability crisis caused by the appreciation in value of most houses and land. I want to address that with my Executive colleagues, and others on the expert panel, so that the best recommendations on how to resolve the crisis can be made.
Mr Burnside: I was watching RTÉ 2 last night — it is not often that I do — and there was an interesting programme about affordable housing in the South of Ireland. First, are there any lessons to be learnt from the problems that the Republic has faced? Secondly, what discussions has the Minister or her Department had with private-sector developers to try to create a partnership to address affordable housing needs?
Ms Ritchie: I firmly believe that much can be learnt from the housing crisis that has bedevilled the South of Ireland. Indeed, I hope to visit Dublin soon to look at social and affordable housing projects and to find out how the Government has tackled the issue there. I have already set in motion plans to meet my opposite number in Leinster House.
The Member also asked about the role of private developers and builders in solving the affordable housing crisis. Sir John Semple’s ‘Review into Affordable Housing’ stated that developers have an important and varied role to play in solving the affordable housing crisis. The review’s recommendations included building a range of housing types, from affordable to executive homes, and ensuring that 20% of houses in any housing development granted planning permission under article 40 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 are affordable houses. The review also recommended building relationships with housing associations, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Housing Association to assist with that.
The review also suggested working with the Planning Service and other key partners to develop a better relationship in order to assist in the planning and development process. The review also recommended developing more sustainable buildings that incorporate modern methods of construction and renewable energies, and working with others to help develop the necessary skills in labour forces to deliver new homes.
I reassure all Members that I will consider all of Sir John’s recommendations through the interdepartmental implementation group that I am chairing and which will be convened this Thursday.
Mr Burns: Does the Minister agree that it is grossly inadequate for her to have the finances to build only 611 new social houses?
Ms Ritchie: I fully agree with the Member for South Antrim Mr Burns. As I said, I inherited a totally inadequate budget from the direct rule Administration. I have made that clear in the several debates on affordable and social housing in the Chamber. I hope to gain the support of my Executive colleagues to ensure that a significant budget is obtained to deal with the most serious issue in Northern Ireland, which is the provision of social and affordable housing.
I have always said that the most important things that will improve a person’s health, social and mental well-being are the ability to access a house, as well as good training and job opportunities and to have food on the table.
4. Mr Simpson asked the Minister for Social Development to indicate how many people presented themselves to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as homeless in the last year. (AQO 222/07)
Ms Ritchie: The number of households presenting as homeless in 2006-07 was 21,013, of which 9,744 were accepted by the Housing Executive as statutorily homeless.
Tackling homelessness is a major priority for me. I recognise that homelessness is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a broader issue of social exclusion. I am impressed by the considerable developments in the provision for homelessness in recent years but, if we are to promote social inclusion successfully and comprehensively, much more needs to be done. I have therefore developed a strategy to promote the social inclusion of people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Through collaborative partnership working, the strategy aims to achieve various specific objectives, including preventing or minimising homelessness wherever possible, making accessible effective safe provision for those who are homeless and supporting, wherever possible, the homeless person’s progression to independent living. The strategy has been endorsed by my colleagues. My Department will take responsibility for managing its implementation.
Mr Simpson: What impact does the Minister expect that her current policy and initiatives, as outlined, will have on the number of homeless people in the Province over the next 12 months?
Ms Ritchie: I assure the Member that my intention — and that of my Department — is to ensure prevention. Everything surrounds the issue of bringing people in and ensuring that each has full access to a roof over his or her head. We need to prevent or minimise homelessness wherever possible, to make accessible effective, safe provision for those who are homeless, and to support the progression to independent living where that is possible. As Minister for Social Development, I fully recognise the problems that beset people who find themselves homeless. I want to ensure that the impact on them, and everything that is associated with that, is minimised.
Mrs Hanna: Will the Minister elaborate on the exact status of the strategy, and on when it will be published, to assure us that the issue is being addressed urgently?
Ms Ritchie: The strategy was adopted by the Executive at its most recent meeting. I hope to launch the strategy on Monday 9 July.
5. Dr McDonnell asked the Minister for Social Development to make a statement on her visit to the Village area. (AQO 284/07)
Ms Ritchie: My visit to the Village was extremely useful. Talking to local people and their representatives was very informative. I found a mix of sound, terraced housing and housing that was certainly unfit for habitation. My Department is carefully examining proposals from the Housing Executive and others for renewal work. I am committed to ensuring that the housing problems are addressed as quickly as possible. There is no clear consensus on the way forward at the moment. We need all groups to reach such a consensus that, ideally, should strike a balance.
I stress that there is more to reviving a community than simply providing new houses. It is important that we are able to put together a regeneration strategy that includes action to revitalise the entire area, its economy and facilities. I, and all Members of the House, must take on board the fact that we talk about the lives and the future of the people who live there. I want to be able fully to reflect that.
To move things forward, the Belfast regeneration office has, since 2004, invested almost £2 million in community development and physical regeneration projects in the Village area.
Dr McDonnell: Can the Minister indicate the timescale in which the unfit housing in the Donegall Road area of the Village will be addressed?
Ms Ritchie: We estimate that work is needed on approximately 400 of the dwellings. The vast majority of those are empty, and, roughly, 80 are blocked up. The Housing Executive continues to promote its grant improvement scheme to owners.
About a dozen houses in the area have only external toilet facilities. Previous efforts to upgrade those houses could not get the owners’ or tenants’ agreement. Some of the residents did not want to leave their houses for the length of time that the improvements would have taken, and others were concerned about a possible increase in rent or rates if the houses were improved. In view of that, I have asked my officials to meet the people who live in those dozen houses to see whether ways can be found to address their concerns.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): Given the extent of the chronic deprivation that we have seen in the Village area over the past few weeks — deprivation that most of us thought was a dim and distant relic of the 1960s — and the fact that it proves that such deprivation is not the exclusive preserve of any one community, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that, during this Assembly mandate, good quality housing is provided for communities across Northern Ireland?
Ms Ritchie: As Minister for Social Development, I firmly believe in and subscribe to the principle of equality. I also firmly believe that houses should be allocated on the basis of need and that everybody should have access to good quality accommodation and have a roof over their heads. Such were the chronic housing conditions that I saw in the Village area, I felt compelled to deal with the matter. Consequently, there will be a planning day for the Village area in the Wellington Park Hotel on 9 July. All the key players from that area will be invited to that event. The Housing Executive, housing associations and the private sector will give presentations to illustrate the potential future for the area.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister have any plans to visit other areas, such as rural communities west of the River Bann, that suffer as a result of social deprivation? Those communities have poor access to services, high unemployment levels and lack affordable housing. The Minister could perhaps suggest to them how their problems could be addressed.
Ms Ritchie: As I said from the outset, I am happy to visit any area to which I have been invited, whether that is an urban area, west of the Bann, in Belfast or in the south-east. In fact, tomorrow morning, I am visiting areas of north Belfast, including the long streets, St Joseph’s, St Patrick’s and Carrick Hill.
Financial Support for Town Centres
6. Rev Dr Robert Coulter asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the criteria on which financial support is allocated to town centres in Northern Ireland. (AQO 268/07)
Ms Ritchie: My Department can help in the regeneration of town centres in four ways: by assisting better planning and marketing of town centres; by tackling dereliction and market failure; by supporting comprehensive development projects on large sites; and by improving the streetscape. When deciding on the use of its resources, the Department will support projects that will deliver the aims of locally agreed town centre strategies. Decisions on individual projects are taken on the basis of some key tests, including the availability of funding; the evidence of the need for regeneration work to be carried out in a town; the likely impact that the project will have; and its compatibility with planning and other policies.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: The Minister will be aware that in the past there has been a large discrepancy in the grants that have been made available to different towns for town centre development. What steps will she take to ensure that the process for allocating funds is transparent and that all the stakeholders have a role to play in formulating the criteria by which money is awarded?
Ms Ritchie: My answer will cover several issues, and I will deal with each one. Subject to budgets and the following criteria, the Department for Social Development will support projects that have been identified in locally planned and supported city and town centre strategies. The project must be compatible with the town’s designation in the regional development strategy and the relevant area plans, and the long-term economic role of the town or city centre must be clear, with broad consensus about that among stakeholders. A town or city centre integrated regeneration plan must have been produced, and health checks must have been carried out. Any proposed project must make a significant contribution to the town or city centre.
The intervention should assist in achieving long-term structural change, which may initially include slowing decline. There must also be demonstrable evidence of the need for regeneration work to be completed in the area. The intervention should contribute to public-sector objectives on social inclusion and improving community relations. There must be evidence that the intervention will not seriously undermine or damage another development in the same town or merely displace activity from a neighbouring town. The intervention should also be co-ordinated by an effective city and town partnership of stakeholders.
Furthermore, delivery mechanisms must be in place to ensure effective completion of projects and programmes. Financial leverage, using public funding, must be clearly evidenced and secured up front. The potential impacts of wider Government policy developments must also have been considered, in addition to the potential impact of demographic change on physical infrastructure.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that there has been huge underinvestment in the greater Castle Street area of Belfast for many years? Will she consider commissioning a master plan for the area?
Ms Ritchie: I will consider the issue that the Member raised and write to him accordingly.
Mr Durkan: The Minister outlined the four policy pillars that inform her Department’s approach to town centres. Will the Minister keep those policy pillars under review to ensure that her Department is doing its utmost to support town centres that are under pressure, that need their fabric upgraded and their commercial viability restored? Are there plans to consider remodelling urban development grants?
Ms Ritchie: I agree with the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan that town centres need to be continually revitalised and that any retail establishment or town that is subject to pressure receives assistance. My Department’s mission statement is to build communities and to tackle disadvantage. To do that successfully, a continuous review is needed so that the four pillars of assessment are up to date and complement the requirements of any area. I will ensure that the urban development programme is subject to further investigation so that all towns in Northern Ireland that are under pressure receive the support to which they are entitled. Continuous assessment is required to tackle deprivation.
St Patrick’s Barracks, Ballymena and Use of Military Sites
7. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Social Development to indicate if her department has plans to bid for the land currently occupied by St. Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena, when it becomes available, for the purpose of social housing development. (AQO 201/07)
11. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister for Social Development to make a statement on the use of military sites by her department. (AQO 277/07)
Ms Ritchie: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall answer questions 7 and 11 together.
My Department has already acquired the vacant military site at Girdwood Barracks in north Belfast and is preparing an integrated master plan for it and the adjacent Crumlin Road Jail site. Master plans have been, or are being, drawn up for the Clooney, Fort George and Ebrington Army bases. Master planning for the latter two sites is being handled by the ILEX, the urban regeneration company, on behalf of the Department for Social Development and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
The Ministry of Defence has indicated that it intends to vacate further sites across Northern Ireland over the next two years, one of which is St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena. My Department has registered an interest in acquiring a number of those sites for regeneration. Affordable and social housing will be part of the regeneration of many of those sites — for example, the proposed creation of a mixed background, mixed tenure housing development on the site of Grosvenor Barracks in Enniskillen.
Departmental officials are working on option appraisals for several sites, as required under Government accounting rules. My Department has also agreed to facilitate the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s interest in Forkhill Army base.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What will the Minister do to alleviate the high level of housing stress in Ballymena, and has she identified the need for new provision for the homeless in the town?
Ms Ritchie: I hope to address the issue of housing stress in all areas, whether in Ballymena, Derry, Newry or Strabane. To do so, I will be working with the interdepartmental affordability review implementation group. I hope that the prime issue of social inclusion will be addressed through the rolling out of the homelessness strategy.
1. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Assembly Commission to outline what steps it has taken in relation to the uniform of the Assembly cleaning staff to make it more comfortable and more practical for working in. (AQO 218/07)
Mr Neeson: The provision of catering and cleaning services is contracted to Eurest under the support services contract; the cleaning service is subcontracted to Resource. It is a matter for Eurest and Resource to provide uniforms for the staff that they employ. However, under the terms of the contract, the Assembly Commission meets the costs of such consumables. Resource recently took delivery of a new uniform for cleaning operatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Resource has informed the Assembly Commission that the new uniform was chosen with comfort, appearance and durability in mind.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given what the representative of the Assembly Commission says, what steps will the Assembly Commission take to improve communication with all members of staff to ensure that grievances and disputes are resolved through trade union and staff representatives rather than on the Floor of the House?
Mr Neeson: The Assembly Commission believes in good employment practices and is committed to staff at all times. The Commission will ensure that, when required, appropriate, practical uniforms are provided to staff so that they can carry out their duties in comfort.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Antrim to Knockmore Railway Line
Mr Burns: I am delighted to introduce this debate on a topic that is of great interest to my constituents and which I know will have the attention of Members for South Antrim, Lagan Valley, South Belfast and further afield.
Many Members will recall that, in the face of public opposition, the rail service on the Antrim to Lisburn branch line — commonly known as the Knockmore line — which passed through the stations of Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry and Knockmore, was stopped in June 2003.
At the time, Translink said that the Knockmore line would be retained as an emergency diversionary route for the foreseeable future. The line has now been mothballed, and a replacement bus service is now in place for former rail passengers. However, strong public support remains for the reintroduction of the rail service. I am glad to be able to put that on record today.
Outside observers looking in on Northern Ireland may well ask themselves why a relatively small, but well populated, area, so close to a major city is without a proper rail service. They may ask how, in these days of intense interest and common concern about the environment, there can be such a glaring gap in public transport provision, and why many hundreds of people have no choice but to make private car journeys on increasingly congested roads rather than letting the train take the strain.
My fellow Assembly Members will be aware of how such a situation arose. In March 2000, the ‘Strategic Safety Review of Northern Ireland Railways’, which was undertaken by Arthur D Little Ltd of Cambridge, reported to Translink that £183 million was required to operate and maintain the existing network safely.
The NIO set up the Northern Ireland Railways Task Force to examine its strategic options for the future of the railway network in Northern Ireland, which it did partly through public meetings. In September 2000, the interim report of the task force was published. It stated that the Troubles had led to underinvestment in the network and to the breakdown of it; that progressive closure was inevitable unless investment was made for operational safety; and that political decisions were needed to end the uncertainty about the network’s future.
In the wake of the Little Report and the setting up of the task force, there were real concerns that the whole local railway network would be closed down. I remind Members that the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ mounted a splendid “Save Our Railways” campaign with the support of Translink, community leaders and local representatives. After a while, it appeared that a consolidation of the network seemed to be the preferred path for the NIO. Unfortunately, the Knockmore line was earmarked for closure.
Many voices united behind efforts to save the line. Friends of the Earth pointed out that a bus substitution service would not work because evidence from England where branch lines had been closed indicated that many passengers would simply transfer to private cars rather than buses.
I recall David Ford talking of the “bizarre situation” of a railway line running a few metres past a major airport but not being connected to it. That is a key point for us all to dwell on. Aldergrove is one of the few international airports in Europe without a rail link. There have been calls for the creation of a rail shuttle service from Aldergrove to Antrim station at least. As we look to enhance our regional economy, should we not consider making gateways such as the international airport more accessible through a better connection?
In April 2003, the NIO Minister Angela Smith MP told the House of Commons that she had decided to give her consent to the discontinuation of rail service on the Antrim to Lisburn line from June 2003 onwards. She said that she did so against the backdrop of competing transportation priorities in Northern Ireland, financial feasibility and a wider economic consideration. Minister Smith also stated that Translink had estimated that to obtain regular services on the line would require track maintenance costs of about £565,000 per annum and, in due course, £13 million to modernise the line. Some people may think that a reasonable decision was made, but I do not. A short-sighted, short-term decision was made that was detrimental economically, environmentally and socially to the people of Northern Ireland in the long term.
I am not an economist, but I raise a query on cost. Considering the environmental agenda, population targets and carbon footprints, what has been the cost to the local environment of the thousands of additional car journeys that have been made since the Knockmore line closed? What has been the cost to public health? I do not know — perhaps someone may.
Apparently, among the NIO’s reasons for closing the Knockmore line was the then lengthy travel time to and from Belfast via Knockmore junction. Until 2003, travel from Antrim town to Belfast took up to 45 minutes, as the train took a U-bend down through Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry, Knockmore and then on through south Belfast. There is no doubt that members of the public living in Antrim town and further north are delighted that travel from Antrim station via the Bleach Green line now takes only 25 minutes.
However, what about those who were left behind after the 2003 closure? The triangle area of Antrim town, Ballinderry and Lisburn, which is close enough to Belfast to be factored into growth considerations for the Belfast metropolitan area plan 2015, has witnessed increased demand for new homes due to the population overspill from Belfast and local young people who wish to remain in their hometowns.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
My hometown of Crumlin has grown from a small sleepy village of 2,400 people in 1992 to a small town with a population of around 8,000 in 2006. In 2000, a report to Antrim Borough Council noted that there could be an estimated 70% population increase in Crumlin over the subsequent five years. Likewise, the nearby village of Glenavy, which in 2001 had a recorded population of 1,800, has experienced enormous growth. The draft Belfast metropolitan area plan noted that Glenavy’s proximity to Lisburn and good A-class road links, along with the nearby M1 motorway, made it an attractive option for future housing settlements.
Crumlin and Glenavy have not only experienced population and housing increases, but huge developments from multinational companies such as Tesco, which is building a 30,500 sq ft store in Crumlin. A discussion on housing and retail development is for another day. However, my point is that population growth and any resulting development will require an adequate transport infrastructure.
Adequate transport infrastructure, such as the development of the Knockmore railway line, can be beneficial to the economy of Northern Ireland by linking Lisburn and Antrim and, therefore, linking major shopping outlets such as Sprucefield and Junction One, which would provide an attractive shopping trip for people here and in the Republic of Ireland. There is also an opportunity to provide transport links to the Maze development if the national stadium is sited there. The Knockmore railway line would be an infrastructural link facilitating a new concept of the three main shopping hubs of Belfast, Lisburn and Antrim.
I have outlined some background details and highlighted points for attention and concern. I will now flag up some thoughts on what could form part of the possible solutions to satisfy existing demands and meet future growth.
In April, I attended a reception in the House of Commons with my party colleague Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP. One MP from each of the three main British parties co-hosted the reception for a community railways group that examines the feasibility of restoring old disused railway lines to offer services for local passengers and freight. The Minister with responsibility for railways and his counterpart from the Opposition Bench addressed the event. Some 100 people attended. Therefore, it was clear that the community railways idea attracted great interest and attention from public policy figures.
The British Government are keen to increase passenger numbers on local and rural lines, and a community rail strategy has been in place since November 2004 to help advance that desire. Community rail is seen as a cost effective means of increasing investment and maintaining infrastructure. Apparently, it is a great success story, with over 50 designated community rail lines helping Whitehall to meet various departmental and cross-cutting policy priorities on the environment, regional development and social inclusion, among others.
From that evening’s discussion, I learned that Whitehall’s community railway development strategy had been reviewed to include an additional objective:
“Enabling local rail to play a larger role in economic and social regeneration.”
I have not examined the full details of the strategy in Britain, and I do not suggest that it can be directly imported because the economies of scale are different. However, those at the reception talked about the reopening of various lines across England — a total of hundreds of miles of track. In contrast, the track from Antrim to Knockmore is less than 20 miles long. That evening in London, I was greatly impressed by the energy and excitement of those who talked about the new possibilities for railways, and I left full of hope that the reopening of the Knockmore line could be more than a mere wish.
No Member will produce all the answers in this debate. However, we should promote suggestions and proposals for further consultation, discussion and debate. Members should take a few matters into account. Population growth is increasing the demand for housing in every locality. More people place greater demands on the existing infrastructure and require an increase in its provision. Traffic congestion is increasing in every city, town and village, and climate change means that more sustainable, modern public transportation is required. County Antrim’s mothballed railway line has great potential.
The ‘Interim Report of the Railways Task Force’ sets out strategic options for the future of the railway network. Members should examine how rail transport could reinforce other public policy objectives and consider the prospect of 250,000 new local households over the next 25 years. Public transport initiatives by the private sector, such as those that operate in many parts of Europe, are another option.
As the Assembly examines and discusses Northern Ireland’s productivity, stability and growth in the context of a firm commitment to sustainable development, I am interested in the views of the Minister for Regional Development on the strategy and its suggested options. What future does he envisage for the mothballed Knockmore railway line?
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am in favour of the debate, and I welcome the presence of the Minister for Regional Development. I ask him to consider the change in circumstances in the years since the original decision to close the Antrim to Knockmore line. The populations of Crumlin, Glenavy, Ballinderry, and so on, which are serviced by that line, have grown immensely and add to the already heavy traffic congestion. The case for additional infrastructure flows from that, which is an inescapable conclusion.
The Assembly should consider the case for reinstatement of that line in view of how it would develop infrastructure, assets and resources. Members must formulate measures to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home and to switch to public transport. However, a continued approach of downgrading rail links will never achieve that objective. Such evidence as is available from other areas where buses have replaced rail services demonstrates not only the unacceptable costs to the environment and public services but the fact that the vast majority of rail passengers will switch to using their cars rather than bus services. That is true even in areas where the demographic and population levels are relatively stable.
In those circumstances, we should be considering the very significant — some might say phenomenal — growth that that area is currently experiencing, and which is expected to continue.
Rather than downgrading rail services, we should be considering how to improve the quality of rail travel and exploring additional sources of passengers. The Antrim to Knockmore railway line runs past Belfast International Airport and, although the Minister will be obliged to point out that passenger numbers currently passing through the airport will not meet the criteria for a direct rail connection, we should not wait until all the conditions are met to act.
If the proper standard of infrastructure is put in place, economic and population expansion will continue and follow. Measures can be deployed to attract the necessary increased passenger numbers, and that will expedite the desired levels that the criteria set out. If we wait until we have the passenger numbers first, we will always be playing catch up.
There is fairly intense competition for new air routes into the region at the moment, and there is speculation that the management and the owners of Belfast International Airport are competing to attract Aer Lingus. I hope that the Minister will consider an opportunity to discuss that bid with his counterpart in the Irish Government, because the potential economic benefits not just to the constituency, but to the region, are obvious.
If there were a possibility of a rail link between the international airport and Belfast, I have no doubt that that would increase and enhance the case for Aer Lingus, and the attractiveness of the region to other carriers would also be enhanced.
The case for reinstating the Knockmore line is strengthened by consideration of the benefits of the anticipated infrastructure requirements that will arise from the development of the Long Kesh site.
All of those considerations provide a compelling case for an active review of current policy, and a proactive approach to future transport needs.
The previous Member to speak referred to the innovative and community-based approach to rail reinstatement in England and in Scotland, in which I was very interested and intend to explore further. I urge the Minister to take steps to inform himself of that particular approach, which has significant potential to resolve the conundrum of where to apply — and what priorities to attach to — resources. All things considered, the case exists for the reinstatement, and I urge the Minister to act. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr W McCrea: I congratulate my colleague the Member for South Antrim Thomas Burns on the opportunity that he has given the House to debate a very important issue. I paid tribute to Members of the House when this issue was debated previously. Then, another hon Member for South Antrim, Mr Ford, was also actively engaged in the issue of reinstatement, as was I. Therefore, I am absolutely delighted to wholeheartedly support what has been said in the debate.
This is an important community issue because, as Mr Burns has rightly said, there are very important needs in an area that has grown dramatically over the last period. Crumlin, Glenavy and Ballinderry have grown in a way that is unprecedented in other areas. Crumlin has gone from being a small village to a small town in a short period of time.
The demand for housing in that area has been increasing dramatically over a short period and continues to increase. We must ensure that there is a proper transport infrastructure in place to deal with that demand. Everyone knows that the present infrastructure is not adequate to meet the demands of that community. Traffic congestion is experienced in a lot of other towns and villages throughout the Province, but in this case it is the result of the dramatic increase in housing in the Crumlin area, and so there is a tremendous need to reopen the Knockmore railway line. Those who were actively engaged on the issue were disappointed when the line was mothballed.
The area is privileged in many ways, and it is privileged by the fact that a line is already there. In many other areas of the Province over the years the lines have either fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely, and it would be would be well nigh impossible to open them up again, given the many other competing demands on finances. However, the area in question already has a railway line. The people of the area are disappointed that, tragically, the Department has not got the vision to move the situation forward and reopen the railway line at a time of so much growth.
It is easy to tell people in the community to leave their cars at home and take alternative transport. However, the options are to walk to Belfast, Sprucefield, Junction One or to work — or to get on a bicycle. That would be nonsense.
The area is a triangle, comprising Lisburn, Antrim and Belfast, and keeping the railway line open should have been taken forward with vision and vigour, making it a focal point for the transport of the people in the area. Instead, it was put into mothballs.
It should also be borne in mind that the international airport is nearby, and, tragically, it never had a railway line. Therefore, whatever else is done, there must be an imaginative way to ensure that the railway line connects to the airport. For example, had there been a connection to the airport on the railway line from Antrim to Crumlin to Lisburn to Belfast, we would have immediately attracted certain groups of people to using the railway instead of buses and cars. That service should be developed. Members should be proactive and ensure that there is a proper connection from the international airport to our major city and to our other city, Lisburn. Perhaps Antrim will be the next city. They could all be connected together. My hon Friend Mr Wells should not look so discouraging. There must be a vision for the future.
Antrim is a growth area, as are Lisburn and Belfast. Why not have a proper connection? If we are asking people to get out of their cars because we mean business, there must be an alternative. The Knockmore railway line could be opened up again, and, with a little finance and a clear vision and hope for the future, it could work. On one side there is the international airport and Junction One, and on the other side there is Sprucefield shopping centre with its major retail outlets. Why not reopen and develop the railway as a strategy for success? The people of the area would be greatly encouraged.
Aer Lingus was mentioned, and I wholeheartedly agree that we should ensure that we have a base at the Belfast International Airport and that we attract not only Aer Lingus, which would be a valued component of the airport’s success, but other international operators and routes, such as the successful one that is operating from Belfast International Airport to New York.
Many people want to come from North America to Northern Ireland. It is the time for them to do so. It is a time for vision and action. We must be proactive, and that is why I am delighted to support the motion. I hope that the Assembly will give its full backing to the motion and I trust that the Department for Regional Development will be able to take the idea forward.
Mr B McCrea: I have taken time away from talking to several school groups in the Long Gallery because of the importance of this issue. I commend Mr Burns for his foresight in bringing the matter to the Chamber. I agree, totally, with the comments that I have heard so far.
Several practical issues must be faced. Dr McCrea mentioned that many people have talked about the issue at length and that some of the figures that had emerged will have to be addressed if we are to move forward. I was not a Member of the Assembly at that time. Nevertheless, there was a frank and full discussion of the issues. It appears that, at that time, it would have required between £12 million to £13 million of capital expenditure to upgrade the line. In addition, the rolling stock might cost several more millions of pounds.
The situation is that the Assembly and the Department for Regional Development have considered the issue in the past, and at that time, a case could not be made. Part of what the Assembly must do, is work out what is different and why the situation has changed. Is it a case of vision, which I wholeheartedly believe that it is. It is something that we must do differently. If we look backwards and say that that did not work, then we will not look forward.
I am sure that if we were to invest in an up to date, state-of-the-art commuter system that we would develop an entirely new economic corridor; one that would not only provide opportunity for our young people and those people living in the Antrim to Knockmore area, but would take considerable pressure off the social housing situation and other issues.
When I last spoke to the Deputy Speaker, in the Chamber, I told him about where my father had been born. Now I can tell him that my mother came from Glenavy. Therefore, I have a particular connection with the Lisburn to Antrim area. I know it very well. I recall that when — we lived in north Belfast — we went to Glenavy, it was a half-hour trip. It was like one was almost leaving the country.
The benefit of putting an infrastructure in place is that land that, hitherto, was on the periphery of economic development, is brought to the centre. As Dr McCrea, Mr Burns and Mr McLaughlin have said, if that infrastructure is put in place it will link the growth centres of Antrim, Crumlin and Lisburn, and create something of real value. The people of Northern Ireland expect that type of vision from us. It says: “Look not at what we had before, but at what we could have in the future.”
I realise that these are early days and that we have to consider where we might find the capital funds for the project. However, that should not put us off what is imperative. I am happy to join with the hon Members in seeking some form of cross-party mechanism as a way of facilitating and attracting in the investment that is necessary in order to make the project work.
I realise that the Executive have many different budgetary pressures to consider, but that does not mean that we cannot act. Indeed, we should, as one, creatively examine how to move forward.
I could, as other Members have, repeat many of the arguments that have been put so eloquently before me. However, there is no point in doing that, save to say that the re-opening of the Antrim to Knockmore railway line is the right thing to do in the light of issues such as the environment, carbon footprints, housing and economic opportunities. It is a project that provides a vision for Northern Ireland. I commend the comments made in the debate to the House.
Mr Ford: I congratulate my constituency colleague Thomas Burns on securing this Adjournment debate and, on behalf of William McCrea and myself, welcome him and others elected to the new mandate to this meeting of the South Antrim railway supporters club. The clear view in the Assembly is that there are serious issues to be addressed. Although this is simply a debate on the Adjournment on one particular railway line, it is important for the infrastructure of the entire region. In welcoming Members to the debate, I apologise on behalf of Trevor Lunn, the southern wing of the Alliance Party’s Knockmore line group — he is on duty in the Education Committee.
Fifteen or 16 years ago, I stood on the platform at Crumlin railway station with a senior Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) official who was the then infrastructure manager. It was while talking to him that I first heard the term “the circle line”. Realistically, we should not treat the Knockmore line as a small branch line connecting two places, but as a key part of the development of a line to run from Antrim to Whiteabbey, Belfast, Lisburn and back to Antrim to provide for the growing economic activity and population in the south Antrim area.
Other Members have spoken about the designation of Antrim and Lisburn as key growth towns and, indeed, Crumlin as a secondary growth town, yet the Department for Regional Development (DRD) has made only half-hearted efforts to consider the issues surrounding the railway network. Given the problems of the daily commute from the north-west and the south-west into Belfast, it is time that we recognised that no other city in Europe the size of Belfast, or most that are rather smaller than Belfast, would consider that building for private cars meets the needs of a commuter travel service. Unfortunately, the DRD — the Department of Roads Development — continues with the likes of widening the M2 purely to move a traffic jam from Sandyknowes to Greencastle and will not examine the key issues that might properly address the problems of a commuting population.
The logic of the regional development and transportation strategies dictates that Antrim to Lisburn is a key transport route. It is provided for, in certain respects, by improvements to the A26; yet the railway line, along virtually the same route, has been closed. To mothball a railway line along a key transport route seems to be a contradiction, given that the regional transportation strategy is a policy of DRD, which is also responsible for the support of the railways.
As well as the population areas that Members have highlighted for growth, the railway line passes an area of significant growth at Knockmore, on the north-west side of Lisburn, and the international airport, with its associated business park. With the prospective arrival of Aer Lingus, which was mentioned by Mitchel McLaughlin, those are the key economic drivers in the area. Only the railway can provide sustainable transportation for those types of development.
At Question Time earlier today, the Minister for Regional Development stated that 100 million passengers a year would be needed to justify building a railway link to an airport. If he wishes to correct that figure I will happily give way to him, because I suspect that he is out by a factor of at least 10.
However, we are not talking about building a new railway line to the airport. We are talking about using a railway line that runs past the airport boundary. The distance from the terminal building to, for example, the station used by the RAF during the Second World War in the townland of British, is less than half a mile down the road. However, facts such as that are not mentioned when discussing major new developments and completely new railway lines into airports. On that basis, we must be realistic about what is possible. The suggestion that a vast number of travellers are required to justify such a project — far more than are currently using the airport — completely fails to recognise the contribution to that railway line that is made by the two towns at either end and by the villages in between.
In that sense, the line should be used to provide a station for the airport; and not simply a line that should end at the airport. That makes a difference.
For years, Translink in general, and Northern Ireland Railways in particular, has been starved of investment. It was only the strong push that the Assembly made in its first mandate that ensured that 23 new trains were provided. That is why people now use the line between Portadown and Bangor, and, to a certain extent, the line to Ballymena, Coleraine and Derry, in greater numbers. However, more investment is needed to ensure that there is a better timetable. Investment is needed in all kinds of other areas.
I could ingratiate myself with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, by pointing out the need for investment in the line and track north of Ballymena, past Coleraine, and on to Derry. Investment in the line between Whitehead and Larne is also needed, as is investment for the proposed rail and bus park-and-ride scheme at Ballymartin, outside Templepatrick. Earlier this afternoon, the House heard about the need for a new station at Tillysburn to serve Belfast City Airport. Additional rolling stock is necessary, both to replace some the outdated stock that the Enterprise service to Dublin uses, and to improve the timetable for other services.
Faced with all that, I can understand why the Minister may not regard the Knockmore line as a key instant-investment decision. Perhaps there are too many other priorities. However, that is why the other possibilities must be considered. Thomas Burns highlighted the possibility of private investment, similar to what is being done with community railways across the water. Such a possibility is a long way from a costed business plan, or even a formal proposal, but those are the issues that must be considered in order to make developments possible. Given the constraints of public finance, the urgent environmental problems that have largely been created by the levels of commuting in the Belfast area, and the potential economic benefits, the Minister has a duty to examine seriously any proposals for the development and reopening of the Knockmore line. I hope that he will listen seriously to any proposals that are put to him. I congratulate Thomas Burns for raising the matter in this Adjournment debate, and I trust that the Minister and the civil servants will be listening to us all.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr Ford — especially for the plug for the Belfast to Derry line.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am glad that David Ford raised this point, as I wish to correct a figure that I gave during Question Time. I inadvertently said that the number of passengers that needs to come through an airport in order to sustain a railway link was 100 million when, as Mr Ford has correctly pointed out, I should have said 10 million. I am happy to correct that slight slip, and I will return to that issue later.
I thank Thomas Burns for bringing the discussion to the House. I know that the Knockmore to Antrim railway line featured in discussions in the previous Assembly, and even during the Transitional Assembly. Various questions have been asked on the matter, which I was aware of before I assumed responsibility for it as Minister for Regional Development.
I am committed to the development of our transport infrastructure and to the improvement of public transport systems. When I spoke during the debate on a private Member’s business motion on the development of rail network on 14 May 2007, I referred to the many benefits, both economic and social, that can flow from reliable and efficient public transport arrangements. I am keen for more resources to be made available for that purpose. I hope to see the continuation of the reversal of the decline in railway services that we experienced in years gone by and continued investment in the network in order to make good the historical underinvestment that undermined the viability of our railway network. Recent developments have been positive. Rail patronage is growing, with passenger numbers up by more than 31% between 2002-03 and 2006-07.
On 14 May 2007, I referred to the work that was undertaken by a DRD-led steering group, which was assessing options for the future development of rail services. I said that I would examine that group’s findings and consider the case that I could make for resources in the Priorities and Budget exercise and in the investment strategy. I have now looked at the steering group’s findings and have registered major bids for capital funding for railway services through the measure of investment proposals in the investment strategy. That funding would allow for substantial improvements to the commuter network around Belfast, to the services on lines north of Ballymena and Larne, and on the line between Belfast and Dublin. Those are the developments for which the strongest case can be made at present, and I know that they will be welcomed by many of the Members who spoke in favour of such developments on 14 May 2007.
Several Members also spoke in that debate in favour of the Antrim to Knockmore line, and today’s debate is focused more closely on restoring that line to passenger service.
As I indicated on 14 May, the steering group examined the options for the future development of the railways, including an assessment of the case for the reintroduction of passenger services to the Antrim to Knockmore line, as well as for the commencement of the greater Belfast area circle line that was envisaged in the regional development strategy.
Low usage was the circumstance that led to the withdrawal of passenger services in 2003. The Railways Review Group reported in 2000 that passenger activity on that line accounted for no more than 0·82% of the total usage of NIR services. By 2003, Translink estimated that no more than 70 passenger journeys a day originated or terminated on that line.
Costs were also high. Track maintenance costs of more than £500,000 per annum were being incurred and £13 million would have been required to modernise the line. I understand why the line was taken out of passenger operation.
The steering group’s findings do not make a strong case for bringing the line back into service. Reopening the line would involve substantial costs, but would bring relatively few benefits because the number of additional passengers that would be attracted would be too low to justify that cost. Passenger projections were made in the context of increases in railway usage, which I referred to earlier, and not on existing figures. Even in that context, the increased numbers fall short of making a case for the required investment. Consequently, when the possibility of the reintroduction of passenger services was examined, a large, negative net present value (NPV) emerged.
I must take account of the strength of development cases and consider affordability. Funding that can reasonably be allocated to railway services is limited, and I must hold a view on priority areas. At this stage, I could not make a credible case for the necessary resources to reinstate the line.
It would not be wise or prudent to close a railway line in this day and age, and I do not propose to do so. The fact that I do not see a case for investment at this time does not mean that there is no future for the line. The line has been mothballed — not closed. It has been maintained to a standard that allows it to be used for NIR training purposes and for passenger services in an emergency. Abandonment is not a course that I would consider. That means that the option to take a fresh decision is always there if circumstances change and if the costs can be justified and given priority.
Many such circumstances were raised in the debate. Mitchel McLaughlin and Thomas Burns spoke of population increases in that area, and such considerations could and should be taken into account. Mitchel also suggested that rail travel should be improved and spending on it prioritised, and Basil McCrea, who has left, put the case for real-terms increases in spending. He, along with David Ford, recognised other priority demands such as the Belfast to Derry line, the Belfast to Dublin line and other commuter lines in and around Belfast that carry much higher volumes of passengers. Through a straightforward stacking up of case arguments, unfortunately, the Antrim to Knockmore line comes quite low on the list of priorities. That is not to say that we cannot examine the level of population increase.
As for Aer Lingus, I welcome the attraction of any new services that will bring economic benefits locally and across the island. Aer Lingus is currently deciding between Belfast and Birmingham as its preferred hub for a base unit of three aircraft. Belfast International Airport has not approached the Department for Regional Development for assistance to attract Aer Lingus. Assistance for attracting airlines is a matter for Air Route Development (NI) Ltd, which is administered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Unfortunately, the fund is no longer accepting new applications due to pressures on resources. Nonetheless, I am not aware of any approach from the airport. Members will welcome the involvement of Aer Lingus, or any other airline — that is good for business generally.
Mitchel McLaughlin, David Ford and Thomas Burns mentioned community-based approaches that people are developing in England and Wales. Officials from my Department always argue the case for railways, and we would be happy to consider new and innovative areas in which that case may be advanced. Dr McCrea suggested that the Department must have a vision, and I share the vision of increased rail traffic, passenger journeys and an alternative to the car that he and many others outlined.
I, certainly, share that vision. The system that has been inherited is very much skewed towards roads. However, much public transport travels by road; buses, for example. Therefore, investment in roads does not necessarily preclude improvement in public transport. Roads improvement is necessary to help stimulate the economy.
The vision must be long term. The debate, and others that have been held in the Assembly, will help to enhance that vision of investment in rail and in other forms of public transport, and of providing cleaner forms of transport. The difficulty with investment in rail is that it is the most costly of any form of public transport, and has the least return. Nonetheless, investment in rail should not be considered in pounds, shillings and pence, but in the contribution that it can make to the environment, regional development, spatial development, and for the ability of trains to make people’s journeys to work quicker and more comfortable, which will mean less congestion and trouble on the roads.
I welcome debates on the future of rail services and on investment in inter-rail services because they help to develop the discussion, not only in the Department but in the Assembly as well, and will help to shape the Executive’s future priorities. If the ideas, energy and enthusiasm that Members have shown in both the debates on railways that I have attended can be imparted to the Executive, that will help to make the case for investment in railways when they discuss budgetary requirements.
Although the line has been mothballed, I appreciate that people in the area want it to be reopened. I have outlined the Department’s competing priorities and the substantial investment that is needed in railways. The Department and I are willing to consider any future arguments. Therefore, on a more positive note, the possibility remains that the line could be brought back into service. Members suggested various options for it — for example, it could be part of a Belfast, Lisburn and Antrim passenger circle line that was envisaged in the regional development strategy. Circumstances might change to the extent that that proposal becomes more viable.
It has been suggested on several occasions, including during today’s debate, that the line could be extended to serve Belfast International Airport. However, any proposal would have to demonstrate that it would be a worthwhile use of resources. The study that was carried out in 2006 estimated that the cost of upgrading the line for that purpose would be £35 million — to relay the track and to resignal the line. A further £1 million would be needed to provide a halt. David Ford suggested that the line should be able to deliver passengers right into the airport, which would, of course, require further investment. That provision is called a “spur line”, and would give trains access to the terminal building. It would increase the costs substantially.
I am pleased that so many clear arguments have been put forward in the debate and that Members, when they put their cases, took account of the competing priorities and costs that are inherent in investment in public transport, particularly in railways. Debates such as this can help that type of investment to be prioritised in the future. I have already indicated that I have not ruled out the possibility that one or all of those options could prove to be viable future uses of the Antrim to Knockmore line. At that stage, I will be ready to support any case that is made for its reopening. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Adjourned at 4.53 pm.